Poems of Today

The cover of a copy of 'Poems for Today: from Twenty-five Icelandic Poets' (1971).

The latest addition to my collection of obscure anthologies of translated poetry is Poems for Today: from Twenty-five Icelandic Poets, a 1971 publication from the Iceland Review Library selected and translated by Alan Boucher. Specifically my copy is a ‘74 reprint that was purchased in Iceland in ‘76, for 720 ISK (judging from the inscription on the half-title page and the price-tag on the back cover). The inscription suggests the original owner lived out on the Western Isles of Scotland.

I enjoyed the poems. As one might perhaps expect there’s a good deal of boreal gloom in them. “Hard it is to bear on a mountain road / a full load of autumn forebodings” writes Jóhannes úr Kötlum, the oldest of the poets featured, in his ‘Traveller’s verse’. In the same author’s ‘Climacteric’ one finds a note of atomic-age anxiety, while elsewhere, in Stéfan Hördur Grímsson’s ‘Term of reckoning’, there is ecological unease. I don’t know if it was a sign of the times, or a characteristic of the selection, but only one of the poets whose work was included was a woman – Nína Björk Árnadóttir.

Iceland’s spectacular landscape features heavily - its mountains, fells, pristine pools and all-but-empty roads; and there are striking lines about the harsh splendour of winter at those latitudes – “Our passage through storm-whirled thundering polar darkness soon at an end / on the wind-polished ice-blue pane a whitening cloud” writes Hannes Sigfússon in an excerpt from ‘Winter pictures from the life of poets’. There are summer idylls too, though, and poems about non-Icelandic landscapes set in deserts and sprawling cities.

The country’s legendary and mythical pasts also cast long shadows: there are some echoes of the sagas; the occasional glimpse of an elf. We also read something of the poverty and hardship of times past, as in Jón úr Vör’s ‘Lean months’: “And do you remember the endless / milkless midwinter days, / the lean months’ left-overs, / salted scraps soaked in the pail…” Less weighty contemporary concerns crop up too: one of the poems is about the novelty of Mediterranean package holidays. There follows one of the poems in full.

Wait while it sings

When a bird first sings on your bough
do not go straight away — but wait while it sings
though its song be strange to you and new
wait while it sings although you thirst
with parched throat about the fire and hear
springs trickle at the foot of the hill; still wait
in the bright night while it trills.
Its lyrical tongue will cease in the night’s
quiet and peace among you in the flames’ light —
a strange tongue — wait nevertheless;
you will not enjoy that voice for long
for it will fly off when it has released
the heart-child from chains and freed
those clear eyes, quick small fingers
and little feet; brought to your ears
in the leafy thicket; wait while it sings.

—Thorsteinn frá Hamri.