Admittedly, this poetry is often deeply hermetic stuff, laced with recondite or remote kennings—those little conundrums by which, say, an "ocean horse" stands in for a ship. Heavily annotated texts are the result, translations that effectively require a further translation—as when we're given a line like "of wound-wasps' sweat," and a gloss explaining that "wound-wasps" refer to arrows and "sweat" to blood. These verses can be maddeningly elusive, and it's probably true that no reader will respond wholeheartedly to the sagas who doesn't enjoy riddles. For those who do, the frustrations inherent in not-always-explicable texts will be compensated by numerous little pleasures, as where a "prow's meadow" turns out to be the sea; "scabbard-icicles," swords; "love-hair's island," a vagina; "dark beer," blood; and the "drink of the giant's kin," poetry itself.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
I've been reading Egil's Saga, which is about a poet, and Snorri's Prose Edda, a medieval treatise on Icelandic verse. The best thing about Icelandic verse is the profusion of kennings; to quote Brad Leithauser: