There are few poets writing today who are as erudite as a scholar and talented as a poet as Alfred Corn. In his series of etymological studies for this issue of Plume titled “Making, Spinning, Weaving Texts,” Corn examines the linguistic sources of the words “scop” and “line”, while also elucidating the roles that the three Fates—Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos—play in determining the provenance of a life, its providential unfolding, which for the poet has everything to do with creating “lines” that determine “the thread of his or her life, and its ultimate cessation, or severing.
In a Facebook post several years ago, Alfred wrote the following post that presaged his essay here:
“Poetry has always changed over time, from which we conclude that it must. Since a valued element in art is surprise, change brings in elements we’re not accustomed to and find intriguingly novel, refreshing. Also, we see the negative results when a contemporary poet gets stuck in some aesthetic program harking back a half a century or more, still trying to market Dada or 1930s Objectivism. The question is, how does change legitimately, authentically happen? Maybe it just inevitably happens of itself. Or maybe, as flowers are “forced,” poets impose the change by an act of aesthetic will.”
Making, Spinning, Weaving Texts
In Anglo-Saxon, the word for poet was “scop” (pronounced “shop”), which is related to the verb “scieppan,” “to shape.” We can then link the word conceptually to Greek “poiein,” “to make” or “form,” with “poiesis” as the noun for that making. Poetry is then the result of taking raw experience and shaping it into art, giving it a form. But contrast this to the terms for the word “poet” in medieval Southern Europe. A poet was a troubadour, a “trobator,” a “trouvère,” words derived from Provençal “trobar,” “to find”. That verb derives from medieval Latin “tropare,” “to sing,” “to compose,” which in turn comes from Latin “tropus,” “a song,” especially one that uses tropes (metaphors). Another word to bring in for comparison is “invention,” from Latin “invenire,” “to find,” with the noun “inventio,” “invention.” It’s a term often used for literary composition in the Renaissance. A poem is found, invented, shaped, formed, sung, with metaphorical invention shaped into a song whose base is rhythm.
In Greek mythology, the three Fates (Greek, “Moirai,” Latin, “Parcae”) were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. The name “Clotho” (the youngest Fate) is connected to the spinning of threads. She is the Fate who choses when and where a life is initiated. The name “Lachesis” connotes someone who distributes lots, as in our “lot” in life, and she is figured as the measurer of the thread. Finally, the name “Atropos” means “cessation of turning”, and this Fate is the one who cuts the thread of life, bringing it to an end. Hence the word also means “unchanging,” or even “eternal”. Of course, these mythological figures are, essentially, “tropes,” “turnings,” for purely factual events in an individual life—threading the needle of existence, to turn a phrase.
Since we’re on threads: poems are written in lines, that word coming from Latin “linea,” a linen thread. Hence a poem or text is really a verbal textile, woven with words in lines. At the end of the line, the thread is cut, and a new line begins. You may be aware of a textual practice in ancient Greek called “boustrophedon.” The word literally is about plowing a field with oxen. (The “bous” is the ox, and “strophedon” is a “turning”.) When you plow a furrow, on arriving at the edge of the field, you turn and plow in the opposite direction, just as weavers do with their threads. Ancient Greek texts would move in one direction and then, at the edge of the textual field, turn in the opposite direction for the next line. Like this:
Here is an example of a text using boustrophedon.
.redro esrever ni raeppa sdrow dna srettel eht enil siht nI
A text using boustrophedon goes back and forth until the field is entirely plowed and the verbal textile is woven. Just possibly Leonardo was aware of this technique and was inspired by it to develop his “mirror writing,” in which even the form of individual letters was reversed. As:
Ƹ Y X W V U T Ƨ Я Ọ ꟼ O И M ⅃ Ⴑ I H Ꭾ ᖷ Ǝ ᗡ Ɔ ᙠ A
It’s been said the poet “holds up a mirror to the world,” so maybe Leonardo’s idea was to hold up a mirror to writing. I suppose literary criticism is more or less that, too.
It interests me to reflect on archaic remnants in the present-day English language. “Halloween” was made by contracting “All Hallows (saints) Even (or E’en)” into the present word. We still use “eve” to mean “the night before”. In most cases the final “-ed” of past participles isn’t a separate syllable but survives in a few cases like “Hallow`ed be thy name.” Or, “I learned” (one syllable) but “She is a learn`ed scholar” (two). “The priest blessed the infant,” but “every bless`ed day”.
In questions we most often use “do,” or “don’t,” but the archaic “How dare you?” manages without it. The same for at least one statement: “You need not say more than that” can replace “You don’t need to say more than that.” Note that in these sentences, the negative adverb follows the verb, an archaism that also survives in John F. Kennedy’s “Ask NOT what your country can do for you, but instead what you can do for your country.” And “We dare not ask why.” Language is rather like a museum, with many ancient items displayed, things that survived the passage of time.