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Michael Blumenthal 1980

Author Biography

poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“Inventors” appears in Michael Blumenthal’s first book, Sympathetic Magic (1980), for which he won the Water Mark Award from Poets of North America. Blumenthal was inspired to write the poem after hearing a lecture by poet Howard Nemerov, who talked about poets being the first “namers.” A contemporary lyric, “Inventors” embodies the speaker’s mood of expectation and joy. Like much of Blumenthal’s work, “Inventors” is celebratory, praising the acts of naming and discovery, and implicitly exploring the links between them. In asking readers to imagine being the first to use words to name discoveries of particular things and processes (e.g., “peristalsis,” “penicillin,” “convolvulus”), the speaker is providing an excuse for himself to also participate in that very exercise. In seven stanzas, he imagines (and implores readers to do the same) being present during the discovery of such things as “electricity,” for example, and vicariously situates himself in the discoverer’s body, awash with the anticipation of putting into speech the thing just discovered. Blumenthal revels in the very sound of words, their material and sensuous qualities. By asking readers to do the same, he is reminding us of poetry’s capacity to please—to satisfy us as much with its music as with its meaning. “Inventors” is a humorous poem with a weighty theme: the relationship between words and their referents. Blumenthal seems to be saying that words do more than merely name something recently discovered; they actually bring that thing to life and help construct the reality in which that thing (or idea or process) will exist and develop.

Author Biography

Michael Blumenthal was born on March 8, 1949, to Betty Blumenthal and her husband, Julius, a furrier. Blumenthal grew up in Vineland, New Jersey, and was educated at the State University of New York at Binghamton and at Cornell University, where he took a law degree. Raised in a German-speaking household whose members regularly attended synagogue, Blumenthal was sensitized to language at an early age. He credits Jewish liturgy and prayer—especially their incantatory rhythms—as being influences on his poetry. Before settling on a career of writing and teaching, Blumenthal held a variety of jobs, including German language teacher, editor, lawyer, arts administrator, and television producer. The diversity of work exposed Blumenthal to the richness of language peculiar to specific professions. Blumenthal has spoken of his dissatisfaction with other kinds of work, saying that he came to writing “through the back door, having struggled through years of seemingly desirable yet (to me) unsatisfying jobs, while ‘stealing’ the time for my true work.” While working as an arts administrator in Washington, D. C., he began attending readings at the Library of Congress that were hosted by Stanley Kunitz; he subsequently developed a passion for poetry and a desire to make a life out of it. Helping him develop his confidence to write poetry was poet Howard Nemerov, whom Blumenthal heard lecture at the Breadloaf Writer’s conference in 1979. Nemerov’s talk, on poets as the first namers, sparked the refrain Blumenthal uses in his poem “Inventors.” Blumenthal’s other poetic influences include W. S. Merwin and Robert Creeley. Blumenthal has published six books of poems, a novel, a collection of essays, and has won many awards for his poetry and his fiction, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and Fulbright Fellowships. His third collection of poems, Laps, received the Juniper Prize for Poetry from the University of Massachusetts Press, and his novel Weinstock Among the Dying, a lampoon of academic life at Harvard University where Blumenthal taught, was a cowinner of Hadassah magazine’s 1994 Harold U. Ribelow Prize for Fiction

poem Text

Imagine being the first to say: surveillance ...

—Howard Nemerov

“Imagine being the first to say: surveillance,”
the mouth taking in air like a swimmer, the tongue 
light as an astronaut, gliding across the roof 
of the mouth, the eyes burning like the eyes of
looking at mold and thinking: penicillin.                   5
Imagine Franklin holding his key that dark night,
the clouds rolling across the sky’s roof
like a poet’s tongue, the air heavy with some
unnamed potential, the whole thing suspended
from a string like a vocal cord waiting to say:             10
Or imagine digging for shale in some dull
how the ground is a parched throat waiting for
and you all derricky and impatient, knowing
you have yet no name for might rise and surprise            15
Imagine being the first to say: petroleum.
Some night, dry as an old well and speechless 
beneath a brilliant moon, think of Heisenberg 
taking his ruler to the world for a measure 
and finding, in the measuring, an irrevocable               20
Imagine being the first to say, with confidence: 
It goes on like this always. A poet stops in the
to clear his throat, and comes out: convolvulus.
A biologist rolls over during the night to hold             25
her husband, thinking: peristalsis. A choreographer 
watches the sunrise over Harlem, whispering: tour-
Just think of it—
your tongue rolling over the first pharmacopoeia           30
like a new lover, the shuddering thrill of it, 
the way the air parts in front of your mouth,
the world in its constant uncertainty. Go on. 
Let your mind wander. Imagine being the first to
I love you, oregano, onomatopoeia.                         35
Just imagine it.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-5

