Stephan G honored in Iceland

 

On May 30th, 1917, Stephan G began his trip to Iceland. First from New York to Halifax and from there to Iceland. On board the Gullfoss, everyone treated him kindly and with respect. In Canada, there were some who had tried to have him charged with treason and put in prison because he disagreed with them about the slaughter in Europe. They saw glory in it. He saw nothing but tragedy and wasted lives. On the Gullfoss, people only wanted to honour him.

Of course, one has to remember that the attitude of people in Iceland, a country that was a non-combatant, was different from that in Canada which, as a colony of England, had soldiers at the battlefront. In Canada, some Icelanders hoped that the participation of young Icelandic men in the war would help Icelandic immigrants gain an honorable place in Canadian society.

However, Laxness describes in the section of Independent People called “The Years of Prosperity”, the attitude prevalent in Iceland. “This so-called World War, perhaps the most bountiful blessing that God has sent our country since the Napoleonic Wars saved the nation from the consequences of the Great Eruption and raised our culture from the ruins with an increased demand for fish and whale-oil, yes, this beautiful war, and may the Almighty grant us another equally beautiful at the earliest possible  moment”. WWI wasn’t Iceland’s war. It was an opportunity to sell wool and meat and fish to a host of “various ill-disposed citizens that…kept on hacking one another to pieces like suet in a trough, for four consecutive years and more.”

On June 16, the ship arrived in the Reykjavik harbour. The invitation committee came onto the ship. A crowd gathered at the harbour to cheer Stephan. The next day was June 17th. There was a banquet that night with fine food and coffee. There were speeches, including one by Stephan.

He was a guest of honour at Women’s Day. He gave another speech and poetic toast. According to Viðar, “Stephan took long walks with some of Iceland´s most prominent intellectuals and attended an endless round of receptions and parties.” He went sightseeing and even managed, in spite of prohibition, to find a drink or two.

He traveled by boat along the coast, then by horseback. All this time, he was writing poetry.

It was at this spot in Wakeful Nights that I had to pause in my reading, deeply touched by the Icelanders’ greeting to him. To understand the significance of what happens, you have to understand the importance of hay making and the precarious weather of Iceland. There is only one crop, hay. No grain will ripen. The hay must feed the milk cows and sheep for it is upon them that everyone’s life depends.  In good weather, people will cut and rake hay for twenty-four hours a day. They work as if their lives depend on it and, in fact, their lives did depend on it.

“The group then took a ferry across the glacial river Jökulsá, while four men waited on the west side to accompany them through the geothermal pass known as Mámaskarð and down to Lake Mývatn.”

“as he and his companions descended from the pass, Stephan was astounded to encounter a crowd of people singing and celebrating as they rode to meet  him. ‘There, on the rocky path…where harsh lava and human habitation merge, people came riding in a long procession, evidently on their way to some gathering.’ Stephan first thought they must be riding to town, but then recalled that any towns were by the sea, not inland. When these people in the procession dismounted from their horses and waited for him he realized that this was in fact a display of Icelandic hospitality. Although it was a good dry day in the middle of the haying, people had left the hayfield to come and meet him.”

Stephan was escorted from farm to farm. He came to Iceland as a great poet but also as a farmer who had worked all his life to create a farm that would support his family and, as a farmer, he was interested in agriculture in Iceland.

“Wherever Stephan went on this trip, he was greeted with flags, speeches, and song. At Ytra-Fjall in the valley of Aðaldalur he had a lively discussion with farmer-poet Indriði Þorkelsson….Indriði had been mowing hay with his sons. He stopped cutting unusually early, however, went inside, washed his hands, and put on a clean jacket.” He was going to meet Stephan.

“As the group approached the village of Húsavík at 6 o´clock in the morning, the poet Hulda, together with her husband and a few dignitaries, rode out to meet them. That evening, a gathering was held in Stephan´s honour.”

As he traveled about the country, he was greeted as a great poet in a country which revered poetry. There were those who refused to participate in this homecoming, but from what I read in Wakeful Nights, it was not religious conflict that kept them away but secular conflict, the distaste of the wealthy and privileged for a poet who writes of financial and social injustice. What else can one expect? If the poet writes about the exploitation of the ordinary person by the privileged why should the privileged cheer him? If Stephan were alive today, he would surely have been composing poems about the banksters and politicians responsible for the kreppa. One would hardly expect the objects of his scorn to honour him.

As Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in y our life.” Stephan stood up for something all his life.

I admire the Icelandic people because they honoured Stephan G in spite of the fact that he struggled all his life to be a good farmer yet never made much money. They honoured him for his poetry, for his talent, for his intelligence and for his bravery. Few of us are brave enough to stand up to those who are wealthy or hold positions of power. Then and now, those who are adept at making money, are quick to assume that having done so means that they are superior to others who have not done as well financially, and that their opinions on all things must also be superior. There is something about the making of money that feeds vanity.

However, Icelanders were well acquainted with men like Björn of Leirur from Paradise Reclaimed. Björn had married for money, had become “an agent for the Scots, buying up ponies and sheep on their behalf for gold.” He was always ready to take advantage of anyone who had fallen on hard times. He used bribery and attached himself to important people. Paradise Reclaimed is a novel by Laxness, a fictional account of life around the time of emigration to North America, but it is also an accurate account of the behaviour of many of those who prospered while others, faced with a harsh climate, harsh Danish rule and harsh local laws, worked endlessly just to feed themselves and their families. Björn is part of a small, corrupt group of the priviliged class. It is people like these that the emigrants fled. The people who emigrated did so for an opportunity to own their own land, to have a chance to better themselves and their families. However, there were those who came with them who wanted to perpetuate the old system. Stephan, to his credit, did not write in praise of the wealthy in order to receive gifts or favours from them.

There is no more dangerous person than the one who will stand up for his beliefs. Ask the Poles about Lech Walesa. Communism laid claim to represent the ordinary working class. It represented only the ruling class. To exploit others, you don’t have to be a capitalist. Every economic, religious, and social system contains within it, people who will use the system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. To them, the person who reveals what is being done is the enemy for such a person would incite others to take away privilege, distribute resources more fairly, and demand honesty.

Today, more than ever, we need Stephan G, we need  ten or a hundred or a thousand Stephan Gs, writing, speaking, publishing, broadcasting, investigating in the face of ever greater accumulation of wealth by the few and political and economic power by even fewer.

Meeting Stephan, many people were surprised, taken aback, because they saw a small, weather worn farmer when they’d expected a giant. He was a giant, a giant of words.

Like the people of Myvatn, we need to ride out to greet him, to honour him, to sing his praise, for it is of us and for us that he writes.

I do not understand the religious conflicts in which Stephan participated in Canada. Wakeful Nights refers to them but does not discuss them. From the perspective of 2012, with the sharpest rate of membership decline being in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, with empty pews and few new clergy, the conflicts within the Lutheran church during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, seem strange, self-destructive, more about opinionated, self-righteous individuals and social class than about theology. Those conflicts have divided and weakened the church and driven away its members.

That’s not to criticize any of those involved in the conflicts. To criticize, I’d have to have a historical understanding and know enough about religion at the time to draw a conclusion about who was and who wasn’t being reasonable. Religion is not based on reason but on faith and history so that makes it even more difficult to understand. It may be that to understand the religious conflicts referred to, one would have to have a companion volume describing the positions taken and the reasons for them. Would anyone actually read it? I doubt it.

To me, the finest writing in Wakeful Nights is this section describing Stephan’s visit to Iceland. It describes  Icelanders in a way that makes me proud of my Icelandic background. The people ride toward him and sing just as they rode to greet King Christian IX in 1874. Their action reveals not just the esteem in which they hold the author of Andvökur but also their values, values that do them honour. This is Iceland at its best.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I had a number of people say, in one way or another, “I’m a proud Icelander.” Or “I’m proud  of my Icelandic background.” When I asked them what they were proud of, they seldom could pin it down to something specific. Buy Wakeful Nights, read it, if you don’t read all of it, read the section describing Stephan G’s triumphant visit to Iceland. Imagine the landscape, the mountains, the glaciers, the rivers, the narrow trails. Imagine the people on the farms setting aside their scythes and rakes, mounting their horses and riding to meet the poet of the Rocky Mountains.

