The letter initially had me stumped; but then I realized that the one thing I found and knew from this letter for my theme will work perfectly! Kennings, do you ken? (If you are wondering, then you might have realized by context, that ken means know/understand) And see how I brought in a reference to yesterday’s post where we can use context to understand unknown or strange words. (Though ken might not have been strange to many of you anyways).
While it is not as commonly used as in its heydays, we unconsciously do use it in our daily lives without realizing it. Have you ever thought you need to be less of a couch potato somedays? Or do you know someone who is a bookworm? Have you had a fender bender (hopefully not)? So I guess you already have an idea, but read on to find out more about kennings.
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Kennings Or The Many Different Ways To View Things
The Kenning and its History
Simply put, a kenning is when you take two words and combine them to refer to something else; though it is not just a compound word always, more on that later. In other words, it is a figure of speech where a compound word or a phrase is used instead of referring to the subject/object (or referent) directly.
While looking at words like bookworm or gas-guzzler might make you think that a kenning is a fairly modern thing, it has roots in Old Norse and Old Anglo-Saxon poetry. The word ‘kenning’ comes from the Old Norse verb að kenna, which means ‘to describe’ or ‘to understand.’ The related Old Norse phrase kenna eitt við which literally means ‘to express one thing in terms of another’ also helps understand this word better.
A Little More About Kennings
Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon writers and poets often used literary devices like alliteration (repeating consonant sounds), assonance (repeating vowel sounds), and rhymes when they created kennings. This added color and variety to their works; and allowed them to creatively represent everyday things (like ‘sea-stallion’ or ‘wave-rider’ for a ship).
Traditionally, kennings were used to describe people, elements of nature, and specific objects (for example, naval and battle related words were popular for Norse/Anglo-Saxon poetry).
And they can be written in various ways; as
- compound words (hyphenated or not). For example, whale-path for sea or Hanged god for Odin
- a noun followed by a prepositional phrase. For example, ‘headland of swords’ for a shield, or ‘bane of wood’ for fire
- possessive phrase. For example, I loved discovering this one: ‘Grímnir’s lip-streams’ for poetry. Grimnir is another name for Odin, who is also known as the god of poetry in addition to another named Bragi; or once again, “whale’s way” for the sea.
Kennings were used and reused in various written works; for example, both The Seafarer and Beowulf used “whale’s way” for the sea. Ezra Pound also uses a similar kenning for the sea in his poem titled The Seafarer (as well!)
Kennings can be defined in so many more ways. As you can see below…….
A Type of Circumlocution
A kenning is a specific type of circumlocution because it refers to a thing using more words than necessary.
A kenning is also a type of figurative language; for its meaning is something more than or varies from the meaning of the words it contains.
So it is kind of a simile. Using “whale’s way” as an example, we could rewrite it as a simile; the sea is like a way for whales!
And it is of course a metaphor, given that it literally is representative or symbolic of something else. Again, “whale’s way” or “whale-road” represent the sea.
If you are a lover of riddles, kennings will bring you joy, for they are almost like mini-riddles. Since the words used in kennings are often unrelated to the word they are referring to, and sometimes unrelated to each other, they can be confusing and seem out of context.
And you can make the kenning even harder, like the
Name-Changers & View-Changers (or Perspective Enhancers)
So of course, a kenning is a name-changer (a kenning for a kenning!!!). It gives a different name to an everyday thing (or any thing you wish to write about differently). Using multi-word imagery to help readers view something from a totally different perspective also makes a kenning a view-changer!
Parts of a Kenning
A kenning is made up of two words, the base word, and the determinant. The first of these is the stand-in for the referent or the thing to which the entire word refers. It has something metaphorically similar to the referent. There is a connection between them, whether it is obvious or not the reader is up for interpretation. The second part, the determinant, changes the meaning of the base word.
The How and Why of Kennings
So why do writers and poets use kennings?
- Just like many other literary devices, kennings help bring a breath of fresh air into writing, and add beauty and life to the writing. Isn’t it fun to say “child soother” instead of lollipop (well, sometimes!)?
