Jonathan Bate

from what are
poets for?

what are poets for? They are not exactly philosophers, though they often try to explain the world and humankind’s place within it. They are not exactly moralists, for at least since the nineteenth century their primary concern has rarely been to tell us in homiletic fashion how to live. But they are often exceptionally lucid or provocative in their articulation of the relationship between internal and external worlds, between being and dwelling. Romanticism and its afterlife, I have been arguing throughout this book, may be thought of as the exploration of the relationship between external environment and eco­logy of mind.

“What are poets for?” (“Wozu Dichter?”) asked Martin Heidegger in the title of a lecture delivered on the twentieth anniversary of the death of Rainer Maria Rilke. In his later philosophy, Heidegger meditated deeply upon three questions. “What are poets for?” was one of them, “What does it mean to dwell upon the earth?” was the second, and “What is the essence of technology?” was the third. Heidegger’s answers to the three questions turn out to be closely inter-related.

On 18 November 1953 Heidegger lectured to the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts on “The Question concerning Technology.” Technology itself, he argued, is not the essence of technology. “We shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely represent the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.” Technology is traditionally defined as the mechanical art; it is associated with the application of machinery to production. Its origins may be dated to the beginnings of tool-use; its apotheosis is the modern age, which may be dated from the advent of steam power in eighteenth-century England. In these customary terms, technology is a means to an end: it is instrumental. Manipulate technology correctly as a means and we will be masters of it. So says the instrumental understanding. But for Heidegger, this account does not come to the essence of technology.

He goes a step further and asks: “What is the instrumental itself?” The instrumental is premised on the ancient idea of causality. Imagine a silver chalice. According to the traditional interpretation, the material cause of the chalice is the silver out of which it is made, its formal cause is its chalicey shape, its final cause is the use appropriate to a chalice, and its efficient cause is the work of the silversmith who makes it. The silversmith is the key cause: he is instrumental in the creation of the chalice. But Heidegger, in a manner utterly characteristic of what he called his deconstruction (Destruktion) of Western metaphysics, says exactly the opposite. The primordial meaning—the Being, or, more accurately, the being-there (Dasein)—of the chalice is its chaliceness. Its material, its form and its function are all part of that meaning, whereas the work of the silversmith, though instrumental towards it, is detached from it.

In the Symposium Plato has Socrates say that there is more than one kind of “poiesis,” in the true sense of the word. Whenever something is called into existence that was not there before, there is “poiesis.” Heidegger thus glosses “poiesis” as synonymous with “bringing-forth into presence:”

It is of utmost importance that we think bringing-forth in its full scope and at the same time in the sense in which the Greeks thought it. Not only handicraft manufacture, not only artistic and poetical bringing into appearance and concrete imagery, is a bringing-forth, poiesis. Physis, also, the arising of something from out of itself, is a bringing-forth, poiesis. Physis is indeed poiesis in the highest sense. For what presences by means of physis has the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g. the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself (en heautoi). In contrast, what is brought forth by the artisan or the artist, e.g. the silver chalice, has the irruption belonging to the bringing-forth, not in itself, but in another (en alloi), in the craftsman or artist.

The work of the craftsman is thus a splitting apart of poiesis and physis. That is what renders technological making different from the poiesis of nature. For Heidegger, “bringing-forth” is a bringing out of concealment into “unconcealment.” When a tree brings itself forth into blossom, it unconceals its being as a tree, whereas the unconcealing of the being of a chalice is the work not of the chalice but of the craftsman.

Unconcealment is a “revealing,” for which, according to Heidegger, the Greek word is aletheia. That word also means “truth.” The possibility of all productive manufacturing lies in revealing.” Technology is therefore not merely instrumental: it is a mode of revealing. It “comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.”

Technology is a mode of revealing: Heidegger implies that it is one of the distinctively human ways of being-in-the-world. As such, it cannot be avoided and is not to be casually condemned. We have no choice but to be technological beings. But something changed with the scientific revolution and the evolution of the distinctively modern form of technology:

the revealing that holds sway throughout modern technology does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis. The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging [Herausforden], which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.

A windmill derives energy from the wind, but “does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it.” The peasant works with the soil of the field; he does not “challenge” the earth in the way that land is challenged in the mining of coal or ore, in the way that ur­anium is challenged to yield atomic energy.

