When Reagan and Gorbachev met in Iceland last fall, the news was their startling near-agreement or non-agreement over arms control and, later, the way this near-or-non-agreement vanished when more was learned about it. It rather resembled the unstable geography of Iceland itself, where volcanic islands suddenly appear off shore, seethe for a while, and sink back underwater.
News apart, 5,000 journalists had to find something to do, and there were quite a few stories coming back about the national characteristics of a remote and not widely known country. We read a good deal about fishing, ghosts, the simultaneous tolerance of strong spirits and prohibition of beer, and the good looks and cheerful democracy of a population consisting of 200,000 neighbors. And we heard a certain amount about culture and the high per capita consumption of poetry.
The relationship of Icelanders to their language and literature is a fascinating one, particularly to anyone whose vocation or avocation is words and their employment. I happened to have visited the place briefly a couple of months before the Reykjavik summit, or depression, and came away feeling that I had glimpsed in a uniquely pure form the ability of a national tongue to function as a national soul.
Settled in the 9th Century, Iceland--inhabitable only along the coast--was the most precarious part of the Norse world. Yet, virtually from the start, it became the scribe, the storyteller, the poet and the keeper of mythology of what today we call Scandinavia. It was Icelanders who wrote the Edda--the collected legends of the Norse gods--the Sagas--stories of history, of exploration and of exploits heroic and picaresque--and the court poetry for all the northern kingdoms.
Over centuries of decline, near-starvation and colonial submission to Denmark, this isolated outpost kept a sense of its identity as the voice in rags of a great civilization. It was Scandinavia's blind Homer. And today, comfortable and fairly prosperous, Iceland's national identity still lies in the word, and in a quite individual way.
The popularity of poetry there is evident. W. H. Auden remarked on it when he visited in the 1930s. Marshall Brement, a recent U.S. ambassador, cites an incident in a Halldor Laxness novel in his introduction to a book of translation from three Icelandic poets. (Brement's introduction, that is; and Brement's translation. In Iceland, even American ambassadors can fall into literature.)
Laxness wrote of a poet who is jailed for statutory rape. The other inmates--murderers and thieves--come up and ask him to recite his work. First of all, he has to listen to theirs, though; and sure enough, they have all written some. Sigurdur Magnusson, a leading novelist, told me that at a meeting to discuss his writing, the audience included a policeman, a fisherman and several taxi drivers. After subjecting his work to thorough analysis, they went on to discuss new trends in Icelandic poetry.
And when Reykjavik's town poet, Tomas Gudmundsson, goes for a walk downtown, he meets himself in stone on a busy intersection. His statue--a non-representational granite column--stands on Austurstraeti with one of Gudmundsson's poems inscribed on its side. It is a song to his youth, to the city he knew when young, to girls no longer young. "Where are you Austurstraeti's daughters, with your joyous countenances and narrow feet?"
What we remember, we do not lose. Icelandic poetry is notable, not so much in its prevalence as in being part of a larger phenomenon. It consists of keeping the past alive while trying to live in the present. Nowhere in the world, perhaps, is one made aware so visibly and explicitly of the links between poetry, language, history and national character.
Icelandic today is, with no great changes, the language spoken 1,000 years ago. Swedish, Norwegian have all evolved; Icelandic remains essentially the Old Norse they evolved from. The careful guarding of the language is in the hands of an official commission that devises words for new concepts and inventions in such a way as to preserve a linguistic link with the old tongue.
The word for computer combines a root meaning "number" with an old word meaning "seeress." "Software" and "hardware" are put together, respectively, from "mind tool" and "machine tool." A television screen, skjar was the word for the translucent sheep placenta that country cottages once used as window panes. The commission must have enjoyed that one.
And when AIDS came along not long ago, it was possible to see, in this volcanic country, how language is born in struggle, how naming can be governing, how an attitude can be codified into a word. A right-wing newspaper uses Eydri, meaning "total destruction"; a progressive paper uses alnaemi, meaning "total vulnerability." The commission has not yet made up its mind.