There are ways of expressing feeling in the Old English kennings that do not exist in the formal English of today. Even if I were to dream up some delicious new portmanteau here — some melding of “history,” “poignant” and “solitude,” say — I still would not be creating a true kenning. That’s because, in our tongue, words get their meaning from the order we put them in: “Poignant” would end up modifying “solitude,” instead of the words just hovering next to each other in figurative space. 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.
(Josephine Livingstone, “Letter of Recommendation: Old English,” NYTimes, 1-4-19)
(c) 2019 JMN.