Heidegger took the example of a hydroelectric plant on the River Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying energy. Its relationship to the Rhine is different from that of an ancient bridge across the river. The bridge does not affect the being of the river, whereas when the Rhine is dammed up into the power plant the being of the river ceases to be its riverness: “What the river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence [not of the river, but] of the power station.” Does not the river nevertheless remain a river in a landscape? asks Heidegger. He answers: “In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.” According to this argument, it is not a coincidence that picturesque tourism emerged in the eighteenth century, at exactly the same time as modern technology. Modern technology turns all things into what Heidegger calls “standing-reserve” (Bestand). When a mountain is set upon, whether it is made into a mine or a nature reserve, it is converted into standing-reserve. It is then revealed not as a mountain but as a resource for human consumption—which may be tourism’s hungry consumption with the eye as much as industry’s relentless consumption of matter.

Modern technology is a mode of being which has the potential to convert even humans into standing-reserve:

The forester who measures the felled timber in the woods and who to all appearances walks the forest path in the same way his grandfather did is today ordered by the industry that produces commercial woods, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines. The latter, in their turn, set public opinion to swallowing what is printed, so that a set configuration of opinion becomes available on demand.

Heidegger’s diagnosis here is very similar to that in the leftist tradition embodied by Adorno and Horkheimer, who placed at the centre of their Dialectic of Enlightenment a critique of mass media and the “culture industry.” Herbert Marcuse’s account of “one-dimensional man” and his alienation from nature has the same pedigree.

In Heidegger’s theory, when man is driving technology, he does not become standing-reserve. Technological man orders the world, challenges it, “enframes” it. “Enframing” (Ge-stell) is the essence of modern technology. Enframing means making everything part of a system, thus obliterating the unconcealed being-there of particular things. Enframing is a mode of revealing which produces a styrofoam cup rather than a silver chalice. The chalice’s mode of being in the world, its Dasein, embraces aesthetic and social traditions—it is shaped so as to be beautiful, it is associated with customs such as sacrificial libations and the sharing of a communal cup. The styrofoam cup has no such associations. Its being is purely instrumental. The styrofoam cup is a symptom of modern technology’s forgetting of Dasein. “Above all, enframing conceals that revealing which, in the sense of poiesis, lets what presences come forth into appearance…Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth.” The techne of the craftsman, though it was not internal to the physis of the chalice, nevertheless revealed the presence, the shining-forth, the truth of the chalice. The enframing of modern technology conceals the truth of things.

Both Plato and Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. The history of technology is a history of the loss of that wonder, a history of disenchantment. Bruce Foltz explicates Heidegger’s version of the story:

The need that [philosophy’s original] astonishment engenders is that entities, emerging of their own accord (phusei), must stand in unconcealment. The completion or fulfillment, then, of the necessity arising from this fundamental astonishment lies in techne, which keeps in unconcealment the rule of phusis. Yet precisely in techne as the fulfillment of this fundamental mood lies the danger (die Gefahr) of its distraction and ultimately its destruction; that is, there is a possibility that techne, originally allowing phusis to hold sway in unconcealment, could become detached from the mood of astonishment before entities in their self-emergence and hence become willfull and arbitrary in its independence from phusis. It is through such a “defection from the beginning” that unconcealment could become distorted into correctness, that the “letting-reign” (Waltenlassen) of phusis in unconcealment could become a demand for constant presence, that thinking could become metaphysics, and that the techne of the Greeks could be utterly transformed into modern technology.

Wonder is a response to a momentary presence, not a constant one. The original techne of the Greeks was attuned to the natural unfolding of things. Heidegger claims that the history of metaphysics, from the Christian demand for the constant presence of a transcendent God, to the Cartesian move in which the human subject comes to stand over against (Gegen-stand) the realm of objects, inevitably led to modern technology’s all-encompassing enframing and the loss of that original poiesis in which the Dasein of things is unconcealed. This argument seems to have been first articulated by Heidegger in his 1934–5 seminars on Holderlin’s hymns, “Germany” and “The Rhine,” where he proposed that the original Greek sense of nature was twice “de­natured” by “alien powers:”

Once through Christianity, whereby nature was, in the first place, depreciated to [the level of] “the created,” and at the same time was brought into a relation with super-nature (the realm of grace). Then [it was denatured] through modern natural science, which dissolved nature into the orbit of the mathematical order of world-commerce, industrialization, and in a particular sense, machine technology.