- Kennings force both the writer and the reader to view things from a different perspective(or rather many different perspectives); this can often surprise and delight us, and lead us to aha moments! Like, why did I never think of the sea as a “whale-road”?
- It helps readers (and the writers as well) to make connections between previously unrelated concepts in a new, creative, imaginative way. For example, “battle-sweat” refers to blood.
- Describing something in alternative ways thus provides a more vibrant, richer meaning to the poem.
- This way of viewing things with a fresh pair of eyes helps readers pause, question old ways of looking at things, and broaden their thinking horizons, so to speak.
- An effective and smart use of kennings can help keep the reader engaged and interested! And what writer wouldn’t want that?!
How can you come up with your own kennings?
- First, think of a word (or a list of words) for which you want to create kennings. You now have the referent(s), which is the subject or object the kenning refers to.
- Now, for each word, come up with a list of ‘base words’; that is, think of all the words that are related to the referent. These should be words which could represent the referent in some way.
- Next, for each word/referent, come up with a list of ‘determinants’. These are words which describe the referent, or are associated with it in some way.
- Now, put the base words and determinants together in various combinations; as well as using any one of the three ways (compound word, noun followed by prepositional phrase, or possessive phrase). Have fun with all the permutations and combinations here; and soon you have your list of kennings!
Tip: One way to come up with the list of base words and determinants is to try to think of all the ways the subject or object word looks, feels, acts, tastes, etc. This can also help you suitably and cleverly pair up the base words and determinants. And if you are writing a riddle kenning, then those smart pairings will make for a good riddle!!
Putting it to work
- Let us take ‘teacher’ as an example
- For our example of teacher, knowledge is a related word.
- So with teacher and knowledge in mind, an associated word could be ‘giver’
- And our kenning can be a) knowledge giver; b) giver of knowledge
Kennings in Poetry and Literature
“In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.”
The Seafarer (Anonymous)
“The lone-flier screams, urging my heart
to the whale-way over the stretch of seas.”
The Hobbit (Tolkien)
“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ring-winner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo, beginning to be pleased with his riddling.
And you should read Polly Peter’s beautiful poem Mum which is kenning-full!
Merrymaking With Kennings
Come up with your own kennings (use the guide mentioned above) or use existing kennings (some lists provided in section below) to write kenning poems. I realized after writing this whole post that I had written about the kenning poem/poetic form before!! My Poetic Sundays post about the kenning is here.
- The poem can be a descriptive poem with the title already stating the subject or object (like in Polly Peter’s Mum)
- Or you can write a riddle poem, and end with a question to the reader or simply ask the reader at any point (What am I? or Who am I?)
For each of them, you can simply make it a list poem (a list of kennings) or use the kennings within a larger poem without directly mentioning the referent.
So if you want, you could consider this poem of mine as a riddle for you to solve. What is it that I am referring to? For the answer, you can check my Poetic Sundays post about the kenning.
Sure is a family-bonder
Making our family-fonder(?:-))
Also a creativity-enhancer
While making me a zumba-dancer
Seems is a flour-emptier
& hopefully a world-healthier
Using the example of complex kennings, try to create a kenning within a kenning.
Note: As I researched some more on kennings, I saw examples of kenning word mats in teacher resource websites. You could have a look at those for inspiration.
h/t, References, Further Reading
- 89 Colorful Kennings
- Kennings: I’ve Made a Little List
- Examples of Kennings
- Create a Kenning Game
Knock at a Star
Title: Knock at a Star: A Child’s Introduction to Poetry
Compilers: X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy
Illustrator: Karen Lee Baker (older 1985 version illustrated by Karen Ann Weinham)
Length: 192 pages
Genre: Children’s Poetry Anthologies (8 – 12 years)
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (September 1st 1999; first published 1982)
Source: Library copy
Description: A classic poetry anthology, Knock at a Star contains lively, interesting poems from the most beloved writers and poets of our time, past and present, including Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Jack Prelutsky, Mary Ann Hoberman, and more!
This book is a revised edition of the original published in 1982. I found the older edition on the Internet Archive (which is a fantastic resource to borrow and read books, as well as so many other things). And I then got the newer edition as well!!
So I went through both editions of the book; each one not fully, but more than enough to share my thoughts with you. Of course, there is overlap; the revised edition includes 75 new poems while retaining about a 100 of the poems from the original edition. Each edition has well over 150 poems, to give you an idea.
What I loved about this anthology (both editions)
I really liked the simplicity of it, it was very wholesome and sweet to read.
All Those Chapters and Categories Within
This collection is divided into chapters, and within each chapter, there are further categories to help readers pick a poem based on their moods.
The first chapter titled What Do Poems Do? takes readers through the various things poems can accomplish. They can Make You Laugh like with Algy below.
Algy met a bear,
A bear met Algy.
The bear was bulgy,
The bulge was Algy.
And this is followed by a note about who is ‘anonymous’?
Poems can also Tell Stories (like L. A. G. Strong’s The Knowledgeable Child), Send Messages(I loved Hughes Subway Rush Hour while Poor by Myra Cohn Livingston just jumps right at the reader with its powerful message). They also can help Share Feelings(like Felice Holman’s Leave Me Alone which ends with the lines But when I’ve wallowed well in sorrow,/ Be nice to me again tomorrow.) And poems certainly can Help You Understand People as well as Start You Wondering as well about ourselves and the world around us.
The second chapter titled What’s Inside a Poem? explores the mechanics of a poem as it shows how poems can show Images, are like Word Music; have Beats That Repeat (like with Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool), and more.
The third chapter deals with introducing Special Kinds of Poetry to its readers. The categories here include Limericks, Haiku, and Songs(I love this inclusion!); as well as other cool categories like Takeoffs(Lewis Carroll’s Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat for example), Show-and-Spell Poems (some concrete poems here), and Finders-Keepers Poems (or found poems).
The final chapter titled Do It Yourself provides ideas on how to write your own poems with lots of helpful examples of real poems to illustrate the writing process.
NOTE: If you observed, I included fewer details after the first chapter; I realized that this review would be miles long if I did not stop then and there. But there is so much I loved about the book (both editions), and so many poems I enjoyed throughout that it would be difficult to include all of it here without making this review post HUGE!
Both editions contain black and white sketches that accompany randomly selected poems across the book. The illustrations in the 1982 edition have a more vintage look and feel than the newer one; regardless, I loved both sets of illustrations that add to the poem in so many ways. Tiny details that help visualize something in the poem, and simply adding to the storytelling of the poem.
I am inspired to use the illustrations in each one to try to illustrate a few favorite poems (that are not currently accompanied by artwork)!! And I am sure that young readers might be too. Having a physical book will give me that opportunity to add my art right alongside the poem, and there is enough white space in the book that will allow me to do so…. (hint, hint!)
The Something for Everyone-ness
I loved the diversity in the selection of poems. Given the various chapters and categories, poems range from the fanciful and whimsical, to the gross and humorous, to the relatable and the out-of-the-ordinary, and to more serious and realistic topics as well. So yes, it will be easy-peasy to find something(many somethings) to relate to within this book, regardless of who you are.
All The Extras
Notes (Or Little Gems Everywhere)! The editors have included notes throughout the book that will help readers better understand the poems, the context, and the poets themselves. Some are stories behind the poems while others are simply additional and often surprisingly delightful information. For me, finding these notes was like finding gems as part of a treasure hunt!
The Afterword is a MUST read. There is so much there that will benefit both the young readers as well as the parents, teachers, and caregivers of children who are reading this book.
Note: [Based on what I could see] Some of the prose in the newer edition has been updated (to either fit the poems that have been added/removed between the two) or to update some dated information among other things; but the message remains the same..
A great introduction to poetry for young (and older) readers. And a wonderful must-have to dip into over and over again; for children and for older readers too.
While it is available online to read, I also think it is a wonderful book to hold and read.. and makes for a great gift!
Get It Here
And Now, the End of This Post
Dear reader, as always, and always, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions, as well as recommendations. Have you read the featured books or any similar reads?
The AtoZ Challenges
You can find all my A2Z Challenge Posts here.