Tag Archives: poetry

Icelandic Austerity is Beautiful

Time and again, Gunnar wrote that poverty is the greatest wealth. Here’s an example from his childhood fjord. Here, every farm i needed a source of fresh water. The smaller the farm, the more precarious the source. Here’s the water source of a small croft near Bringubakki.

Look how the water flows with life within the remains of winter’s cold, just as the life flows through the family that brings it into their house. This small, austere pleasure of this correspondence is a great richness.

The Shore of Life

Gunnar Gunnarsson published “The Shore of Life” in 1916, as a protest against the First World war. He had in mind the ring of surf around the Island, through which all life had to pass. All goods coming in and all goods going out, he argued, passed through the hands of Danish traders, or through the vicious surf, which easily turned life into death. He offered an unusual role as writer, but fitting to the Battle of the Somme: sniper. One by one he made us love his characters, then killed them off. It is an amazing and enraging book, as he intended. The metaphor is by no means dead. Note the red surf here facing down the aluminum city of Reyðarfjörður.

Gunnar’s world is far from past.

Poetry and Technology in Iceland

The approach of winter on northern earth is described by the angle of the earth to the sun, but look …

… is it not a story of light rather than mechanics? Here in Grundarfjörður, is it not a story of the light  …

…separating from the dark earth and so revealing it?

It is not a scientific description, and yet as the light falls the earth becomes more purely light, and more purely cold.

Light is cold, in other words. This is wisdom, too. If we’re going to beat global warming, that light is going to need the respect now given to mechanics and technology. So is the cold, because they are the same. It’s not a linear understanding; it’s a global one. It is earth-thought.

Technology is not the end to science. It’s great stuff, but it’s not the goal, whatever the goal might be, or if it is the goal, then the goal is not of this earth, and that is a judgement humans have no right to make.

These are hard ironies. If technology is the path away from the cold,  it is the path away from the sun.


It is the path away from the earth.


The knowledge and traditions of how to live with the earth are not lost. Here are two operating manuals. There are more.

The poets still know something of the earth.


It can be read by the sun. They know how to do this: how to read the sun, the earth and themselves on the body’s face.


They embody the sun. Fences aren’t for the light, and yet they cut it, nonetheless, …


… until the world becomes a series of fences. These are hard ironies, but not causes for despair; they still catch the light.


We can still follow it, but one thing remains primary. We have a right to the sun, to the earth, and to the cold.


The cleverness of ancient methods of mediation between earth and light are a richness of capacity rooted in ancient verse forms.


Make no mistake. This stuff can be read in detailed literary ways, and that’s an important tool for entering this technology. Read more by clicking here. Still, until you can read it in the earth, you have not entered its light.


Discarding this light, simultaneously of sun and earth and cold and warmth and mind, for physical technology is exactly what it sounds like: discarding them, and all their alternative forms of warmth…

… for physical technology, which is important.

But the path remains the old one.

It is to make people out of the earth. It is to bring the wanderers home.

Here’s one manual:

Here’s the obligatory legal warning to users.

Here’s another one of the manuals.

Here’s Gunnar’s quote from the title page, expanded in its original context:

He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. John 10:1-5

Here’s its expansion:

11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. 12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. 13 The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. 14 

In other words, look after your sheep; look after your land; be a man about this:

Gunnar left his hireling life in Europe

… and went to farm sheep in Iceland, from this house at Skriðuklaustur …

… after writing that. Was it a mistake? Well, he didn’t last long there, but the commitment was real.

And so Easter comes.

And so light comes.Gunnar meant that poetry and the land and honour were one. It was not literature. It was not a metaphor. This is not a metaphor.

The end of tools is to erase the tools.

A Jewel on Thor’s Shield

Myth is not a literal device. Thor’s Shield is a volcano in Iceland, in Middle Earth. It is rimmed with cinder cones. What follows is wit: poets competing with kings, using words alone. It’s smith-work, just as sword-forging is: what is svart is black, what smarts, hits. There are sparks. The words are all one word. The shield is a shield. That’s the wit of it.