From here, Heidegger has put himself in the position to reveal what he regards as the true “danger” of technology:

The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more final truth.

So how may we recover the original revealing and experience the call of the primordial truth of things?

Heidegger’s answer is to go back to the original Greek sense of techne:

There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name techne. Once the revealing that brings forth truth into the splendor of radiant appearance was also called techne.

There was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called techne. The poiesis of the fine arts was also called techne

[The poet Hölderlin] says to us:

poetically man dwells on this earth.

The poetical brings the true into the splendor of what Plato in the Phaedrus calls to ekphanestaton, that which shines forth most purely…

Could it be that revealing lays claim to the arts most primally, so that they for their part may expressly foster the growth of the saving power, may awaken and found anew our vision of, and trust in, that which grants?

Because the essence of technology is not technology itself, we must reflect upon techne in other realms as well as that of science. We cannot do without technology, not simply for technological reasons, but because it is our mode of being. But it need not be our only mode of being. In his Discourse on Thinking of 1955, Heidegger asserted that “We can say “yes” to the unavoidable use of technological objects, and we can at the same time say “no,” in so far as we do not permit them to claim us exclusively and thus to warp, confuse, and finally lay waste to our essence.”

“Revealing lays claim to the arts most primally:” poetry is our way of stepping outside the frame of the technological, of reawakening the momentary wonder of unconcealment. For Heidegger, poetry can, quite literally, save the earth. Why poetry more than all the other arts? Because another distinctive feature of the human mode of being is that we are language-animals. For Heidegger, language is the house of being; it is through language that unconcealment takes place for human beings. By disclosing the being of entities in language, the poet lets them be. That is the special, the sacred role of the poet. What is distinctive about the way in which humankind inhabits the earth? It is that we dwell poetically (dichterisch).

The later Heidegger returned obsessively to the quotation that he attributed to the German Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin (1770–1843): “poetically man dwells on this earth.” Michael E. Zimmerman explains:

In a letter of June 4, 1799, Hölderlin wrote: “the formative and artistic need is a true service that men render to nature.” Nature, in Heidegger’s interpretation of Hölderlin, “needs” humanity. Yet it is nature that first grants the “open” in which the mortal poet can bring forth the “saying” to ground the world needed for the historical encounter between gods and mortals, and for the self-disclosure of the earth.

In an affront to the modern way of looking at the world, Heidegger wrests Holderlin to his own purposes and proposes that the language of poetry, not of science, is that which “unconceals” the essence of nature.

The key quotation has a curious history. In 1823 a young Tübingen college student called Wilhelm Waiblinger, a passionate admirer of Hölderlin, published a novel entitled Phaeton. Its hero was a mad sculptor, a figure clearly based on Hölderlin, Who was by this time regarded as insane and confined in a tower in the city wall of Tübingen under the care of a carpenter. The novel reproduces a supposed sample of the mad artist Phaeton’s writing, a fragment of prose in the exact style of the later Holderlin, beginning “In lieblicher Bläue blühet mit dem metallenen Dache der Kirchthurm.” The narrator claims that the lines were originally laid out as verse. Waiblinger’s connection with the real mad poet led the scholar Ludwig von Pigenot to recast the fragment in verse and attribute it to Hölderlin himself:

In lovely blue the steeple blossoms
With its metal roof. Around which
Drift swallow cries, around which
Lies most loving blue.

“In lovely blue” is a poem of simultaneous containment and release. At one level, the deranged mind is contained within the head of the poet, who is contained within his tower, which is surrounded by representatives of the biotic community (the circling swallows), which are themselves contained beneath the blue of the sky. At another level, though, the act of writing takes the poet out of his self, out of his confinement, through windows which are like “gates to beauty,” out to a view of a church steeple and to the living world of birds and trees, things that are “so simple” yet “so very holy” that “one fears to describe them.” The poet then asks:

May a man look up
From the utter hardship of his life
And say: Let me also be
Like these? Yes. As long as kindness lasts,
Pure, within his heart, he may gladly measure himself
Against the divine. Is God unknown?
Is he manifest as the sky? This I tend
To believe. Such is man’s measure.
Well deserving, yet poetically
Man dwells on this earth.