 

 

Publishing Stephan G

In pages 347 to 361 of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephansson, there is a description of everything that took place to get his poetry published in book form. It seems both sad and appropriate that I should be reading these pages as news has come that Douglas&McIntyre, Canada’s largest independent publisher has declared bankruptcy.  With the demise of D&M, a Canadian voice has been stilled.

When Stephan G. was publishing, there was, as yet, no Canadian voice. His writing was in Icelandic and was read by people in Iceland and by the Icelandic immigrants and their descendants.

After Eggert Jóhannsson suggested that money be raised to publish Stephan´s poetry in book form, Stephan wrote back to say that he could not keep operating the farm and prepare such a manuscript. He said that he´d need $20.00 a month so that he could hire someone to do the farm work while he edited and rewrote.

How little times have changed. This correspondence takes place in 1906. It is now 2012 and very few Canadian writers can survive without a day job. Many, such as David Arnason and Kristjana Gunnars, have held or are holding, teaching positions. Other writers are carpenters, lawyers, farmers. Like Stephan, they fit their writing into the nooks and crannies of their days.

In Stephan’s case, his friends and supporters do raise money to provide him with the time to work on his manuscript and to publish it. To publicize the book and promote sales, he goes on a tour. By so doing, he begins a tradition that has become critical to any author. Viðar Hreinsson, with the support of the Icelandic National League and various Icelandic Canadian clubs, has just finished a tour promoting and selling Wakeful Nights. It seems ironic, reading about Stephan´s tour—Winnipeg, Marshland, Argyle, Shoal Lake, New Iceland, Duluth, Gardar, Churchbridge, Wynyard, Foam Lake, etc.—that his biographer has just completed a similar tour, giving presentations in many of the same places.

Andvökur was published privately. Now, these many decades later, the English language edition of Stephan´s biography, Wakeful Nights, had to be published privately. There are many reasons for that. The Icelandic North American community is small and widely scattered. Although, Stephan G is well known among older members of the community, he is no longer well known among the younger generations for he wrote in Icelandic and the language has largely been lost. Canadian publishers such as D&M have fierce competition from American publishers who have the advantage of their much larger population that is, by and large, only interested in American authors and American subject matter. Publishing a book about an author whose work is of interest to a small ethnic group makes no financial sense.

Viðar says in his preface, “Funding the work on this biography was difficult. I worked at various odd jobs, borrowed money, and finally entered into arrangements with three funding sources: the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, a genetics company and a bank.” It took a lot more than Stephan’s need for $20.00 a month so he could edit his poems. But then, the editing could be done by Stephan at home and didn’t require international travel, years of research in Iceland and North America and writing that was yet to be done, not already done.

There are those, unfortunately, who believe and espouse a market place view of life to the exclusion of all other values. Nothing should be allowed to exist unless it makes a profit. These are the progeny of the money changers whom Christ drove from the temple. They are inclined to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. If it were for them, there would be no published poetry by Stephan G and no biography. Nor much of anything that we might call culture or history.

Although I grew up in Gimli, Manitoba which many see as the heart of all things Icelandic in North America, I never heard anything of the religious conflicts that divided the community. My father regarded the church with utter contempt and, if he ever spoke of it, he chose no sides. His contempt was universal. My mother was Irish, didn’t speak Icelandic, and as an outsider, was not privy to the fierce gossip that raged around kitchen tables or the attacks and counter attacks in Logberg and Heimskringla. The papers were still published in Icelandic and that kept the internecine warfare private. The British overclass wouldn’t have been the slightest bit interested in Icelanders ranting and raving about obscure religious opinions. The result was that when I was growing up, I knew about King William and the Battle of the Boyne but not the battles that took place in the West End of Winnipeg.

