The Taste of Silence
Ours does not promise to go down in literary history as a great age of religious poetry. Yet if contemporary poetry is not often religious, it is still intensely, covertly metaphysical. Human nature, it seems, compels us to keep asking about the first things, even if we no longer accept the same answers that our ancestors did, or even the same kind of answers. The more widely you read, in fact, the clearer it becomes that our poetry has a distinctive metaphysics, a set of principles or intuitions held in common by poets as different as Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, and Billy Collins. This metaphysical sensibility, I think, is what will give our period a retrospective unity, when readers of the future come to survey what looks to us like chaos. And the best document of that sensibility—the single piece of writing that does the most to explain what our poetry believes, and the ways it expresses that belief—is an essay by Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art."
Today, Heidegger's name is most often heard in debates about his collaboration with the Nazis. Though he lived from 1889 to 1976, his life and work must be judged by his behavior during the early thirties, when the Nazi Party came to power with a promise to renew the German spirit. Because this was also Heidegger's goal—in a different, but not unrelated sense—he was happy to add his intellectual prestige to the Nazi cause, serving as rector of his university under the new government. He was soon disillusioned with Hitler, but he never fully came to grips with his catastrophic moral and intellectual failure. It was left to writers in our own time, like Richard Wolin and Charles Bambach, to show the full implications of Heidegger's Nazism for his immensely influential work.
Even in "The Origin of the Work of Art," the dark affinities of Heidegger's thought can be traced. (Indeed, the essay began as a lecture that Heidegger delivered in Freiburg in 1935, in the third year of Hitler's regime.) Yet it is not surprising that poets should continue to turn to Heidegger for inspiration and guidance. For Heidegger, more than any other philosopher, looked to poetry as a model of what thinking should be. He used individual poems, especially the hymns of Hölderlin, to help explicate his own ideas about nature, technology, art, and history. He constantly dwelled on the mysteries of language and translation, how the way we name things can reveal and conceal their essence. And he himself approached writing in a poetic spirit. We usually think of philosophy, especially German philosophy, as being written in dry, awkward jargon. But Heidegger's writing, though difficult, is deeply creative: he uses nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns, puns on etymologies, and even plays with spelling, all in an effort to jar the reader out of conventional ways of reading and thinking.
All this makes it natural that writers and theorists of language look to Heidegger. But in "The Origin of the Work of Art," he issues a particular invitation to poets, arguing that poetry is in some way the model for all other art forms, and the exemplary activity of human beings. The poet, he writes, "uses the word—not, however, like ordinary speakers and writers who have to use them up, but rather in such a way that the word only now becomes and remains truly a word." Like Emerson, that is, Heidegger regards poetry as the truest form of language, and most language as merely defective poetry. "The nature of poetry," he goes so far as to declare, "is the founding of truth."
To understand exactly what Heidegger means by this numinous formula, it's necessary to sketch his complex argument. To answer the abstract question "What is art?" Heidegger begins by setting the reader before a particular artwork—a Van Gogh painting of a pair of shoes. When you wear shoes, he points out, you seldom think about them. Shoes, like all kinds of tools and equipment, are at their best when they are most reliable, that is, when they perform their function silently and unobtrusively. In fact, you only begin to pay attention to your shoes when they stop working properly—when they pinch your foot or when the sole comes off. And most of the objects that surround us share this quality of being instruments, things that we use and ignore.
Looking at Van Gogh's painting of a pair of shoes, Heidegger suggests, something different happens. For the first time, we become aware of the two dimensions or axes in which a pair of shoes exists. On the one hand, we are struck by their physical reality: their weight and texture and color, all the qualities we tend to overlook when we wear them. At the same time, the painting allows us to imagine the life in which these shoes belong—the life of a peasant woman, Heidegger imagines, with her "toilsome tread." Crucially, these two aspects of the shoes—what they are and what they do—are inextricable in the painting. "In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes," Heidegger writes, "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."
In this way, he 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. Artworks can perform this unique function because they themselves have a double nature. They cannot exist without matter, and they always have physical properties—music is formed sound, painting is formed color. But they also do not exist simply in matter, the way utilitarian objects do. Rather, they simultaneously transcend their material and allow their material to be itself for the first time. When we look at a Greek temple, Heidegger writes, we understand the weight and color of marble, in a way that we can't when we're just looking a rock quarry.
It's striking that Heidegger dwells on two examples of artworks—the Van Gogh painting and the Greek temple—neither of which are poems. And the dichotomy of earth and world, which seems to suit painting and architecture very well, is hard to apply to poetry, whose material—language—is quite intangible. Yet he continues to insist that poetry "has a privileged position in the domain of the arts." How does he resolve this seeming paradox?