Humankind alone among species has a knowledge of beauty, of kindness and purity, of the divine. We alone say that the sky is lovely and the forest trees are holy. In all this, we are “well deserving.” But then humankind alone among species also knows those afflictions we call doubt, despair, derangement. Whereas the swallow is its biology, our knowledge of mind, our self-consciousness, brings the possibility of alienation from self and from nature. We only know the feeling of at-homeness-upon-the-earth because we also know the feeling of being lost in the world. Poetry is the medium through which Hölderlin—or Hölderlin as ventriloquized by Waiblinger—explores both his connection with, and his dislocation from, the earth.

“Dwells” (German wohnet) suggests a sense of belonging. But what is meant by “yet poetically” (doch dichterisch)? A superficial answer might be “yet linguistically:” well deserving (because of his evolutionary superiority), yet as a language animal, man dwells on this earth. “Dwelling” and “well deserving” may be regarded as conditions apprehensible only in language. We understand the terms by means of an instant mental comparison with their linguistic opposites (“homelessness” and “ill deserving:”). Yet they may also be conditions which we convince ourselves we can feel pre-linguistically—instinctively, in the guts. This contradictory apprehension brings us directly to the central paradox of poetry. Poetry is merely language. Yet poetry is not merely language, because when we allow it to act upon us it seems able to conjure up conditions such as dwelling and alienation in their very essence, not just in their linguistic particulars.

Ludwig von Pigenot’s arrangement of the lines into verse is crucial here.

In lovely blue the steeple blossoms with its metal roof. Around which drift swallow cries, around which lies most loving blue.

is not the same as

In lovely blue the steeple blossoms
With its metal roof. Around which
Drift swallow cries, around which
Lies most loving blue.

The space on the page, or the pause for breath in the reading, at the end of each line is essential to the difference. Space and pause are poetic, yet they are not linguistic. The white of the page or the second of silence after each “around which” is an enfolding, like the blue of the sky which enfolds the cries of the swallows. To dwell poetically might mean to enter such spaces and to find that they are not only “lovely” but “loving.”

“Is God unknown? / Is he manifest as the sky?” When we feel especially at home or especially lost we may reach for poetry but we may also reach for “God,” a name for both the unknown and what we take to be our deepest knowings. We sometimes think of God as that which is beyond the sky, beyond the boundary of the knowable, but at other times we read his name in the beauty of human deeds and earthly things. Perhaps he may be manifest as—in the form of—the sky itself. To say this is to make a claim for the sacredness of the earth. Perhaps he may be manifest as—in the form of—the poem itself. To say this is to reiterate a very ancient claim for the sacredness of the poetic act. In his essays “Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry” and “…Poetically Man Dwells…,” Heidegger began from “In lieblicher Blue” and swiftly found himself wrestling with intractable questions of the mortal and the divine, the linguistic and the earthly:

dwelling occurs only when poetry comes to pass and is present…as taking a measure for all measuring. This measure­taking is itself an authentic measure-taking, no mere gauging with ready-made measuring-rods for the making of maps. Nor is poetry building in the sense of raising and fitting buildings. But poetry, as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling, is the primal form of building. Poetry first of all admits man’s dwelling into its very nature, its presencing being. Poetry is the original admission of dwelling.

What, then, for Heidegger is dwelling? It is the term he used in his later philosophy for that authentic form of being which he set against what he took to be the false ontologies of Cartesian dualism and subjective idealism. We achieve being not when we represent the world, not in Vorstellung, but when we stand in a site, open to its being, when we are thrown or called. The site is then gathered into a whole for which we take on an insistent care (Besorgung):

Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build. Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house.

For Heidegger, poetry is the original admission of dwelling because it is a presencing not a representation, a form of being not of mapping. What he offers us might be described as a post-phenomenological inflection of high Romantic poetics. His late essays are growings from readings in the German Romantic and post-Romantic tradition, readings of Hölderlin, Trakl and Rilke. The contemporary poet whom Heidegger regarded as the true descendant of Hölderlin was Paul Celan, who was himself deeply influenced by Heidegger’s theory of the poet’s vocation to speak the earth. Further on in this chapter, I will discuss the poem that arose from the meeting of the poet and the thinker.

