#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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27 responses to “#56 “Inventors” (Michael Blumenthal)

  1. I think we all in a way have come up and “invented” our own words. Little children have their language. We have or at least I know I have thought of words and wondered who came up with that particular word and why is called that particular name. Who thinks of names for things and what makes them call the things by their name? Why is a car a car and not a house? They are just “curious” questions. I can understand the reason for naming penicillin since the fungus looked like pencils. Some words flow smoothly and fit perfectly while others are a bit more difficult to pronounce and may not seem to fit description. The people who invent these words have their reasons and by learning about the inventors we understand the why and how. It is a fascinating world of discovery. It is interesting, fun and quite educational. I think it is a good idea to learn not only about the word but about the reason behind it. Again, we have all, at one time or another, come up with our own “invention” of a word or two and only we know why we call the things what we call them. We are all inventors! The real inventors of words stimulate out minds to learn more about the world.

  2. I found this poem to be kind of interesting because I too sometimes wonder where words came from or who was the first to think them up. I think we all would like to believe that words just come naturally and that everything fits its word perfectly, but that’s just not always the case. Some of us even view words differently from others. For instance, I don’t feel like my name suits me at all but my family and most who know me think it’s just right. I can only imagine back to the absolute beginnings of all words. I picture cavemen pointing to a flower and muttering audible nonsense, which then is always associated with that flower and evolved throughout the years to become the word “daisy”. This is more realistic to the way words have become what they are today but it’s much more fun to think of it the way Blumenthal describes the word making process. It would be almost magical if humans were to automatically know the suitable name for something. So, in a way, the speaker almost suggests the perfect process.

  3. In this poem, one area that stood out to me the most at first glance was the ending of the stanza’s. For instance, in the first stanza the poet refers to the word by establishing that the person is first [thinking], second stanza [waiting], third stanza now [saying], fourth stanza still saying but this time with [confidence], fifth stanza [wispering], and again [saying]. this beginning rise and then climax and fall and rise again shows the process in my opinion of the progression of how words are formed. this allows the reader to see how poet Michael Blumenthal’s thought process works. he does not believe that words just came out of thin air. There was time and dedication that went into this and that every individual word is important. Every word matters. His fascination with words and how they came into existence is never-ending.

  4. “Inventor” celebrates words..language. And the power a word has. Without it the world would not exist today (in my opinion). I’m sure God could have thought about making the world and it would have been. But instead he spoke the world, plants, animals, people etc into existence with just words. People have built empires with just simple words and phrases (Nike: Just Do It) , How in some cultures and areas I could come up to someone and say “what’s up” as a greeting but to some they would simply look up at the sky lol it has happened. Words also transforms over generations certain slang words evolve with cultures. Words are beautiful they describe me and you and the things around us. They have so much meaning because we use them and we can personally identify to it.

  5. I like this poem by Blumenthal because it really makes you wonder about the origin of words. It makes you imagine your own stories of how a word came about. It makes you appreciate words we use every day. I would never have thought about the word “oregano” to be poetic, yet the way Blumenthal uses it makes it somewhat fascinating, trying to figure out who was the first to say it. I have thought about the origins of words before, but it was merely a thought, I never looked more into it. After reading this poem it made me think about words I use today that others may not. Someone has already stated certain phrases mean one thing to someone and another to someone else. I have said things while talking with my mom and she has no idea what a word means, or the way I’m using it is different than what she is used to.
    In class we touched on an idea asking if these things existed before we had a name for them, and I think the answer is not as simple as a yes or no. For example, “penicillin” existed before we had the name for it, but not in the form that we use it today. It is really mold, but it still does the work of penicillin, we have just given it a title that makes it more official, and gives it a specific purpose.
    Words are important to us for that reason, most importantly for conversation purposes, but to give something a title makes it official and is a way to tie up any loose ends about the meaning of a word. When we see something unfamiliar we want to know what it is so we can put a name (word) to that image. Just as if we were to meet someone new, we would want to know their name. I didn’t expect to say much about this poem, I did believe it was interesting, but I didn’t know what I would say about it, but after class, and after rereading it, the WORDS just came to me.

  6. Of all the poems that we have read this is my least favorite. Perhaps due to it’s nature. It brings forth a good question as to how words are brought to life and that is all. It causes me to reflect on many words and question how it was that it came into someone’s head to name it that. To me it could just been a straight question.There are just many types of poems. Different styles with no hidden messages or metaphors. In this particular one there is not much to reflect on rather than to question how where words made up. There do exist many words that seem complex. I do agree that newly invented words come from existing words chopped up and reassempled. I don’t think that anyone just adds up letters besides each other hopping to make a word up.

  7. This poem is very interesting and can make a person think. Sometimes I do wonder where words were created and how they came about. There are many words that exists today that come from small pieces of other words. I think that some words that were created for certain things do not always seem like they fit that particular thing. The same is for a name for a person. I sometimes hear a person say that somebody’s name does not fit their face or their personality. Some words are created based upon a description of something. I think this is a poem that everybody can relate to because we all at one point wonder were names of things or people come from or how they were created. I like how this poet used descriptive words and different languages throughout the poem.

  8. I too feel that this poem really makes you stop and think about things. I often wonder about the origin of certain words, especially if the word does not appear to have a Latin root, or some other sort of basis behind the word. What were the inventors of these words thinking when the pulled them out of the air? I also not only think of the origin of words, but also of the origins of pieces of music. Who was the first composer to play and use a certain chord in a piece of music? How many others have copied it, or came up with a variation to use in their own pieces of music? I also often wonder how people come up with names for their kids. It’s also odd how you can sometimes look at someone and predict what their name might be without ever having met them. The mystery behind all of this is very intriguing.

  9. I found this poem very interesting. One part that really stood out to me was in the last stanza and that part is the first to say: I love you. Think about it even in a relationship who is the first to say I love you? Being the first to say those three words mean and it tells a lot. It is not a new phrase but new to hear to some and new to be spoken by others. In the other part of the poem being the first to say certain words by invention comes with a lot of power. Where did those words come from and what caused the invention is something that is thought about when watching the history channel or hearing about ones life. Often we think about so much when it comes to this world, how it got started, who would have thought about certain things that are used in our day to day living. Once again this poem has meaning because it speaks a lot. It speaks a lot of what we have all thought about some time in our life. Where did those words come from is the question asked with so many answers.

  10. Inventors is a poem that causes me to think much more than I care to about how and where certain words originated. I thought about why it is that I don’t particularly care for this poem and could not really come up with a specific reason. Maybe it’s because the “invented” words have no connection to each other or maybe it’s the flow of the poem. Maybe it’s just me. I tried to grasp what the writer was trying to convey in the poem, but the more I tried the more disinterested I became. The only thing that peaked my attention was when I thought about the first time that I heard a particular word. It brought me back to a time when I was watching a football game on television and heard the announcer say the word “Athleticism”. This word was something that I had never heard before and from the reaction of the announcer, it was one that he had never heard before either, but it came out of his mouth. I’m not sure if this word was invented that night or not, but it was the first time that we (the announcer and I) had heard it. Besides this simple memory, I have no positive feeling about “Inventors”.

  11. When I was reading this poem it drew me in to image the very moments that he was talking about, I could picture Franklin with his kite and key, I could image Oklahoma. I think this was his idea was to draw you in and image what you could be a inventor too. Some of the words that he used to describe things just puzzled me, why didn’t he just us the basic word why the diffcult word that I had to look up, or was that his point to make me think outside my normal box to push me some where that I have never thought of being or a word that I never thought of using. I did find this poem to be different that it made me wonder into different thoughts as I read and in the end I think that was his point.

  12. Thinking of all the possible ways a word was “invented” can really get you to use your imagination. During class Tuesday, I have to admit to daydreaming a little, but before you get upset let me tell you where my mind drifted off to. I started thinking of different words and making up stories to how that word came to be.
    I especially wondered about the strong meaningful words we use. The ones that involve some sort of emotion. For example, TRUST, how was the word trust first used. How did some one put the letters T-R-U-S-T together to describe the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing. Was it a someone saying, “Put your trust in God.” Perhaps it was a husband asking his wife to trust him. Then I started wondering how many times has the word trust been used. Whoa! Crazy… I wondered which word has been used the most EVER.
    It is also pretty fascinating to study the history of a word. Learning where words came from can tell us a lot life in the past. It seems like most of the words we use in the English lanuage originated from Latin words. So, it makes me think of a time when the only thing people knew how to speak was Latin and how slowly new words were made to create the English language. How different it would be if right now, today, everyone on this planet spoke the same language. Would people still have accents. And if we all spoke the same language what affect would that have on racism?

    The author of Dictionary of Word Origins, Joseph T. Shipley wrote: “Word history traces the path of human fellowship, the bridges from mend to mind, from nation to nation.” This statement is so true. Words bring the world together, even if the words have to be translated.

  13. One of those little things in life that i’m fatcinated with are words. i dont consider myself a writer, to tell you the truth i’m not really not all that interested in it. i’m much more of a technical mind. put me infront of an equasion or some engineering problem and i’ll spend all day just to figure it out. but i do love words, infact ive got a mental database of some of my favorate. plenum, proboscus, infatuated. for some reason some words just make me smile. this poem opens up a new side of my little word game. from now on because of this poem i think i’m going to not only consider the merrits of the word, but also consider when it was spoken first, and by who. #56, my favorite so far.

  14. If I was the first to say any of the words written in the poem, I would be ecstatic; because I know that I came up with a word that wold be associated with me forever. Also it could mean that I invented something that would be associated woth the word and that I’d be known for. The words strike me as intelligent and clever; and they also sound beautiful. I believe that every word we use today or know was used forst by someone. I think they–coiners of words–came up and still come up with words according to how they feel something should be called or should sound like. For example, Fleming–who was referred to in the oem–probably decided that the name “penicillin” suit the invention because of its pencil-like shape. I love the poem because it engages the reader’s imagination. The poem makes one want to come up with a word that has never been used or said. We, have in a way come up with our own words, but I believe that we want to be recognized as the first ones to say or use it.

  15. Michael Blumenthal’s Inventors was very interesting poem to think about because of the relationship created when being the first to use a word. This poem reminds me of my little sister because when she was four years old she used to make up her own words to describe everything she liked. It was like she was speaking her own language that my family automatically learned over time. She even had new names for everyone, now that she’s fifteen I ask her what was going through her head when she came up with these words. She said that those words were personal and held meaning because no one else was using them and it made her feel special. I would love to invent a new word that has significant meaning to everyone to describe something. I feel like my name fits me perfectly because looking at myself I couldn’t imagine it being anything else.

  16. This poem is good because Blumenthal makes you think about two things, one being the origin of words. Who was the first to say a word, who was the first to give a name to something nameless? I liked the idea that missnanci touched on, whether or not things existed before they are named. I agree with her when she says it is a yes and no question, being that giving something a word to be associated with does not give it existence, yet at the same time it does. I think of the power a name gives a person, and what it would be like if we were all nameless. It would be a very confusing world; names give a person a kind of meaning. I think it’s the same for things too. A word gives something power, some kind of tangibility. The second this that this poem makes me thinks about is the connotation behind the word. Two parts of this poem are especially powerful when it comes to this. The first is about Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle and more specifically the word uncertainty. In his poem Blumenthal first talks about Heisenberg’s ruler, something exact, specific, like science is. And then Heisenberg discovers that as he tries to measure a particle, he can’t. The connation that uncertainty has in science is especially powerful. The second example in the poem is when Blumenthal says “Imagine being the first to say: I love you…”. I love you is such a powerful statement, and anyone who has said it or has said it to someone knows that. Being the first to say it is especially a big risk, putting your heart out on the line, and the connotation it holds is tremendous. Blumenthal does an excellent job in this poem of making us think about words.

  17. The poem “inventors” is very interesting to me because it seems Blumenthal has so much passion for these words when they first come out, however, i’m not a %100 on this but to me it seems like he is also trying to say it is more important to experience something than just to say it. I know that poetry is actually all about words and that’s where most of the power of the poems come from is the word selection. I still stick by my view that he is insinuating that experience is more meaningful than just the words, why does certain poems have more affect on a person than others? Usually for me it’s because I have had a relevant experience with the topic at hand, however, i digress. Blumenthal mentions in every stanza that you should “imagine” being the first to say all these things, however, we all know these people didn’t just stumble upon these words. Many people in the stories he tells all spend alot of time and effort on these inventions, and through the things they experienced on the road to the invention is where i believe the word gets its origin from. As for the last few lines in the poem I thought it was interesting he says “i love you” and makes the final line say “just imagine it” and thats it. When we all know that being in love means so much more than just saying it.