Blumenthal begins “Inventors” by using Howard Nemerov’s line, “Imagine being the first to say: surveillance ...,” both as an epigraph and

Media Adaptations

  • The School of Humanities at St. Edwards University contains a web site about Michael Blumenthal, with links to essays and poems, at
  • Pleasure Boat Studio, which published Blumenthal’s last book, provides some useful information on the poet. Their web site address is

as the first line of his poem. This action is ironic in two ways: first, because Blumenthal is borrowing someone else’s line to begin his own poem, he undercuts the very idea of being first; and second, because they are asked to imagine saying the word “surveillance,” the readers are actually “surveilling” themselves. The first stanza asks readers to put themselves in the position of being the first person to say particular words, then the speaker provides an illustration of what such an experience might be like. The “Fleming” at the end of line 4 is Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist who discovered penicillin in 1928 and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. The images used are apropos to the subject being described, as the imagined speaker is full of urgency, like a swimmer “taking in air.” Describing the tongue as an astronaut works because popular images of astronauts involve them hovering above the earth, as symbols of almost heavenly surveillance. By comparing a swimmer’s burning eyes (think of chlorine) to those of Fleming when he makes his discovery, the speaker underscores the passion and emotion of discovery, but also the long hours of hard work involved.

Lines 6-11

This stanza draws on the story of Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of electricity. Blumenthal compares the details of the event to the anticipation of naming the thing discovered when he says that “the air is heavy with some / unnamed potential...,” suggesting that the aura surrounding Franklin’s experiment is similar to the atmosphere preceding the first use of a word for a new thing or idea. The energy that Franklin discovers during his experiment, the speaker submits, is the very same energy that courses through a poet’s body as he prepares to say the word “electricity.” The poet is extolled here, as the speaker implies that the poet’s naming of a thing and the discovery of that thing are of equal importance.

Lines 12-16

Beginning in a similar vein as the previous two stanzas, stanza 3 asks readers to imagine themselves “digging for shale” in Oklahoma. Shale is stratified rock that must be drilled through to reach the oil beneath. The speaker describes the digging reader as “derricky and impatient,” thereby figuring the reader as part of the machinery of exploration. The discovery in this thought experiment is not dull, monosyllabic “oil,” but mellifluous “petroleum.” The reader is figured as a derrick plumbing the earth, which itself is figured as a “parched throat” about to be quenched by the discovery.

Lines 17-22

In this stanza, readers are asked to imagine themselves as uninspired, and then advised (as an antidote) to think of Werner Karl Heisenberg—the twentieth-century, German physicist who formulated the “uncertainty principle”—saying the word “uncertainty.” Like the parched earth of the previous stanza, the reader becomes inspired and sated by language, literally able—through an act of imagination—to speak. In being described as uninspired but “beneath a brilliant moon,” a conventionally Romantic and poetic setting, the reader is used to represent the poet. The last sentence of the stanza is obviously ironic: “Imagine being the first to say, with confidence: / uncertainty.”

Lines 23-28

Pointing out that the discovery and formulation of new words happens all the time, the speaker provides three humorous examples of individuals naming something associated with who they are: one of a poet naming an herb, one of a biologist naming a digestive process, and one of a choreographer naming ballet moves. (The detail that the choreographer “watches the sunrise over Harlem” brings to mind Alvin Ailey, a world-famous choreographer who founded his own dance company in New York.) These three examples illustrate how the joy of naming extends to people from all walks of life and is not limited to poets and wordsmiths.

Lines 29-35

The speaker again exhorts the reader to imagine being the first to say a particular word, this time “pharmacopoeia,” comparing the mouthing of the word to someone kissing a new lover. Both experiences are full of anticipation, discovery, and sheer joy. Language and desire are inseparable, the speaker seems to suggest. The last words of the stanza underscore the ecstatic state the speaker has worked himself into while exhorting the reader to imagine discovering and saying a host of polysyllabic words packed with music and meaning.

Line 36

“Just imagine it” is the poem’s last line, and it stands by itself. It is a fitting closure for a poem that aims to hypnotize the reader through its repetitions and exhortations to imagine the sound and beauty of individual words.


Language and Meaning

The opening stanza of “Inventors” sets up a pattern that is repeated throughout the poem: the speaker exhorts readers to imagine themselves being the first to name a discovery. Historically, the intersection between language and meaning has been an issue for poets and philosophers. While some have viewed language as being a slave to sensory impressions of the “outside world” or the thing named, others, more recently, have argued that words are primarily symbolic; that is, they are able to mean by virtue of their differences from other words in a network of relationships within linguistic systems, not by any feature inherent in the sound or look of a word or the thing(s) it points to. Put another way, these thinkers claim that it is primarily language, not our sensory perceptions of the world, that is the building block of reality. Blumenthal plays with this idea through his use of irony. By titling the work “Inventors,” he emphasized the question of which came first, the name or the named. This is similar to the chicken and the egg conundrum; Blumenthal knows this and uses the issue to make poetry. Indeed, the first line of the poem is a repetition of the epigraph, which is a quotation from another poet, and it prepares us for the inherently ironic tone of the rest of the poem. That irony is borne out most tangibly in the fourth paragraph, when the speaker asks us to think of Werner Karl Heisenberg, the German physicist

Topics for Further Study

  • Invent a product and think of at least three different groups of people who might use it. Give the product three different names and sketch a marketing idea for how you would pitch the product to each group.
  • Think of a historical invention (for example, the telephone), and then write an imaginative account of the moment when the inventor realized what he or she had done.
  • After reading Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky,” write a poem whose focus is sound rather than meaning. Try to incorporate end rhyme, internal rhyme, and various near rhymes.

who formulated quantum mechanic’s “uncertainty principle,” and to “Imagine being the first to say, with confidence: / uncertainty.” By asking readers to imagine the act of naming discoveries, the speaker implicitly also asks them to be poets and to revel in the delight that naming offers. The question of which came first is ultimately not important to the poem or to the speaker, as the sheer exercise of using language to explore meaning and sound is what really counts.

Beauty and Aesthetics

Sound, as much as meaning, makes a poem. “Inventors” stresses the experience of thinking about how words sound and analyzing the muscle movements required to pronounce them. Like Wallace Stevens, Blumenthal regards poetry as “a freshening of life.” That he implores readers to imagine thinking about and saying new words demonstrates his desire to share his experience as a poet as well as his delight in the materiality of language, the poet’s tool. His choice of words, including “surveillance,” “penicillin,” “electricity,” “petroleum,” “uncertainty,” “convolvulus,” “peristalsis,” and “oregano,” ranges from the mundane to the exotic and from the concrete to the abstract. This variety in both types of words and the people he wants us to imagine saying them, underscores the idea that poetry is not a practice only for those who “get it,” but it is a way of experiencing the world, regardless of who we might be. One of the distinguishing features of human beings is our capacity to use language, but Blumenthal reminds us that language is more than simply a vehicle for communicating; it is also a means by which we can celebrate our existence—our presence both to ourselves and to others. He emphasizes this view in the penultimate stanza, when he exhorts readers to “Go on. / Let your mind wander. Imagine being the first to say: / I love you, oregano, onomatopoeia.” Such an appeal celebrates both the imagination and language for its own sake. The only things these words have in common is the joy we take in saying them. By including “onomatopoeia,” a word that means naming a thing or action with a word that supposedly sounds like what it describes, in this list, the speaker illustrates how language can also embody, as well as represent, what it names. The last line of the poem repeats what the speaker has been asking readers to do all along. It signifies the participatory, interactive nature of language and emphasizes the relationship between imagination (an abstraction) and language use (material practice).


Written in free verse, “Inventors” employs verbal play that includes various kinds of rhyming, as well as irony and metaphor, to highlight the poem’s relation to its subject: language. Examples of near rhyme occur in the first stanza, with the words “surveillance,” “penicillin,” and “Fleming,” and in the third line of the fourth stanza, with the words “ruler” and “world.” Near rhymes exploit vowel and consonant sounds that are approximate, rather than identical, as in perfect rhyme. The poem also employs internal rhymes, which emphasize the similarities of sound within the same line. An example of an internal rhyme that uses assonance, the repetition of identical vowel sounds, appears in the fourth line of the third stanza, with the phrase “might rise and surprise you.” The accumulation of rhymes is accretive and gives the poem texture.

The poem’s ironic stance toward its subject matter can be found throughout the poem. One example is in the fourth stanza, when the speaker says, “Imagine being the first to say, with confidence: / uncertainty.” This example of verbal irony works because of the incongruity of saying the word “uncertainty” with confidence. The poem also utilizes a series of metaphors that underline the similarities between the thing or idea discovered and imagining the process of naming (whether in speech or thought) that thing or idea. All of Blumenthal’s stylistic strategies bring attention to the relationships between the word and the thing or concept and force us, as readers, to grapple with the implications of those relationships.

