On the Different Kinds of Poetry I Write

Last week, I posted the first drápa on this blog. Now seems as good a time as any for some commentary on the different sorts of poems I have been posting and will be posting on this blog. These can be distinguished by their type and purpose.

You may find it helpful to read my earlier post on the meters I use, either before or after reading this one.

First, the distinction of type, which is between drápa and flokkr.

Drápa. A drápa is poem with one or more refrains. Usually, it is also a praise poem. In the Old Norse period, it would generally be cheiftains, jarls, or kings who would be the recipient of the praise. These could be as long as the intended recipient could bear. A poem by Þjóðólfr Arnórsson was called “Sexstefja,” meaning literally “Six Refrains.” The fragment of it that survives is only thirty some stanzas, and probably ran much longer than that in its entirety. Drápur were probably often written in the difficult dróttkvætt meter (which I have not used or described on this blog), but could be written in any of the traditional Old Norse meters. The most famous drápa of the Viking Age is “Head Ransom” by Egill Skallagrimsson. It is twenty stanzas with two different refrains. It was written in special rhyming meter which looks like a sort of fornyrðislag with end rhymes. My poem, “Vetrartímadrápa,” is a drápa of ten stanzas with a single refrain. You may have noticed that the stanzas with the refrains are only half the usual stanza length. This is done following the model of Egill’s “Head Ransom,” which also uses half-length stanzas when it is time for the refrains.

Flokkr. A flokkr is distinguished from a drápa simply by a lack of refrains. Like a drápa, it can be written in any of the traditional Old Norse meters. According to Lee Hollander, Egill Skallagrimssson’s “Lay of Arinbjörn,” in praise of Egill’s dear friend, was a flokkr, probably in the 40 to 60 stanza range. In my modern usage on this blog, I will probably restrict the label of flokkr to praise poems only. (That is, although a poem like “Nine Noble Virtues” might technically count as a flokkr, I probably won’t label it as such, as it is not a praise poem.)

Second, the distinction of purpose. These groupings are my own, and do not reflect any distinction practiced by the Old Norse. Rather, they will give you an idea of what my poetry is for.

Hallowings. Although many Asatruar no long practice a hallowing of the ritual space, some still do, and I have written a couple Hammer hallowings of various lengths in both ljóðaháttr and fornyrðislag, as well as other kinds of hallowings.

Lore narratives. In this group are those poems I write that retell a story from the Old Norse mythology. Generally, my writing efforts are directed to those stories that do not have poetic versions in the Poetic Edda. My poems “The Six Treasures,” “Mead Quest,” “The Binding of Fenrir,” etc. fall into this group. If one is doing a blót (blessing) to a particular god or goddess, a reading of a story about him or her would be appropriate during the rite. For instance, one might read  “The Six Treasures” during a blót to either Thor, Sif, and/or the Dwarves, etc. The lore narratives that I have written are in either fornyrðislag or ljóðaháttr.

Calls to Gods and Goddesses. In a blót, it is customary to call the particular being or beings being honored. I have written a vast number of two-stanza calls in ljóðaháttr that make use of the existing lore. For the major gods and goddess about whom we have a significant amount of lore, calls of much greater length can be written. Although fornyrðislag would be a perfectly fine meter for a call, all the calls I’ve written are in ljóðaháttr.

Praise Poems. Simply put, a poem in praise of a god, goddess, wight, or something else entirely. These are distinguished according to whether they are drápa or flokkr. Such praise poems could be used as sumbel toasts, but are often suitable for being read as part of the centerpiece of a rite. For instance, “Vetrartímadrápa,” which is a poem in praise of Wintertime, was recited as a part of my kindred’s Winter Nights blessing.

Ritual Dramas. To give just two examples, “Skirnismál” and “Lokasenna” from the Poetic Edda are poems with multiple characters and dialogue. On reading them, one could very easily get the impression that they were meant to be recited in front of an audience by multiple people who were perhaps doing some acting along with it. Inspired by that possibility (which is explored in detail by Terry Gunnell in The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia), the short ritual dramas that I write have a narrator who speaks in fornyrðislag and various characters who speak in ljóðaháttr. Excerpts from some of the ritual dramas I’ve written will appear on this blog in the future. These are also quite suited for use in ritual (hence the name), and one that I wrote based on Snorri’s tale of the abduction of Iðunn was performed by my kindred at their Midsummer blessing.

Sumbel Toasts. As mentioned previously, the most usual format for a sumbel is to have three rounds: the first is dedicated to the gods, the second to heroes and ancestors, and the third to participant’s choice — boasts, toasts, or even oaths on occasion. In each round, each participant will usually speak some words of praise, honor, or remembrance, followed by a drink from the sumbel horn. Sumbel toasts can be as short as “Hail Thor!” or longer and more involved. Most are usually spoken in an impromptu fashion. However, poetry or song is also quite appropriate. Generally, the sumbel toasts I’ve written are one or two stanzas in ljóðaháttr or galdralag, although I have written a few in fornyrðislag. The longest poems I’ve written specifically as sumbel toasts are a trio of seven-stanza drápur in ljóðaháttr.

The avid reader of my blog will have noticed that there’s more mentioned here than I’ve posted so far on my blog. Poems from every category will eventually be posted.

Copyright © 2012 Eirik Westcoat.
All rights reserved.


One thought on “On the Different Kinds of Poetry I Write

  1. Greetings! While we have met a few times at various Asatru events, I am finding your blog for the first time. I have enjoyed your skaldic work around the campfires… and am equally thrilled to know you have your work here, too. Not being more than fundamentally familiar with the skaldic arts of the northern Europeans, reading this post was particularly helpful in not only gaining some familiarity with what you write, but also in understanding the true value of the effort you put into your work. Thanks for posting… and sharing your fantastic work with the world! 🙂

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