(The following text is an extended version of a previous text written as a mini-lecture for the seminar Alternativ publicering/litterær innovation in Biskops Arnö, Sweden, 10.-13. may, 2007 - but never read, since I was displeased with it, and decided these ideas needed much more than the 15 minutes given in Sweden. Instead I wrote another mini-lecture, about Nýhil and Tíu þúsund tregawött
The myth about the Icelandic language among the population – the myth that is propogated in the school system, from kindergarteners to doctorates – is that in some ways it is a purer language than that spoken by our brethren in Scandinavia, which at best is considered to be some sort of pidgin Icelandic, “broken Icelandic”, languages not really fit for proper discussion – let alone poetry! – simplified and almost childish in their limited capacity for the use of cases, inflections or the melding of new words. This point of view, whatever merit it may have, has yielded a rabid conservatism within the Icelandic writers community that, despite what people might think, and despite the “official” view, is ever increasing: The idea is partly that we must not fall into the blackhole of becoming scandinavians.
Anyone that reads Icelandic books from the first fifty years of the last century – let alone older books - will notice the lack of uniformity in the use of Icelandic– the grammar is regional and personal, the idioms are regional and personal, the spelling is regional and personal, etc. In the years since there seems to have been a steady movement towards a uniformist coordination – linguistic scholars will often, although it is not fair to say always, mean that one usage is right and the other wrong – often this is a battle of cases and idioms – and believe-you-me, Icelandic professional proofreaders are among the most anal of the lot, scoffing at those who take liberty with language: “What silly mistakes!”
The general consensus seems to be: If you don’t do it the way the rulebooks say you should, then that’s because you don’t know how to – a peculiarity is written off as a mistake. I have even found the need to justify the use of the few colloquials that originate from my own home area – which are mostly about which prepositions to use – in my work as a journalist in my very own hometown, as well as having had battles with proofreaders from the south of the country. The conservative uniformism is so strict that there is quite literally no room for lingual diversity – be it experimental or traditional.
There are of course exceptions, the Icelandic literati – if indeed there is cause to call the half-illiterate a literati – will now and again ordain a poet or writer into a freedman, one that should no longer be revered as a mere servant of the language but as a genius (often rightly so) and granted permission to play – normally though, this permission is given afterwards, and it’s nearly a matter of coincidence who gets it and who doesn’t. To name two brilliant experimental writers, Megas has been ordained, while Steinar Sigurjónsson has not (outside a very small lit-clique).
The need in Iceland to overthrow the language regime is quite dire (“Tear this wall down!”). Viewing a language as such a rigid object does not only promote idiocy, it is literally a pathway to fascism (“No pasaran!”). A postmodern fascism, of course – where people are culled into action rather than forced (“Make love, not war”). A father saying to his child: „We really do have a great need for protecting our language, we are such a small nation. Now, you wouldn’t want to live in a world where noone spoke Icelandic, would you? You know, maybe then we would all speak Danish, and the pronunciation is not very easy.“
And the child whispers: „Yes, daddy, I promise to rid myself of dative-illness.“
Yes, it’s called „dative-illness“ – and it means that you have a preference for the dative instead of the accusative, or in some cases, the nominative. According to Icelandic parents and elementary school teachers, this is a life-threatening condition.
Enter: Experimental poetry. The eternal fucking with language – in the sense of disturbing it and loving it at the same time. Fooling around with it. Cheating on it. Taking it apart and putting it back together again – inverted or otherwise malformed.
Iceland doesn’t not have a particularly rich tradition of experimentation. Not to say that people haven’t experimented, not to say the experiments haven’t at times been brilliant – but mostly they’ve been discarded as momentary flippancies, and the postmodern fascist’s answer to the artist’s weeping is: „Now now, you are very talented, we know. But you should focus on something more suitable, perhaps...“ – And the most talented of people turn to rewriting Knut Hamsun or Halldór Laxness.
A necessary statement to make at this point is that Icelandic literature (or poetry) isn’t in all senses bad. What is done is often well done – it is possible to thoroughly enjoy this conservatism, it may even border on the same profoundness that characterized the literature of old, you may feel yourself swept away on a pathos-tour-de-force. But somehow it’s often just more of the same. Their qualities need to be recognized, not doing so would be the same as saying the Da Vinci Code isn’t a page-turner – a statement intended to scorn it, I guess, but the truth is that while being one of the most awful pieces of literature published in years, it is nevertheless a page-turner. Icelandic literature is good at pathos. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that pathos is good at "literature", or good in general.