Historical Context

Blumenthal’s concern with language’s capacity to accurately represent the world has traditionally been a poet’s concern, but the questions he raises are also questions that helped define the direction of academic life in the humanities during the 1970s and 1980s. This period witnessed a shift away from humanism and toward literary theory, especially that concerning language. Often in direct opposition to traditional practices of literary criticism, some of these theories declared that an author’s intention was no longer relevant to studying a work and that the author was merely one more construct in a linguistic system full of codes, expectations, and conventions, of which the writer may or may not be aware. The central agency in such a system is the reader, not the author, and attention is paid to the act of reading rather than the personality, intentions, or emotions of the writer. Texts themselves were seen as one ingredient in the larger field of writing, rather than discrete works of the imagination. In other literary theories, the imagination—once thought of as that faculty capable of breeding great works of literature and art through an organic process emanating from within the poet or writer—was now described as a historical and textual construction whose time was running out. In English departments, poets and theorists were frequently at odds. These disagreements, or battles over intellectual turf, were institutional as well as ideological. Throughout American universities, the number of master of fine arts programs (where students could obtain graduate degrees in the writing of poetry or fiction) skyrocketed at the same time that the various literary theories proliferated. Concepts such as the imagination, the author, creativity, and literature itself—hallmarks of liberal humanist discourse—were often sneered at and scorned by both structuralist and poststructuralist theorists. This is the climate that Blumenthal worked in when “Inventors” was published. The poetry world also had

Compare & Contrast

  • 1980: More than 50 nations, including the United States, boycott the summer Olympic Games being held in Moscow, U.S.S.R., in protest of that country’s invasion of neighboring Afghanistan.

    1984: In retaliation for being snubbed in 1980, the U.S.S.R. and other Communist bloc countries boycott the summer Olympics being held in Los Angeles, California.

    1988: North Korea, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua boycott the summer Olympic Games that take place in Seoul, South Korea.

  • 1980: The Voyager I space probe transmits photographs of Saturn; scientists discover six new moons orbiting the planet.

    1986: Voyager II travels to the planet Uranus, revealing 10 previously unknown moons.

    1988: Scientists confirm that the planet Pluto has an atmosphere.

    1999: NASA celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, during which Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

  • 1980: The World Health Organization announces that smallpox has been eradicated.

    1984: The AIDS virus is discovered, independently, by both U.S. and French scientists.

    1986: There are 25,000 cases of AIDS diagnosed in the United States.

    1999: Though no cure for AIDS has yet been discovered, AIDS patients are living longer and more productive lives, due to a variety of drug therapies.

  • 1975: Approximately 81 American universities and colleges offer degrees in creative writing.

    1991: More than 300 American universities and colleges offer degrees in creative writing.

    1999: Nearly 400 American universities and colleges offer degrees in creative writing.

  • 1979: Frenchman Bernard Hinault wins the Tour de France, the world’s most prestigious bicycle race.

    1986: Greg Lemond becomes the first American to win the Tour de France. Lemond repeats this feat in 1989 and 1990.

    1999: American Lance Armstrong wins the Tour de France. The victory is more remarkable due to the fact that Armstrong is a cancer survivor, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1996.

its own battles, as groups with varying agendas pitted themselves against one another. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, or poets and theorists interested in exploring language’s meaning-making processes, took issue with what they called “speech-based poetry,” or poems that are more interested in expressing the personality of the writer (frequently figured as the “I” in lyric poetry) than in examining the materiality of language itself—poems more interested in how we know rather than what we know. Although “Inventors” is not set in any particular time period (Blumenthal references eighteenth-century inventors as well as twentieth-century ones), the subject and themes of his poetry demonstrate an awareness of the cultural forces at work during the time in which the poem was written.

Critical Overview

“Inventors” was included in Blumenthal’s first collection of poetry, Sympathetic Magic. Howard Nemerov compared the collection to American poet Wallace Stevens’s first book, saying, “The last first book I remember as having this strangeness and distinction was called Harmonium.” “Inventors” has also been reprinted in anthologies. Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, editors of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, include it in their sampling of Blumenthal’s work, praising Blumenthal’s poetry for its “verbal energy” and observing that Blumenthal “likes to assume the role of poetic ringmaster and put the language through its paces.” In a more critical vein, Mary Karr takes the poem to task for its lack of clarity. In her essay, “Against Decoration,” Karr links Blumenthal to a group of writers—including Brad Leithauser, Rosanna Warren, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg—that she labels “neo-formalist” for allegedly using language for mostly decorative purposes.


Morton D. Rich

Morton D. Rich is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University who teaches a variety of courses in writing and contemporary literature. He is guest editor of the spring 1999 issue of Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, an issue dedicated to autobiography and critical thinking. In the following essay, Rich provides an in-depth analysis of “Inventors, “focusing on the poem’s words and their sounds.

