J: How would you present the hermeneutic circle today?
I: I would avoid a presentation as resolutely as I would avoid speaking about language.
J: Then everything would hinge on reaching a corresponding saying of language.
I: Only a dialogue could be such a saying correspondence.
J: The course of such a dialogue would have to have a character all its own, with more silence than talk.
I: Above all silence about silence. . . .
J: Because to talk and write about silence is what produces the most obnoxious chatter.
I: Who could simply be silent of silence?
J: That would be authentic saying . . .
I: . . . and would remain the constant prologue to the authentic dialogue of language.
J: Are we not attempting the impossible?
The conversation cited above, which is excerpted from “A Dialogue on Language,” the opening selection of Martin Heidegger’s On the Way to Language,1 provides a hint of the subject that I wish to take up in the pages that follow. More than likely, it is “attempting the impossible,” as Heidegger’s interlocutor cautioned in their conversation. Nevertheless, in the belief that the impossible is an attractive and even necessary part of any meaningful discussion about modern poetry, I propose to venture into an area of poetics that Heidegger himself has done much to open up, namely, that area in which we approach the abiding but still largely undetermined relationship that seems to exist between poetry and ontology, or, in Heidegger’s more imaginative formulation, between “the being of language and the language of being,” (p. 76). Admittedly, this is a danger zone for critical thinking, and the characteristic excesses and frequent failures of Heidegger’s own thought should serve to warn us away from it. Nonetheless, it seems worthwhile to try to make a beginning, taking Heidegger as guide, and for three reasons: one, I am convinced that much of the most interesting poetry written by twentieth century poets locates itself within a sphere of concern that touches at many points, and thus helps to define, “the being of language and the language of being”; two, because I want to draw attention, if only in a preliminary way, to the fairly recent introduction of hermeneutical thinking into literary criticism and to test, through practice, some of its advantages and disadvantages to the working critic; and three, because I think this is a good time to re-examine the ancient enmity between philosophy and poetry, an enmity that may find some relief, if not yet reconciliation, in the kinds of attention presently being focused on language.
The earliest use of the term “hermeneutics” in Heidegger appears in Being and Time (1927), but in order to grasp the full import of the term, it is necessary to go to such later works as “A Dialogue on Language” (1953/54) and “Words” (undated). In the first of these, Heidegger quotes Schleiermacher to the effect that hermeneutics is “the art of understanding rightly another man’s language” (p. 11), but it is clear that he himself intends something of far greater scope and will not settle for a definition that limits hermeneutics to “a science that deals with the goals, ways, and rules of the interpretation of literary works” (p. 10). Rather, he speaks in terms of a “vastness that springs from originary being” (p. 11), a vastness which he claims language alone can lead us to and reveal. “The matter is enigmatic,” he confesses, and perhaps not “a matter at all” (p. 11), but for this very reason it demands thought and interpretation. Yet far from being an “art” or a “science” of interpretation, hermeneutics appears within Heidegger’s writing as a process of searching, and, as he remarks, “how is one to give a name to what he is still searching for?” (p. 20). Nevertheless, names are not altogether lacking, and in a typical turn of thought, Heidegger looks to classical etymology for clarification. This is what he discovers:
The expression “hermeneutic” derives from the Greek verb hermeneuein. That verb is related to the noun of hermeneus, which is referable to the name of the god Hermes by a playful thinking that is more compelling than the rigor of science. Hermes is the divine messenger. He brings the message of destiny; hermeneuein is that exposition which brings tidings because it can listen to a message. Such exposition becomes an interpretation of what has been said earlier by the poets who, according to Socrates in Plato’s Ion (534e), hermenes eisin ton theon — “are interpreters of the gods.” (p. 29)
Heidegger stresses this original sense of hermeneutics because it “brings out the Being of beings” and not “in the manner of metaphysics, but such that Being itself will shine out” (p. 30). He goes on to affirm that it is “language [that] defines the hermeneutic relation,” calling man himself to essential being.
Most of the characteristics and concerns of Heidegger’s thought are recognizable in these passages: a return to philosophy’s origins in early Greek thought; a fondness for etymological definition; the strain of anti-scientism and an expressed lack of sympathy for Western metaphysics on the one hand and, on the other, an invocation of the gods and the poets as more reliable arbiters and interpreters of human knowledge and fate; a central stress on the ontological properties of language; and the touchstones of radiance and luminosity as confirmation of powerful and authentic presence. Taken together, these elements of style and stress reveal Heidegger’s well-known biases against the traditional methods of ratiocination, and for what one can only call poetic thinking. Poetic thinking, at least when it is strong, always has only a single object in mind, as Heidegger himself confirms when he writes, in an essay on Trakl (“Language in the Poem”), that “every great poet creates his poetry out of one single poetic statement only” (p. 160). In an attempt to locate this central poem in Heidegger, it will be useful to turn to “Words,” one of Heidegger’s more successful meditations on “the being of language and the language of being.”
The occasion for this essay — its major provocation to thought — is “Worte,” a brief lyric poem by Stefan George about the power of language to enact discoveries that prove to be as frail and evanescent as words themselves. Heidegger fastens onto the poem’s concluding line — “Where word breaks off no thing may be” — and, in contemplating it, comes to formulate the kinds of questions that characterize his thought at its most rewarding:
“What are words, that they have the power to endow things with Being?”
“What are things, that they need words in order to be?”
“What does Being mean here, that it appears like an endowment which is dedicated to the thing from the word?” (p. 141)
The questions are not original with Heidegger, of course, but as old as philosophy itself. Nevertheless, they are invoked anew and with a special urgency in Heidegger’s thought and, what is most important, placed within the context of a phenomenological hermeneutics. By that I mean a kind of interpretive thinking that is less immediately concerned with texts than with the ground out of which texts arise, with, in other words, “originary being” as it finds its way to us through language. Here, from “Words,” is Heidegger’s own formulation of this idea:
The word’s rule springs to light as that which makes the thing be a thing. . . .
The oldest word for the rule of the word thus thought, for Saying, is logos: Saying which, in showing, lets beings appear in their “it is.”
The same word, however, the word for Saying, is also the word for Being, that is, for the presencing of beings. Saying and Being, word and thing, belong to each other in a veiled way which has hardly been thought and is not to be thought out to the end. (p. 155)
This passage is notable both for the precision of its formulations and, at the very same time, for the thinker’s confessed awareness that his thought will not penetrate far enough to allow him precise answers. It is as if the veil that enwraps Saying and Being, the word and the thing, in unity and concealment can be illuminated but finally not pierced by thought. Yet what we have here is less a matter of ultimate frustration and failure as it is an acknowledgement of awe before a presence too vast to be contained within conceptual categories. Heidegger’s expressed sense of the vastness and immediacy of being, of the palpable presentness of presence, far from acting as a discouragement to his thinking, has been its major spur, and ever since Being and Time has provided its unity as well. The search all along has been for a “hermeneutic of Dasein,” by which things will disclose themselves to us in their being in such a way as to reveal Being itself. What makes this kind of inquiry attractive, and also a rich base for a new poetics, is the conviction on Heidegger’s part that being is intimately and necessarily bound up with saying, that “it is in language that things first come into being and are.” The statement, which is analogous to every poet’s credo, whether expressly stated or not, recalls Wallace Stevens’s proposition that “a poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words.” One thinks as well of Heidegger’s own elaboration of this idea in one of his Hölderlin essays:
The poet. . . names all things in that which they are. This naming does not consist merely in something already known being supplied with a name; it is rather that when he speaks the essential word, the existent is by this naming nominated as what it is. So it becomes known as existent. Poetry is the establishing of being by means of the word.2
Hermeneutics, then, in this sense of it, is, in Richard E. Palmer’s definition, “really a theory of ontological disclosure,”3 and as a result language, which Heidegger majestically defines as “the house of Being” (p. 63), comes to receive a paramount and compelling attention. Since in Heidegger’s view the poets are “the shepherds of Being,” it is to poetic language in particular that Heidegger has been drawn, and in his powerful reflections on Hölderlin, Rilke, George, and Trakl, he has extended thinking well beyond its familiar limits in most schools of literary criticism and established a model for the ways in which poetics, existential ontology, and phenomenology might join in a new and more inclusive hermeneutics.
