Yesterday a smart word nerd friend of mine posted an article from the New York Times about Old English kennings and how we don’t have them anymore in Modern English and how that’s sad.
Specifically the author of the article, Josephine Livingstone, asserted, “We who speak contemporary English are so reliant on word order that we are no longer as able as our forebears to create lyrical, associative, figurative meaning in poetry. We just can’t do the same things with our vocabulary. Old English speakers can treat metaphor as an occasion to innovate; Modern English simply tries to describe. Their poetry can turn skeletons into exploding nation-states; we have to focus on keeping our adjectives in the right places. But to our immense good fortune, Old English poetry has survived, and we know how to read it. The kennings are out there waiting for you — so beautiful, so different and so very, very old.”
Sometimes I wish I knew in advance what my brain was going to decide to become obsessed with so I could, like, plan for that in my day. Dedicate time. Rearrange schedules. Carve out space.
Creativity and time aren’t linear. Happy New Year? According to whom? Thank God for calendars but they’re completely artificial. Who decided January 1st is the beginning? Who decided there’s even a beginning at all?
Time is cyclical just like nature, your life, all learning, every creative endeavor humans have ever pursued and—oh yeah—love. Things come and go, ebb and flow, feel fast then feel slow, seem easy and then are suddenly the hardest thing you’ve ever done except absolutes are dumb because keep trying long enough and you’ll need the superlative again. I promise.
Have you noticed our tendency to romanticize the past or is it just me? Old English kennings are freaking cool don’t get me wrong. But they actually haven’t left the English language, not even close, and how rude to assert that Modern English only describes rather than innovates. We haven’t lost anything. There’s nothing to mourn. No need to light your bonehouse on fire quite yet friends. We good.
Just because you aren’t aware of something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
I found Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water in my little sister’s bedroom one day in late summer years ago. My sister had just left for the University of Wisconsin on a swimming scholarship; I have a habit of trying to understand why people leave by looking at what they leave behind.
The book was on her bedside table and it completely changed my life.
Lidia Yuknavitch burned my bonehouse to the ground with her words and wasn’t even sorry about it. Lidia Yuknavitch doesn’t give two shits about correctness and her book was like a giant FUCK YOU LOOK AT MY ART NO LOOK AT IT. Her words have always been magic to me. Her songstory is completely her own and it breaks all the rules and thankfuckingGOD for that because angry women don’t scare me.
Songstory is a kenning and it’s not mine. That’s all Lidia. Homegirl creates kennings and nests noun after noun after noun in noun phrases and uses nouns to modify other nouns like she’s pouring gasoline on your languagebonehouse with one hand and lighting a match with the other. She don’t give a fucc about your rules but you better believe she know all of them.
That’s how come she can break them so easy while also taking your breath away. I think homegirl break rules like some people eat breakfast.
My favorite kenning in The Chronology of Water is boyfish. It’s just as powerful as anything Beowulf came up with and homies she published her memoir in 2010. Anyone who thinks Modern English doesn’t still accommodate kennings just hasn’t gotten soaked with one of hers yet:
“And each night Andy would put his hands on the mound of me and whisper secrets to the little boyfish refusing any narrative but his own…every night our bodies making a songstory bigger than the lives we came from.”
“Weren’t you getting a little cocky about it too, your beautiful recovery, your distancing yourself from yourselfstory.”
“But my Miles—there was a deathmother, and there was his life.”
There are more, so many more, but they’re like pomegranate seeds: they taste better if you have to work a little to find them. Go peel the cover off something and find some jewels. I dare you.
And for the love of God stop saying that we’ve lost something that’s been right there all along, under the skinsurface of you and our shared languageriver.
Language is fullness. You can take all you want from fullness but fullness still remains, pulsing in your blood, flowing in your veins, ready to bleed the songstory of you out onto the page.