Knowing this was the business of kings.


Moods of Light in Iceland and Canada

What if the Earth were a sphere, continually focussing the sun into moods of light, like these in Breiðafjörður in November, with a very low solar angle…borgarfjordurwater

… or these in Okanagan Lake, between the Rocky Mountains and the Coast Mountains on the North Eastern Pacific Shore, in December (today!)?p1420577

To know how the planet was feeling, we would need to gather information globally and integrate it into a unified image.p1420581

With arts and sciences of dissection, we wind up talking about the arts and science of dissection, which does the planet no good at all, nor us. Let’s not forget the Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson, who saw his task as reducing the complexity of surfaces to elements the eye could see before the mind, and then the construction of technologies that the eye, not the mind, could think with. Things like this:


Of course, he kept the mind busy at the same time, which is always polite. Following his principle, are two eye-poems for your eye, which I showed you yesterday. They are not word poems:

p1320741 p1320725


And because we are hospitable here and like company, here’s something for your mind. It is not an eye poem.p1320233


Book poems and mind poems are different things again. Poetry, though, ah, that’s a thing of the world.



It is our home, but would we not be blind to call it our own? Let us just give praise.



And thanks.p1390341


And help with the braiding …



… and the weaving of the fibres of this poem …


Rushes in Lower BX Creek, Okanagan Lake

… together.

Skjald, Poet and Dichter: the Three Smiths

Poet: A smith who works with words and the spirit that attaches to them and flows through them between humans and the world. Often, poets approach this work from a book tradition. When they do, their real audience is either the book they write for and which readers read to see how the completion of this book is getting along or the readers who approach the intersection of the book and its society with the same reverence. Within such cultures, a poet is often seen romantically, as a worker with one of the decorative arts.

p1390640A Poetic Interpretation of Egil Writing His First Verses at Age Three

Borgarnes, Iceland

By book, I mean the book that duplicates the world. Some cultures call that the Bible. Some the Koran. Others the Periodic Table of the Elements. Some might call it a Doppelgänger, a mysterious double. It is so powerful, it can even look like these birch twigs. In this manner of thinking, they are considered to be natural and living in a state called “nature”. This state is the book.

p1390739Yes, You Too Can Read These Twigs

Dichter: a smith who works with Dicht, the thickening of the world into densities of intelligence, distinct from poet by a desire to create unified points of power rather than large tapestries. This is an art form in the German-speaking world, and represents the grammatical structure of the German language, which looks for unity where English looks for precise difference. Where a poet, in service of the Book, might look for a world of nature, that came before the book, and called it a (primary) world, with the emphasis on an abstract category, a dichter would look for an Urwelt, a root-world, which is distinct from a world but contains the time that opened up into a world. This slight difference is profound, and leads to the image below being seen complete in all the time in the world, and before language. It is a thickening, a dicht, out of which language evolves, right now, in all of its time:

p1390754Skjald: a smith who works with social relationships within the world that contains both poets and dichters, and for whom the world is one of the social players. This is a northern concept, from the old iron age cultures of Scandinavia. Typically, a skjald (as the name suggests) is a shield, a scold, a scalder (the contemporary expression is a roast-er, one who sends up a revered figure in an honouring ceremony that doesn’t hold its punches), a kind of Nordic court jester who praised a god, king or chieftain in rhymed, witty verses several layers deep in riddles or riddle-like tricks of language as ornate as the intertwined patterns of serpents on a viking shield or the infolded edges of language in a viking curse. The result: a scolded, or scalded, king, chieftain or god, as red in the face as a lobster or a berserker about to do battle — except with anger deflected by wit and turned instead to social good. The contemporary translation for skjald is “poet.”  I think it’s better to keep the triad of terms alive: poet, dichter, and skjald. They do similar but different work, and it’s useful to keep them clear. Neither the work of the poet or the dichter precisely describes the work of a skjald. The image below, however, is close. The image shows the spirits of a small waterfall in Iceland.