With the opening line, “Imagine being the first to say: surveillance,” Michael Blumenthal’s speaker confesses his love for words by quoting a fellow lover of language, poet Howard Nemerov. In this whimsical exercise of sound and form, Blumenthal moves us to see, think, and imagine, but mainly to experience words as physical events in the mouth, throat, and ears. Indeed, when Blumenthal performs this poem, he radiates delight in the feel of the words as he speaks them. In addition, the juxtaposition of the words, the syntax, offers intellectual pleasure. The syntax of the poem controls the flow of images and sounds, so that each word must be savored—especially the focal words preceded by colons, italicized, and placed strategically at the ends of lines, the most emphatic position in poems. Savoring these words—“Surveillance, penicillin, electricity, petroleum, uncertainty, convolvulus, peristalsis, tour-jetté”, ronde-de-jambe, I love you, oregano, onomatopoeia”—allows full reader participation in the poem. Five romantic, esthetic expressions and words follow seven scientific words. Imagine these words as the basis for a short story. Perhaps that is part of Blumenthal’s purpose—to suggest a narrative through the use of twelve key words. Even if a reader does not construct a narrative, the movement from “Imagine” to “onomatopoeia” is both a linguistic and an esthetic event, since the poem itself comprises a kind of plot by which it gets from its own beginning to its own end. Poet John Ciardi wrote (in How Does A Poem Mean?): “Like a piece of music, [the poem] exists as a self-entering, self-generating, self-complicating, self-resolving form.” Ciardi’s suggestive statement offers several ways to view the form and plot of “Inventors.” Repetition of the word “imagine” is one aspect of plot in this poem. It appears six times, in five of the seven stanzas, and is always in imperative form. The reader is strongly invited, but not commanded, to “Imagine being the first to say: surveillance,” to “Imagine Franklin holding his key that dark night,” to “imagine digging for shale in some dull Oklahoma,” to “imagine being the first to say: petroleum,” to “Imagine being the first to say, with confidence: / uncertainty,” and, finally, in the last line of the poem, to “Just imagine it.” For variety, the poet employs the imperative “think” twice: “think of Heisenberg / taking his ruler to the world for a measure,” and “Just think of it—.” In this poem, the use of the imperative is a gentle invitation to participate in the speaker’s love of words. He offers the opportunity to have a full experience by being inventors ourselves, through the saying of the poem. As Ciardi says, “What the poem is, is inseparable from its own performance of itself.” Naturally the reader must be added to the equation.

Another aspect of plot in “Inventors” manifests as patterns within the stanzas. The first three, and the last two, stanzas begin with imperatives, while stanzas four and five begin with declarative sentences. Stanza four also contains an imperative, but it is delayed until the end of the second line: “think of Heisenberg.” Thus, stanza five alone has the only conventional declarative sentence to start it; indeed, the entire stanza comprises declarative sentences. What is the effect of this change of grammatical form or syntactical flow?

Like a musical composition, a poem works best when a form is established at the beginning, and then is repeated and varied. The first stanza establishes a way of entering the poem—a mode of presentation through diction and syntax. In “Inventors,” the entry is through an imperative invitation followed by an accretion of images that lead to the main event of the stanza, the word “penicillin.” The opening line establishes a norm of syntax that the poet works with variations, just as a composer might create a sonata, and the line is borrowed from another poet’s work, a move often seen in musical composition. In a near or slant rhyme, “surveillance” and “penicillin” are sonically connected, and, even more cleverly, they are linked by images of parts of an active countenance: “the mouth taking in air,” “the tongue / light... gliding,” “the eyes burning.” The images belong, at first, to the first line, then reflect on the last line. In other words, the speakers of both italicized words react with mouth, tongue, and eyes. Additionally, many short “i” sounds occur throughout the stanza, sonically connecting the images and the two key words. The grammar of the stanza also unites the italicized words, in that the last four lines are comprised of elliptical clauses; that is, none is a complete conventional clause. To complete each clause, the word “imagine” needs to be added at the beginning: “[Imagine] the mouth taking in air,” [imagine] the tongue / light as an astronaut,” “[imagine] the eyes burning.” While adding “imagine” might clarify meaning for some readers, such repetition would be heavy-handed and impede the flow of the stanza. It is up to the reader to fill in the missing words, and, paradoxically, it is not necessary for a fluent speaker of the language to do so explicitly and consciously, unless the lines do not make sense. These elliptical clauses connect the words “surveillance” and “penicillin” by applying “imagine” to both and bringing the stanza full circle.

