The taste of silence
"In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes, there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls."
Who wrote those poetical words about that famous shoe-portrait by the famous painter, Van Gogh?
Answer: the famous philosopher Heidegger ("The Origin of the Work of Art"), quoted by Adam Kirsch in his essay, "The Taste of Silence," from our January issue.
Kirsch goes on to say that as Heidegger suggests,
... the Van Gogh painting demonstrates the double purpose of art. Art confronts us with "the earth"—the sensuous reality of the non-human, which we tend to forget or ignore when we are engaged in practical tasks. At the same time, art sets the earth into "the world"—the historical human context in which we work, suffer, and hope.
It occurs to me that a poem by the Australian poet, Stephen Edgar, also in the issue, embodies this "double purpose" really well:
Made to Measure
Impossible to wield
The acreage of the fabric that unfolded,
Slung from his shoulders like a crumpled field:
The distance from one Christmas to the next
When he was only seven
Was aching there; a foreign city flexed
Among the ripples; a face, the star-shocked heaven
About his flailing arms were shrugged and moulded.
Too heavy to outrun,
Too slow to measure what it underwent,
Though gradually the passage o fthe sun,
Unmanageable in its train of light,
Seemed almost to respond
As he yanked the yards of stuff in like a kite
And gathered the brocade that trailed beyond
His arms' reach to the scale of measurement,
However strange the weave
That writhed about the working of his hands:
The footage too atrocious to believe,
Printed with corpses; Greece; the falls of salmon;
Her upturned silken wrist
He would have torn out history to examine;
His father's final blessing, which he missed.
However far he comes or where he stands,
At last, and limb by limb,
Contour by contour, that unfolded cape
Settles ever more fittingly on him.
His forehead is the line of the sky's vault,
His shoulders trace the ground,
His palms the ways he wandered by default,
And in his gestures those he knew are found.
What shape the day discovers is his shape.
Edgar's poem weaves together both the tangible and the intangible: we can almost picture an "acreage" of fabric unfolding, the distance between one Christmas and the next, the brocade, and the scale of measurement - and also "footage too atrocious to believe." And if we could only hold history in the working of our hands, if we could find those we know in our gestures, then we could know the contour of our days. But this is not an explication, which itself would only be a gesture, serving to illuminate the shape of the poem. The title, "Made to Measure," slyly lets us know that the material of poetry is its form, its measure - something both real and intangible at the same time.
Kirsch tells us that in a sense, contemporary poetry is in Heidegger's debt:
That is because the decline of the poetry of world has meant the rise of the poetry of earth. This poetry—our poetry—prefers to imagine the artist not as a creator, but as a witness. It has a strong sense of ethical obligation, holding that the poet must serve as a bearer of memories and perceptions that history would otherwise sweep away.
Heidegger, for reasons Kirsch explores, is rather notorious, given his "catastrophic moral and intellectual failure" when it came to dealing with the Nazi regime - but poets can ignore the kind of "coercive, tendentious myth" Heidegger erected around Van Gogh's shoes and other things. Kirsch finds good examples of the philosopher's better legacy in poems by Heaney and Simic - poems that, like Edgar's, have a "self-cancelling assertiveness." Kirsch calls it a "contemporary version of the medieval via negativa: only what cannot be said is worth saying." You'll need a good pair of shoes to travel that route - and no doubt a good book or two of poetry to take with you, as well.
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...