Wakeful Nights has made me aware of some of the religious undercurrents, the Lutheran/Unitarian divide, the secular divides over women’s rights, capitalism and, although, I haven’t got there yet, the divide over active participation in WWI vs Stephan’s pacificist ideas. I’ve always regarded Icelandic Canadians, myself included, as rather stodgy, phlegmatic and reserved. We’re inclined to make long speeches and be rather uptight about a lot of things. It comes as a revelation that behind this mask are raging, tumultuous emotions. I assume this is the lingering effect of a Viking heritage.

When Stephan went to Winnipeg, Viðar says, “There was still strong antagonism in the Synod and Stephan’s supporters wanted to steer him clear of this dispute.”

Stephan arrives in Winnipeg on November 3, 1908. The city has grown to 150,000 but the Icelandic community was still raging about opposing religious views.

Ours was a small, very small, tiny, teeny ethnic community, in a much larger immigrant community. Stephan G was the most talented, productive writer we produced. Like any writer, unless he is going to write romantic pap, he’s going to write works based on his beliefs. Our community is now even smaller in proportion to Canada’s population, never mind to the USA’s population. Writers from other immigrant groups have created Canadian literature. The Icelandic place in Can Lit is very small. It is Stephan’s accomplishments that may give us a place in Canadian literature, and that is only because his work was able to overcome the opposition by people who disagreed with his view of life.

That place in Canadian Literature is still tenuous because translating poetry into English from Icelandic is filled with problems, many of which seem insurmountable. That Wakeful Nights has been published is a great help. It may be that because of it, Stephan G and the Icelandic community will be recognized in Canadian literature courses. However, it is one thing to say “Stephan G was a great writer. One of the best.” But then Guttormur Guttormsson, the poet from Riverton, did say in a one of his poems that we know we’re great because we say so. Without translations of his poems that prove Stephan’s a great writer, it is still just an assertion. Anyone can claim that.

I laughed out loud when I read one of Stephan’s comments. Rögnvaldur Pétursson wrote to him asking for a poem for the publication, Heimir. Stephan eventually sent him “‘Landnámskonan’ (The Settler Woman).” “Everything in it, however, challenged generally accepted views, he pointed out, adding that he preferred that his revolutionary poems be published in the “most acrid reactionary papers” rather than liberal papers, as the healthy have no need of a doctor.’” What a hoot! That’s like saying I’ve written an article that sex is bad and I want it published in Playboy. For a guy sitting on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Alberta, he certainly knew how to get under people’s skin.

Canadian literature, as can be seen by the repeated bankruptcies of Canadian publishers and Canadian bookstores, is under threat. With it, our Canadian identity, which never seems quite certain, loses an important way of defining ourselves. Stephan’s poems about the immigrant experience, about the landscape, about the conflicts, about the values tested and retested, can help with that identity. As Icelandic Canadians we need very arrow in our quiver and, it would seem, with current events, every arrow in our Canadian quiver.

Perhaps if Stephan had been the literary equivalent of Norman Rockwell, producing romantic, unrealistic but comforting clichés, he’d have had fewer people incensed by his writing but, then, he wouldn’t be considered one of Iceland’s great authors, nor one of ours. He’d just have been another public relations promoter for the moneyed class.

 

 

 

 

 

The Poet from Arnes: background notes

Poetry, like hymn singing, was okay in Iceland. Both came with the settlers. The poetry and hymn singing expanded to become secular but still was an important part of the daily life of the settlers. Even today, numerous books of poetry in Icelandic written by the first generation of immigrants still exist. Also, still existing, are anecdotes about the struggle between farming and writing. It has been said about more than one farmer that “he’d have been a better farmer if he hadn’t spent so much time writing poetry”. I’ve noticed that some people feel the need to defend Stephan G’s farming, as if his life work of poetry was, somehow, an abdication of his responsibilities as a farmer, father and husband. His accomplishments as a poet absolve him of any accusation of neglect for a muse is a demanding mistress and his books could only be written by him while others could grow crops on his land.  It is true, crops, cows and sheep are demanding. The weather waits for no man. But, so is the creative spirit, the demanding internal mistress who wants all of an artist’s time and attention.