The second stanza reprises the theme “imagine” and varies it by including only one key word: “electricity.” Again, as in the first stanza, the first line of stanza two is an independent clause, and the next four contain elliptical clauses that omit the word “imagine”: “[imagine] the clouds,” “[imagine] the air heavy,” [imagine] the whole thing.” In this stanza, all of the images are directed toward the final word, “electricity.” Note that its “i” sounds connect “electricity” with “surveillance,” “penicillin,” and “imagine.” The third stanza adds another variation by starting with “Or,” introducing “o” sounds to contrast with the previously dominant “i” sounds. Once more, the first line of stanza three is an independent clause followed by two elliptical clauses that omit “imagine”: “[imagine] how the ground,” “[imagine] knowing something.” The key word, “petroleum,” with its centered long “o” is anticipated by the “o” sounds of “Oklahoma,” “how,” “throat,” “knowing,” “no,” and “for.” “I” and “o” sounds come from different parts of the vocal mechanism—one higher in the throat, the other lower—and the feelings associated with

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Language Book, first published in 1984 and edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, collects essays, poems, and short prose pieces that explore language and its role in meaning making. Language is investigated for its denotative, connotative, and associational capacities.
  • American Inventors of the 20th Century by Laura S. Jeffrey is an anthology of biographies of famous modern inventors.
  • 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium by Agnes Hooper Gottlieb and others is a compilation of the most important, influential, and intriguing figures of this past millennium. This book ranks the top ones and profiles each with a brief biography and a discussion of his or her importance in history.
  • Steven Pinker, the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT who is well known for popularizing Noam Chomsky’s revolutionary theory of how children acquire language, theorizes that language is a human instinct, hardwired into our brains by evolution, in his 1995 study, The Language Instinct.
  • Michael Blumenthal is a novelist and essay writer as well as a poet. His novel Weinstock Among the Dying, published in 1993, exposes the pretensions of academic life at Harvard, as seen through the eyes of young assistant professor, Martin Weinstock, a thirty-something Jewish poet.

these sounds differ from each other. Higher sounds suggest greater vitality, while lower sounds are associated with feeling weighted down. With the change of dominant sounds, the poet has produced a stanza more somber in tone than the previous two. Stanza four brings another variation, as “think” substitutes for “imagine” and is delayed to the second half of the second line, while “Imagine” makes its first appearance in the penultimate line. “I”

“In this whimsical exercise of sound and form, Blumenthal moves us to see, think. and imagine, but mainly to experience words as physical events in the mouth, throat, and ears.”

sounds regain their dominance with “night,” “think,” “Heisenberg,” and “finding.” The final and key word, “uncertainty,” participates in the tones of the preceding stanzas with its mix of higher and lower sounds.

Stanza five changes the rules of the linguistic game the poet is playing. It is composed of four independent clauses lacking any imperatives. As in classical music, a composition needs a rest point, a change of pace, to avoid becoming too predictable or repetitious. Again, the key words—“convolvulus, peristalsis, tour-jetté, ronde-de-jambe”—contain a mix of higher and lower sounds. The sixth and longest stanza introduces more variations: the imperative “think” preceded by “Just,” only one elliptical clause requiring “imagine” (“[imagine] your tongue”), two new imperatives (“Go” and “Let”), and a full line of key words: “I love you, oregano, onomatopoeia.” And the imagery reprises that in the first stanza, with the words “tongue” and “mouth,” and the fourth stanza, with “uncertainty.” Such internal reference is also a feature of musical compositions.

The final line and stanza of the poem recapitulates the main theme: “Just imagine it,” where “it” becomes an invitation to reimagine the whole poem and its referents. This line also provides closure, just as sonnets and sonatas require endings that satisfy the ear and mind.

The imagery of the poem offers another opportunity for seeing plot and movement within stanzas and within the poem as a whole. The dominant images are related to the work of a poet. The first stanza shows mouth, tongue, and eyes in similes comparing them to “a swimmer,” “an astronaut, gliding” and the “eyes of Fleming / looking at mold.” The astronaut and Fleming are engaged in discovery, or invention, like the poet. The second stanza has Franklin, another inventor, “holding his key that dark night,” and again, a tongue—this time “a poet’s tongue”—is compared to “clouds rolling across the sky’s roof.” The “unnamed potential ... suspended / from a string like a vocal cord waiting to say” refers to the poet’s work, the waiting for the right word. Similarly, the third stanza, with its “digging,” “parched throat,” “and you all derricky and impatient, knowing something / you have yet no name for might rise and surprise you” precisely names the waiting poet. The fourth stanza—with its image of Heisenberg paradoxically saying, “with confidence: / uncertainty”—also alludes to the work of the poet, who constantly uses words whose referents change from one context to another, and from reader to reader. This is the uncertainty principle of poetry. The phrase “It goes on like this always” begins the fifth stanza, and a poet, a biologist, and a choreographer say, think, or whisper their special words, all chosen by Blumenthal for their rich sounds and out-of-the-ordinary referents.

