Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
This one comes up from time to time when you read certain kinds of things--British fiction, say, or The New York Review of Books. I don't think I've ever heard it said in casual conversation, which is why I don't even know if it is pronouced poet taster or poet aster. Or even, as in the pun I saw it in most recently, a Poe taster. For some reason I always think of it being a poet with a qualification--I mean a poet in a qualified sense, or a dabbler, but if that -aster has to do with stars, as it does in disaster, it could mean a star poet, kind of like a poet laureate. Well, I'm sure it will all become quite obvious shortly...
Okay--a poetaster is a poet of inferior worth, or at best, one reputed to be of inferior worth. It comes from combining poet and the pejorative suffix -aster. How -aster came to be a pejorative is a bit beyond me. The online etymological dictionary has it that the suffix denotes things with an incomplete resemblance, using as an example a word I've never heard before 'patraster'--one who plays the father. So okay, the poetaster is one who plays the poet. I thought there might be a resemblance to the word manque, but that seemed too easy.
In the course of looking up the etymology, I came across this poem, which oddly mirrors my own path around this word. As the poet has given permission to blog his work as long as you mention his name, I will mention here that his name is Ronberge and he has a book of poems called Don't Think When Thriving!, which I have to admit is a pretty good title. But without further ado, his poem:
I dedicate this poem to all those who use the term poetaster; especially on me!
The first time I read the word I read it: ‘Poe – taster’ So I thought it meant someone who likes old Edgar Allan. A least had a taste for his words And tried hard to imitate his art Not always with success Doesn’t sound too much like an insult Does it? No Really Nevertheless It got me curious And I dug a little deeper… Did some research on the subject Don’t you just love a century Where ignorance is a choice you make By not typing a word or clicking on a button By not searching for answers or not asking questions? Here is what my research gave me On that particular matter: It was first used in a play One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries ‘The Poetaster’ an Elizabethan satirical stage play, written by a guy named Ben Jonson, The term poetaster, Meaning an inferior poet in the play with pretensions to artistic value, was coined by Jonson in this play. And the wordplay itself was actually on ‘disaster’ ‘This poet was a disaster’ Poet–dis-aster, take out the ‘dis’ Voilà ‘poetaster’ Pretty self-evident, yes? Now I’ve always suspected that latin Is not the forte of the many… ‘Poetaster’! Anyone with a modicum Of knowledge in etymology can spot it… Take ‘Disaster’: it comes from two words ‘Dis’ meaning separation, negation, reversal And ‘aster’ from ‘astrum’ meaning ‘star’ Literally meaning the star of reversal, of doom! Follow me so far? This was the old name for a comet Who in the old days were thought of as a bad omen So if you read the word ‘Poet-Aster’ Then you can clearly see That Literally Etymologically It means ‘Star – poet’! No reversal here! … Hey you know what? Go ahead and call me ‘Poetaster.’ The jokes gonna be on you. Cause I figured something out You weren’t clever enough to!