What would characterize such a poetics and which poets in particular might be newly and profitably understood by following Heidegger’s lead? The emphasis, first of all, would remain, as it must, on text interpretation, but in such a way as to treat language as revelatory less of the nature and workings of consciousness than as the unfolding and disclosure of being which precedes consciousness. If saying is to be understood as showing, the discovery of a world made possible through words, then attention must shift away from the solitary and autonomous power of poetic consciousness to what brings it first to birth and comes to shine through it. The ground of a new critical hermeneutics, therefore, lies “not in subjectivity but in the facticity of world and the historicality of understanding.”4 The interpretive quest, following Heidegger’s own quest, is for nothing less than an articulated access to being, and since it is through language, and most especially through the language of poetry, that being comes to light, the hermeneutical process must focus on what emerges from the darkness that precedes words and plunges back into concealment. Revealment and concealment, the two poles of phenomenological disclosure, thus become a central focus of the critical act, which, like the poetic act itself, searches for meaning in the repetition and retrieval of originary being. Just as, in Heidegger’s view, thinking is listening (p. 123), so proper reading, interpreting, and understanding are parallel ways of being creatively open to what manifests itself in the poem, to both the said and the unsaid of the world as it enters and departs from language. If, as Heidegger says, “the whole sphere of presence is present in saying” and “only where there is language is there world,”5 then it is not a tautology to maintain the obvious, namely, that what manifests itself in the poem is first and foremost language. And what manifests itself in and through language? For answers I turn to the poets, to Bialik, for instance, who tells us that “language contains no word so slight that the hour of its birth was not one of powerful and awesome self-revealment. . . . How much of profound philosophy, of divine revealment was there in that small word ‘I’ that the first man uttered!”6 Any contemporary poem that could recapture that primary moment of discovery would be eligible for greatness, just as would be any interpretive poetics that could present it coherently. Octavio Paz advances our thinking a bit further in his essay on “The Poetic Revelation”:
By a path that, in its own way, is also negative, the poet comes to the brink of language. And that brink is called silence, blank page. A silence that is like a lake, a smooth and compact surface. Down below, submerged, the words are waiting. And one must descend, go to the bottom, be silent, wait. Sterility precedes inspiration, as emptiness precedes plenitude. The poetic word crops out after periods of drought. But whatever its express content may be, whatever its concrete meaning, the poetic word affirms the life of this life. I mean: the poetic act, poetizing, the poet’s utterance — independently of the particular content of that utterance — is an act that, originally at least, does not constitute an interpretation, but rather a revelation of our condition.7
In the same way, any criticism that, by rightly interpreting language, could bring us to approach “the life of this life” would obviously, and meaningfully, be in the service of more than rhetoric. Just what it is we are in the service of as critics, incidentally, is a nice question, and a seldom asked one. A possible reply is provided us once more by Octavio Paz, when he asks a similar question about the work of poets. This is his answer:
The poet is not served by words. He is their servant. In serving them, he returns them to the plenitude of their nature, makes them recover their being. Thanks to poetry, language reconquers its original state, (p. 37)
To return us there, so that we might know the place and be in it as if for the first time, would put us in the employ of the gods and, like Hermes, we too would be the bearers of the message of destiny. Can we, as critics, also be its interpreters? We can be if we rightly heed the message of our vocation, which affirms the simultaneity of word and world. In pointing to this simultaneity, and, furthermore, in insisting upon it, Heidegger has wrought a considerable change in the concept and scope of hermeneutics, which prior to him had been understood chiefly in the narrower terms of a philological discipline strictly limited to text interpretation. As Richard Palmer has argued, “the subject-object schema, objectivity, norms of validation, the text as an expression of life — all are foreign to Heidegger’s approach, [which is dedicated instead to clarifying] the moment that meaning comes to light.”8
To a poet as poet, this moment comes as an experience with and through language. What does it mean “to undergo an experience with language”? The question is implicit in much of Heidegger’s late writings but is raised explicitly in “The Nature of Language.” It will be useful to look briefly at what he says in this important but exceptionally difficult essay and then go on to examine some poems that attempt to express, as a major part of their progress into poetry, what it means to undergo an experience with language.
“To undergo an experience,” writes Heidegger,
means that something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us. . . . The experience is not of our own making; to undergo here means that we endure it, suffer it, receive it as it strikes us and submit to it. . . .
To undergo an experience with language, then, means to let ourselves be properly concerned by the claim of language by entering into and submitting to it. If it is true that man finds the proper abode of his existence in language — whether he is aware of it or not — then an experience we undergo with language will touch the innermost nexus of our existence, (p. 57)
By the forcefulness of this description, it is clear that Heidegger has in mind a more than ordinary relation to language. “It could be,” he conjectures, “that an experience we undergo with language is too much for us moderns” (p. 58), that we prefer instead a more distant or more strictly utilitarian relationship to language, one in which we use it rather than have it possess us. But such an attitude reduces language to something less than itself — Heidegger calls it “metalanguage,” the information gathering and distributing medium of a technologized civilization — and consequently reduces us to something less than ourselves. For if language cannot be brought to voice more purely and authentically, then something in us goes mute as well.