The penultimate stanza intensifies the word game with sound and imagery, including two multisyllabic words containing the Greek root “poeia,” which means “maker” and is another name for a poet. Onomatopoeia is a poet’s tool, and it stands as the final, key word in the poem. In every stanza but one, the word “say” appears, and in every stanza, “mouth,” “tongue,” or “throat” shows up; all of these words refer to speech or its apparatus of production. These fifteen occurrences comprise a concentrated diction of poetic production. Blumenthal keeps his subject in focus from first line to last.

The last stanza returns the reader to the opening line of the poem to restart the game (named “Just imagine it”), and the right word arrives. Who, then, are Blumenthal’s “inventors”? They are all stand-ins for the poet, seeming to discover penicillin, electricity, petroleum, and the uncertainty principle; or thinking and saying words that feel good in the mouth and mind. What they are really doing is celebrating words—their sounds, force, sensuousness, and capacity to name. Theirs are the tools of Adam in the poet’s perpetual Garden of Eden, the observable world. “Inventors” is a playful display of how poems are created from their basic materials: the sounds of words that name ideas, things, and events. The poet, in the act of writing, plays the role of the creator, making a universe through the poem.

Source: Morton D. Rich, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.

Chris Semansky

A widely published poet, fiction writer, and critic, Chris Semansky teaches literature and writing at Portland Community College. In the following essay, Semansky examines the ways in which Blumenthal’s poem suggest that the real “Inventors” are the readers of the poem itself.

Michael Blumenthal’s poem “Inventors” asks readers to consider the relationship between language and what it refers to, suggesting that the act of discovery is actually an act of invention. Blu-menthal probes the differences between these two terms and calls upon readers to participate in that investigation by imagining ourselves, literally, in the shoes of various inventors.

To discover something suggests that the thing or the idea is already out there, waiting to be perceived by human senses and then acknowledged. In this case, language is seen as a tool to record that phenomenon—to index its place in the world. In the first stanza, when the speaker imagines Sir Alexander Fleming “looking at mold and thinking penicillin,” we are meant to understand that Fleming came upon penicillin almost by accident; it always existed and merely awaited someone’s perceiving it. Thinking the word “penicillin,” then, is akin to saying “aha!” or eureka!” Fleming’s 1928 discovery actually was accidental, as he was was trying find a way to kill bacteria when he observed that an unwashed and bacterially infected flask appeared to be disinfected by mold that had grown from airborne spores. The speaker tells a similar story of discovery in the third stanza, where “petroleum” is in the ground (figured as a throat) waiting to be discovered by the reader, who is asked to imagine him- or herself in the symbolic role of derrick and drill:

.... imagine digging for shale in some dull
how the ground is a parched throat waiting for
and you all derricky and impatient, knowing
you have yet no name for might rise and surprise
Imagine being the first to say: petroleum.

What is interesting in this stanza, as well as throughout the poem, is that the speaker doesn’t so much emphasize the thing that he wants readers to imagine discovering, but, instead, he highlights the word that discoverers attach to that thing or idea. It is the act of naming that is the real subject of this poem, Blumenthal implies, for in naming something, true invention takes place. The roots of this idea lie

“It is the act of naming that is the real subject of [‘Inventors’], Blumenthal implies, for in naming something, true invention takes place.”

in a theory of language claiming that it is only through words, not merely sensory perceptions, that we can come to know and describe the world, for the very act of thinking would be impossible without language. Language is the raw material out of which we construct our world and ourselves, but it is also, in some ways, the very world itself.

Blumenthal’s ironic tone throughout the poem demonstrates that he is aware of these differences between discovery and invention, but rather than dogmatically spelling out a position, he illustrates the instability of language to merely record “what is there.” In the fifth stanza, we are asked to picture a famous physicist grappling with the very nature of reality:

Some night, dry as an old well and speechless
beneath a brilliant moon, think of Heisenberg
taking his ruler to the world for a measure
and finding, in the measuring, an irrevocable
Imagine being the first to say, with confidence:

Not only is the world unknowable, the speaker implies, but language itself, as a tool of knowing, is an inherently unreliable ruler. However, rather than lament language’s incapacity to record or measure, the poem celebrates language as a tool of the imagination. The image of a speechless person “beneath a brilliant moon” provides the atmosphere for this celebration. Notice how, in this stanza and throughout the poem, readers are asked again and again to “imagine” themselves as someone else, to vicariously participate in the experience of another. However, these experiences are themselves imagined, by the poet (Blumenthal) exhorting us to participate in his fantasies. It is this kind of sharing, the speaker implies, that language can facilitate. But it is a sharing of the imagination (and done through the imagination), rather than of the empirical world.

