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Conceptions of Nature in Nynorsk Poetry: Local Language and Situated Knowledge in Ivar Aasen, Olav Nygard, and Aslaug Vaa


This dissertation proposes new readings of the Nynorsk poetry tradition and changing views of the relationship between nature, aesthetics, and language therein. Through the dual frameworks of ecocriticism and the study of global modernisms, I take Ivar Aasen, Olav Nygard, and Aslaug Vaa as examples of writers who are strongly associated with a particular rural region, yet also experienced increased mobility due to social changes brought about by modernization in Norway. I examine how these poets viewed their relationship to rural nature and cultural traditions and adapted them to create a new, vernacular literary tradition. Using ecocritical understandings of nature as the co-product of human and nonhuman processes, I argue that poets in the Nynorsk tradition often represent nature as an agent in the formation of culture, partly as an effort to argue for the cultural agency of rural people as well. This involves a situated, rather than detached, understanding of the environment. Moreover, using the concept of ecopoetics, I examine their understanding and use of language as something dynamic and not wholly subject to human control as a part of the Nynorsk tradition and aesthetic. This view of language facilitates an understanding of the poem and the lyric tradition as processual and creates a less individualistic understanding of the role of the poet. This dissertation thus contributes to ecopoetics by positing the efficacy of poetic practice, rather than representation, as a means of mobilizing poetry in the service of social or political ends. Likewise, it contributes to the globalization of both modernism and ecocriticism by interpreting the relationship between human and nonhuman nature in the Norwegian context as negotiated and positing that advocating for the co-agency of nature and rural people was a key part of the rural writer’s modern experience.

In chapter one, I interpret Ivar Aasen’s glossary of vernacular plant names, Norske Plantenavne (1860), as a text that draws attention to the situated knowledge that rural Norwegians had of their local environments. This represents an attempt to legitimize such knowledge; however, Aasen ultimately participates in the effacement of that same knowledge by attempting to reconcile it with Linnaean taxonomy. The collection and promotion of vernacular plant names in the Norwegian knowledge tradition, however, blurs the boundary between ethnobotany and the natural sciences and establishes a foundation for the idea of rural people as having a unique contribution to make to national identity.

In chapter two, I examine how the relationship between the concepts heim [home] and verd [world] in Aasen’s poetry collection, Symra, similarly negotiates between rural environments and the changes occurring within and beyond them. By reconsidering previous ways of categorizing these poems, I demonstrate how concerns regarding nature and culture intersect throughout Aasen’s work. In particular, I argue that the negotiated relationship to nature Aasen represents in the rural context is constructed in an effort to demonstrate what assets and tools rural people can utilize to negotiate their entrance into a wider world without losing a sense of orientation or community. Aasen thus represents ways in which rural people and nature are uniquely vulnerable in the process of modernization but also champions their unique capacity to weather difficulty.

In chapter three, I examine the work of a poet who did weather a number of difficulties that he faced as a person of rural origin compelled to mobilize in pursuit of economic and creative opportunities. I argue that Olav Nygard experienced modernity unevenly in that it provided him with access to education and the aspiration to be a poet but not with the economic stability to achieve his aspirations. In Nygard’s poetry, this informs his interest in both dynamic nature and language as unstable ground. Using the concepts of sensuous poesis from the field of ecopoetics and new materialist approaches to agency, I examine how Nygard not only represents but enacts new understandings of thought, memory, and the body as diffuse material processes not confined to the individual subject. However, rather than a source of distress, expanding the capacity of Nynorsk in order to express these novel understandings of nature and language provided Nygard with a source of optimism in the face of change.

In chapters four and five, I turn to the prose and poetry of Aslaug Vaa. Associated with the high mountain region of Telemark, Vaa developed a global consciousness during her studies in continental Europe and travels in West Africa. Thus, the creative capacity she believes Nynorsk to have is beneficial not only within the narrow confines of Norwegian culture and literature but is a potential model for how vernacular language and local cultural traditions might empower other communities marginalized by political and economic developments in modernity. In particular, I argue that Vaa represents women, rural Africans, and nature as silenced by instrumental rationality. However, through a notion of biosemiotics, or the ability of all living things to communicate in either unarticulated or articulated language, I contend that Vaa sees attention to the language of living things as a practice that can revitalize language and the mind and safeguard the creative capacity of the individual. Furthermore, I explain how Vaa enacts that attention in her poetry through poetic forms that emphasize poetry’s ritual function, thus engaging the reader in a practice of attending to aural and visual signals in nature.

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