The proverbial “they” call it the “etymological fallacy”, casting the truth as a falsehood before it even gets out of the starting-gate.
The idea is simple enough: the original meaning (temporally original) of a word is its correct meaning.
Taken to an extreme and deprived of pluralistic context, the “fallacy” is indeed a prescription for “mind forged manacles”, a prescription for prescriptive linguistics itself: but the world is always already the sum of all its meanings; we grasp a “meta-meaning” by including the historical process of its evolution in our understanding of its use, and this deepens and enriches our deployment of, and participation in the language.
All this by way of an introduction to an etymology that has intrigued, guided, and directed me for some time now: the idea that the word “poetry” comes from a Greek word meaning “to make”.
Arthur C. Danto, the historian and philosopher of art, has made much of how Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” collapsed the question of “what is art” into a single art-transcending instantiation.
I know of no equivalent poem, but certainly the question “but is it poetry” has never been far from the modern poet (“tennis without the net”.)
You will perhaps begin to sense my enchantment when you reflect that the Latin equivalent to the Greek “poem, is “fact”. That is, the legacy of the Roman word for “to make” is, in English, a “fact”. A Greek poem is a Roman fact.
The remnants of this legacy are palpable. “Manufacture”. “Factory.” The etymology of the word “manufacture” preserving as it does the Latin root for “hand”; to manufacture being “to make by hand.”
My how things change.
As a digression I can’t help but note how the words “manacles” (mind-forged or otherwise), “emancipation”, and “manumission” are allied.
Although I am skipping around quite a bit, and concentrating on the word “poetry”, I would like to make clear that the methodology I am using, the “etymological fallacy”, is quite general. It is also authoritative. Beyond this, it is scientific, both evolutionary, and ecological.
Without dwelling on it, recall the old evolutionary tongue-twister “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, the answer as to why, according to whichever evolutionary authority you choose, Charles Darwin to Sarah Palin, people have gills as embryos? At the end of the day, any evolutionary process will select genes that preserve pre-existing ecological functions, since it is relative to these “functions” that competition will be defined. Now observe that that evolutionary origin of language (in the sense of natural history) had to preserve whatever ecological function predated it. Not only this, but every subsequent linguistic “improvement” has therefore been a successful evolutionary adaptation.
OK, so even I can barely understand what I’m saying. It’s just that the idea of a poem as a fact, and a fact as a poem just kind of hits me over the head and sends black tarantulas down my spine.
The bigger picture is that language has an evolutionary and ecological function, and by studying language, we are studying natural history.
Thus, poetry is an act of making, and anything made is a poem.
In this context it is worth recalling that there is both an orthographic and semantic echo of this sense of poetry as making, in the words “hemopoiesis” (the making of blood), and “onomatopoeia” (the making of words from related sounds.) “Off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood/ jewels and miracles…”
It is possible to debate whether this or that is a “good” poem, but that will depend on the etymology of good (it is useful in this regard to meditate on the etymology of the word “etymology”), but it is not possible to debate whether anything “made” is a poem. In this sense, we possess an objective measure of whether or not something is a poem.
In a post-logical reality however, it is possible for something both to be, and not be a poem. What is or is not a poem to me may not be or be to you in the same way or others.
What then does a poem make?
Like the New York Times, it may make little more than a wonderful liner for collecting droppings in a bird cage.
Things are called poems most often when they make rhyme, when they make new language, or, and this is related, when they make, believe.
A poem is what makes, believe.