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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

The World in the Earth: A Response to “The Taste of Silence”

This response is a bit late in coming. It took me quite a while to figure out just what it is that I disagreed with about the essay in question, and for a while I gave up on actually putting it in readable, coherent form; but given some time, I think I see now more clearly what it is I take umbrage with. I was initially simply rooting for the underdog, because I was appalled that something I find myself so concerned with (the tenets of what the author calls ‘poetry of world’) should be implicitly linked with imperialism, racism, and other assorted evils. But I began rereading Heaney’s Seeing Things for pleasure after having my interest piqued by the article, and Heaney became my guide back to an underlying disagreement. Anyway, I ought not preface my thoughts on the article with themselves, so off you go. I tried to include the relevant quotes within, so one need not have read the article before reading this, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to have done so.

Adam Kirsch has an essay in a recent issue of Poetry magazine that uses Heidegger’s essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” to establish a dichotomy of poetry, that “of the earth” and that “of the world.” I admit at the start that my understanding of Heidegger is limited to the discussions of his work I’ve read by Rorty and Derrida, and I am ill-equipped to make judgments about Kirsch’s interpretation of him. My problem, however, is with the judgment Kirsch makes by employing Heidegger’s distinction in the present tense. By claiming that only poetry “of the earth” is “our poetry,” and that we have turned away from poetry “of the world” because of its seeming impossibility, Kirsch (not-so-)subtly imbricates “poetry of the world,” now or whenever, between Naziism and Imperialism— a move I would find offensive did I not first find it misled and based on a contradiction of which Kirsch’s essay seems marginally aware. “And that [contradiction, Kirsch] reveals in spite of himself, can have sinister implications.”

A “poet of the earth” is “primarily concerned” with “displaying particular being and concrete reality,” conceives of poetry “as a passive art, concerned with perception and preservation,” and holds the ideal of poetry to be an Adamic language of “finding the right name for every being” and thus “completing God’s creation by bringing it into the human realm of language.” A “poet of the world” is more concerned “with the historical, mythic, and spiritual context that the poem creates or invokes,” sees poetry “as an active art, and in some sense even a domineering one,” and wants to “interpret experience for the reader,” not just preserve it.

Kirsch treats these two as entirely separate types of poetry, saying that “the history of poetry in the twentieth century…could be written in Heideggerian terms, as a turn from the poetry of world to the poetry of earth.” He follows this proposition with a softly mocking list of the great modernists projects (Yeats, Pound, Eliot) that “looked to poetry to re-establish a world…at a time when the world they inherited had been shattered.” And because these original projects failed, we (presumably, all of us who write poetry) turned from poetry of world, “which imposes an order on the world, much like Wallace Stevens’s jar,” to poetry of earth, which “prefers to imagine the artist not as a creator, but as a witness.”

My main problem is with the “metaphysical sensibility” that Kirsch sees as providing a retrospective unity to 20th century poetry. He upholds poetry of earth as the ideal for its simple naming, without imposing order, of earth, apparently with the end-goal of “completing God’s creation.” I take it (admittedly, a reductio ad absurdum) that this means that one day, one of us poets, since Kirsch without reserve lumps us all into writers of poetry of earth (it is “our poetry”), will pen the poem and creation will be complete. Art and life will be done, since it has all been named, man-kind will have attained perfection, and Jesus will come again, praise God, hallelujah. Poetry of world, on the other hand, is too ‘coercive’ and ‘tendentious,’ and was rejected in the 20th century, apparently for two reasons and two reasons alone: the first attempts at poetry of world, the modernist projects, failed, and Heidegger, who idealized poetry of world, was a Nazi. The shoddy argument here against poetry of world amounts to a syllogism: “Heidegger’s ideal poetry was poetry of world; Heidegger was a Nazi; therefore poetry of world must be Naziistic.”

Kirsch says that “the failure of the poetry of world has not meant the end of Heidegger’s influence.” Heidegger’s influence is thus equated with an encouragement of and attempt at ‘poetry of the world,’ and then his influence carries through its failure by providing a framework for the alternate option of ‘poetry of the earth.’ Situating poetry of world in between the big bad evils of the twentieth century, Kirsch is not so much promoting poetry of earth, as the proper and right choice, as saying, “Well… what else have we got?” It is a sort of willful misreading, choosing to ignore in poetry of earth the very aspects that he deplores in poetry of the world. Poets must, according to Kirsch, avoid constructing “the kind of coercive, tendentious myth that Heidegger builds around those shoes,” (here comes that inconspicuous linking of poetry of world and pure, domineering evil) yet this is hard to do because “the artistic imagination is instinctively imperial, seizing on things seen and turning them into occasions for symbol and metaphor.” Kirsch reads Heidegger’s statement that “language, by naming things for the first time, first brings beings to word and to appearance” as meaning that “only by talking and writing about something can we really understand what it is and what it means.” But is this not placing an object “in the world,” instead of “in the earth”? A thing simply is, and means nothing, until it is talked or written about. This is thus a situating in a context, whether created or invoked. This supposedly simple act of representation is nothing else if not an imposition of order on the world. The very imperialistic impulse that Kirsch deplores in world-making poetry is ‘not there’ in poetry of earth simply because he fails to recognize it.

In his discussion of Heaney, Kirsch praises him as an exemplar of the “austere ethical discipline” that “poetry of the earth,” poetry that resists “world-building,” requires. But the implicit contextualization of representation is something that Heaney is eminently aware of, and much of “Squarings” plays off of this awareness that any act of representation, the very nature of poetry for a poet who so thoroughly mines the history and physicality of his homeland for his subjects, also conjures the “world,” that is, the context of the perceiver. Yes, the whole sequence is rife with images of blunt perception, as Kirsch points out, but the whole sequence is also rife with images of transient perception and house (i.e. context) building. Poem xxii contains a profound play on this sense of the implicit and explicit impositions that poetry of earth and world both respectively entail. “How habitable is perfected form?” Heaney asks the ghost of Yeats, with a disbelieving undertone, in a list of questions, and then ironically acknowledges the “form” that his poetry has taken by describing the list as “Set questions.” This is a resistance to the idea that Kirsch claims for poetry of earth (and Heaney), that we make the earth more complete by bringing it into a language that allows us to more “fully perceive” things “in a way that they can’t perceive themselves.” Heaney explicitly rejects this very tendency in Kirsch to see things as ‘completed’ when they are brought into language (the last poem in the sequence, which I’ll get to in a moment, deals directly with this false sense of completion). The myth of completion that Kirsch is promoting here follows along the same lines as the universal “world-making” for which Kirsch rejects Yeats and other early modernists.

The critique of domineering poetry of world doubles back on itself as a critique of poetry of earth in another manner, which become obvious in two specific examples within the essay itself. First, Kirsch misses the pun in the book’s title, which can mean both simple perception, the definition of seeing, and vivid perception of something that simply is not, the colloquial use of the phrase (ironic for someone so concerned with bringing into language to miss that). He also misses the double meaning of the line he quotes as evidence: “Make your study the unregarded floor.” The ambiguous use of the word ‘study’ makes the ‘the unregarded floor’ both the object about which you speak (in the sense Kirsch recognizes, of paying attention to the floor, which most people wouldn’t do) as well as the place from which you speak (in the sense Kirsch misses, of ‘study’ as place of study). Heaney’s metaphor of house-building is magnificent, here. The line immediately preceding this one is a command to “Take squarings from the recessed gable pane.” ‘Squaring’ is setting things right, an adjustment to put things in their place, but the house whose properties he is squaring is in a constant simultaneous state of dilapidation and new growth, and the squaring is done from a recessed point of the house, a point that reaches outside the house yet is still part of the house. This repositioning and expansion, the bringing of things into language, is done within the context of a house under construction, reflecting the ambiguity of the use of ‘study’ in the next line.

As often as Heaney depicts simple perception, he depicts the bizarre effects of perception; the “hot stones…clover-meshed and streaked with engine oil,” the “trickle in the culvert,” and the “scissor-and-slap abruptness of a latch” are compiled against the vertigo felt when staring at the sky from within “a boat the ground still falls and falls from under” (as well as the vertigo from remembering the experience) and the knowledge that it is “strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,/ convert to things foreknown;/ And how what’s come upon is manifest// Only in light of what has been gone through.” [Italics mine.] In these last few lines from the final stanza, Heaney is directly challenging this “completeness” we feel, acting as witness to it, but acknowledging the position of the perceiver who feels it. This sensation of completeness, the last line of the poem implies, is the result of a being out-of-step with the earth, because it always escapes, because “nothing prevails.”

This last quote calls upon the other dominant metaphor of the poem besides house-building, that of the fleeting shimmer of light, a metaphor whose concrete symbol relies on the perspective of the speaker. In certain positions, the natural refraction of light causes luminous and unstable images to appear, be it because of the water in a quarry or the heat radiating from steel, each bending the light that passes through, over, or across them in their own particular way. Heaney’s ‘simple’ perceptions and representations are not as simple as they appear, and this misleading simplicity is the ultimate subject of the poem. I cannot say it better than Heaney did himself:

“And lightening? One meaning of that
Beyond the usual sense of alleviation,
Illumination, and so on, is this:

A phenomenal instant when the spirit flares
With pure exhilaration before death—“

A ‘phenomenal instant.’ Heaney is indeed concerned with “respecting [the] strangeness” of these moments, as Kirsch says, and his sense that “nothing prevailed” is perhaps a description of paradise for him— but it is not because Heaney is maintaining “perfect restraint” and letting every being be “simply and wholly itself,” acting only as witness to these strange moments. Rather, it is because Heaney acknowledges the inevitable “coercive, tendentious myth-making” that is poetry as it occurs and as it “brings things into the realm of language.” He is both ‘witnessing’ the house’s simple existence and ‘creating’ the house in the process. As Heaney commands, “Relocate the bedrock in the threshold.” Acknowledge your foundations, and use them as an entrance.

“Poetry of earth” is as much of a failure, and for the same faults, as the early modernist attempts at “poetry of world.” Neither creating or invoking singular, universal contexts, nor pretending that one can ignore context and simply name beings qua beings are successful. Poetry must work with both extremes, both bringing things into the realm of language and concerning itself with the contexts that bringing into language creates and invokes.

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Filed under: Heaney, Heidegger, Kirsch, Poetry

One Response

  1. Derek Catermole says:

    Gosh, you’re very important, aren’t you?

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