The Bard of Riverton

 

In 1961-62 I lived in Riverton, Manitoba. It was a memorable year. The one thing I didn’t do was meet Guttormur. I regret that. I was already writing. Already wanted to be a published author. I knew of his poem “The Winnipeg Icelander” but really didn’t know anything about the author. Part of that is being busy in my first job teaching high school, being young, being recently married. It’s a time of life when one’s focus is more inward than outward.

An opportunity missed. Guttormur was born in 1878. He died in 1966. He was born in New Iceland and his interests and concerns in his poetry was largely about the settlers. These are the people he knew. He was in a different situation from Stephen G. Stephenson, the Alberta poet who was born in Iceland and didn’t come to Canada until his late teens.

I always regarded Riverton as a bit wild. It was something of a frontier town. For a long time it was the end of the road. Here is where the horse and cat trains left for their hard journeys north along Lake Winnipeg. This was their first civilized stop on the way back. The Riverton Hotel was famous (notorious) for the hard drinking and fighting that went on there.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, it turned out highly intelligent, successful students. My classes were memorable for the abilities of the students. For in the frontier -roughness was a culture that valued learning and literature. It was a place where the bar room brawler could also talk  knowledgeably about the sagas or quote verses from Havamal.

It was a place where someone like Guttormur could live and write.

If there is one thing I admire more than others about Icelandic Canadians it is their ability to laugh at their own foibles and Guttormur, in “The Winnipeg Icelander”, does just that. He hears on a daily basis how Icelanders have adapted their Icelandic and have mixed it with English. However, they say it in Iceland, in New Iceland it’s a mix of Icelandic and English “on Main street with my five dollar cheque.” And you may be able to say “út í marshi‘ but what do you do with “moose”. There ain’t no moose in Iceland. There is a story told about the first settlers not having any idea what a moose was thought that when it was suggested they go hunting for a moose to feed themselves that they thought it was mice they were looking for.

Eggert Peterson left me a message on my blog site asking me to post the entire poem. Here it is. He says that when a relative of his used to read it out loud at gatherings, he laughed so much that he could hardly finish reading.

Guttormur, you’ve been gone awhile now. However, we haven’t forgotten you. This is a tip of our hat to you. Thanks for the poems you left behind. Some people leave death, destruction and pain behind them. You, like many poets, left love and laughter. Thanks.

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.

Að repeata aftur eg reyndi’ ekki at all,
En ran like a dog heim til Watkins.
En þar var þá Nickie með hot alcohol.
Já, hart er að beata Nick Ottins.
Hann startaði singing, sá söngur var queer
Og soundaði funny, I tell you.
Eg tendaði meira hans brandy og beer,-
You bet, Nick er liberal fellow.

Og sick á að tracka hann settist við booze,
Be sure, að hann Nickie sig staupti.
Hann hafði’ ekki í lukku í mánuð við moose
Af Mathews hann rjúpu því kaupti.
-Í Winnipeg seg’r ann að talsverðan trick
Það taki að fira á rjúpu
Og sportsmann að gagni að gefa ‘enni lick,
En God – hún sé stuffið í súpu.

Við tókum til Winnipeg trainið-a fly,
Nick treataði always so kindly.
Hann lofði mér rjúpuna’ að bera’ upp í bæ
Eg borgaði fyrir það, mind ye.
Svo dressaði Nick hana’ í dinnerin sinni
Og duglega upp ‘ana stoppti,
Bauð Dana McMillan í dinnerinn sinn,
„Eg drepti ‘ana,“ „sagði’ ann, „á lofti.“

 

The Winnipeg Icelander

guttormsson_gj

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.

 

 

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.