Yet Heidegger maintains that from time to time, and especially “when the issue is to put into language something which never yet has been spoken,” words may come to life in unexpected and particularly striking ways. At such times poetry is born, and “a poet might even come to the point where he is compelled — in his own way, that is, poetically — to put into language the experience he undergoes with language” (p. 59).
It is precisely this experience that I am interested in searching out in poetry, a poetry full enough and close enough to “touch the innermost nexus of our existence.” Where does one find such poetry?
Within modern poetry one finds it, surprisingly enough, in abundance, so much so that one can select from a large body of literature written in several languages. In French poetry, one would look to Mallarmé and Valéry, in German poetry to Hölderlin, Rilke, Hofmannsthal, and Celan, in American poetry to that central tradition that begins with Emerson and Whitman and comes into the twentieth century to include such figures as Stevens, Eliot, Crane, and Williams. In all cases, one would look for, and find amply exhibited, poetic reflections on the nature of poetry, which especially in our time would of necessity have to include reflections on silence as well as on language, on the distances between words and things as well as on their proximity, on the void as well as on plenitude. In carrying out such a study, one would begin to take cognizance of two movements in particular that have tended to dominate modern poetry and shape its prevailing ideas of language. Following Gerald L. Bruns, who has recently and usefully given us just such a study in his Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language, we can define these two “extremes of speech” as “hermetic” and “Orphic” movements, keeping in mind that they do not ever perform entirely exclusive roles but rather alter dialectically within the play of language that is poetry. It will be convenient to adopt Bruns’s definitions:
We can call the first idea ‘hermetic’ because the direction of the poet’s activity is toward the literary work as such, that is, the work as a self-contained linguistic structure. . . . We can call the second idea ‘Orphic,’ after Orpheus, the primordial singer whose sphere of activity is governed by a mythical or ideal unity of word and being, and whose power extends therefore beyond the formation of a work toward the creation of the world.9
Following Heidegger, it is necessarily to the second of these two movements that we must direct our discussion. For Heidegger’s central poet, like Orpheus, is a poet of the earth, in whose song being comes to blossom. The finest Orphic poetry of the century is Rilke’s, but for present purposes I want to look to the work of a more recent poet, to Denise Levertov. Let me admit from the outset that I do not regard her as a figure anywhere comparable in achievement or stature to Rilke and do not come to her for the reasons that Heidegger gave for his choice of Hölderlin, namely, that he “is in a preeminent sense the poet of the poet. That is why he compels a decision.” Denise Levertov has written some admirable poems and one that is possibly great, but in no way is she a poet of the front rank who “compels a decision.” Rather, I come to her partly because today we have no poets of the front rank — and I am interested in exploring the ground of that notable lack — poets who, like Hölderlin, write because they feel “borne on by the poetic vocation to write expressly of the essence of poetry.”10 Poetry in our time may on occasion pretend to such a station but nowhere has it attained it, at least in part because it has been compromised by the “metalanguage” of the age. Octavio Paz, one of the more strenuous interrogators of the condition of poetry today, is once more acute in his observations:
Many contemporary poets, wishing to cross the barrier of emptiness that the modern world puts before them, have tried to seek out the lost audience: to go to the people. But now there are no people: there are organized masses. And so, “to go to the people” means to occupy a place among the “organizers” of the masses. The poet becomes a functionary. This change is quite astonishing. . . . The poet has a “place” in society today. But does poetry? (p. 30)
Denise Levertov is notable as a poet who has won a prominent place for herself, a prominence gained through the publication of a dozen books and numerous public readings of her poetry. Given the pressures that accompany success in American life, it would be unusual for a poet not to have been hurt some by the kinds of activity that one has to engage in to establish prominence, and Denise Levertov is merely one of many who show in their work the compromises and erosions of language exacted by success. We shall examine the nature and possibly also the origins of these failings shortly, but first I want to briefly sketch some of the brighter moments of the poetry, moments in which language comes to light more clearly in its own terms. A useful way to do that is to look at a few of the many versions of her still developing ars poetica, to those poems in which the poet takes cognizance of her relation to language, poems in which poetry voices its own deepest hopes for a native and authentic speech. In Overland to the Islands (1958), her third collection, for instance, one finds this happy account of “Illustrious Ancestors”:
of Northern White Russia declined,
in his youth, to learn the
language of birds, because
the extraneous did not interest him; nevertheless
when he grew old it was found
he understood them anyway, having
listened well, and as it is said, ‘prayed
with the bench and the floor.’ He used
what was at hand — as did
Angel Jones of Mold, whose meditations
were sewn into coats and britches.
