Poetics Devices: How the Kenning Works


Kenning

I have been working on my poem Blackthorn on and off from March 2019 . During this time, the poem has gone through many changes. The current poem is version twenty-one.

In this post, my focus is on the use of the poetic device kenning, which I have utilised on the second line of the third stanza in Blackthorn.

At a writing retreat in March 2019, I attended a poetry workshop, which focused on the Blackthorn tree. A clipping of Blackthorn had been placed on the table for inspiration. We began with a stream of consciousness, using the word tree to start us off. Then we wrote about the blackthorn’s connection to each of our five senses.

Afterwards, we learned some history about the tree. In the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, the spindle that pricked the princess, and sent her to sleep, was made from Blackthorn wood. Past uses of Blackthorn included medicinal purposes, such as alleviating swelling. In folklore and mythology it was believed that taking Blackthorn indoors caused bad luck. As well as this, Blackthorn tends to have a sickly sweet scent, described as being similar to the scent of death. The kenning ‘death breath’ came from this idea, and in version six of the poem I wrote:

‘Sleepy snow white blossoms
sprinkle spring
rustling over spindly arms
death breath.’

However, at this point, there wasn’t a human element in the poem, and I wasn’t sure which direction I would take it in. The last line, ‘death breath’ disappeared from the following fourteen versions but reappeared in the penultimate version. I had originally been writing an Imagist poem, but once I got to version fourteen, I was certain the poem was missing something.

In version fourteen, I introduced a human element, turning the poem into a metaphor for the narrator and her mother. For the next five versions, the importance of  ‘death breath’ wasn’t apparent to me until I revisited older versions of the poem and realised that ‘death breath’ functioned as a kenning. Not only this, but this kenning was integral to the poem.

Jane Monson of the Department of  Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University  of Cambridge says that the working definition of the kenning ‘means to know, perceive or feel and is therefore considered to be felt knowing as well as cognitive knowing’ (Monson 2013: 4). This definition fits with the reason that I used the kenning ‘death breath,’ which is a felt kind of knowing for the narrator and her mother because they both know the mother is dying. The mother awakens with ‘death breath’ after breathing in the Blackthorn, which in folklore and mythology is bad luck to bring into the house.

‘I nipped outside and snipped the
baby branches from the main trunk,
rehoming them indoors and redressing
the air with decaying base notes,
topped with a sweet spring clean,
    fusing seasons
that Mum inhaled as she snoozed,

later awakening with
    death-breath’

Monson says that the kenning is a ‘description of one thing in terms of another’ (2013: 4), and this condones using two words, as in ‘death breath’ instead of one word, such as ‘dying.’ Previously, the kenning has been described as ‘metaphorical circumlocution’ (Monson 2013: 4), which means that, in the case of ‘death-breath’, the narrator is getting to the ‘subject of the object,’ which is dying, without naming it directly. Rather than saying the narrator’s mother is dying, by using metaphorical circumlocution: ‘death breath,’ new ideas are opened up to the reader (Monson 2013; 4). This means that many other associations may come to the reader’s mind, when thinking about the kenning, and this gives the poem a deeper and richer flavour. This idea draws similarities with the Haiku, which you can read about in my post Haiku Analysis. Like the Haiku, the kenning leaves space for the reader’s own feelings and memories.

The kenning is always rooted in what we know (Monson 2013: 4). This is true of ‘death breath’ which is a play on ‘deathbed,’ however, through metaphorical circumlocution, the narrator is describing this well known noun in a new way. According to Monson, ‘the device displaces the familiar and invites deeper thinking about how to describe and encapsulate the ordinary in an extraordinary way’ (2013:4). In its simplest form, the kenning is either the compound word or unification of two words which clash, such as ‘death breath,’ which conveys the subject in a way which is surprising to the reader.

References:

Monsoon, J. (2013) Kennings and Close Relatives [Online]. Available from <https://www.asnc.cam.ac.uk/resources/mpvp/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Kennings-and-close-relatives_Monson.pdf> [19 March 2022]

Published by Inking Prose

Writer & Poet

6 thoughts on “Poetics Devices: How the Kenning Works

  1. Very interesting. I hadn’t hear of ‘kenning’ before, although (as a Scot) I am very familiar with the use of ‘ken’ = to know (as in “I dinnae ken!”).

    Also, my immediate association with ‘blackthorn’ is ‘sloe’! It is also, apparently, very good for hedgerows around cow fields and for making shillelaghs…

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