What are poets for in destitute times?

We live in troubled times, times that Martin Heidegger described as destitute. Though written in 1946, after the second world war and the final collapse of Germany, we cannot deny the relevance of the judgement today; in many respects we might easily argue that things have worsened steadily since that time, that things have continued to fall apart plunging us ever more deeply into the dark of the worlds night.

For Heidegger, destitution spoke to a terrible condition, the fact of our final abandonment by the gods. Wondering what kind of remedy if any there might be for this state of abandonment he posed the question: what are poets for in destitute times?  a question prompted by his reading of Holderlin’s elegy, Bread and Wine.

How to answer this question? That we live in wasteland times can hardly be denied. We have long since fallen out of Eden, desperation is everywhere in rat alley. If the poet has a role in this darkness it is in part to illuminate that very world in which we find ourselves, help us really feel the arhythmic dissonance of its madness as with TS Eliot in London where,

The rivers tent is broken, the last fingers of leaf

clutch and sink into the wet bank. the wind

crosses the brown land unheard, the nymphs are departed

or with Paul Celan in Aushwitz where;

he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he

whistles his hounds to stay close

he whistles his jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

he commands us play up for the dance

Rats in rat alley. A rattle of bones and a chuckle spread from ear to ear. The madness of war and hatred. Todesfuge by Paul Celan speaks directly to the place, the gift and the cost of the poets life. The first time I saw a photograph of that man leaning into and looking intensely at the camera, I knew, before I ever read a word of his work, that he couldn’t tolerate the world he had seen and that somewhere and sometime he had killed himself. I was right. Sometimes the burden is too much to bear. We go, as Holderlin says, only as far as each of us can. The poets language, its uneasiness in our psyche its power for estrangement is precisely what makes it so important for us.

Yet if the role of the poet is to bring us to a profound sense of the abyss that we stare into, if their work can strip us of our conventional thinking and the many ways we employ to keep oblivious to the immensity of the world that we inhabit, if it can makes us look at what we would deny, it seems that there are other important things that poets do as well.

Eliot’s Wasteland paints a picture of a world in which the gods have abandoned us and we are left alone and in desolation, thirsty and without water or hope of water.

For Holderlin it seems it is the special task of the poet to help us find our way back to the gods, the special task of the poet to reach into the abyss, into the deep darkness that surrounds us in an effort to find something precious; our lost ground, our sense of presence in what has become and is an alien world;

‘Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods tracks and so trace for their kindred mortals the way towards turning…to be a poet in a destitute time means to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the times of the worlds night utters the holy. This is why the worlds night is the holy night.’

Here the poet seems to move like a hunter but the light of the picture is given a holy or mystical feeling. The poet has  mimetic qualities allowing him to engage in a kind of mythic relationship with the gods, leaving home, entering the forest, tracing, tracking, entering the dreamtime, dancing for the gods, bringing them out, engaging  with them but not killing. Perhaps the poet might be something more like a soul hunter. Perhaps the poets work has to do with matters of the soul.

For Holderlin, the darkness itself has a holy quality which means that it is somehow enriched,not merely a black emptiness. The poet, aware of this numinous quality seems to be something that builds out on the idea of the soul hunter, something more like a pilgrim;

‘..you’ll say they’re like holy priests of the wine god

moving from land to land in the holy night’

There is a holy quality to the darkness which draws the poets exploration on to the extent that it is his lot to be drawn on in this lifetime. If the darkness is holy then can we say that it’s quality of destitution is wholly bad or rather that it is a necessary quality of the darkness? To cast the destitution out seems , on this reading, to be a mistake since it is to deny the destitution of our experience, to say; ‘that is not me’.  The poet from this place wonders; what is the purpose of a life? What is the purpose of destitution in the forming of a life? He recognizes the destitute in himself. Part of the poets work it seems, is to ask questions of the abysmal .

For Richard Kearney, Heidegger is inviting us to look at the poet in relationship to the wonder and mystery of language itself and the silence that surrounds language, the way language is brought up from the depths of the unconscious and how it is used in the world.

‘It is the the inhabitual language of poetry and dream which permits the uncanny or unhomely to come home to us’

From this reading we discover that our natural condition in the world is to be un-housed to be and know ourselves to be profoundly alien. The average awareness which flees from whatever is ‘uncanny’ is indulging in a world of ‘false familiarity’. I found this a challenging proposition when I first read it but am finding myself increasingly drawn to it.

There is an incomprehensibility to life that estrangement speaks to. It seems to me to speak to the idea, in psychological terms, of the ‘other’ and our alien relationship with what is unfamiliar in ourselves. Embracing the existential anxiety of the truth of otherness is in fact freeing since it allows us to relinquish control in places where in truth we had none anyway. Further it allows us to embrace more of our own character and experience. We validate ourselves through our capacity to admit the uncanny; we really are as strange as the strange world in which we find ourselves. Paradoxically, what is alien then finds a home. It is part of the process of dis-illusioning that allows a real life to be led. The poets use of language facilitates this work specifically because of its inhabitual nature. The poet breaks spells.

For Kearney the poets work is with language, their special capacity to ‘divine’, to ‘sound out the places of suppressed experience’ -in the sense that Seamus Heaney meant it-the water diviner, tracing the flow of hidden meanings, reaching down for the word into and out of the earth, into and out of the numen, to weave something, to make something, an affecting presence perhaps or some symbol that itself can point towards what can hold us, can give us a glimpse without overwhelming us in the face of the gods bhairavic qualities.

The poet here is pilgrim and soul hunter but also symbol maker and beyond that a maker of things imbued with actual and real power which is the gift of real art to the world.

If we go a step further, the poet as a diviner becomes poet as shaman. The poet of the soul teeters between worlds and on the edge sometimes of a certain madness; call it divine madness. The poet understands the richness of the nature of man;

It is the nature of man as a physical and spiritual being that he be open to shattering emotion, susceptible to being carried away. The passiones animae cannot be silenced without leading to inhumanity, either the inhumanity of rigid rationality or of brutish sensuality-both of which have in common the qualities if being ‘unromantic’, ‘objective’,and ‘safe from emotion’. Real man is a being by nature given to shattering emotion.’

The poet walks a tightrope then between lands hidden and visible. Able to speak with the world, to be sensible, and yet given to shattering emotion. The poet teeters like a schoolboy on a gymnasts balancing beam between the conscious world and the great seas, oceans and hidden landscapes of the unconscious realms. He swims, it has been said, in the same waters that the psychotic drowns in. The poet is therefore an interpreter and a bearer of gifts, a psychological being and a spiritual being, having business with all the worlds available to the psyche but a special relationship with mankind

Seen this way, perhaps the poet is paradoxically both stranger, certainly to the modern world and yet also most native to the reality of the world as it offers itself to the enchanted eye. The poet is natural in a profound sense with a capacity to see in the darkness of the dark night and with a task to illuminate the world for others. Poet as pilgrim then, as guide and wanderer, soul hunter and shaman, moving between the worlds of the gods, between the landscape of silence and the business of mankind, gifting, troubadoring, , fooling about; a solitary mendicant;

Therefore he no more troubled the pool of silence.

But put on mask and cloak,

strung a guitar

And moved among the folk.

Dancing they cried

‘Ah how our sober islands

are gay again, since this blind, lyrical tramp

Invaded the fair!’

Under the last dead lamp

when all the dancers and masks had gone inside

his cold stare

returned to its true task, interrogation of silence

George Mackay Brown, who wrote this poem lived out much of his own life in the darkness of the worlds night, a psychological darkness lived out in a strange, remote and beautiful land that reflected him, nurtured him and to which he gave expression beautifully.

The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvelous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light. – 

Perhaps this is the word that Holderlin imagined as he stared into the abyss, the un-ground. What is the poet for? To enter into and risk a relationship with these deep tidal places, with inwardness and mystery, as Heaney put it; the ‘hankering after the underground side of things’

For the Irish Philosopher, John Moriarty, The poet is a healer, who, being healed themselves somehow, enables the healing of the cultural world through the enacting and enabling of ritual, myth and vision. The poets gift is the willingness and capacity to see and enact differently, to be a seer, through which the world becomes animate in a special way. Perhaps the idea of poet as healer can contain all of the other descriptions.

I would contend that this is a mystical rather than magical relationship. Where magical knowledge seeks to manipulate the known world,  mystical knowledge affects a transformation in a transcendent sense. The poet speaks of that which transcends, that part of us that always reaches out beyond the limits of what is strictly human. As such the poet is inspirational. For the poet, the world is always talking, but in a language that our common day consciousness cannot understand, for which our modern minds are not equipped. What was Moriarty getting at when he spoke of the poet as healer?

Certainly he feels that the perspective of the modern mind is not sufficient to the trouble we find ourselves in and herein lies the gift of the poet as mediator or translator. It is a dangerous and difficult role. The poet, in their aliveness to the world allows the world in more completely than the technical man will allow, is even consumed at times by the world on its own terms. The poet has business with the transcendent aspects of human experience which he perhaps cannot easily control but through which he is able to receive the world’s gifts and is able to share them for our benefit. The poet is able to be struck and then to hold their ground having depth.

Perhaps the issue  is not that the world is now uninhabited by the gods; i believe it is and that we have not been wholly abandoned. Rather the issue is that we have lost our way, we have lost our capacity to propitiate, to make holy, to sacrifice, to think mythologically and numinously as well as chronologically and literally. We have become afraid of the forests and we refuse the call in our hearts for the greatness  that lies behind us, we refuse to cross the lightly built bridges that would take us to the otherworld and the otherworldliness in ourselves, a journey that would be, in fact, a journey towards our own healing. Because we refuse, we suffer.It is not that the world is godless but that we have made it appear so.In banishing the gods, in declaring the death of god, we have lost our Adaman humility and tried to become as the gods themselves, Herculean, invincible. This indeed is a perilous and destitute condition.

Each of us has moments that touch the poets way of seeing, moments of awe, wonder, the sublime, but few of us can tolerate the implications of such illumination and we hurry back to our conservative lives. The poet cannot allow that retreat and good that it is so. This is why they matter so very much. This tolerance for the holiness the numinous is i think, what poets are for. One thinks of T.S Eliot in the Rose Garden at Burnt Norton;

‘and the pool was filled with water out of sunlight

And the lotos rose quietly, quietly

the surface glittered out of heart of light..’

Here The sudden illumination comes sure enough, he is  broken into, but the gift, the vitality cannot be held. Psychologically Eliot is not able for it, and the darkness returns, the pool dries, clud covers the sun and wracks him throughout the sequence of the four quartets until we arrive at Little Gidding where some redemption can be found.

Holderlin felt that our capacity to be present with the gods had been devastatingly ruptured and he and Eliot seem to be saying much the same thing in these words: Holderlin first,

A weak vessel cannot hold them forever, humans can

endure the fullness of the gods only at times

then Eliot,

‘Go go go ,said the bird

Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’

So what are poets for in destitute times? What can we conclude thus far? It seems to me firstly that Heidegger’s sense of the world as destitute is partially accurate but cannot be wholly So. I suspect that Heidegger’s destitution really speaks to a spiritual and psychological crisis that has become pervasive in the world. These are without doubt wasteland times and we suffer.

Culturally it is true that we have in a real sense, lost ourselves, lost the mythic, visionary, ritual sense of life and our place in an animate world. It seems that our current way of seeing the world, our ‘medusa mindset’, as Moriarty would have it, serves only to amplify our destitution and it can offer us no context for our current lives because it has been stripped of all that is numinous, all that cannot be accounted for, measured and weighed. We are blinded say the poets by our obsession with techne. In questioning his reading of destitution as only partially accurate, Heidegger might argue that this merely means that we have yet to reach the midnight of the darkness when all is truly lost. Things must yet get worse, the wheel must yet descend.  That may be so but i am not convinced.

Even in these times there are moments of private illumination that touch us and move us out of the ordinary, not gratuitously but deeply, powerfully and meaningfully. We do not understand them, they are incomprehensible but we can touch them poetically, it is something the poet can see and speak about, can give voice to.

Despite our confusion and apparent fascination with superficiality and appearance, matters of the soul are still things we want to find out about, indeed must address. We suffer when we do not consider and reflect on those things that seem somehow greater than us, that point beyond our smaller. selves and offer the possibility that we are not in fact the source of all our knowledge. The soul is resilient, timid, wild-perhaps it is the essence of us, perhaps it has things to say that might speak to our condition. The poet speaks to this too because it is the poet who has a singular knowledge and a capacity for attention, who has a sense of how to approach soul without scaring it away.

Whilst we live out our conscious lives, The great currents of the underworld run back and forth. There are lightly built bridges that lead to depths within ourselves and beyond ourselves that still hold, that are very real. Here too, in the trafficking between here and there, between the conscious and the unconscious landscapes of the world , between what we say is us and what is seemingly other, we find the poets, divining, feeling for the word, seeking truth, sharing it.

We know today, insofar as we admit the truth of our destitution, that it a destitution not of our intellect or our ingenuity. The destitution lies in our hearts and our souls and no technological expertise cannot save us in this regard ; this is the singular role and place of the poet and what poets are for in times like these.

We can think of the poet then, as many things; as pilgrims, soul hunters and healers they are somehow equipped for the world, able to it in an uncommon way which is what enables them to bring so much back for us. The idea of ability is important. Moriarty makes the point clearly; the poet heals, being healed himself. There is a psychological and spiritual depth to the poet that is largely missing in our culture and much needed now.  They are ‘able’ to reality as seekers, gatherers, receivers, listeners and enquirers of ‘truth’. They seek out and speak for truth through their capacities for receiving, listening, seeing, mimesis, invocation, journeying,silence, propitiation.

At its root,the poets place is to bear reality for us all in these dark times. that is what the poet is for and why we should listen. they bear reality in its  fullness because most of us cannot bear it. They move spiritually, mythologically and psychologically between the worlds, to work faithfully in a way that might keep us all connected to, present to, hopeful for a place in a living universe, not a desolate place of dead matter, but alive and animate. They negotiate our ground and our un-ground in the world we share together. To lose this voice would be a final descent and despair, a final alienation, a true destitution. Preserving it, lifting it up, speaking it out, despite the odds, is what poets are for.


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