To find the answer, we have to return to Heidegger's rhapsody on Van Gogh's shoes. What Heidegger does in that passage, in a sense, is to write a poem—inspired by Van Gogh's painting, but going beyond its source in its evocation of a peasant woman's life. Only poetry in this larger sense—only the art of language—makes possible a full understanding of an artwork's "world." Language, the distinctively human possession, is what allows "stone, plant, and animal" to be fully perceived, in a way that they can't perceive themselves. "Where there is no language . . . there is also no openness of what is," Heidegger writes. "Language, by naming beings for the first time, first brings beings to word and to appearance." Only by talking and writing about something can we really understand what it is and what it means.
But just as Heidegger insists that the artwork has a double existence as both earth and world, so his own theory of poetry cuts two ways. If the poet is primarily concerned with earth—with displaying particular being and concrete reality—he will tend to conceive of poetry as a passive art, concerned with perception and preservation. The ideal of such poetry is naming: by finding the right name for every being, the poet functions as Adam did in the Garden of Eden, completing God's creation by bringing it into the human realm of language.
And just as a language is not a language if it is spoken by only one person, so the naming poet can only exist if his names are conveyed to readers and embraced by them. As a result, he stands in a particularly intimate relationship to the reader, whom he regards as a kind of partner in the creation of the work. "Preserving the work," as Heidegger puts it, "does not reduce people to their private experiences, but brings them into affiliation with the truth happening in the work."
If, on the other hand, the poet is more concerned with world—with the historical, mythic, and spiritual context that the poem creates or invokes—he will tend to see poetry as an active art, and in some sense even a domineering one. The poet of world doesn't just want to preserve an experience with the reader; he wants to interpret experience for the reader. He goes beyond names to commandments. And Heidegger has a definite sympathy with this kind of poet, as we can see from the way he himself makes a poem out of his description of a Greek temple: "The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves. This view remains open as long as the work is a work, as long as the god has not fled from it."
Such a temple, with its law-giving god, imposes an order on the world, much like Wallace Stevens's jar. But that order, Heidegger reveals in spite of himself, can have sinister implications. The world created by such an artwork may depend on violence—just think of the world of the Iliad, full of temples and murders. It may command its inhabitants to make war in pursuit of their destiny. As Heidegger writes, such a work "puts up for decision what is holy and what unholy, what great and what small, what brave and what cowardly, what lofty and what flighty, what master and what slave." He is quoting Heraclitus in that sentence, but the words unmistakably echo the rhetoric of the Third Reich, which was similarly obsessed with greatness and mastery. World-creating art, Heidegger writes, can only belong to a "historical people"—a phrase full of menace for peoples who are "unhistorical," and thus can be eliminated from history.
The history of poetry in the twentieth century, I believe, could be written in Heideggerian terms, as a turn from the poetry of world to the poetry of earth. The Modernists—and Heidegger belonged to the generation of Eliot and Pound—looked to poetry to re-establish a world, in the Heideggerian sense, at a time when the world they inherited had been shattered. Modernist poetry wants to serve the same function as that Greek temple, projecting new coordinates of meaning and order. In Yeats's ghosts and gyres, in Pound's sages and tyrants, in Eliot's "idea of a Christian society," we find various attempts to create a world. Yet none of these worlds is authoritative enough to do what the temple did, to inaugurate a new cult and a new history. Instead, they remain—like Heidegger's own work, perhaps—expressions of longing for a lost world, and nostalgia for a time when poets had the power to make a new one. Stevens gave this art its perfect epitaph, in "The Man with the Blue Guitar": "I cannot bring a world quite round,/Although I patch it as I can."
Yet the failure of the poetry of world has not meant the end of Heidegger's influence. On the contrary, poets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are deeply in his debt, directly and indirectly. 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. Whenever a poet is concerned with giving things their proper names, or with remembering what everyone else forgets, or with seeing nature so intently that it seems to yield up secrets, he or she is practicing this sort of Heideggerian poetry.
What makes the poetry of earth so challenging to write is that poets are instinctive world-builders. The artistic imagination is instinctively imperial, seizing on things seen and turning them into occasions for symbol and metaphor. (Think of all the poems that have been written to wrest the bird's song away from the bird and turn it into a symbol of transcendence, freedom, or passion.) Clearly, resisting this tendency requires an austere ethical discipline. But for the poetry of earth to be more than a bare catalogue of things seen, for it to achieve the linguistic and emotional richness of great poetry, requires a specifically artistic discipline as well. The poet of earth must use language to make us notice what we usually ignore, the way Van Gogh draws our attention to a humble pair of shoes; but he must avoid constructing the kind of coercive, tendentious myth that Heidegger builds around those shoes.
In Seamus Heaney's great sequence "Squarings," the poet is constantly brought up against the difficulty of this poised restraint. From the beginning of his career, Heaney has been an earthy poet in an obvious sense. His poems are often set on farms or in the countryside, and his rich, saturnine, consonant-heavy style is designed to give spoken language a corporeal weight. But in "Squarings," as he tries to enunciate the metaphysical propositions that have always guided his work, he becomes a poet of earth in a specifically Heideggerian sense. The first part of the poet's task, he makes clear, is to remain attentive to what most people ignore. "Make your study the unregarded floor," he adjures, and the whole sequence is full of concrete, sensual images: "Scissor-and-slap abruptness of a latch./Its coldness to the thumb. Its see-saw lift/And drop and innocent harshness."
Heaney is unrivalled at this sort of "study," which carries out the Heideggerian task of bringing "beings to word and to appearance." But in "Squarings," he insists that capturing the sensual world is more than an aesthetic activity; it also has a spiritual significance. At certain moments, "seeing things"—the title of the 1991 book in which "Squarings" appears—means seeing through them and beyond them. Heaney's poem is a record of such epiphanies, moments when the sheer fullness of the earth seems about to overflow into spirit: "A phenomenal instant when the spirit flares/With pure exhilaration before death."
For Heaney, however, the poet can only be true to such exhilarating moments by respecting their strangeness. That is why the word "epiphany," which Joyce famously used, does not quite fit Heaney's conception. The word comes from the Greek for appearance or shining-forth; in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the appearance of Christ's divinity to the Magi. But for Heaney, a post-Catholic poet, it is by no means clear that it is God who is shining through the earth, filling it with His glory. All he can honestly say is that the earth itself appears to shine; recording that radiance is the farthest he can go in the direction of prayer. That is why the language of Heaney's epiphanies is consistently negative, a matter of warding off conclusions and explanations. His sacred moments are those when "Nothing prevailed, whatever was in store/Witnessed itself already taking place/In a time marked by assent and by hiatus."
"Nothing prevailed" might be the Heideggerian poet's description of paradise: an instant of perfect restraint, where every being is allowed to be simply and wholly itself. This sense that "nothing" is more than an absence—that it can be a positive force, whose advent is to be welcomed—appears again in the work of Charles Simic, another poet deeply indebted to Heidegger. In his early poem "White," Simic succeeds in capturing this paradox as well as any poet has. "Out of poverty/To begin again//With the taste of silence/On my tongue," Simic begins, immediately plunging into the paradox at the heart of the poetry of earth. For if the poet's calling is to let beings be, then anything he says about them is a kind of violation of their integrity; the best poetry would have "the taste of silence." Later in "White" Simic returns to this problem in a startling, homely, yet philosophically dense image:
In the inky forest,
In its maziest,
And wordless cries,
I went for a glimpse
Of the blossomlike
Over a huge,
Furiously crossed-out something.
The whiteness the poet seeks is an absence, but also the trace of a presence. It is the white not of void but of erasure, the silence not of muteness but of reticence. In these lines, Simic succeeds in capturing some of the genuine strangeness of Heideggerian poetry, with its self-cancelling assertiveness. It is a contemporary version of the medieval via negativa: only what cannot be said is worth saying.
If Heaney and Simic demonstrate the exigent power of the Heideggerian mode, Billy Collins demonstrates that mode's comfortable decay. The poetry of earth succeeds only when it manages to make the earth itself strange to us, so that we can perceive it in its aloof beauty. When the poet allows the earth to remain familiar, however, his praise of it becomes mere praise for the familiar—for everything that is undemanding and reassuring. That is the note Collins strikes in "Earthling," where, after imagining what it would feel like to be heavier or lighter on other planets, he concludes:
How much better to step onto
the simple bathroom scale,
a happy earthling feeling
the familiar ropes of gravity,
157 pounds standing soaking wet
a respectful distance from the sun.
Collins turns the very name of earth, which was an enigma to Heidegger, into a synonym for all that is "simple" and "happy." But he too is drawn, by the common impulse of our poetic moment, to the question of how poetry can do justice to the earth. In their different ways, many of the best poets of our time are trying to make us not just understand but experience the truth Heidegger stated in "The Origin of the Work of Art": "At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary."
Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles and earned his BA from Harvard. He is the author of three collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Invasions (2008); and Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August...