Jay’s new episode of “301” is worth a listen. Every episode is, in fact. The structure of the show is brilliant: each podcast is exactly 301 seconds in length. He packs big ideas into that span of time, but gives himself the space to have quieter, more reflective episodes.
In this episode, “Kennings & Orbit Words,” Jay says:
The closest thing in modern English to Kenning is perhaps the portmanteau. Its literal meaning in french in ‘carry-cloak’. But translates from the English usages as Luggage. A Portmanteau inherently has an understanding that two words are packed inside.
Brony, Mockumentary, Sitcom, Pokémon, all come to mind.
As do shepherd (sheep herder) squander, (scatter and wander), podcast, (iPod + broadcast) or the humble cronut.
Some old Kennings hold complex concepts and powerful meaning inside. For example a “weather of weapons” means a war. Or for the Game of Thrones Fans “A Storm of Swords” is an Anglo Saxon Kenning for Battle.
You think there metaphors but they aren’t – they’re kennings.
The coherence of the words in orbit of one another produce more meaning by their dance than using a single one. I have never been a war, or a battle. But Weather of Weapons gives me a better emotional understanding of what it might be like, than the single word alone.
I’ve written here before that metaphors are a requirement for many prospective manuscripts at Big Five publishers. It’s often necessary to have a minimum amount per page (at least one, sometimes three), the idea being that people like metaphors because they enjoy recognizing things that are like other things.
Artistic metaphor reached its nadir about five years ago. It felt like every piece of art I saw on Instagram was something like “what if the alien from Aliens was popping out of Super Mario’s chest?” Jokey fan art led to hybrids of pop icons, famous IP reimagined as 8-bit Final Fantasy characters, or sometimes literally just putting two superheroes in the same picture together. Aquaman and The Fly? Sure, fuck it, why not.
This trend is downstream from the larger creative waterfall of big IP. These artists were picking up on a trend that you could see plain as day from the big books, games, and movies being produced: take things that already work, mash them together, and point out the ways in which those things are similar. It became “I recognize that” art.
Which is why you end up with novels describing a young girl falling into her father’s arms as being “like a glass of water tipping over in slow motion.” It’s an instantly recognizable analogy, people can immediately see it in their heads.
But what if there was a problem with that exactness?
Think about it in terms of Twitter. The ideas that have the most traction there are the ones that punch the hardest in the fewest words. That leads to analogy out the ass, an arms race to see who can best describe the ways in which a complex issue is exactly like a much less complex issue. You’re not going to get very popular by skirting around a hot topic, which is what Jay (and I) am suggesting is the better way to do things.
Kennings and orbit words instead suggest an entire world of concepts by placing words in relation to each other. A metaphor is cutting down something to be digestible, a kenning is using something very small to suggest something very big.
A way of kenning-thinking leads us to be able to “think with” ideas, to let the mind wander, to create scenarios.
Take the “storm of swords” example given in Jay’s post. You first start to think about a storm gathering, maybe heavy clouds, the ominous feeling you get before the weather really starts. Then the storm itself comes, and you need to hide away inside, because if you’re outside, it’s relentless, and you’re going to get soaked through or blown away. Now think about swords: sharp, imposing, implying security and safety, protection, a fight for something, or maybe it’s murderous bandits on the road stealing your shit, maybe it’s something you use to pick your teeth, maybe it’s something that stays up on the mantle and never ever comes down. It’s not saying “war is like a storm,” it’s saying “think about a storm and think about swords and you’ll find your way to an infinitely complex set of associations, emotions, and images, and that may or may not be what I meant when I typed it, but now you’ve done a bit of work, and you’ve generated around the idea.” No clarity in the woods, just more paths to ever denser thickets.
That makes writing a collaborative effort. That turns writing into an idea generator, which is its real future function, if it’s going to have one at all.
Axel posted this about Deleuze and Guattari’s work, and I had to QT, because I feel as though it’s relevant:
And this tweet:
In the spirit of the kenning, I’ll leave those two tweets there and elaborate no further. Until tomorrow at least. How do they interact with each other? What do they mean for how writing can become truly interesting again?
Til next time!