Poetry News

Tracing Monica Youn's Poetic Fascination With Etymology

By Harriet Staff


Graywolf shares a Monica Youn essay on why the roots of language matter, to celebrate the publication of her new book of poems, Blackacre. "First coined in 1628, the term 'blackacre' is a legal fiction, a hypothetical estate. It is also a password among lawyers marking one’s initiation into a centuries-old tradition of legal indoctrination," they tell us. Here's an excerpt from "Putting Everyday Words Into a Nuclear Reactor":

I trace my own poetic fascination with etymology to Seamus Heaney, via my teacher Paul Muldoon. Heaney was perhaps the great poetic etymologist of our time, calling etymology “a symptom of human history, memory and attachments.” In “Broagh” and a slew of other poems he uses etymology as a trope for historical culpability, upending facile binaries between “we” and “they.” Although the speaker of “Broagh” would like to differentiate between those locals who can correctly pronounce the word and “the strangers,” Heaney himself pointed out that such a distinction is untenable since “Protestant and Catholic and both say it perfectly in this part of the world.”

And, of course, words don’t just have roots – after they emerge into existence, they continue to accumulate meanings, like rings around a tree. So generations of readers have been unable to treat parsley as an innocuous garnish after reading Rita Dove’s iconic poem. And Joy Katz creates a chilling, unforgettable poem about encountering the word “holocaust” in the 1935 edition of her mother’s dictionary.

In Old English law, a deodand was an object that had brought about a person’s death—a tree branch, a horse, a haystack. Such deodands were forfeit to the Crown, to be sold or destroyed. But what happens when a word is such an instrumentality? To pick just one example, if an otherwise innocuous word is used as a racist weapon, can it ever be redeemed?

Read on at Graywolf.

Originally Published: September 15th, 2016