Daily Archives: 8 September 2009

#56 “Inventors” (Michael Blumenthal)

A small but substantial percentage of our poems in the Countdown use language itself as a subject for poetry. Michael Blumenthal’s “Inventors” is perhaps the most elaborate of these.

Poetry isn’t the only art form that reflects back on its own medium. Lots of artists have painted artists at work. There are films about filmmakers, from Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain to The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Tristram Shandy. There’s been TV about TV, from The Dick Van Dyke Show to 30 Rock. Music, by its nature, tends to do this less often, but classical scores are full of reference to other music, and remixes where one song comments on another in counterpoint are a standard feature of pop.

“Inventors” starts with a quoted line: “Imagine being the first to say: surveillance.” This line was actually written by Howard Nemerov, a highly-respected American poet who once held the post of U.S. Poet Laureate. I don’t know where or when Nemerov said or wrote this, but he has the honor of writing at least one line of the 64 greatest poems in modern English – and of inspiring the rest.

Whatever the circumstances of Nemerov’s idea, Blumenthal takes it and runs with it. Imagine being the first to say any of these words! Do the words strike you as particularly beautiful, or clever, or interersting? Look them up in your dictionary; look up their origins. Was there someone who might actually have used such a word for the very first time: its coiner?

I got interested in the story behind the word “penicillin,” for instance. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that Alexander Fleming, inventor of the drug, was the first person to use the word in print. (That’s slightly different than being the first to say it, a more sensual experience that Blumenthal prefers.) In a 1929 journal article, Fleming wrote:

In the rest of this article allusion will constantly be made to experiments with filtrates of a broth culture of this mould, so for convenience and to avoid the repetition of the rather cumbersome phrase ‘Mould broth filtrate’, the name ‘penicillin’ will be used. This will denote the filtrate of a broth culture of the particular penicillium with which we are concerned.

In other words, “penicillin” is from an earlier word “penicillium,” which comes from the Latin word for “pencil” (and unsurprisingly, the English word “pencil” also comes from that Latin word). So it’s not like Alexander Fleming saw his killer fungus and said the first thing that came into his head. The romance of words doesn’t come from the pure creativity of their coiners. It comes from all the associations and links they bring with them. “Pencil” and “penicillin” share a great-great-grandword. That is strange and wonderful.

But strange and wonderful as the material of “Inventors” is, I love its execution, too. Blumenthal imagines situations that could have existed. Some of them must have existed, though none of them did in the exact form that the poet imagines. I often hear a word, a phrase, a meme, and wonder, along with Blumenthal’s speaker, who was the first, the very first, to put it into words.

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#57 “The Armadillo” (Elizabeth Bishop)

In teaching “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop, I often get stuck on the phrase “fire balloons.” Students, evidently trained by cadres of English teachers to suspect that nothing in a poem can be what it says it is, venture all kinds of guesses at the hidden meaning of “fire balloons.” Are they stars, planets, angels, UFOs?

Well, they’re actually fire balloons. I mean, I don’t have a letter from Elizabeth Bishop proving this point, but the balloons in the poem behave exactly as the balloons on this completely unrelated website say they do. They’re made of paper, they rise with the hot air produced by a lit source, they wobble, they are illegal, they fall eventually, they start fires. The speaker in the poem simply watches them, and sees their typical consequences.

So the balloons are literal balloons. But as the website suggests, they are often mistaken for other things. They seem to have hearts; they seem to “steer” (though they really just drift). They seem to be “solemn” and to “forsake” us. Is there anything that people won’t read themselves into?

Though they are inanimate and directionless, the balloons represent danger. People don’t intend them to inflict harm, but they do. The idea that beauty can be dangerous is a feature of some great poetry, from Shakespeare’s sonnets through Keats and Byron to the 1890s and on into confessional and postmodern modes of the late 20th century. Here, Elizabeth Bishop combines two poles of experience in the same incandescent lyric. Beauty and hope fly upward; destruction and inhumanity descend. Which way do we turn? Which, in the poem, is more real?