There is a struggle within some of us, if not all of us, between the practical and the romantic. To follow either to the extreme leads often to disaster. Following one with no attention to the other deprives us of joy or the material things we need. I have seen the creativity of individuals crushed by rigid, narrow minded views of reality. A middle aged woman once came to me in my role as creative writing teacher and said she wanted to write, there was a need, a burning desire to write. She had wanted to write for years but had belonged to a small religious group led by a man who considered creative activities evil. If you believe in reincarnation, he was probably an Icelandic bishop reincarnated. No slander on current bishops but even a cursory look at Icelandic history makes many of the religious leaders the foes of creativity.

There were many like this cult leader. In Iceland, two bishops went to the king of Denmark and got a law passed that said Icelanders were not to spend their time in frivolous pursuits. The bishops, of course, got to define frivolous. In their view of life, you cut hay, spun wool, lived a life of drudgery and when you weren’t working, you prayed. On the other hand, I’ve known poets who, for some strange reason, believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that they are going to make a living from writing poetry and expect to live off the excitement of their creativity.

These parts are filled by Oscar and his wife, Snolag. Both of them are good people but each takes a position that diminishes their lives. There are no bad people in this story.

The difference between them can be seen in the attitude of the cows toward them. The cows respond to Oscar’s thoughtfulness and singing. Snolag is more businesslike. The cows still produce milk but it is now a duty instead of a pleasure. One can extrapolate that to all sorts of situations in society. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, officers, bosses, police. The outcome might be much the same but the feeling is different. How we feel matters.

Oscar disappears in a storm. There’s the assumption that he’s drowned. Snolag takes over the farm, makes decisions for the present and the future, does a good job.

Oscar has tried to bring romance into their lives with no success. The garden he planted for Snolag died.

He disappears, nearly is drowned in icy water, nearly freezes to death. Make what you will of that. He is rescued by a woman who keeps  him safe all through the winter. She’s a mythic figure, native, passionate, if you want, his creative soul. Somehow, magically, at a terrible price, she provides him with what he most wants in life, a son. The price is that he may sing for no one else. Folk tales are full of instances of bargains made, rewards given, bargains broken, betrayals, and the price paid.

Snolag, at Oscar’s reappearance, behaves in character, completely and totally practical, she starts breakfast. Her behaviour, although surprising, even shocking to some, has its roots in reality. Men were ever wanderers, often traveling far from home in search of game or a job. They could leave their family for long periods of time, then simply turn up. Odysseus took ten years to come back home.

However, even though she has earlier resented the time Oscar has spent on his singing, now that she has found love with the arrival of a child, she is aware that something is missing with Oscar no longer singing. The love she has experienced and is able to extend to her relationship with Oscar means she recognizes and feels the loss. However, she makes the mistake of shaming Oscar into breaking his vow and the cost is everything that has made her happy.

This story is filled with magic. The mundane and the practical struggle against the creative. The magic transforms people’s lives, allows Oscar to survive, to return, for him and Snolag to have a child, gives them happiness, takes it away. This struggle goes on every day in every place. Within a person and between and among people.

A simple promise broken in the Garden of Eden. The opening of Pandora’s Box. There was a time when a man’s word was his bond. Even in recent times, pioneers on the prairies would, according to Broadfoot, write a note saying, “I owe you ten dollars. I’m good for it.” Not keeping one’s word was an unforgiveable sin. You paid your debts. You kept your word.

Folk tales are not politically correct, nor are they Disney’s prettified stories that no longer reflect the human condition. Grimm’s tales reflect the human condition, human desires, they coddle no one. They are not for children. They are stories for adults about adult subjects. Taking away what folk tales have to say about our lives, separating the narratives from how people really feel so that a romanticized view of life is left, demeans and diminishes them, demeans and diminishes us. Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell were wonderful but presented such an idealized, romanticized view of American life that it reflected hardly any segment of daily life for American society.  That doesn’t mean that every piece of art has to force reality on the viewer. Some art is solely for entertainment. Thinking isn’t required.

However, the lives of Oscar and Snolag, the conflict between them, the outcome, require, I believe, some thought about our own lives.