from The Bars of Atlantis: Selected Essays,
edited by Michael Eskin; translated by John Crutchfield, Michael Hofmann and Andrew Shields
Asking about the purpose of poems and of poetry in general will not get us very far for the simple reason that each of us will define this purpose differently. That's how it is and that's how it's been ever since what is at issue here—what we call lyric poetry—became conscious of itself as a key constituent of the very notion of the modern in art in general. Since then, every answer to the unwieldy question of the purpose of poetry has disintegrated into a myriad of individual voices. No two poets would have committed themselves on this point, let alone shared the same position. A healthy skepticism is one of the natural laws of this profession. It is the invisible mark of recognition on every poet's brow. Any explanations poets may give about what they do primarily serve the preservation of a secret. Vague as this secret may be, all poets, in their own individual ways, will hold on to it and barricade themselves behind it.
This has been a purely protective measure ever since a certain Plato tried to uncover it. In his dialogue Ion, his stand-in and alter ego, Socrates, is teamed up with an artist who makes a living as a rhapsode. Through his subtle method of interrogation, masquerading as naïveté, Socrates aims at exposing Ion, a doughty interpreter of Homer, as a fraud and witless parrot. The point is to discredit not just this particular rhapsode but, along with him, all other poets as well. What Plato comes up with is a kind of APB. On one hand, the poet is cast as a con man, who in his epics and hymns, his odes and dithyrambs pretends to possess expert knowledge he cannot possibly have. The poet doesn't think, he only receives what the god whispers into his ear. On the other hand, the poet reveals himself as a mere dreamer and airhead, a man possessed, a creature consisting of nothing but antennae and nerves. If you know one, you know them all. As Socrates says: "The poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him."
As much truth as there may be to it, the philosopher's description boils down to one aim: disenfranchising the poet. Even apart from the contradiction embedded in the supposition that one can be enlightened and completely clueless at the same time, this description lacks the most basic coherence. How does being inspired, a mouthpiece and medium of the gods, go together with having no professional expertise (technē, writes Plato), being ignorant in every respect, an eternal dilettante? Such is Homer, the argument goes, when he dictates the formula for a healing potion without being a doctor, when he describes a chariot race without ever holding the reins in his own hands. In light of such reasoning, one cannot but wonder how Aristotle, himself a philosopher and not a poet, could have felt justified in writing a treatise on poetics? Wasn't philosophy, as an abstract doctrine of ideas, more than anything untainted by the empirical? That jealousy was the real issue here is suggested by another dialogue. In the Phaidon, the very same Socrates prides himself on his privileged access to the Muses. There, unexpectedly, he explicitly claims the mystery of supernatural inspiration for himself. The intention is utterly transparent. Once the favorite of the gods, the poet is downgraded to a mere juggler of words devoid of sense and reason; the philosopher, by contrast, will from now on be the gods' true correspondent. The aftermath is well known, even though everyone realized that philosophy was originally a mere waste product of the great narratives that had been around long before it, handed down orally by rhapsodes like Ion, and that already possessed knowledge about almost anything. In these narratives' shadow, on the margins of the heroic epics and myths of origin, philosophy prospered in the guise of arabesque and commentary until one day it rose up in the form of proverbial wisdom and blossomed into a wild sunflower in the mysterious and oracular speeches of the pre-Socratics.
The fragments of Parmenides, for example, are still marked by their origin. Their hexameter form attests to their proximity to the rule of imagery and song, they begin with an invocation of the Muses, who inspire all knowledge. The prose fragments of Heraclitus, by contrast, already speak a different language: the language of conscious ambiguity, of mystery even, of relinquishing lexical strictures—the first precondition for all semantic hegemonies to come.
What happened? Nothing less than a complete usurpation. In essence, all philosophizing began harmlessly enough as clever textual analysis and interpretation. Soon, however, such hermeneutics gave rise to the theft of the message by its own messenger—in this case, Hermes, the nimble courier god who becomes the philosophers' patron saint by defrauding the poets of the fruits of their labor. It had to happen this way: "The Greater is namely knowledge," as Parmenides, with such traitorous iridescence, expresses it. And thus the history of a conflict takes its course, one that still has consequences today. It begins with the dispossession of poetry and ends with her complete disenfranchisement. After publicly questioning the ancestral authority of storytelling, it was but a stone's throw to Plato's perfidious suggestion that the poets themselves, this coterie of liars and illusionists, be banished from the city. The wordsmiths turned into washouts. A few thousand years of habit and discipline helped to repress the memory of this act of violence. The beautiful and the sublime had been subordinated to the rule of ideas once and for all.
For over two thousand years now, every poet's biography has witnessed to the success of this coup. The poets have come to terms with their stigma, with their status as exiles within society. They've had to learn to disown themselves, to camouflage their true intentions. What they call poetics—from Callimachus and Horace all the way to Cavafy, Eliot, and Rilke—is a game of hide-and-seek: defensive, cryptic, and clandestine through and through. Do not be blinded by such occasional counteroffensives as Friedrich Schiller's project of an "aesthetic education" of mankind, Hölderlin's philosophical hymns, or Novalis's ingenious Pollen reveries—ever since its early humiliation in classical Greece, poetry has seen itself demoted to a mere pastime. It was an art for art's sake long before it defiantly libeled itself as I'art pour I'art.
No sooner did he look beyond the confines of his craft than the typical poet—think of Lessing or Herder—was immediately confronted with the strictures of his genre, with questions of style and form, his own critic, more subaltern than modest, abstaining from any sense-bestowing intention. Out of their snail shells, however, most of them were eying transcendence. Their secret comfort was that, owing to the silent wings of words, their souls maintained a connection to the distant past and to posterity. Ensconced in the hideouts of their writings, they knew, like the members of a secret society, that their verses were what would outlast brass, the walls of Troy, and Rome's palaces. They required no more than a single aphorism to be able to shrug off the burden of their existence as a tiny minority in the diaspora of a shared mother tongue. And this is the situation: while the philosophers are happily immersed in their games of truth, paying utmost attention to one another, the poet stands to the side, left to his own devices. Each poet cultivates his own orchids. None of the all-powerful epistemologists since Plato's day has ever taken him completely seriously.
After being chased from the philosophers' banquets and excluded from the grown-ups' conversations and symposia, what could the poets do but rely on themselves for guidance? If they wanted to preserve their dignity, they had to renew their contract with the gods. And this is precisely what they did, inwardly and secretly. They did it by entrusting their most sacred possession, their psyches, to the gods. In order to be able to remain undisturbed and among their own kind they would pretend to be mad and deranged in public, infantile or autistic, according to their whims. Outwardly, they would alternate between sentimentality and naïveté, while appealing to their patron saint, Orpheus, who had long been dismembered, his body mutilated, his mortal remains scattered to the four winds. They tried to play for time; they all turned to what they did best. One wrote epigrams cursing his fellow men, another wrote elegies decrying his solitude here on earth, a third competed as a tragedian at the annual theater festival and afterward vented his anger at the wayward audience in malicious satires. One polished his tender, bucolic verses for so long he ended up inventing his own meter. One wrote noble hymns to the winners at the Olympic games because athletic male bodies filled his nights with wet dreams. And yet another worked off his desire for the obscene in bawdy comedies. Thus were the meters created—asclepiad, sapphic, alcaic, amphibrach, iambus, trochee, anapest. Thus did the genres emerge, competing with one another whenever they could.
From today's perspective, the advantage of the poets' newly won autonomy can be clearly discerned. What has since fallen under the rubric of classical literature owes its good reputation primarily to one characteristic. It could be called the primary quality of all true poetry and literature, its cardinal virtue. It is what keeps it alive across the ages: its vividness. If Hegel is right in claiming that the true philosopher has only one fundamental idea that he returns to over and over again, then the power of imagination, the twin gifts of vividness and plasticity, were the poet's levers for perpetually unhinging this one idea. His voracious eye and sheer rhetorical mastery were no match for a rationality that was, at best, capable of processing reality one phenomenon at a time. Philosophy could only theorize about the imagination. Its practitioners were virtually clueless as to its uses and abuses. Immanuel Kant, distrustful of his own guild, must be given credit for being the first to acknowledge this central lacuna in his Critique of Judgment. Respectfully, he cordons it off and pronounces it impregnable territory under the head of the "autonomy of art."
What artist, what poet, would not be obliged to thank him for that? Disenfranchised, but not disenchanted: What more can they ask for after their long odyssey, always on the dark side of history? Small wonder if over the centuries they have fortified their autonomy into a kind of fortress, a barely accessible network of catacombs. They themselves don't really know what's hidden in those labyrinths behind those walls. Perhaps what lives and breathes down there, subterraneously, is now only the specter of their former sovereignty. Every poet avers that he has seen it once with his own eyes. Certainly something is stirring down there. Every once in a while, in a poem, you can hear it keeping time beneath the cranium. Something diffusely mysterious, never wholly explicable, the remnant of an old family secret, jealously guarded by every neophyte who joins the secret society and goes down again into this inner labyrinth. It is surely the main reason why poems are still being written even today, in the face of slight and resistance, in an age of universal knowledgeability. Their elusiveness is the true cause for poetry's survival.
I may have shed new light on the conditions in which the art of poetry is created, but I'm still not a bit wiser as far as its radioactive core, its magical powers are concerned. It's one thing to understand its mental prerequisites, however we may choose to describe them, in archaic terms as genius, or in the terms of modern neurophysics. It's another thing to understand how these conditions bring forth an art whose entire purpose it is to set off fireworks in the reader's psyche. It seems to me after decades of practice that the truth of the matter continues to elude us, being shrouded in a sort of twilight. So long as a phenomenon cannot wholly be explained, however, it's only fair and just—for both expert and layman—to continue speculating about its secret.
No matter how different, how diverse in style and texture poems happen to be, the good ones stand out on account of a certain shared je ne sais quoi that can never be entirely unraveled. A poem may mesmerize us through special wordplay, the magic of punning, or the sleight of hand of technique and performance, it may captivate us as a congeries of peculiar oneiric fantasies and seduce us by conjuring a tableau of exotic creatures of the imagination-all this, however, says little about the surplus value of its mysteriousness. However one may define poems, and even if one sees them, as I do, first and foremost as musical scores that stimulate us into experiencing our psychic limits, their secret remains their secret remains their secret ... and so on. And when stuttering is all that's left, humility is the only way out. And so I say to myself and admit it: all this talk about the secret of poems just keeps circling around a blind spot. And this blind spot can be just about anything: the very spirit of the mother tongue, for instance, that eludes the poet no sooner than it appears; or the certainty, in the face of repeated official denials, that beauty and natural harmony continue radiating on the inside, while on the outside any sense of them has apparently long been extinguished; or a kind of empathy—to be found exclusively in poetry in such spontaneous form—with one's posthumous interlocutor, with a "you" summoned from the future; or the movement toward an end, thus alive and heartrending only in poems, that is more than just the fading-out presaged in every line; or, perhaps, it is something like megalomania, of the kind that helps you become a better person. But as palpably as it may manifest itself here and there, no poet will ever get to the bottom of it. Some have known more about it than others; the best have noticed that it is something that leaves the author by the wayside, turning him into an anonymous creator. Metaphor is much more intelligent than its author, says one. Somebody must have dictated a few lines to me, exults another. Yet—unrecognized, this blind spot remains.
Personally, I believe that what is expressed in poems is the human devotion to the transcendental—together with a concomitant fidelity to this world's prodigious wealth of detail. Poetry's secret, it seems to me, consists of two ingredients: a love of this world and a curiosity about metaphysics. The proof? Only among the poets does one come across them, those successful moments of reconciliation between something purely ideal and its unexpectedly concrete manifestations, less often among theologians, and almost never among philosophers. The reconciliation offer tends to come from the side of poetry, rarely the other way around, from the ranks of Plato, Kant, and their kind. All the more precious are those rare moments when they break through the wall of silence. Just recently, one of them, the American Richard Rorty, was given to such an act of mercy, when he explained: "It is in the nature of intellectual and spiritual progress that philosophers constantly shift back and forth between quasi-scientific argumentation and non-argumentative flights of the poetic imagination. They move to the one whenever they become frustrated with the other."
When the average intellectual today reflects on the artistic and cultural achievements of the last century, he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and Wittgenstein. Impossible to imagine that a poet should be among them. Not a single poet from the ancestral gallery of the likes of Pessoa, Cavafy, Rilke, Yeats, Mandelstam, Valery, Frost, and Machado will cross the mind of the historically minded thinker, who claims to understand what modernity is all about. It is as if the art of poetry, of all things, were the blind spot in the cultural memory of modern man. It doesn't make too much sense to brood over why this may be the case. Presumably, it has to do with the fickleness of memory itself, which obliterates everything that hasn't been put to use in the service of power, technology, capital, ideology, or physical force. And so it is that the poets are still alone with their little secret. A secret so big and momentous that it could change the world one day, if only it were noticed.
Imagine a thinking that could penetrate into certain otherwise hard-to-reach places, like dental floss between the wisdom teeth or an endoscope into the stomach. It will make certain places visible for the very first time—individual branches of the otherwise intractable psychic cave system that runs through the bodies of all humans and can be discovered only by a resourceful imagination audaciously pushing forward into still unsecured galleries. This thinking is poetic thinking, and it is not the exclusive domain of poets and literati; rather, it is a method used by many small search parties that have started out from several directions unbeknownst to one another, an army of phenomenologists working on expanding the confines of our shared imaginaries.
Translated by Andrew Shields; edited by Michael Eskin. This essay first appeared in Poetry magazine, January 2007.
Durs Grünbein is the author of twelve volumes of poetry and four collections of essays. His work has been awarded many major German literary prizes, including the highest, the Georg Büchner Prize, which he won at age thirty-three. He has lived in Berlin since 1985.
Michael Eskin, Ph.D., (editor) is the cofounder and Vice President of Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc. - Studio & Publishing. A former Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, he has also taught at the University of Cambridge and at Columbia University. His many publications on cultural, philosophical, and literary subjects include: Nabokov’s Version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: Between Version and Fiction; Ethics and Dialogue in the Works of Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandel’shtam, and Celan; Poetic Affairs: Celan, Grünbein; and The DNA of Prejudice: One the One and the Many (Winner of the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Social Change). He lectures regularly across the United States and Europe on subjects as diverse as poetry, philosophy, and cultural prejudice (most recently as a guest of the United States Consulate General, Germany, The Federation of German-American Clubs, and Limmud, an international organization fostering cross-cultural Jewish education).
Andrew Shields (translator) lives in Basel, Switzerland. In 2004, he received a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Award to translate the poetry of Jacques Réda. His most recent book is his translation of Tussi Research, by the German poet Dieter M. Gräf (Green Integer, 2008).
The Bars of Atlantis: Selected Essays
Farrar, Straus and Giroux