Well, I would like to make,
thinking some line still taut between me and them,
poems direct as what the birds said,
hard as a floor, sound as a bench,
mysterious as the silence when the tailor
would pause with his needle in the air.
In an interesting autobiographical note on this poem, Miss Levertov identified “the Rav of Northern White Russia” as Schneour Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, from whom her father claimed descent, and Angel Jones of Mold as a “Welsh tailor and mystic,” from whom her mother descended. It is keeping with this very special genealogy, therefore, that the idea of language expressed in the poem is likewise special, invested as it is with the properties of silent communication and magical transmission. One need not look to the esoteric traditions to understand the poet’s hope for a vital and informed speech, however, but rather just to another poem — to this one, “A Common Ground,” for instance, from The Jacob’s Ladder (1961):
Not ‘common speech’
a dead level
but the uncommon speech of paradise,
tongue in which oracles
speak to beggars and pilgrims:
not illusion but what Whitman called
between reality and the soul,’
excelling itself to be itself,
speech akin to the light
with which at day’s end and day’s
sing to each other across the cold valleys.
The two poems both end on a common note of mystery, a mystery wedded to language, which is coterminous in the first poem with silence and in the second with light. What arrests the imagination in both cases, therefore, and brings it to song is, quite astonishingly, the speechless — that momentary pause before and after words in which words have their birth. Like the song of the mountains, which issues only at the twilight moments of transition (“at day’s end and day’s/ renewal”), poetry exists at its purest in those intervals of change and transference, momentary openings that it looks to penetrate and fill with song. Bialik considered such openings danger zones, and declared, in fact, that “the most dangerous moment — both in speech and in life — is that between concealments, when the void looms.” Yet such moments, he continued reassuringly, “are very rare both in speech and in life, and for the most part men skip over them unawares.”11 Men might but poets cannot, for it is precisely out of this void, out of the wordless, that words come. Like the rare but everyday disclosure of the mountain peaks in the fading and renewal of light, language continually re-enters and emerges from silence, thus becoming itself by excelling itself. It is this manifestation of language “between concealments” that I take to be the principle interest of these two poems.
For Denise Levertov’s fullest elaboration of this idea we must look to a later and longer poem, one in which the classical agent of transmutation and disclosure is himself directly invoked by name. I refer, of course, to Orpheus and to an extraordinary poem in Miss Levertov’s eighth book of poems, Relearning the Alphabet (1970), a poem in which we confront, in Heidegger’s words, “a poet [who has] come to the point where he is compelled to put into language the experience he undergoes with language.” “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” is Denise Levertov’s most forceful and direct presentation of this experience, so forceful and so direct, in fact, that in reading it one comes to know exactly what Heidegger meant when he defined experience as something that “befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us.” The poem is too long to be quoted in full and too much of a piece to be easily cited in selection, but here nevertheless is a sample of it:
Then as he sang
it was no longer sounds only that made the music:
he spoke, and as no tree listens I listened, and language
came into my roots
out of the earth,
into my bark
out of the air,
into the pores of my greenest shoots
gently as dew
and there was no word he sang but I knew its meaning.
He told of journeys,
of where sun and moon go while we stand in the dark,
of an earth-journey he dreamed he would take some day
deeper than roots. . . .
He told of the dreams of man, wars, passions, griefs,
and I, a tree, understood words — ah, it seemed
my thick bark would split like a sapling’s that
grew too fast in the spring
when a late frost wounds it.
Song, when it is this intense, “bowls us over. . . transmutes our relation to language” (p. 107), as Heidegger knowingly says. In the Rilkean formulation, Gesang ist Dasein: poetry is existence. Language aroused rouses us, conjures up a world in which we dance in the fullness and joy of being alive. Denise Levertov’s poem succeeds more so than any other contemporary American poem I know in bodying forth this dynamic of disclosure. It records and is a coming-into-being of heightened and primary experience; it records and is the lyrical unfolding and possession of a world. In an earlier poem, “The Unknown,” we find this poetic credo: “The awakening is/ to transformation,/ word after word.” In “A Tree Telling of Orpheus,” the awakening is no abstraction but part of a familiar and powerful moment, the moment of creative inspiration, which, to a poet, is identical with the breath of life itself. As word after word ripples into full-throated song, then lapses back once more into feintness and finally and inevitably into silence, we come to see that the emotional arc of this poem is one and the same with its meaning. Both may be described in terms of that central Heideggerian insight with which we began: at their fullest and most expressive, language and being are coterminous: “the being of language” and “the language of being” coalesce. It is poetry that unites them, hallows and celebrates the union, then retreats back into the wordless, where it resides until summoned again by a new Orpheus. The moment of inspiration and insight runs its course, and both speech and the world return to their more common levels.
