While I’m not much of a poet, I do enjoy reading poetry. As I’ve studied it both as a student and as a teacher, I’ve noticed that some elements seem to cross cultures and remain important to our poetry today: rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia, personification…
Some, however, don’t make the cut. Kennings are one of those things.
Kennings were common in Old English and Anglo-Saxon poetry. In fact, Beowulf is filled with them, which is the reason that my seventh graders are exposed to them. (No, that doesn’t mean that I have seventh graders reading Beowulf. They just have some brief exposure to real Old English and epic poetry through Beowulf since it ties into one of the books that we read.)
While they certainly are fun to play with, they aren’t the easiest concept to explain. Basically, they’re compound words used to make a metaphorical description of an object or person. For instance, a ship could be a “sea-rider.” While “ship” does the same job, using “sea-rider” instead draws more emphasis to the movement of the ship over the waves.
Though plenty of metaphorical language is still used now to convey the same sort of ideas, kennings certainly have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps with the release of JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, kennings might have a chance to make a resurgence. Or maybe they’ll just stay a great topic for when people reach K in the A-Z Challenge and don’t know what else to write.