  18. In his poem, “Inventors,” Michael Blumenthal opened by imagination to the artistry and creativity found in words. Words are simply amazing. A single word is the product of an inspired thought process whether that thought is good or bad. It seems like once a word is uttered or written for the first time it takes on a life of its own. It goes out into the world and connects with other words that come from similar minds with similar thought processes and create societies known as schools of thoughts such as educators, artists, poets, musicians, scientists, mathematicians, and so on and so on. Words not only connect with other words that are of the same schools of thought, but they actually become inventors of new words to add to their special societies. For instance, pedagogy is a word that is connected to the society of educators, myocardial infraction is connected to the society of doctors, and stanza is connected to the society of poets. The list of words that connect schools of thoughts is infinite. Also, I see words like children in the sense they can be identified by their DNA. Professor Morris discussed in class the different Latin and Greek roots from which many words originated. A word can travel across many miles and over many centuries and sometimes get lost, but its DNA ( etymological root ) helps us to identify it origin even if we can’t pinpoint its inventor by name. Another amazing thing about a word is it can be reinvented according to the school of thought in which it dwells. We have different colloquial languages that reinvent words. I think about how hip-hop artists reinvent words in their rap songs. The rapper ‘Lil Wayne’ is really creative when it comes to reinventing words to fit into the context and flow of his music. I discovered the word jewelry was reinvented into the word ‘bling’ to describe the style of jewelry that rappers flaunt. To my surprise, the word is now found in the English Oxford Dictionary. Words are beautiful, but at the same time they can be dangerous. One of my favorite paintings is of two ‘Oriental Poppies’ painted by an artist named Georgia O’Keeffe. The painting is mesmerizing because of the explosion of color. I wonder who first called the flower poppy. Poppy sounds so light and playful, but the school of thought associated with the word today is addictive and deadly. Lightning is breathtaking when it streaks across a night sky, yet it is also dangerous. I guess words come from the thought processes of beautiful minds like convulvulus, playful minds like onomatopoeia, creative minds like tour-jette, ronde-de-jambe, scientific minds like penicillin, or dangerous minds like terrorism, torture, and rape. Words take on a life of their own.

  19. firewaterboi321

    Imagination. Where does it run off to as we get older? It came so effortlessly when we were all children. Remember when you would run in to the yard and create a whole new world where you were the main character and you could understand everything? Animals, trees, rocks, grass; everything had a voice and could talk right back to you! It felt good to be able to create your own words and phrases. Michael Blumenthal writes about that level of excitement and imagination in “Inventors.” Now, of course, he writes about words like penicillin and uncertainty, but unless those kinds of words were accepted by the larger public as standard vocabulary, would they exist today? Or would they have been part of some secret language made up by a few? Words have an incredible power. They are the thoughts that stay. When their meaning can be grasped by others, they gain more and more power. They gain flexibility and meaning. They evolve with the language and become something that everyone can understand and use. Actually, they can be used to write lyrical phrases, like those in poetry. Should we, as adults, go around “making up” words? Probably not, but wouldn’t it be fun?

  20. This poem really made me stop and think after I hearing it for the first time. I don’t think I particularly cared for it though. I mean it’s talking about how words were formed to call things. It makes you wonder how anything was chosen to be called something. So, how did someone come up with words for everything? When was the first time any word was said? The only thing that I can really think of that relates to this poem would be the first time I saw my son. I knew exactly what I wanted to call him right when I saw him for the first time. I guess it is kind of like that with words.

  21. After reading Michael Blumenthal’s “Inventors,” the exploration of an inventor and the birth of his invention appears as a journey to me. Blumenthal takes great care to have his reader visualize his words, and I found that this tactic not only made his work come alive for me, but helped to breathe a sense of a reality into the piece. I can hardly imagine how Sir Sanford Fleming looked at mold and immediately realized its potential to yield penicillin, but words such as ‘surveillance’ and the description of his senses conveys a sense of yearning which only a man seeking treasure would feel. I also enjoy Blumenthal’s use of similes and metaphors, as it helps to link concepts which one would never think to place together. Also, oxymora such as confidence being linked to uncertainty highlight the importance of words that one would normally disregard. In general, this piece doesn’t make me uncertain about the upcoming future – rather, it asks me to question, as I will be an inventor in the process of having questioned something previously taken for granted.