p1390972This is skjald work, because it is deeply layered, in ways which combine the world and the acts of men and gods into a tapestry of the mind, which can’t be unravelled, nor should be. Instead, the connections, especially the complexity, duplication and patterning of the connections, and the challenge it proposes to the human ego, is exactly the point: connections rather than distinctions. Is that a red demon in the centre?  Is it the god Oðin, with his missing eye wandering off to his left? Is the red figure behind the ice to the left of the image man or beast? Or the white ones in the ice? They are all imaginary, of course, but this imaginary projection, woven with history, society, science, the earth, psychology and spirit, and the challenge it proposes to dominant world views, is exactly the work of a skjald. Now, let me show you something a little closer to poetry, to help draw this discussion closer to its centre. In the first image below, the trinity is represented in some contemporary norse knotwork. Note the interwined, yet closed nature of the flowering of the pattern as it moves through the world. A skjald wrote verses as interlocked as this.

new-triquetra-trinity-a-knot-pagan-norse-viking-silver-pewter-pendant-amuletIn my second example (in the image below) a contemporary Icelandic charm or curse, based on a medieval model displays interwining ropes, knots and lines of energy tied to the world with many different lines of approach, all of which are closed off to entry from outside spirits by crosses, or curses. This is the other side of a skjald’s work: a skjald helped to direct the king’s policy, but he had to be sly about it.

norse-viking-nautical-compass-talisman-fine-silver-esprit-mystiqueTraditionally, a skjald could say things that would lead to the death of anyone else, and so guide a king, when he was not in the mood for counsel, or deflect the build-up of violence in a court disagreement by leading it into laughter or finding layers of pride within layers of shame, or any other complex, interwoven knot. All in all, a skjald was a shield for the king, and so had the rights of a shield: to be first in battle and to always be at the king’s side, with an honour matched only by the sword or the hammer, the weapons of the king’s other hand. Gunnar Gunnarsson, who wrote two early books of poems and many novels, made it clear that he was a skjald. Note his clenched lips. He’s not talking.

P1530057It would be a mistake to read him as an epic poet, or even a novelist, even though he wrote few poems and many novels. Those novels are strange, though, and that’s the thing: they are deeply layered, deeply entangled with history, and challenged standard ways of thinking about identity and politics by talking in the code we recognize today as poetry. What’s more, most of these novels were published in huge editions by the Propaganda Ministry of the Third Reich. Many, with their tales of idealized, heroic farmers in Iceland were sent to the Russian Front to stiffen up the resolve of young men to fight the Russians and to prepare them to bring Scandinavia into the Reich. As the war progressed and the Scandinavian program and victory became impossible, dissidents working in the Propaganda Ministry continued to publish these novels, to show young men how to come back home after violence. Those are pretty amazingly contradictory roles for any set of novels, or for any writer. Only a skjald could pull that off. Unfortunately, this story has largely been missed in Gunnar Gunnarsson’s work, because the literary culture that received these books read them as literary works. They’re not. Put it this way: in the spirit of Gunnar, the following image is neither art nor nature:

p1390934What it is, exactly, apart from grass, moss and birch twigs in the spray from a waterfall, is the question we must all answer as we work towards coming home. There is, however, one clue in the world:

p1370751The world has pattern, it is physical, and it contains pairs of males and females, who come together to form something else: a family, as with the swans above, or, what this family expresses, a coming together that forms a centre to the world. When those young swans leave this birth family to form families of their own, it’s not the leaving that is central to them, but the reforming. In a culture with its roots in the iron age, this reforming is done in fire, heat and violence, beaten into linked shape by the skjald’s word-forge. In skjald work, that dynamism, and the relationship between its parts, is what it is to be human. Poetry and dicht come later to a skjald, just as dicht and skjald work come later to a poet and poetry and skjalding come later to a dichter. All three together, however, provide a full picture of the vital work they can do. Confusing the terms just muddies the waters.