Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Soulful Mathematics: Poetry and Icelandic Conceptualism

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Soulful Mathematics: Poetry and Icelandic Conceptualism

Article excerpt

The frequent allusion to poetry Is a curious and distinctive feature of Conceptual art In Iceland. This essay explores the relevance of poetry to Icelandic Conceptualism through an examination of key works by artists Kristjan Gudmundsson, Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Birgir Andresson, and Hannes Larusson.

The main character of Halldor Laxness's Independent People, published as Sjalfstoett folk in 1934-35, is a farmer who takes pride in composing poetry in the tradition of poets "who only needed four lines to the verse, and yet you could read it in forty-eight ways and always it made sense." Bjartur disdains the modern lyric, with its "grief and nerves and soggy soulfulness" (63). Throughout the novel, debates about modern poetry take place among farmers and villagers; the modern lyric is compared, most often unfavourably, to Iceland's linguistically complex poetic traditions. Indeed, the plot of the novel and the novel's central relationship, that of the farmer Bjartur and his foster daughter Asta Sollilja, is spurred by the daughter's infatuation for a married poet and poor schoolteacher whose lyrics, "instead of laying the main stress on the rhyme, and especially the internal rhyme [...] whispered his poems with a honeyed, fascinating eloquence [...] so that every inanimate object in the room acquired a secret" (319). Bjartur dismisses modern poetry as "just like diarrhrea"; it is "end-rhymes and nothing more" (436).

The struggle between father and daughter is framed by a struggle between two kinds of poetry. Bjartur is not a poet but his identity and survivor-mentality is invested in poetic traditions. He survives a night lost in a blizzard by "recit[ing] all his father's poetry, all the ballads he could remember, all his own palindromes backwards and forwards in forty-eight different ways, whole processions of dirty poems, one hymn that he had learned from his mother, and all the lampoons that had been known in the Fourthing from time immemorial about bailiffs, merchants, and sheriffs" (96-97). The farmer Bjartur has just as much to add to the discussion and practice of poetry as any other Icelander. Bjartur's acquaintances are described as "sheep-men like himself who toiled like slaves over their flocks, day in day out, the whole year round" (16). These men "knew a lot of verse, some of it written in the ingenious traditional form that has middle and end rhymes as well as alliteration, and one or two of them could improvise a quatrain about his neighbor, about his poverty, about danger, or nature, or those hopes of tolerable days that are only fulfilled in heaven; or yes, even about love" (17).

Independent People echoes debates about the Icelandic language and poetry that animated public discourse well into the twentieth century. The romantic poetry that so irritates Bjartur emerged in the nineteenth century and gained popularity with young poets in the 1920s. A line from SigurSur Grimsson's 1922 book of poems, "I thought I felt something" (Mer fannst egfinna til), became a catchphrase for all those who derided the emotional excesses of the romantic lyric (Johannsson 392-93). Steinn Steinarr, influenced by T.S. Eliot, was one of the first to introduce a sombre existentialist mood into poetry and to "seriously challenge" Icelandic poetic practices, especially that of alliteration (395). Hreinn FriSfinnsson, among Iceland's first generation of Conceptual artists, recalls listening to Steinn's poems being read over the radio when he was a boy: either "people laughed until they cried because they found it such insane ranting," or they became angry because the poems "were destroying the language" (Heisler 259). (1)

Traditional Icelandic poetry was considered critical to the very preservation of the Icelandic language. Rimur, the most popular verse form for centuries and widely practiced, focused on the performance of a "vast array of metrical gymnastics" rather than on imagination or expression (Willson 314). …

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