Thursday, 15 March 2012

Some notes towards a poetics of fish

These are tentative sketches in an ongoing project to chart the influence of fish on literature and language.

* * *

Salt Fish Stories (extract)

All Saturday night the salt fish
leaked its brine into the soaking-pan
and the arched fillet gave off
minute flecks of slow-dissolving flesh.
Its bulk rises silently to a phantom life.
By Sunday morning what was once
faceless, straw-coloured stiff
flops in a rich scum on the ring.
Served new-risen with the bacon fat,
buttercup flesh in perfect shields.

From Waterloo Teeth by John Whale

* * * 

A caveat to open this exercise. Brekkukotsannáll, the title of a book by Iceland’s most celebrated author, the Nobel Prize winner Haldor Laxness, is translated into English as The Fish Can Sing. The English title comes from the following passage:

“it isn’t enough that Icelandic fish should have Danish ribbons and bows, it has to have the ribbon of international fame. In a word, we have to prove to the rest of the world that ‘the fish can sing like a bird’. And that is why we who sell the fish have made great efforts to improve the cultural life of the nation”.


A magnificent review by W.D. Valgardson on the Laxness in Translation blog posits a connection between economics (and fishing) and the arts (and writing).

* * *

Siglufjörður. Saturday night. The red house by the harbour is filled with poets and rimur singers from all over the country. Some songs are ethereal and others comic, the latter often disturbingly cruel parodies of other, less virtuosic performers. Why is a major poetry event being held in this small fishing town, the most northern settlement in Iceland?    

* * *

Visual Poetry

A poem by the German writer Christian Morgenstern

* * *

A broadside from the Private Tutor series (1967-70) founded by Simon Cutts
(see more at

* * *

Fish are not afraid of humans, but they are afraid of cod.
Fishermen used the skilma - a giant wooden cod - to frighten fish into their nets.

* * * 

Stencils used to decorate the lids of herring barrels
displayed in the salting room of the Herring Era Museum

Rims for herring barrels 
(to stop the fish flowing over the edges of the barrel before the lid is clamped on)
displayed in the salting room of the Herring Era Museum

* * *

‘The men don’t need words out here on the open sea. The cod have no interest in words, not even adjectives such as splendid. The cod have no interest in any words, and yet have swum nearly unchanged through the seas for 120 million years. Does this tell us something about language. We might not need words to survive; on the other hand, we do need words to live.’

Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Heaven and Hell 
(trans. Philip Roughton, MacLehose Press, London, 2010)

*  *  *

Mnemonics and Taboos – Verses at Work

The Cod Head

No country has such an intimate relationship with the cod’s head as Iceland. The importance of this fishy anterior is embedded in the language, which has a name for every part of the head: 21 words for different parts of the skin, 36 for membranes, 109 for muscles and 156 for bones and cartilage. (That totals 322 for the whole head.) Hard to remember? A whole genre is dedicated to listing the parts: these mnemonic poems about cod heads are known as þulus.

An example:

Rífðu fyrir mig kinnina mina,
en skilaðu mér svo:
eigðu svo það, sem afgangs verður.

Or, in my English version (it being hard to 'translate' nonsense):

Rip my cheeks

and give me

a cheek fish

a jaw fish

a long fish

a tall fish

a hollow fish
a full fish
a nape fish
a pane fish –
you can keep the rest.

And there were one hundred different names for the cod itself! But that number doesn’t seem to have been impressive enough to inspire any verses.

Winching In

Baited long-line fishing was hard work and the hardest work of all was pulling the line in. The men took turns to winch the line in, while one man recorded how many fish were on the way. He was known as the kjaftaprestur (chatter priest). In counting, he could not use ordinary numbers, but special terms embedded in rhymes, Ein gaufur kinden

The Names of the Sea

Can the sea be subdivided as systematically as a cod's head? 

Some fishing grounds were named after the fish that were caught there. Most fishing grounds can only be seen from the sea, and so their names were only used – and therefore preserved – in the speech and writings of fishermen. Some men used different names according to whether they were at sea or on land, because certain words were taboo at sea. (For example it was feared that saying the name of Búrfell [Larder Mountain] would invoke the sperm whale [búrhvali a creature that could cause havoc among boats. The word svin [pig] was closely associated with that for the bottle nosed dolphin [svinhvalur] and so the words for sow and piglet were used instead.)

Many grounds were closely kept secrets within families, the knowledge passed down from father to son. Directions to the grounds and the behaviour of the shoals were recorded in secret guides known as miðaboekur (ground books). If writing was impossible due to illiteracy or – in the case of a particularly closely-guarded ground – was considered too compromising, miðavísur (ground verses) were composed.

* * *

A junk of letters. A snowed-in ship.

