Image by Amy Taylor
Bed of fish, smooth path of ships, island-ring, realm of lobsters, slopes of the sea-king, whale-house, land of the ocean-noise, blood of the earth, frothing beer of the coastline… Debbie Potts explores the world of kennings.
This is just a small clutch of examples from a vast hoard of phrases Viking and Anglo-Saxon poets used to refer to the sea. They are known as kennings and are often based on metaphor. The word ‘kenning’ comes from the Old Norse verb að kenna, which means ‘to describe’ or ‘to understand’. When we think about the nature of poetry, part of its purpose is to explore new ways of describing and understanding the world around us. This is exactly what kennings do: they force us to look at things differently, to question the habitual way we think.
Kennings are a means of referring to people or objects without naming them directly. They are little riddles in a very compact form – the audience may often have to work hard to find the solution, particularly if they are unfamiliar with the conventions of kennings. In this sense, kennings may seem an exclusive, even secretive way of talking about things. They can also be surreal, creative and rather unexpected.
The kennings listed in the first paragraph all describe the sea in terms of something else: bed, path, land, blood, beer, house and so on. We call this part of the kenning the ‘base word’. The other part of the kenning – of fish, of ships, island-, of lobsters etc – is known as the ‘determinant’ and it provides us with a clue to help us find or determine the answer to the kenning. In the kenning path of ships, we have to solve the riddle of what the path really is. A path is something you move along from one place to another. Ships can’t move along gravel or flagstones like people, but they do move along the sea – so that is what this path means. If you changed the kenning to path of trains, then the answer would be a railway track.
Create your own kennings!
For the most part, Viking and Anglo-Saxon poets created kennings for a very limited number of objects, people and aspects of nature. But why limit ourselves? It is possible to come up with kennings for any number of things relevant to our modern-day experience of the world, so here’s a little exercise to get you into the kenning frame of mind:
1. Think of an object or element of the natural world you’d like to work with. This could be anything – moon, house, clock, car, tree, shoe, mobile phone, rain, mouth etc.
Now make a list of things which could represent or act as metaphors for your object in some way. These will be the ‘base words’ of your kennings. Think about the way your object looks, feels, moves, smells, sounds and tastes when considering what you might compare it to. I’ve come up with the following lists of things to represent fork and snow:
2. Make another list which includes things that describe your chosen object, and other objects which are associated with your object in some way. This list will be the ‘determinants’ of your kennings, the clues which help your audience find the solutions to your kenning puzzles. Here are my lists for fork and snow:
3. Now for the exciting part: you are ready to start constructing your kennings. You can do this by selecting words from your second list (the determinants) to pair up with words from your first list (the base words). You may choose to connect the words with a hyphen as in whale-road. Alternatively, you could use ‘of’ or ‘’s’ to connect them in a phrase, such as road of the whale or whale’s road. Play around with them and make a decision in each individual case in terms of the way it sounds. Here are some of my examples:
fanged snake of the plate
the knife’s husband
the silver supper-pen
pearls of the sky
You may find that words from your list of determinants encourage you to use new base words you hadn’t thought of before. For example, in my list of fork kennings, the knife’s husband is inspired by the conventional pairing of knife and fork – like husband and wife. You could also draw on other human relationships: the fork could be the sister of the spoon or the rival of the chopstick and so on.
Another way you can enrich the imagery and sound is by adding extra adjectives. For example, I have attached fanged to snake of the plate, developing a comparison between the teeth of a snake and the prongs of a fork.
The Kennings Challenge
Write a poem about an object or element of the natural word using kennings. If you’ve done the exercise, you should have a nice set of kennings to use as a starting point. The poem could take the form of a list of kennings or the kennings could be part of a larger poem as in the following example:
The curdled milk of the sky
deposits its cold blanket
over the soil’s silver follicles
gaunt shrubs glut
on the snow-plough’s harvest
clouds wilt their winter-blossom
churning the air with the slap
of boreal breakers
the eskimo’s pale vowels
sound above still attics
painting their polar frieze
on dark windows
I pack my palm
with precious moon-pearls
and name them snow
Here, all the kennings are little riddles which mean ‘snow’.
Have fun developing the phrasing of your kennings – the effects can often be bizarre, stimulating some surprising images or comic scenes. Just experiment and see what happens…
Submitting your poems
This challenge is now closed for submissions, though you could always write a poem in response to Debbie’s workshop and send it off to one of the opportunities on our Poetry Map. Read through these poems, selected for the Kennings challenge, for inspiration!
On the unctuosity of our kitchen-cupboard staple by Hannah Pusey
Ash Days by Christie Suyanto
Vinden belg sakte (The wind bellows softly) by Isobel Sheene
Peeling Oranges by Henry St Leger-Davey
Debbie Potts has recently completed a PhD on kennings in Old Norse poetry. She currently works as a bookseller for Waterstones and will be running an outreach project in 2013 entitled ‘Kennings in the Community’ with the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge.