Smoke and Mirrors: Writing Praise Poetry as a Skald

Oh, right, I have a blog!

Life is exploding right now, so my update schedule is going to be more irregular for the next couple of months. Once I move and regain the ~60% of my possessions which are currently in storage, life will return to some sort of normalcy. Lots of projects in the hopper – authentic medieval gluten-free beer, lighting shit on fire, putting fancy holes in the ground, and more. We’ll get to them in due time.

One hobby doesn’t require a lot of “stuff,” though:  writing poetry. I’ve been on a skaldic poetry kick lately, and I’ve written several new pieces in short order.

The role of the skald in old Norse culture was an important one. While old Norse poetry is rooted in an anonymous mythological tradition, as time went on poets began to develop more complex forms of verse that were directed at everyday events. The skald dropped his anonymity, and became an identifiable figure in the culture. As Christianity began to take over the Norse countries, the skald evolved into a more prominent figure – that of a historian, chronicler, and teacher. They became the curators and stewards of their people’s history – and also agents of change who spread the ideas of Christianity throughout the land.

Many skalds were official functionaries in the courts of prominent Norse figures. They would chronicle the deeds of powerful and noteworthy people, and recite the stories of the people they served. This would sometimes involve the spot composition of lausavisur, or “occasion poetry.” Spot composition is very difficult, and the skaldic meters are quite challenging and complex; how is it that one could reasonably be asked to compose such poetry so quickly?

In my studies, I’ve come to the conclusion that most skalds were really just very good at making you think they were composing on the spot. Verbal illusionists, if I may.

“ILLUSION, Sveinn. A trick is something a skald does for word-fame…or ale.”
I’m sorry, that was terrible.
OK, I’m not really sorry.

Kennings are a primary hallmark of skaldic poetry, and it seems that the “best” poetry used those kennings liberally. At their core, kennings are just literary circumlocutions – substitution metaphors used to extend the word and syllable count of a poem. They’re crucial in order to fit your thoughts into the strictly-counted skaldic forms, the simplest of which still demands adherence to a defined meter.

In practice, though, kennings are forms of literary tropes that are used as cultural “shortcuts,” conveying context, framework, and ideas in small literary packages. This is incredibly useful in a culture with an oral tradition; since literacy was so rare, images were distilled into easily-understood packages that would be re-used in multiple pieces. No reference texts or dictionaries would be needed – the repetition of similarly-constructed phrases aimed at known deeds was enough to cement the meaning in people’s heads.

A skald, after sufficient practice, would be armed with a litany of kennings that could be applied to almost any situation, as they would reflect a general concept that existed in the world. Consider “warrior” in the link there – there are hundreds of documented kennings for the word. Any one of those could be used in place of the word “warrior,” and all were understood to mean that. If you knew 75 kennings for “warrior,” you could talk about almost any warrior in a poem, as you’d have some phrase that would fit the rules and whatever else you’re trying to fit in there.

The consequence of using these tropes is that the content of skaldic poems is often minimal at best. There are lots of words which often present different views of the subject – but most of the poems condense to say very very little overall. In fact, much of skaldic poetry appears to be a method of taking a long time to say “You done good.”

Let’s dissect two examples of my own poetry to see the kinds of things I’m talking about. Warning: if I’ve wrriten a praise poem for you, and you’re reading this, you’re about to learn how I cheat. If you’d rather keep the magic alive, skip ahead.

This is a poem I wrote for my friend Hobbe, who won our local archery championship:
darken the skies.
Mournful cry
mail-shirt goslings.
Winds harry
with wounding-reeds.
Oðin’s rains
rise to a flood.

Skillful Scot –
Skúli of the bow –
Hobbe Yonge
hobbles Suttung
with flight-swifts
swiftly issued –
jötnar fall
to yew of Snows.

The first stanza consists of 4 pairs of lines. “Battle-drops” are arrows; when they “darken the skies,” it means there are a lot of them. “Mail-shirt goslings” are also arrows; their “mournful cry” is heard as they fall. “Wounding-reeds?” Yup, arrows. And they’re carried by the winds. Unsurprisingly, “Oðin’s rains” is also a reference to arrows.

I just spent 8 lines saying “ARROW’D!”

The next stanza seems to include some directed, personal information – but it’s really a trick. Hobbe’s persona is Scottish, so “Skillful Scot/Skuli of the bow” seems to be a direct reference. However, the form I’ve chosen only requires “skillful” and “skuli” to alliterate with each other. I could replace “Scot” with literally any other adjective and still fulfill the requirements of the metric. This is an example of a stock phrase which has been drop-in adapted to fit my need.

Hell, it doesn’t even have to be an archer – I could change “Skuli of the bow” to “Skuli of the spear” or “arrow” or “ship” or just about anything else, and completely alter the context. “Skillful [descriptor]/Skuli of the [noun]” is a perfect example of a literary trope that can be applied almost anywhere.

“Yew of Snows” is a very common pattern when kenning warriors; [tree] of [noun] is used in countless places. In this case, I used “yew” because it’s used to make bows. That was the extent of the thought that went into that image.

The only part of the poem that actually took composition was “Hobbe Yonge/hobbles Sutung.” Here is how I personalized the poem: I just dropped the recipient’s name into it. That’s it. One instance of name-dropping framed by generic stock descriptions of an archer, and suddenly I’m a skilled poet writing high praise. I could change “Hobbe Yonge” to a different name or direct reference to another person; I would have to change the upcoming line to fit the metrical rule, but it’s doable. Here are some examples:

“Peter Olsen/pounds on Suttung”
“Red rover/reddens Suttung”
“Harald the Fair/harries Suttung”

The whole poem represents a couple of minute’s worth of compositional thought, if that.

The thing that makes it special, then, is that I was inspired to write it by the deeds of the person being praised. It’s a lot like a boxer or martial artist – the components you learn are simple, but the way you assemble them is what makes you an innovative fighter. In the same way, directing these tropes at someone, assembling them appropriately, and making some minor modifications are the hallmark of the poet. The reason I assembled them is that there was a person who needed to be praised; the praise is in the assembling, and name-dropping ensures that the person is remembered for eternity.

This holds true even in more elaborate poems:

Quill-wielder – the willing-field of
water-steed thought-reeded
bears the marking – tearing-bark of
bale-eating ale-meter
stands as stone-face land of honed-much
stave-birds’ graven word-cuts –
wise-elm’s eyes-helm of
adder-cauldron – a skald gladdened.

Follow the link for an explanation. Here, I’ve kenned nearly every noun and verb in the poem, and inlaid two thoughts into a main thesis. Nigh-incomprehensible and dense with kennings – this is the work of the skalds. I wrote this for this geek who made a scroll for me – she’s pretty cool – and I chose to write it in one of the most complex metrical forms.

Yet even here, with all these kennings, there is only one identifying one: “adder-cauldron,” a reference to the toxic dye verdigris that the scribe in question researched expressly for the project. That’s literally it. Everything else in the poem is just a reference to a scribe in general. It could apply to almost anyone who has crafted a scroll. Some of the kennings contain deeper references which have more meaning in context – “bale-eating ale-meter” means “goat,” but refers more specifically to a legendary goat, which is a reference to the storied goat hide on which the scroll was penned.

This is yet another example of the necessity of context in making a skaldic poem personal. Change one kenning and the poem can be directed at someone else – but because it was directed where it was, it carries a little additional meaning.

As a skald, it’s important to be conversant in kennings and their construction; the use of kennings is necessary to be able to write this kind of poetry the way it was written to its audience 1000 years ago.


When you get right down to it, skalds seemed to make heavy use of commonly-understood tropes in order to call up related experiences in the audience, evoking an emotional reaction to a specific situation using stock phrases and concepts assembled ad-hoc with the occasional bit of specific information. You can write many verses knowing very little about a subject – because the entire point is to take a long time saying a few things as elaborately as possible. I can write a poem in a matter of minutes with very little information – I just use lots of kennings that say the same thing in different ways.

The best skalds were those who had the largest vocabularies, and could thus praise almost anyone for almost anything at almost any time. The pieces were transient and ephemeral, but the tropes they used endured beyond them. Tying the subject together with a timeless framework was a method of giving lasting word-fame.

"Scumbag Loki" basically sums up the entirety of the Elder Edda

“Scumbag Loki” basically sums up the entirety of the Elder Edda

I find it interesting that in today’s Internet-centric communications, we’ve begun to move back towards ephemeral context-dependent trope-based communication. Most social communication platforms today focus on high volume short-term condensed information transfer – tight packages of information that convey ideas rapidly, while not really expanding on them significantly.

It strikes me as being oddly akin to an oral tradition; since we’re focused so much on the right now, timing and rapidity of message matter far more than permanence in many circles. Getting karma on reddit, for example, is 99% timing and 1% content – it’s the context that makes any of these communications work.

So, basically, Vikings invented lolcats. That’s what you should take away from this.


4 comments on “Smoke and Mirrors: Writing Praise Poetry as a Skald

  1. […] spoken before about the practice of writing praise poetry as a skald, and spoken at length about the importance of carefully authoring your life story. When […]

  2. I was one of your students at a class at the last Pennsic War. In the travel process back from the War, I was a clod and managed to lose my handout. Bugger my luck! you have an electronic version that I could beg from you?

    – Stu Crump / Ieuan ap Gwilym

  3. Hobbe says:

    What makes the poem truly shine, is that I’m in it… Otherwise it would be as boring as Hel.

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