Land of the ocean-noise: create your own kennings!

Viking-ship-sculpture-picture-Amy-Taylor-scaledImage 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

icy lace
pearls of the sky
arctic foam

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

11371250083_9805651f33_b  Image by Barbara Friedman

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 Opportunities page. 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

Photo of Debbie PottsDebbie 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.


Published December, 2012

10 thoughts on “Land of the ocean-noise: create your own kennings!

  1. Amazing interesting article, thank you! I’m a little stuck trying to think of a few though. What do you think one for ‘Compose’ (music and writing) might be? And ‘Seek’? I’ve been desperately trying to experiment to find something for the imperative form of these, but can’t find something that sounds poetic. Please help?

  2. Wonnnnnnderful article, thanx so much! I love kennings, but needed a bit of help as to how to build my own. Your suggestions were dynamite.

  3. Wonderful article ! My poetry pal gave me as todays challenge, write a kenning.
    So i had to come here to find out what one is !

  4. … it was really got me curious about old norse poetry too… what would you suggest for a half-illiterate englishman to read ?

    And tho it is mind boggling, there must be some connection between kenning and koan.
    I wonder how many scots know where the work ken comes from.
    And the person name ken… presumably that was given to those who knew a lot ?
    Or the naming of a good poet…

    1. Hi Martin,

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed this feature – Old Norse poetry really is fascinating. I suppose one of the most famous Old Norse poets is Snorri Sturluson so that might be somewhere to start.

      Though English is a Germanic language many of our most essential words come from Old Norse, due to Viking invasions in the early middle ages – the word ‘they’, for instance, comes from Old Norse. Scots is even closer to Old Norse and some people in the outer reaches of the Scottish isles can actually understand modern Icelandic, and vice versa!

      If you’re interested in getting involved in poetry near you, have a look at a Stanza group ( and membership to The Poetry Society (

      Best wishes and happy reading,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Paulette,

      Thanks for your comment! Could you clarify what exactly you’re asking about? Is ‘home+brown’ in a poem you have read?

      – Helen at Young Poets Network

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