“But what we have lived/ comes back to us,” as Miss Levertov’s poem persuades us so movingly, so that “we see more” and “feel” more, and hence are more, precisely in the sense of being able to be at all. Language is the house of Being, and we owe a large debt to such a poem as this one for permitting us the privilege of inhabiting it so fully.
Relearning the Alphabet is notable for containing not only “A Tree Telling of Orpheus,” Denise Levertov’s largest achievement to date as a poet, but also some of her weakest poems. The phenomenon of excellent and poor poetry mingling in the same collection is not rare, to be sure, but in Relearning the Alphabet the best is so good and the poorest so bad as to provoke us to thought. The situation calls to mind one of the most challenging questions raised by Heidegger in Being and Time: “What kind of Being does language have, if there can be such a thing as a ‘dead’ language? What do the ‘rise’ and ‘decline’ of a language mean ontologically?”12 Set within the context of historical languages, these questions might evince some far-reaching conclusions about the respective strengths of national cultures and their abilities to posit a future tense for themselves. If “language is the house of Being,” where is the present domicile of, say, Gaelic? Or, more tragically, of Yiddish? On the other hand, there is the singular example of Hebrew reborn and the concurrent return of the Jews to their homeland. The intertwinings of linguistic and national revival in this instance are too striking to be ignored, and one would want to know more than we perhaps do know about the ontological relationship between Hebrew resurrected and Jerusalem restored.
Yet despite the presence of “the Rav of Northern White Russia” among her esteemed and “Illustrious Ancestors,” it would appear that Denise Levertov has not been much moved as a poet by the richness of the revival just alluded to, for, as she writes in one of her later poems, “Without a terrain in which, to which, I belong,/ language itself is my one home, my Jerusalem.” Language being the medium of poetry, the statement is in one sense true, of course, for all poets, yet precisely because Jerusalem is no longer a mere metaphor — precisely, that is to say, because it has taken on new ontological status — the level of abstraction in this poetic credo is disturbingly weak, as is the notable flatness of speech in which the credo itself is formulated. One is moved, then, to try to transfer Heidegger’s questions out of their historical context and into the sphere of poetry. More specifically, if our interest remains that of exploring the relationship between “the being of language” and “the language of being,” how do we account for the simultaneous presence of “live” and “dead” language in a single collection of poems? Put another way, if language is always revelatory, and we know that it is, what is revealed in insincere or uninspired or merely imitative speech? What is the precise nature of that ontological unease that exists, for instance, between “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” and “From a Notebook,” the poem from which the Jerusalem line has been taken?
“From a Notebook: October ‘68-May ‘69” is too long and too uninteresting a poem to quote at any length, but here, from Part I, is a small sample of what it is like:
Revolution or death. Revolution or death.
Wheels would sing it
but railroads are obsolete,
we are among the clouds, gliding, the roar
a toneless constant.
Which side are you on?
Revolution, of course. Death is Mayor Daley.
This revolution has no blueprints, and
(‘What makes this night different from all other nights?’)
is the first that laughter and pleasure aren’t shot down in.
wants to live.
of which one can die.)
I want the world to go on
unfolding. The brain
not gray except in death, the photo I saw
of prismatic radiance pulsing from live tissue.
I see Dennis Riordan and de Courcy Squire,
gentle David Worstell, instransigent Chuck Matthei
blowing angel horns at the imagined corners.
Jennie Orvino singing
beatitudes in the cold wind
outside a Milwaukee courthouse.
I want their world — in which they already live,
they’re not waiting for demolition and reconstruction.
Of course I choose
This kind of doggerel, a weak imitation of Berkeley Bravura, winds on for some twenty pages, during which time the poem courses raggedly through the rhetorical wrecks of American campus life of the late 1960’s. One feels embarrassed for a poet who strains so hard to enlist her language for the revolutionary “cause,” a cause that enters her poetry like some tired locomotive, puffing and chugging its way along until it comes to an exhausted halt:
revolution but my words
often already don’t reach forward
into it —
Poetry collapses limpidly onto such terrain, which is familiar enough to the poet, no doubt, but does not belong to her, and least of all to her as poet. The poem acknowledges as much:
Whom I would touch
I may not,
whom I may
but often do not.
My diction marks me
untrue to my time;
change it, I’d be
untrue to myself.