 * * *

Recording History

Give the Poet some Fish Paste

The Icelandic fisherman's term for being ashore was landlega. Those men who lived far from their fishing stations would not be able to go home in intervals between fishing trips. They stayed at the stations, which often held men from several boats, and from different parts of the country. Let us not assume they spent all day and all night composing rhymes. There were practical tasks to complete – clearing beaches of rocks, building sheds and huts to live in, making covered enclosures for saltfish and drying racks for stockfish. They repaired the tackle and their oilskins, gathered bait (especially mussels) and fetched heather for fuel. Nets were woven for lumpsuckers, seals and herring. But when this work was done there would be time for card games, wrestling, hymns and prayers, and poetry.

The fishing station was a fertile ground for communication. There would be exchanges of poetry and gossip between people from different parts of the country. Ballad composition and singing was a common entertainment. Long poems were composed about daily life in the fishing stations. Once the poet had composed a group of verses he would read or sing them aloud, but others might also be brought in to sing. Performers would be rewarded with coffee and cakes with butter and fish paste.

Long, Long Poems

The most common form of poetry in the stations was the formannavísur (captain’s verses). There were also formannatöl (poems listing the captains) and hásetavísur (crewmen’s verses). These genres appear to be without parallel in Scandinavia and are probably unique to Iceland; they have been composed for the last three centuriesFormannavísur represent a large part of the popular folk poetry of Iceland (232 cycles of them are recorded from fishing stations all round the country, including six from Siglofjörður. In many cases the authors are known). They are various lengths, according to the number of boats mentioned, the longest being 131 verses. In general these cycles contain one verse about each captain, telling his name, where he was from, the name of his boat, sometimes followed by a description of him. The cycles generally end with a prayer asking God to grant the men a good catch and bring them safely to shore again. The formannatöl listed the names of the captains in the station in a single stanza. One example, composed in Stokkseyri in 1865, runs:

Pál, Aron, Bjarna, Sigurð sja
sæjórum styra og jóna þrjá,
Gísla, þórð, Einar, Grím, Karel,
Guðmund, Hannes og Árna tel
hér Stokkseyri formenn finn,
fylgi þeim drottins krafturinn.

The hásetavísur gave the names of the crew, where they were from, where they sat in the boat, and so on. Like the work of the kjaftaprestur, these poems appear to have been created as a record of fact rather than an aesthetic exercise.

There was also a genre of poems recounting storms and shipwrecks (sjóhrakningsríma), the oldest preserved example being from 1715. These were often composed by a survivor, who knew every detail of what had happened and was keen to relive the ordeal.

A Little Literacy

The men who could not read and write used these periods of waiting as an opportunity to learn from those who could. This might be the only chance of education, since in a community without regular schools people learnt from each other. Sometimes men contributed money to a book-buying fund each season, building up a small library in the fishing station. It was not common for men to write in the stations, but occasionally they kept diaries or log books.


Neil M. Gunn, The Silver Darlings (Faber, 1941)
Ludvig Kristjansson, Islenskir Sjavarhaettir (Menningarsjoður, Reykjavik, 1985)
Haldor Laxness, The Fish Can Sing (Harvill, London, 2003)
Jón Kalman Stefánsson (trans. Philip Roughton), Heaven and Hell (MacLehose Press, London, 2010)
John Whale, Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet, 2010)


Harry Watson said...

Fascinating stuff. I come from a former fishing village in Fife, Scotland, and can just about remember our local bard Peter "Poetry Peter" Smith, who composed poems about life on the boats and local events, often for recital at social events. Eventually his poem were published in two little pamphlets. Great offence was caused by one little comic poem in which he called his fellow crewmen by their nicknames or "by-names". Although it was tacitly accepted that these names were used orally by local people, it was regarded as a breach of etiquette to put them into print.

Harry Watson


Thanks, Harry - very interesting to hear about Poetry Peter and his faux pas.
There does seem to be strong resemblance between British and Icelandic customs. The word 'pig' which is taboo in Siglufjörður is also forbidden on Lindisfarne in Northumberland, a fact that puzzled me greatly when I came across it years ago - I couldn't see what bearing pigs might have on life on board ship. It's possible that it derives directly from the Icelandic fishermen's dread of dolphins.

Harry Watson said...

Pigs seem to be generally feared as taboo animals by fishermen. In the East Neuk of Fife they were known as "curly tails" in Crail and "cauldies" in Cellardyke (my home town).

In 1957 an elderly native of Cellardyke was interviewed by a researcher from the School of Scottish Studies and the interview was eventually published in the School's magazine "Tocher" (no.20, 1975). He had sailed as a young man with a very superstitious skipper called Tam Bett, and one day some of the younger men smuggled a pig's carcass on board and hoisted it up the mizzen mast, before drawing the skipper's attention to it.

"If Tam had got the laddie that did that, said Mr Carstairs, he would have knifed him for certain. Anyway Tam's ship [sic] turned about and spent the period of that trip in harbour ... The antidote for the infringement of a taboo is of course to touch cauld iron ... When Tam Bett had the pig's carcass on board he had all his crew touching one of the anchors that was lying on the deck."