Historically, poets have laid claim to the imagination as the wellspring of their art, calling on it for inspiration and sustenance—and even justification for their work. In “Inventors,” Blumenthal wants to demonstrate that the imagination is no longer reserved for poets; it is an essential human attribute that anyone could (and should) exercise. He implores readers to imagine not only famous inventors but people from other walks of life as well—a biologist, a poet, a choreographer—saying words specific to their lives. This democratization of the imagination is a particularly Romantic trait that has carried over to today. We might not all be inventors, or even choreographers, poets, or biologists, but most of us can imagine saying or thinking something, especially when that something is specified for us. Blumenthal makes it easy by providing concrete and very sensuous illustrations of what mouthing an exotic word would be like: “Just think of it—” he says, “your tongue rolling over the first pharmacopoeia / like a new lover, the shuddering thrill of it ....” All language is inherently sensuous, he seems to suggest. The very act of saying something, and especially of being the first to say something, involves desire. “Let your mind wander,” he exhorts us. “Imagine being the first to say: I love you, oregano, onomatopoeia.” The first item in this series is a declaration of passion, the second a fragrant herb, the third is a poetic term meaning to name a thing or action with a word that sounds like what it describes (for example, the word “buzz”). All of these items elicit strong associations. Even “I love you,” though on the surface an abstraction and a cliché, resonates powerfully in us because we have each used these words in a personal manner. That Blumenthal should include “onomatopoeia” in the list is particularly telling, as this word denotes one of the few instances in language in which words are not arbitrary (i.e., there is no inherent relationship between the words and the idea or thing that they denote) but embody the sound that they signify. Such a word helps readers grasp the idea of language’s materiality more readily and, hence, understand the idea that language need not point to things outside of itself to provide pleasure or to communicate meaning.

The ultimate irony in Blumenthal’s poem is that the imagination, historically linked to ideas of originality, is, in this poem, more of a glue that serves to bring people (reader and writer) together. On the one hand, the speaker repeatedly implores us to “imagine being the first to say,” yet, on the other hand, the words we are to “imagine” have already been said. Even the poem’s first line is a copy of the poem’s epigraph, which itself is a line from another poet’s poem. Who, then, are the inventors? The real inventors, the putative subject of this poem, are the readers of the poem. In heeding the speaker’s exhortations to imagine, we are, in essence, inventing the poem anew in our head—each of us, presumably, in a different way. This exercise, more than merely repeating a word, is the real meat of the poem, and the extent to which we are able to visualize the speaker’s own imaginings is the extent to which we can credibly call ourselves inventors.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.


Blumenthal, Michael, Days We Would Rather Know, New York: Viking Press, 1984.

Blumenthal, Michael, Sympathetic Magic, Huntington, NY: Water Mark Press, 1980.

Breslin, James E., From Modern to Contemporary, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Ciardi, John, How Does A Poem Mean? Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Ellman, Richard, and Robert O’Clair, eds., The Norton Anthology Of Modern Poetry, 2nd edition, New York: Norton, 1983.

Horowitz, David A., Peter N. Carroll, and David D. Lee, eds., On the Edge: A New History of 20th-century America, Los Angeles: West Publishing Co., 1990.

Karr, Mary, Viper Rum, New York: New Directions, 1998.

McDowell, Robert, ed., Poetry After Modernism, Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1991.

For Further Study

Blumenthal, Michael, When History Enters the House: Essays from Central Europe, Port Angeles, WA: Pleasure Boat Studio, 1998.

This book collects a series of essays that Blumenthal wrote about Hungary after his visit there in the early 1990s, when he was a Senior Fulbright Fellow in Budapest. They are deeply lyrical and personal, and they evoke a sense of both foreboding and loneliness.

Gregson, Ian, Contemporary British Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement, New York: St. Martins Press, 1997.

Gregorson examines how postmodern ideas—such as intentionality, ideology, and indeterminacy—have shaped contemporary poetry. This is a rewarding study, but it is often frustrating, due to its use of jargon.

Graff, Gerald, Professing Literature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Graff takes an intriguing look at the “turf wars” that have occurred in the English departments of American universities for the past hundred years. This is an indispensable book for understanding the history of many of today’s conflicts in the humanities.

Karr, Mary, Viper Rum, New York: New Directions, 1998.

Viper Rum contains a controversial essay, “Against Decoration,” that lumps Blumenthal with New Formalist poets, such as Brad Leithauser and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and argues that the type of poetry Blumenthal writes is unmemorable.