Over my lifetime, I’ve read thousands of poems, as a student, as a teacher and as a reader who loves the well-wrought word.
Keats and Shelley and Donne and Yeats and Plath and Wakoski and Bly and Eliott and Frost and Berryman and Shakespeare and….the list seems endless. I call it the anthology of my mind.
There is in that anthology a poem that I often think about it, and that is “The Winnipeg Icelander” by Guttormur Guttormsson from Riverton.
It’s a fun poem. Some might call it verse. I call it the mark of a society in transition. Here is the first verse.
Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.
It is a satirical look at how the Icelanders in Winnipeg spoke Icelandic.
It encapsulates, perhaps better than anything else, the internal conflict among the immigrants over whether they should assimilate as quickly as possible or whether they should isolate themselves from Canadian society in their New Iceland and remain as Icelandic as possible.
This conflict existed from the very beginning of the emigration. There were those who believed that the emigrants should go to various locations, hire out to established Norwegian and Swedish farmers and learn how to live and farm in North America. Photographs from the time show well-established farms, buildings, equipment and cultivated land. On the other side were those who wanted to create a New Iceland where everything would remain Icelandic, where it would be just like Iceland except in location.
The language, that secret code, that privileged communication, that way of identifying us from them, was the marker of identity.
It was also the evidence of how impossible was the dream of isolation. As Guttormur’s poem makes clear, this was a new land, it contained within it things that did not exist in Iceland. E.g. moose
The immigrants, during the first years, in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, in New Iceland, struggled to stay alive. Many didn’t make it. They died on board ship, as they travelled across the continent, in various locations across North America. Graveyards tell their story.
Not to adapt was to die. Only a fool, and a short-lived one, at that, would have insisted against all evidence, on keeping fishing with the nets brought from Iceland. Only a fool would not have learned how to cut down large trees safely and how to build with them. Only a fool would have insisted that he, or she, would only do things just as they were done in Iceland, never mind the -40 below, the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the forests, the vast distances.
Why would language be any different? Only a fool would insist that no object be talked about if it didn’t exist in Iceland.
When people are going hunting in a Manitoba winter, trying to learn how to hunt animals that they had never before heard of, and returning empty handed, when they were trying to figure out how to get through four to six feet of ice to set nets and had to invent the tools to do it, when they had to plant crops they’d never planted (in Iceland, they’d planted no crops) in land that first had to be cleared, they didn’t have time for effete intellectual exercises in creating a new Icelandic word for the thousands of things with which they were confronted on a daily basis.
When they had a chance to buy bif (something they weren’t able to buy in Iceland), or bins or kabits and karats to cure scurvy, there wasn’t time to have a discussion about how these new items should be properly described in Icelandic. The people they were buying from didn’t have time, either. They, too, were living on the edge of survival.
In Winnipeg the situation was less dire. There was work, at least for the women, sometimes for the men. However, Winnipeg was a city of immigrants. Survival required communication. Getting work from bosses from other ethnic groups required that Icelanders learn, as quickly as possible, to communicate, to learn a new vocabulary, one that described the world they woke up to every day. There was no time to write to Iceland to ask if the academic authorities would please tell them what to call a bonkhús. If these authorities had any idea of what a bunkhouse was. And then wait for a reply.
A lot is made of the fact that Icelanders today can still read the sagas. Some would claim that means that Icelandic doesn´t change. Hogwash! In my reading about Iceland in the 19th C. I come across words that even Icelandic historians do not recognize or they disagree about the meaning. Language exists to communicate not to ex-communicate, although some would have it that way. Purity of language, enforced by official purifiers, is an exercise conducted in a society with resources to spend, where hunger doesn’t greet you every morning and go to bed with you every night.
My grandfather built a bunkhús, he told his Icelandic relatives that he´d built a bunkhús, and since he went to Winnipeg buying supplies, he learned to go to the hólsíl. When the Icelandic emigrants were leaving Iceland, there were few fences, there were, however, lots of stone walls because there was little wood and lots of stone. Stone walls are walls, not fences and, in Canada there was lots of wood and it was necessary to fence land, and the Icelandic immigrant learned to build a fens. They learned to build a fens on a hómsteð. There were no hómsteðs in Iceland. The very idea was foreign, beyond imagining for most people in Iceland. It required a new way of thinking.
None of this change, physical, mental, spiritual, was done without sacrifice, without pain, without suffering, without conflict.
Guttormur’s poem, “The Winnipeg Icelander,” nicely encapsulates a society in transition, moving from the past into the present. He was able to do it in a clever, amusing way. GG left us a poem to enjoy but more than that, he left us a picture, through language, of the transition our Icelandic ancestors underwent as they struggled to survive and prosper.