Experimental writing isn’t thrown out with brute force, it’s thrown out with the tenderness of the understanding, yet ultimately intolerant. Like when the Icelandic police a few days ago „removed“ two dozen gypsies from Reykjavík – by showing up in police uniforms, giving them plane-tickets and driving them to the airport. Officially noone was deported, officially noone was forced to go anywhere – even though it seems the police hinted that they could deport the gypsies if needed – but still they went. Apparently there was a need to clear the streets of musicians for the Reykjavík Art Festival, that has just started.
The same social-democratic-postmodernist/diet-fascist – or whaddyawannacallit – approach is used on anything else that annoys the precious middle classes, the burgeoning structural enthusiasts that now populate Iceland to such an extent that rebellion doesn’t only seem hard, it seems futile. Like storming city hall is pointless for todays revolutionaries – the powers that be don’t need no city hall. And picking apart language as if it were a grandfather clock, is not really either a practice anyone hands out Nobel prizes for. But yet it seems that ever more poets find a calling within exactly those structures, or non-structures, of taking language apart and putting it back together, inverted or otherwise malformed. It is what defines most experimental poetry, and to a lesser extent probably almost all poetry worthy of the name. From TS Eliot to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets to the Flarfists, from the silliest of slam-poets to the Four Horsemen.
The infinities of the world, every word and every meaning, all the meanings behind every word and all the words behind every meaning, have been divided into categories of right and wrong, and questioning those categories is nigh pointless – the machine will in all probability have it’s way. Yet, it’s probably the only possible course of action for anyone who actually cares for a language or for language itself.
Viewing language as any sort of finite object is the equivalent of giving up on thinking. Icelandic popstars who sing in english are often criticized with the argument: “You should be able to express it more precisely in your own (natural) tongue”. This is in many ways a misunderstanding of how language functions. To begin with, saying anything precisely, is as impossible as it is impossible for a road-sign-arrow to turn into the object it points at. It quite simply is not an option. If I were to deduce the “actual” meaning behind said criticism, it would be something along the lines of: “You should go the road more travelled, do not stray into unfamiliar territories for you might get lost.” A stay-at-home message to the boldly adventurous.
It is well and right to mention though, that when aforementioned popstars are asked to defend their choice of language, they do so with a logic that is of the same origin: “English is the language of rock’n’roll – the lingua franca of music.” That is to say: “We want to stay at home, we don’t dare to be adventurous.”
Both ideas are equally lingually conservative, and therefore (in my mind!) repulsive.
To begin with language needs neither to be known nor understood to be profound or beautiful. One could mention such strangeness as Christian Bök’s “Motorized Razors”, Caroline Bergvall’s “Hosts’s Tale”, Leevi Lehto’s ”Sanasade” or Kenny Goldsmith’s habit of reading in languages he doesn’t understand, with similar experiments being done at Nokturno’s In another’s voice series.
Another valid example is the nordic poetry community, and the discussions that take place within it. At a recent seminar in Biskops-Arnö in Sweden, the linguistic gymnastics were quite interesting, even to one who has a very basic understanding of the scandinavian languages, but as Biskops-Arnö conductor Ingmar Lemhagen noted the Nordic collaboration is mostly founded on misunderstandings. Having a decent understanding of written Scandinavian and spoken Swedish, about 70% of spoken Norwegian, 85% of spoken Faroese, all of the Icelandic and most of the English, while none of the spoken Danish, made discussions a very interesting terrain to cover. It was well nigh impossible to know what had been said, what had been covered and what had been discarded – and yet the discussion wielded ideas from somewhere, bits and pieces that form some sort of chaotic structure that is far from meaningless, one that is rather impregnating, in the same way as half-finished ideas can generate millions of finished (or half-finished) ideas, whereas a finished idea is just that.
Paal Bjelke Andersen noted in an article at the communal blog for the seminar:
It is only proper to add to this Icelandic and Finnish – even though it wasn’t much. Zoning in and out of this debate was, although admittedly tiresome, an interesting experience. Paal also mentioned to me that he found it interesting to read Icelandic, seeing as there are mutual codes in the two languages, and the codes can be cracked more or less just by looking very hard and thinking very long (something which can’t really be done verbally – unless you’re all the more clever and the speaker talks all the more slowly). The finnish is a game of its own, although even the tiniest of understandings or misunderstandings can be very enjoyable – as I do remember listening for words and word-parts in discussions by Oscar Rossi and Leevi Lehto, even just trying to realize where one word ends and the next begins. It’s a bit like being an infant again, you get to poke at the world in near blindness, trying to figure out how things work and although it all sounds more or less like bababeebeegaga, you get the distinct feeling that there is actually something more there. Oscar and Leevi actually seemed to be communicating, with laughter, frowns and gestures indicating that the words being past between them was some sort of firm ground to stand on, even though for me the same terrain is pure quicksand.
