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.
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This is a poem I wrote for my friend Hobbe, who won our local archery championship:
Battle-drops
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.

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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.

The Flyting: Provocative Prosody

What could possibly go wrong?

One aspect of Viking culture that I find particularly intriguing is the flyting.

Well, it’s not just a Viking thing – the Anglo-Saxons did it, and the tradition has carried forward in various forms since. Duels of wits and insult contests appear in Shakespeare, and we have a somewhat more familiar form today in the rap battle.

The challenge of spontaneously composing a retort, in a verse-form common at the time, was a way to test intelligence and ingenuity. It was also used as a very ritualistic test – in Beowulf, Unferth starts a flyting with Beowulf as a sort of “interview,” vetting out his claims of greatness. It was a product of cultures that valued cunning just as much as physical prowess, and some of the verse-forms (particular the skaldic forms in Viking culture) demanded a large vocabulary – one of many markers of intellect.

I’ve been interested in trying to get flytings to be a “thing” in my little slice of the SCA. Sure, exchanging insults back and forth is a time-honored bonding tradition that we all practice in our daily lives – but recreating the formal contest creates a whole different experience.

Some people are a bit gun-shy about the idea, because it does often involve some negativity (albeit good-natured) directed at one’s opponent. However, exposing oneself to such challenges also helps to build poise and confidence – one of many reasons that it may hold value. It’s all about responding to challenges, after all.

What follows is a hybrid poem that I’ve written in a skaldic form called kviðuhattr. It’s a fairly simple meter with a strictly-counted alternating 3-4 pattern of beats. Lines are linked by alliteration, and that’s really it. It leaves you free to play around with other word devices pretty freely.

The intent here is to create a conceptual bridge – I’m trying to evoke the wordplay and attitude of a modern rap battle, while using a historic form and word construction. Enjoy!

P.S. If you’re one of the SCA performers I know, consider the mic dropped. Beat that, punk.

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Of dwarf-drink
I draw horn-fuls.
Oðin’s mead
I make in barrels.
Bold Kvasir’s
blood-lettings are
running free –
flooding the plain.

I drop beats
like Draupnir rings.
Foemen flee;
form relentless,
I strike strife-
stags from life-path –
my verse-form
violence slaying.

Spitting fire,
I spare no weak-
ass wordsmiths –
winning battles
with verse-shield,
a verb-hafted
spear, and mouth
of many nouns.

I stand tall
on tables flat,
kicking cups
of corpse-like ale
in foe-face,
flooding your bowl
of wheat-pap
with water of men.

I have won
wars of verses,
versus skalds
of skills renowned;
Now behold
the Har of games –
the great one
and his words’ bite.

Biting truths
tell of victory –
victims lie
with lines scattered,
scarred by harsh
hewing of verbs,
vision blurred
by blood’s falling.

Fall the skalds
skewered by wits;
witless foes
fail to return
timely blows,
blown away by
words of praise
poured not for them.

This cold blowin’
from bold rowan’s
a doom-sign
for soon-to-die
rime giants:
arrivin’ violent –
boasting rhymes –
abide the host.

Ice and snow
and Snorri’s flow,
coursing hard
in this horse-man
of iced land,
lays to waste the
wasted lines
of latest rhymes.

Hewed them all
with Havamal,
slew the wyrms
with Sigurd’s words –
no foe stood
face-to-face nor
made a space
in spate of words.

Listen well
you whelps of verse;
your verb-flames
flicker and die
meeting ice –
my meter’s cold
front serves as
frigid warning:

Your weak heat
and weaker heart
pose no threat
to Thor of verse;
sons of spring
sprinting homeward,
hear my words:
winter is coming.

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Yeah, I’m on a Game of Thrones kick. So sue me. Unless you’re HBO. Then don’t sue me.