G. And what have you found in Iceland?
C. What have we found? More copy, more surface,
Vignettes as they call them, dead flowers in an album –
The harmoniums in the farms, the fine-bread and pancakes,
The pot of ivy trained across the window,
Children in gumboots, girls in black berets.
R. And dead craters and angled crags.
Louis MacNeice, ‘Eclogue From Iceland’
This sign greeted me when I arrived in Iceland just before Christmas. I heard no harmoniums, ate no pancakes and wore no beret, but the landscape and twenty-hour nights disarranged my vision and so my economy.

William Morris made two crotchety, determined journeys around the country in the 1870s, which he documented in his remarkable Icelandic Journals. His biographer Fiona MacCarthy describes how he ‘returned to England with an altered sense of scale.’
Ah! what came we forth to see
that our hearts are so hot with desire?
Is it enough for our rest,
the sight of this desolate strand,
And the mountain-waste voiceless as death
but for winds that may sleep not nor tire?
Why do we long to wend forth
through the length and breadth of a land,
Dreadful with grinding of ice,
and record of scarce hidden fire ...
William Morris, ‘On First Seeing Iceland’
As the lights go out, perhaps we will see further into the dark.

Originally Published: December 31st, 2008

Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...

  1. December 31, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    A serious question:
    In our poetry today, how do we separate out Nature from the Exchange Rate?
    Happy New Year to the Harriet community.

  2. December 31, 2008
     Lydia Olidea

    Re the initial question: the exchange rate is nature, now.

  3. December 31, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Lydia Olidea said above, synchronous with my own comment:
    >Re the initial question: the exchange rate is nature, now.
    And one might add: Marxist theory in English/Poetics programs is no less part of the governing Exchange Rate.
    Sociology precedes poetry,

  4. January 2, 2009
     Lavinia Greenlaw

    Thank you both for your excellent questions/observations.
    Both the initial question and the one Kent proposes could be applied to why people write poems as well as how.