Some weeks ago I was sitting at a café in Helsinki with two finnish poets discussing the whole “writing in english as a second language” thing, that has become more and more popular – there are several blogs in the world for this, books have been published – amongst those Leevi Lehto’s Lake Onega and other poems – and as Leevi has pointed out it may be a way for non-english speakers of gaining the upper hand on english-speaking constraintual super-poets like Christian Bök, which would otherwise be unavailable to those merely schooled in their native languages, spoken by few and hereto stretched by next to none (whereas english has the benefits of having been fucked over so often, and by so many people for so many different reasons, that experimenting with it often seems like the equivalent of surrogating wild and sweaty sex with standing naked in a field letting the warm breeze arouse you – it’s not that it’s not nice, it’s just not the same).
Of course although Christian could not learn to speak English as a second language, he could learn how to speak Finnish as a second language – but there really is no language in the world that can compete with English, it’s the only one with proper momentum, and perhaps especially English as a second language.
Reenter: Experimental poetry. Sitting at said café, discussing the niceties of actually having a common culture with the international avant-garde, post-avant, experimental, radical writing, language whaddyawannacallit, it also dawned on me that the need to fuck over our own languages is imminent. Well, it’s either that or jumping ship completely, somehow. Let’s say I feel aroused by the idea of fucking over Icelandic. Let’s say I’m really, really aroused. It may hardly get through to anyone interested in it – seeing as the interest for such things is rather limited with only 300 thousand possible readers – and it may even be enough to induce interest in less then seven people, which again according to Leevi Lehto is the prerequisite for changing the conscience of the masses. The size alone makes Icelandic a damn fine upper hand.
Then again, this is also a certain disability: The groundwork for destruction, the methodical planting of bombs along the frontwalls of nouns and windows of adjectives – pardon my metaphorizing – has not been done, and the destruction of a language is no small feat that can be achieved by single individuals, no matter how hyper-active their lutheran work ethic is.
It needs to be said that when I say destruction I mean it in the most creative sense. As the crumbling of a house creates a field of interesting rubble, as taking down a tree lamppost leaves you with a nice log for bonfires and an electrical light lying on the ground next to it.
There is very little in Iceland that could be called an avant-garde tradition – if that is indeed not a contradiction in terms. Experimental writing has been limited to a few groups or individuals taking small detours that have ended in deadends only to be (more or less) forgotten about. A contemporary example would be the Medúsa group – one of the founding members of which was Sjón, who received the Nordic Literature Prize in 2005. An experimental group of late surrealist poets and artists (1979-1986) whose work is very hard to come by, outside the national library in Reykjavík. I have in fact, although being at least mildly interested, not seen much of it at all. The other members of Medúsa have, as writers, mostly been forgotten about – including the poet Jóhamar, who remains an experimental writer somewhere in the invisible outbacks of Icelandic literature.
As much as one might find it near-kitschy to canonize and anthologize avant-garde poetry, being interested in it in a society that doesn’t canonize or anthologize it isn’t particularly much fun. For one thing it makes continuation of experimental writing seem less plausible – the tradition is elsewhere, experimentation doesn’t have a tradition (which is probably a lie – most contemporary experimental poets I know get turned on by the experimental poets of the bygones, most of them read anthologies wet& wild, hot&bothered with flaming hard-ons).
It’s hard for me to say how much of this, to which extent and in which areas, these are international concerns, which ones have a home in several countries and which (if any) are Icelandic phenomena, simply because of the rift that divides Icelandic poetry from it’s foreign counterparts, the pervading lack of interest in foreign poetry in Iceland – although there are individuals interested, the poetry-culture as such, could more or less not care less – which means, for instance, that very little is written about foreign poetry and, outside of Whitman and such gargantuously canonized figures, foreign poetry isn’t found in Icelandic bookstores, and even then, I would dare to estimate that foreign poetry for sale in all of Iceland would not reach 3 shelf-metres.