Poet: maker and mechanic

September 28, 2009 § 1 Comment

You might be surprised to learn that the origins of the word poet are “maker,” which then makes its way in transference to author and maker of verse. Here is the OED:

[< Anglo-Norman and Middle French poete (French poète) a canonic writer of poetry (1155 in Old French), one of the great poets of antiquity (1370), someone who writes in verse or poetic style (1380), fantasist, dreamer (16th cent.), anyone with poetic inspiration (working in any art-form) (17th cent.) and its etymon Latin po{emac}ta writer of verse, poet, playwright, person of great skill (Plautus) < ancient Greek{pi}{omicron}{eta}{tau}{ghacu}{fsigma}, early variant of {pi}{omicron}{iota}{eta}{tau}{ghacu}{fsigma} maker, author, poet < {pi}{omicron}{epsilon}{gifrown}{nu}, {pi}{omicron}{iota}{epsilon}{gifrown}{nu} to make, create, produce, to compose, write (< the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit cinoti he collects, assembles) + –{tau}{ghacu}{fsigma}, suffix forming agent nouns. Compare Old Occitan poeta authority (second half of the 13th cent.), poet (14th cent.; Occitan poèta), Catalan poeta (late 13th cent.), Spanish poeta (c1223), Italian poeta (a1294).
With the transfer of sense (within Greek) from ‘maker’ to ‘poet’ compare MAKER n. 5.

With this in mind, Emerson’s vision of the poet as both a genius of imagination–inspired, impressed by spirit and enthusiasm–and maker and reproducer, might not seem contradictory. The last paragraph of his essay “Art,” the last essay in the First Series (and thus, a sort of lead in to the next volume of his published work, “The Poet”) makes the case that the useful arts need to be considered along with the fine arts–including “our great mechanical works.” Here is the paragraph:

The art that thus separates is itself first separated. Art must not be a superficial talent, but must begin farther back in man. Now men do not see nature to be beautiful, and they go to make a statue which shall be. They abhor men as tasteless, dull, and inconvertible, and console themselves with color-bags, and blocks of marble. They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic. They despatch the day’s weary chores, and fly to voluptuous reveries. They eat and drink, that they may afterwards execute the ideal. Thus is art vilified; the name conveys to the mind its secondary and bad senses; it stands in the imagination as somewhat contrary to nature, and struck with death from the first. Would it not be better to begin higher up, — to serve the ideal before they eat and drink; to serve the ideal in eating and drinking, in drawing the breath, and in the functions of life? Beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten. If history were truly told, if life were nobly spent, it would be no longer easy or possible to distinguish the one from the other. In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful. It is therefore beautiful, because it is alive, moving, reproductive; it is therefore useful, because it is symmetrical and fair. Beauty will not come at the call of a legislature, nor will it repeat in England or America its history in Greece. It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men. It is in vain that we look for genius to reiterate its miracles in the old arts; it is its instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts, in the field and road-side, in the shop and mill. Proceeding from a religious heart it will raise to a divine use the railroad, the insurance office, the joint-stock company, our law, our primary assemblies, our commerce, the galvanic battery, the electric jar, the prism, and the chemist’s retort, in which we seek now only an economical use. Is not the selfish and even cruel aspect which belongs to our great mechanical works, — to mills, railways, and machinery, — the effect of the mercenary impulses which these works obey? When its errands are noble and adequate, a steamboat bridging the Atlantic between Old and New England, and arriving at its ports with the punctuality of a planet, is a step of man into harmony with nature. The boat at St. Petersburgh, which plies along the Lena by magnetism, needs little to make it sublime. When science is learned in love, and its powers are wielded by love, they will appear the supplements and continuations of the material creation.

The word “reproductive” has always caught my attention the most. Emerson isn’t afraid to think of the art and making of poetry in terms of technology and reproduction. In “The Poet” this relates, I would argue, to his vision of a poetry that is a matter for the people, even as the people need help from the poet to recognize it. There is poetry in the streets and in the political parties, he suggests, in his anticipation (or call) of Whitman. This is an important strand of Emerson’s thinking that has not been traditionally emphasized: Emerson’s interest in “material creation” (the last words of “Art”), in a poetry and imagination that, however lofty it would seem, is also useful, popular, material, social. This is something we can take into our reading of Emerson’s poetics; and something you might want to take out, and take into a reading of an artist or “poet” more familiar to you whom you might now describe, surprisingly, as Emersonian.


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