A Kenning is a poem which uses two-word phrases (a noun and a verb) on each line to describe the subject.

This makes writing kennings a particularly good exercise for looking really closely  at something and describing it in detail (“Really looking”) as the national standards describes it. The idea is to observe details closely and then relate them in a kenning in an order of least obvious first.  As the poem grows with more information, gradually,  by the end of the kenning, the subject should have become obvious.  Kennings do not have to rhyme, although I tend to challenge myself further to achieve that!

If in doubt about how to write a kenning, think about the indian names that you have heard on the cowboy and indian films:  cloud dancer, river warrier, etc  and use this style to describe the subject of your poem.  The easiest way to understand it is to see my examples when you have read this page.

Guessing games

Read your poems aloud without a title and see how soon someone can guess what the subject is. If, for example, the subject was “spider” you would begin with something obscure like “egg layer”, and work towards “web creator”.   You could use this idea as a quiz, and everyone has to write down an answer as soon as they think they have one, earning more points the earlier they can guess correctly.  A well written kenning would therefore be vague at first and progress to be recognised by everyone by the last line.   (See  my poem “”I’M A ?”  Notice that I have used a rhyming couplet of the title as the actual answer of this poem, which is not strictly the style of a kenning!)

For an extra challenge, try writing two kennings; one from a good perspective and another from a bad one.
I have done this using a toddler as the subject, as their good and contrasting bad points are easily identifiable, especially if you have lived life with a younger brother or sister! (See “A Toddler –  Good or Bad”)

Gathering Facts to use…..

Use an encyclopaedia and gather snippets of information about one particular animal for example, including the lesser known facts.  Use the information to write a descriptive kenning, and organise it such that the things that are not common knowledge are the ones that you mention first.  Eg.  using the topic of a penguin………..

  1. Find the facts you need: where does it live? What does it eat?  How does it behave/ what does it do?  (Click on the question to find a good website of facts).  Using this information  start to list the details that interest you, using short descriptive phrases as follows:

Bristle tongued creature
Slippery food eater
Hook billed grabber
Fish nabber
Nest builder (maker)
Stone stealer (taker)
Torpedo shaped diver / ocean diver
Water leaper
Land bouncer (ledge leaper)
Waddling walker
Winged waddler
Arctic dweller
Tuxedo wearer?!

2.  Edit the details

  • Notice that I have put a couple of phrases together where I have seen the potential for them to rhyme, but this is not necessary.  It is much more difficult to do a rhyming kenning and sometimes focussing on the rhyme restricts the choice of words and can spoil the overall relevance and effectiveness , but if you use a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus to look for alternatives to words and phrases it can add an interesting challenge and helps to widen your vocabulary.
  • Next, I would edit the ideas and make sure that none of my verbs are duplicated: being specific about descriptions helps this ie, leaper, bouncer, rather than just using the verb ‘’jump’ in both instances.  For example, I have tried two different ways of getting the fact about waddling into the kenning but I would only choose one for the final kenning.
  • Look for ways to include alliteration by editing specific words: would you prefer ‘ledge leaper’ to ‘land bouncer’ or does that lose something of what you wanted to say?
  • Finally, I would order the facts from least obvious to most obvious.  In this case bristled tongues is new information to me; hook-billed grabber is vague enough to be any number of birds;  but winged waddler and arctic dweller work together to make the answer obvious for me.

Have a go at editing my unfinished poem as you choose…….

I have deliberately not concluded this example, as it’s important that a poet, especially a young one,  realises that their opinion counts and sometimes it might differ from mine, but that wouldn’t make it wrong.  Poetry is personal.  It is about what the writer sees and how they choose to portray it; the challenge is to do it in such a way that the reader can relate to it too, and that is something that we all learn gradually with people and life experience.  Use my poem notes and observations to practice the process of editing and write your own poem.

One final tip

Using  a thesaurus to find alternative verbs is a fantastic way to think more deeply about things.  In looking for an alternative word for ‘jump’ I discovered that there were a variety of ways to describe the penguin’s movements and I could include them all as they were all specific characteristics of the penguin.   Likewise, it is a great way to widen your vocabulary as we so easily slip into using the same vague ‘all-inclusive’ verbs in every day conversation.

For the ultimate, at your fingertips way to do this, use the rhymezone website as it will quickly give you synonyms (words meaning the same thing), antonyms (opposites), rhyming words, and definitions.

If you would like to see examples of my kennings, you will find them under the category POEM FORMS and the sub heading KENNINGS. Many of my poems will, of course, come under several different categories above, but they are duplicated deliberately so that you can find them by whichever means you need to use them.  Poems are also listed alphabetically in the POEM INDEX by title.