Iceland is now a direct flight from my local airport in Kansas City, and friends post beautiful images Selected Poems, by 19th-century Icelandic poet Hjalmar Jonsson, gives a window into the fortitude necessary to survive isolation, cold, and hunger. The even graver difficulty is fellow humans. The collection also suggests the literary tradition that evolved in this environment. Hjalmar Jonsson, 1796 to 1875, is a poet still printed in schoolbooks, according to the editor of this book, Olafur Gunnarsson. Jonsson's work is part of the continuing tradition of the island. He did not publish in his lifetime, but in 1949, four volumes of his collected poems, rímur (short narrative poems), and prose in four volumes were finally compiled. This is the first "substantial" selection of his works to be translated into English. He is a serious critic of the wealthy, as this poem suggests:
Rich Man, Poor Man
If someone is a wealthy boor
and none too clean or bright,
big shots eating at their table
place him on their right.
The poor man with his cheeks so pale
receives a homage sweet,
beside some china chamber-pot
he's reserved a seat. (62)
This is an example of the scathing commentary on the wealthy, which is offset by a sense of resignation in the poems, as in this:
At a Funeral
Long I thought it vile, the grave,
Saw ignominy in dying.
Now it is a gift God gave,
A gift of peace to all who crave
salvation's freedom, sighing.
These short narrative lyrics are examples of the "rimur" or short, rhyming verses. He had a scathing tongue, sometimes used in a poetic competition: "When two Icelandic poets met, they often engaged in a poetry contest. The game was always to make the first part so difficult that the other was unable to finish the poem" (34). This is a hint at the tradition that lies outside the translation and often in oral tradition, not written.
The tradition continues, as a recent New York Times articles explains, quoting Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, a professor of Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland: "In earlier times, verses were an integral part of social gatherings and were often improvised, he said. Poetry contests were held, with the prizes going to the wittiest, sharpest verses. The most popular verse form, he said, is called “ferskeytla,” four rhymed lines that can be divided into two parts." Jonsson continues to be read and honored. Icelandic people read much poetry, and many are poets.
This book Selected Poems by Hjalmar Jonsson is amazing. It is an invitation to see a language related to English with its own traditions refined by the surrounding environment, both social and physical. Fred Whitehead conceived of this project, as he explains in a preface; David McDuff translated the poems; Olafur Gunnarsson selected and edited the book; and an "Afterward" by Hannes Hafstein tells much about Jonsson's life and poetic opus. The book is available through U.K. Amazon and John Brown Press, PO Box 5224, Kansas City, KS 66119, $16 + $4 postage. 91 pp, paperback.