Yet change it she did — “The words came through, transistor/turned up loud” — and in the change we witness the abandonment of poetry to politics, an abandonment made almost inevitable, at least within the context of present-day American culture, when a poet seeks so ardently and willfully “to go to the people.” The result for the poet is that he risks becoming a “functionary . . . a high-ranking employee of the ‘cultural front,’ ” as Octavio Paz explains it. For “poetry lives on the deepest levels of being, while ideologies and everything that we call ideas and opinions constitute the most superficial layers of consciousness. . . . Modern political [movements] turn the poet into a propagandist and thus degrade him” (pp. 30-31). No wonder that, after the batterings of ideology, Denise Levertov felt impelled as a poet to start all over again, to “relearn the alphabet,/ relearn the world,” to “go stumbling back/ to [her] origins,” which are as distant from the metalanguage of her “Notebook” poem as “the uncommon speech of paradise” is from the rhetoric of revolution. To such a poet as this one, the only authentic revolution is Orphic, a transmutation that “is not under the will’s rule.” Poetry learns its lessons from the depths of language, or not at all.13
The issue involved here is not one of any inevitable confrontation between poetry and politics per se — in the case of a Brecht, for example, there was no conflict between the two — but rather that of recognizing and living out of one’s most authentic creative sources. In Denise Levertov’s case, such sources are not naturally located in or even near the external pressures of political activity; no matter how pressing political demands may seem, they will yield little “poetry” to an imagination shaped, as this poet’s has been, by the traditions of Romantic aestheticism and Modernist sensibility. The person one is may respond to the slogans of the campus and street; the poet one is will not, at least not in any way that will be beneficial for poetry. This split between “poet” and “person” is not one that is readily or easily acknowledged, but the refusal to acknowledge it will only insure a continuation of damaging results for both poet and person. All poets strive mightily against such bifurcation, but only the great among them — a Milton, a Goethe, a Rilke — seem to be able to raise the quarrel of divided allegiances into true poetic argument. For the rest, the imagination either succumbs or is condemned to hobble along on crippled feet.
There is a philosophic side to these concerns, which may be illuminated by reference to the struggles of an earlier poet.
In a letter that he wrote to his friend Neuffer (November 12, 1798), Hölderlin described a different kind of disorientation that he was suffering through as a poet, and it is one that we would do well to remember today:
From my early youth onwards the world drove my spirit back into itself, and I am still suffering from this. There is, of course, a hospital where wrecked poets of my kind can take refuge honorably, that is philosophy. But I cannot leave my first love, the hopes of my youth, and I should rather perish without any claim to distinction than part from the sweet home of the Muses, from which only chance has banned me. If you know some good advice for me, which will, as soon as possible, lead me to the true way, give it to me. I lack facility more than strength, nuances more than ideas, manifoldly ordered sounds more than a keynote, shadows more than light, and all this for one reason: I avoid the commonplace and the vulgar too much in real life. I am truly a pedant, if you like.14
The crisis that Hölderlin describes here could only have been written by a poet of the Enlightenment, or by a Romantic poet still laboring under the burden of Enlightenment thought. If poetry is in a condition of crisis today, it is for altogether different reasons, reasons not attributable to an excess of thought but rather to its deficiency. Heidegger has made the charge that “man today is in flight from thinking,”15 and, with but few exceptions, the work of most of our poets would tend to bear him out. Within American poetry of the twentieth century, the most notable exception has been Wallace Stevens, who confessed to having “the most intense interest in defining . . . the place of poetry in thought and . . . the special thinking of poetry.”16 On occasion, Eliot shared a somewhat similar interest but confined it strictly to his writings as an essayist. Pound, Williams, and Cummings seem not to have shared it at all and more often than not were openly antipathetic to ideas in poetry. Hart Crane, perhaps the saddest case of all, partially wrecked himself, in good Romantic fashion, against the shores of a thinking that receded from his grasp the more eagerly he strained to reach them. There are others that one could cite as well, but it suffices to stop with these and remark what is by now a truism, namely, that poetry in our day, at least within its American context, has not been very much bothered by the kinds of problems that weighed so heavily on a Hölderlin. The hospitals to which wrecked poets of recent years have carted themselves have been much flimsier structures than philosophy. Far from avoiding “the commonplace and the vulgar,” they have sought refuge in these places, as they have in popular psychology, evangelical politics, and the various forms of self-indulgence that go to make up much of cultural life today. In almost exactly inverse proportion to Hölderlin’s complaints, ours has been a poetry conspicuously lacking in strength more than facility, a keynote more than manifoldly ordered sounds, light more than shadows, and, most seriously of all, lacking ideas more than nuances. What other period could bring a poet of maturity to utter such lines as these: “Revolution or death. Revolution or death. . . . Of course I choose/ revolution.” Yet this same poet, reduced here to the level of silliness, has also given us some of the most subtly nuanced poems we have, poems of a finely attuned sensibility and an inherently elegant grace.
