If you’ve passed through downtown Reykjavík some time in the last decade there is a good chance that you’ve heard a big, burly man shout “ljóð” in a rusty, manly voice. “Ljóð” is the Icelandic word for poem and this particular shouter has a lot of them. Bjarni Bernharður is his name and he has been standing on Austurstræti for more than ten years now, selling his volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories and an autobiography to passers-by. And now, to add to this, is something the foreigner can enjoy: a book titled ‘The Poet On The Corner,’ as most Icelanders know Bjarni, featuring a selection of his poetry translated to English by Phillip Roughton.
Despite standing on the corner for sometimes four to five hours a day, Bjarni says it doesn’t upset him if he doesn’t sell a single book. He finds that being there on Austurstræti allows him to feel the changing pulse of society. “I’m in touch with a lot of things there that are of great value,” he says. “And then I occasionally sell some books, which is nice. Before the crash people bought more books and talked less, now they buy less but talk more.”
FIGHTING AN UPHILL BATTLE
Bjarni does, however, believe that his voice needs to be heard. “I’m not sure this country or the publishers are interested in me at all, but I won’t let that stop me because I’m not writing for the present, or to earn my bread and butter,” he explains. “I’m writing for the future. I know, as an artist and as a man, that greater spiritual nourishment is the only thing that can save this world.”
He tells me that we have many opportunities to strengthen ourselves spiritually, but that most people aren’t taking advantage of this. “I sometimes say that I’m fighting the hopeless fight, but I’m still fighting,” he says. “I’m 62 years old and I’m going to spend my last 20 years creating. We can all make our mark on the future, for our children and grandchildren, to steer the world off its mad course which leaves entire continents to bleed because of some friction between superpowers, and instead guide it towards stability and equality.”
On a more personal level, Bjarni himself has faced his own battles, having developed schizophrenia and murdered a man in a state of mental instability 24 years ago. At the start of the interview we discuss whether or not I should mention this, and he’s not so sure. “It’s been written about often enough,” he says. “It’s not in any way part of my life anymore. I’m now free from symptoms of schizophrenia and I want my personality as an artist to be free from these events.”
We decide to let it be, but after the interview he calls me again and has had a change of heart. “It happened,” he reasons. “It’s part of me. There’s no denying that.” While he doesn’t think it should be the main focus of the interview, those able to read Icelandic can read about it and other events in Bjarni’s past in his autobiographical book ‘Kaleikur’ (“Chalice”).
LEAVING HIS MARK ON THE WORLD
But back to the present and the future, Bjarni is optimistic. “We will find justice and peace though it may take a long time, perhaps several decades,” he says. “The capitalist markets have robbed people of their lives and the knowledge of what it is to be human, but there are still some people like me and others—hobbits that work alone in their hobbit hole—that do their bit to make it happen. While these efforts may go unnoticed by many, I’m certain that the world will correct itself. Of course a lot of things will happen before that.”
But what about his fellow poets? “A lot of poets don’t know how to react to society. I think it’s rather society that controls them. I do not doubt their integrity and I know many of them realise the nature of their role, but still I feel a lot of writers are under the heel of capitalist society,” he says. “The media plays a role too—the market and the media feed off each other. The media can’t function without advertisements from the market and the market wants something in return. So the media tries to polish things so that they look their best for society, because the market shapes society. And if the media polishes literature, for instance, is there room for truth amidst all of that?”
Artistically speaking, Bjarni says he relates more to an older generation of poets. “We’re seeing the old modernists drift away, the last of who are slowly passing away. And I’m among them, though I’m not 100% a modernist,” he says. “Today’s poetry is so aimless. It has no boundaries so any ridiculous thing goes. I feel people are mourning modernism a bit. It was so structured and disciplined, and had such a big heart.”
A NEED FOR MORE ROCK AND ROLL
One of the Icelandic modernists was poet Dagur Sigurðarson, and he is the only one that Bjarni mentions by name when I ask him about his influences. “I got to know Dagur Sigurðarson in 1971,” he tells me. “He was an amazing man. He wasn’t trying to motivate people. But the man was a pure force of life in his personal nakedness. That had a profound influence on me, but his art is a long way from mine.”
As for other influences, he simply cites the world in which he lives. “You have to learn about the world that you’re born into, you can’t step into this art world as an innocent newborn. You have to realise what is going on around you, and while it may not influence you directly, it adds depth to your view of society and it’s first of all society that influences your art. We live in an urban environment, and I feel artists are its moral guardians, safeguarding justice and honest thinking. If artists become careless about honest thinking, then they are not worth a lot.”
And finally, there’s music. These days it’s rock and roll. “It fills my life; it becomes another rib in my body. Rock, the beat—there is so much expression in it and so much suffering. It doesn’t reflect the greed of society, but it tells you about the anguish of Western society and humanity itself. And as the turmoil out there increases, the need for the voice of rock and roll becomes greater.
The musical interval
of the dreamworld
breaks the delicate
continuous flow of consciousness.
The concerto of the night opens
with a slow movement
the consonance escalates
until the work ebbs out at dawn.
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson