Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Adam Kirsch's essay "The Taste of Silence," in the January 2008 issue of Poetry, makes the claim that "the best document" of contemporary poetry's "metaphysical sensibility" is Martin Heidegger's essay "The Origin of the Work of Art."

The way I phrased that might make you think that I find Kirsch's claim ridiculous, but I do not. The quoted phrases above are at the end of his first paragraph, and I am sure that Kirsch himself wanted to present the claim as being a bit absurd at first glance.

The essay argues cogently, however, that Heidegger's contrast between "poetry of earth" and "poetry of world" can be a useful heuristic in the interpretation of broader trends in contemporary poetry (whereby he seems to be referring primarily to English-language poetry). He paraphrases the concepts well, as far as I can tell, so if you want to know what those terms mean, read his essay (or, of course, Heidegger's).

My purpose here is to make four comments on Kirsch's essay (all of which assume you have read it):

1. At times, Kirsch seems to be arguing that the phrase I used above ("a useful heuristic") is all that he is getting at when it comes to saying that, as it were, "we are all Heideggerians now." That is, he is not saying that contemporary poets have read Heidegger; instead, he is saying that Heidegger is useful as a tool for interpreting contemporary poetry.

However, in presenting his three examples (Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, and Billy Collins), Kirsch does seem to make a stronger claim when he calls Simic "another poet deeply indebted to Heidegger." At that point in the essay, he has not yet discussed Collins, so by saying "another poet" about Simic, Kirsch appears to be arguing that Heaney is one poet "deeply indebted to Heidegger."

I wish he had not put it that way. Until that moment, Kirsch's essay reminded me of Borges's essay "Kafka and His Precursors," in which Borges provides a list of Kafka's precursors, none of whom Kafka himself ever read. Kafka need not have read Lord Dunsany, for example, for Kafka's work to provide a way of understanding Dunsany's work (or vice versa, Borges implies).

Similarly, I would have been perfectly happy with the claim that Heidegger helps us understand contemporary poetry, so I prefer to read the phrase "deeply indebted to Heidegger" as simply infelicitous (since I assume Kirsch did not really mean to imply that Simic is an actual reader of Heidegger).

2. I appreciate essays that do not mark their own occasion—it gets tiresome to read essays in the German press that always begin with the justification for writing about a particular author at a particular time—but in the case of this essay, I was very curious. What made Kirsch write this essay at this time? In the absence of a context, I wondered who Kirsch felt he was arguing with.

3. For two reasons, Heidegger does not seem to me to be the most appropriate twentieth-century thinker for much of what Kirsch wants to say: first, he's too mystical and obscure, even when he is trying to be down to earth; secondly, there's all that Third Reich baggage that even Kirsch feels he has to deal with explicitly in his essay.

Much of what Kirsch wants to use Heidegger for could be done as effectively, without the mystical and political problems, by referring to Victor Shklovsky and his concept of "defamiliarization," for example.

4. I have translated Heidegger's poetry (as part of my translation of the correspondence of Arendt and Heidegger). Whenever people start using Heidegger to talk about poetry, I start thinking about stuff like this:

In Jähen, raren, blitzt uns Seyn.
Wir spähen, wahren — schwingen ein.

Or, as I tried to render it:

In rare abruptness, Being's flash of light.
We peer, protect—turn towards the sight.

Heidegger may have been a good reader of Trakl, or Hölderlin, or even of Van Gogh (as in the "Work of Art" essay), but the poetry does not show that he learned much from them.


Donald Brown said...

I agree that the point about "poets of the world" and "poets of the earth" could certainly be made without recourse to Heidegger. But even invoking that essay, which I wanted to use once in a projected essay to talk about Jorie Graham (as someone of our time very much "a poet of the world") and her difference from all these naturalists of our day, I don't agree with Kirsch's use of the Simic poem which seems to me much more ambivalent towards the kind of "earth poem" Heaney would write. And that suggests to me that Heidegger and these terms really aren't too relevant to what Kirsch wants to say, so I second your question: why bring up that essay, except that Kirsch might've been reading it and decided to apply it.

On another note: I don't take your point about the Heidegger poem you quote, which seems to me rather deft and effective.

Marion McCready said...

There seems, to me, something strange in the claim that poetry of the ‘earth’ enables us to see the ordinary and its true being through language, and in this sense is passive with the role of the poet as simply the illuminator of what is and therefore truth.

I don’t think any aspect of art should hold this claim least of all poetry. The poetry of the 'earth' may not be trying to create or recreate the world in the sense attributed to poetry of the 'world' but surely all poetry is active in a manipulative sense of employing tricks and techniques to engineer the reader into seeing and experiencing the world as intended by the poet. It is never just to open the reader’s eyes to the ordinary, it is never that truthful.

Anonymous said...

....how could this happen?? Young Professor Martin H.,still a bit green and confused, but already married to sturdy Elfriede, valiantly struggling with a difficult subject..... There,among his students: brilliant and pretty Hannah Arendt daring to shamelessly BLITZ at him out of her her black eyes..... the rest is history....!

Andrew Shields said...

Unfortunately, the rest is not history, because Martin destroyed Hannah's letters to him from when they were "involved"!

Anonymous said...

You are right, MH (or was it Elfriede?) unfortunately saw fit to reduce most of their exchange to an enigma, a mystery about SEYN and SCHWINGEN EIN. Being such a fundamental mystery, however, it may enrich our thinking even more and forever! What a legacy! Praised be the memory of Hannah Arendt!

Andrew Shields said...

As far as I understood, MH and HA agreed to destroy all their letters and notes, but HA, being the younger one with less to lose, kept all his letters and notes, while MH destroyed hers. So the early part of the correspondence only contains a few drafts of HA's letters to MH.

Anonymous said...

Good for HA and great for us! We are fortunate that she found herself able to reconsider. Blessed are those, who are strong and independent enough to change their mind, when wisdom prevails!