  22. Michael Blumenthal’s “Inventors” was more interesting to me than any other poem we have read in this class so far. It was easy to understand and the “imagine being the first to say:” line drew me into reading it. This seems to be a poem of ideas. I have a feeling as if the speaker is trying to tell the audience that words aren’t only there to name things, but they do much more than that. A word gives something an image, and every time we hear a certain word, we imagine that ‘thing’ in our minds. I’m sure we have all had thoughts and questions about why something is called what it is called. I have never actually seen or read anywhere an attempt to explain this until now. I too, wonder – who was the first to say many of the words we use today! It was brought up in class that all of the words in the poem have a Latin origin except the phrase ‘I love you’; I’m actually quite curious why the author decided to put those words in the poem. It could be because that phrase is an actual feeling, so the author is asking us to imagine how it feels to be the first person who has ever said that to someone, considering that this is a very strong emotion. Every poem we have read so far leaves me puzzled about something…

  23. I think to the person that first used these words, they were beautiful, clever, and interesting. I catch myself wondering why some things were given certain names. Like mentioned above, why is a car a car and not a house? I have to agree that by understanding the inventor we will know where the word is coming from and it will make more sense to us. There of course had to be a sense of joy for every one thing that these inventors of our past have named. I think there was more joy in actually creating their inventions than in naming them. Like somebody in class said, its like seeing your child for the first time and calling him or her by their name in person for the first time, it’s a beautiful thing to experience. Even though you may already have a name picked out for your child, the joy it brings when saying it to that child for the time is amazing. I’d imagine the same feeling for an individual completing their invention and naming it. I like the fact that this poem makes you think. Who was the first person to use a lot of these written words and how did they feel about them?

    • TO USIELV-How sensational it is to be entitled to your own choice of words and simultaneously have the ability to express them beautifully. We are all unique because no one has said directly and created the things that we have created individually. This is why I believe that we are congratulated and yet judged for the good and the bad by others and most importantly by God. People that achieve great things are still human beings. I don’t believe that their time spent saying and inventing something great should be considered any better but some are just recognized higher because of the impact on the world that the invention created. We all impact many things in this life time whether it’s friends, family or creations that are used for purpose. At one point in time we were patted on the back for whatever achievement. So I believe that we are all significant. The inner experience is knowing that you did something great at the end of the day.

  24. In the poem “Inventors”, I can truly relate to the ideology being conveyed by Michael Blumenthal. He takes the concepts of invention, even to the depth of the words spoken to represent a new idea or creation. His usage of symbolism is brilliant as well. I have not been blessed with the opportunity to name anything but my dog, and a few phrases that my friends and I would joke around about. I have always thought about how it would feel to name such significant things. Like the mushroom, what a name for such a powerful wild fruit. From what I gathered, mussirio is the Late Latin origin for the word. I think it would be fascinating to meet the person or people that first named such a thing. One of my favorite words, nirvana, is also very interesting. Coming from Sanskrit, this word is obviously Indian. I would love to understand what went through those original soul searching guru-types that gave names to many cool words, karma being another example. Michael Blumenthal does an immense job generally, of transmitting the idea of conception and creation to such a magnificent poem.

  25. This poem was very interesting to me because words are truely that interesting. In high school we had different English proffessors but the last one we had always told us it was ok to make up a new word, that always made me wonder where certain words came from of Names of continents.
    Another thing that I found interesting was how all but one of the words talked about are from Latin, another language. I know a bit of French and know some Indian languages, I do come across quite a few words that mean the same thing and sound the same in these languages. But the words “I Love You” are quite different in each, but not all or if any say it like these three words, “I Love You”.

  26. When analyzing the poem Inventors by Michael Blumenthal, I think about the agitated relief after accomplishing something so anticipated. Experiencing something new for the first time and being able to share an invention, also a gift is an incredible feeling. Sacrificing the time needed to complete the operation and the fear of failure could have been a worry. Yet never quitting and completing a task regardless of failure settles in the mind better whether you succeed or fall short. The world would be a darker world without the mind of Benjamin Franklin. I honestly wonder without some of the world’s inventions, would we ever have had the needed access to utilize them? In other words, could another incredible mind replace the much needed influence when penicillin hit the scene? Imagining the life before these inventions came about seems hard to digest because we all know that we are used to the simple facts of life. Before we were born, there were freeways and difficult routing schemes to find places to go and people to see. Building on the technology given makes it a lot easier to simplify the creation of things and so we are able to nullify some of our inventor’s mistakes. It’s sort of like recreation and elaborating on a given product. Together, we have our own gifts and talents that make the world special. We need the world to survive and nevertheless the world can be congratulated due to the great things that we have achieved in it.

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