With respect to sensibility, in fact, ours has been a rich and even daring poetry, marked by a gift for the most detailed and exploratory kinds of perception. Yet ever since the Romantic period, poets of sensibility have come up against the limits of private perception, and when these are reached and exhausted, there is nowhere to go but down, which has meant, quite literally, into a silence so absolute as to have suicide as its neighboring and welcoming end. Self-destruction, the refuge to which more and more of our ailing poets have taken themselves, becomes a final option only when poetry has closed itself off from thought, or at least from the kind of thought that has Being as its end.
If it is true, as Leigh Hunt observed, that “thought by itself makes no poet at all,” it is also true that, lacking thought, poetry in our day will not be able to advance much further at all. It has gone about as far as it can meaningfully go in exploring the range of private sensibility, to the point where what it now needs is not a further push along this same path but re-direction, and in this effort thinking has a role to play. I look to Heidegger to define it:
There is the danger that we will overstrain a poem . . . by thinking too much into it, and thereby debar ourselves from being moved by its poetry. Much greater of course — but who today would admit it? — is the danger that we will think too little. . . . The lofty poetry of all great poetic work always vibrates within a realm of thinking. . . . Thinking in turn goes its way in the neighborhood of poetry. It is well, therefore, to give thought to the neighbor. . . . Poetry and thought, each needs the other in its neighborhood, each in its fashion, when it comes to ultimates. In what region the neighborhood itself has its domain, each of them, thought and poetry, will define differently, but always so that they will find themselves within the same domain. But because we are caught in the prejudice nurtured through centuries that thinking is a matter of ratiocination, that is, of calculation in the widest sense, the mere talk of a neighborhood of thinking to poetry is suspect, (pp. 69-70)
This is not the place to rehearse at any length that ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry to which Heidegger alludes, but it is in keeping with our subject to remark that criticism can have a role today in helping to ease that quarrel by making poetry and thinking more compatible with one another. By defining their common domain as within the sphere of language — language understood in the Heideggerian terms of opening up an access to being — criticism can render discussion of the relationship between poetry and philosophy less suspect. Both would profit from a rapprochement, for just as poetry stands in need of more thoughtful perceptions, so does thinking need to come to grips with the more pleasurable perceptions. As it is, each now presently resists the other, but between poetry and philosophy “there exists a secret kinship because in the service of language both [can] intercede and give lavishly of themselves.”17 Criticism, positioned as it is between the two, is by nature in the service of both, and if by performing its work well it “makes a good poet’s work even more difficult for him to perform,” that is only in keeping with its vocation, “since only the overcoming of genuine difficulties can result in poems wholly adequate to the age.”18
1 Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 51-52. Henceforth all citations from this book will be given in the body of the text itself immediately following the quotation.
2 Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1949), p. 281.
3 Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p. 137.
4 Hermeneutics, p. 137.
5 Existence and Being, p. 276.
6 Chaim Nachman Bialik, “Revealment and Concealment in Language,” in An Anthology of Hebrew Essays (Tel Aviv: Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, 1966), I, 128-129.
7 Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973), p. 13. Henceforth all citations from this book will be given in the body of the text itself immediately following the quotation.
8 Hermeneutics, p. 156.
9 Gerald L. Bruns, Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 1.
10 Existence and Being, p. 271.
11 An Anthology of Hebrew Essays, I, 134.
12 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 209.
13 Denise Levertov has addressed herself to the tensions that exist between the private vision of a poet and his public commitments in her collection of essays, The Poet in the World (New York: New Directions, 1973), where she writes, “I believe in the essential interrelatedness and mutual reinforcement of the meditative and the active. . . . I hope to show the reader something of that relation I feel exists, and must exist, for the poet, between the inner and outer life, and which may not be denied without imperiling both.” Whatever one thinks of her striving for such a connection, the poetry itself nowhere shows her success in achieving it.
14 Quoted in Michael Hamburger, Hölderlin (New York: Pantheon, 1952), p. 34.
15 Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 45.
16 Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), pp. 500-501.
17 Martin Heidegger, What Is Philosophy? (New Haven: College and University Press, 1956), p. 95.
18 Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975). p. 10.