Heidegger asks us to suppose that the poem is like the peasant farmhouse in the Black Forest: it gathers the fourfold of mortals, gods, earth and heaven into its still site in simple oneness. It orders the house of our lives. By bethinging us, it makes us care for things. It overrides dualism and idealism; it grounds us; it enables us to dwell. In this account, “earth” is crucially different from “world:” “world” refers to the historical mode of living, which for modernity means living in an instrumental relationship to the earth. To be attuned to earth is to live in another way, to respect the difference, the “self-concealing,” of entities even as they are “unconcealed” in poetry. To be so attuned is, for Heidegger, to dwell. “Mortals dwell in that they save the earth…Saving the earth does not master the earth and does not subjugate it, which is merely one step from spoliation.” This is in the strictest sense an ecopoetic.

Heidegger’s later work should not be thought of as formal philosophy. He himself regarded it as “thinking” and as thanking. He was especially thankful to the poets from whom he derived his way of thinking and many elements of his distinctive terminology. Foremost among those poets was Rainer Maria Rilke.

In a letter of 13 November 1925 to his Polish translator, Rilke explained his purpose in his masterwork, the Duino Elegies. He considered these meditations as responses to the transience of all earthly things. In the face of transience, the poet must undertake the work of transformation. Not, however, Christian transformation towards a Beyond, a spiritual other world. Rather, the aim was to instantiate “what is here seen and touched” into a living whole “in a purely earthly, deeply earthly, blissfully earthly consciousness.” With this ambition Rilke remains in the mainstream of Romanticism. The language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinization of the immanent world as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm: these are all the moves which Wordsworth made in “Tintern Abbey.”

The enigmatic “angel” of Rilke’s elegies is not a Christian spirit, a harbinger from heaven. The angel is the creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, of earth into consciousness, is already complete. Potentially, the poet—or perhaps the poem itself—is the angel. The mode of being to which Rilke aspired in poetry was that which he called the “open” (one of the terms borrowed by Heidegger). The open is akin to Schiller’s “naive,” where there is no division between nature and consciousness. In the eighth Duino elegy, this blessed state is enjoyed by a gnat, glimpsed by a child, and recovered in death. From a rational point of view, to aspire to a condition of which the exemplar is a gnat, or for that matter a corpse, must seem profoundly atavistic. But, as in a Romantic meditation on mortality such as Keats’s “To Autumn,” the purpose is not to elevate “naive” modes of being over thoughtful ones, but rather to seek to reconcile the two. Like the Romantics, Rilke is in search of a way of thinking and living which reconciles instrumental rationality with openness to “the open.” This involves him in the acceptance of finitude and of mortality, but also in a letting-go akin to the experience he underwent in the garden of Schloss Duino in 1912 when, reclining against a tree, he felt himself entered by “the open.” He seemed to become nature itself, to share his being with tree and singing bird as inner and outer were gathered together into a single “uninterrupted space.”

For Rilke, precisely because nature is so vulnerable as we are, because the earth shares our provisionality, we must be attuned to nature, we must not “run down and degrade” all that is here and now. The things of the earth must be our “familiars,” as they were for our ancestors. But the task of reciprocation and transformation has become supremely urgent in the age of technological modernity, for which Rilke’s shorthand is “America:”

And this activity is curiously supported and urged on by the ever more rapid fading away of so much of the visible that will no longer be replaced. Even for our grandparents a “house,” a “well,” a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat: were infinitely more, infinitely more intimate; almost everything a vessel in which they found the human and added to the store of the human. Now, from America, empty indifferent things are pouring across, sham things, dummy life…A house, in the American sense, an American apple or a grapevine over there, has nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into which went the hopes and reflections of our forefathers…Live things, things lived and conscient of us, are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last still to have known such things. On us rests the responsibility not alone of preserving their memory (that would be little and unreliable), but their human and laral value. (“Laral” in the sense of the household gods.) The earth has no way out other than to become invisible: in us who with a part of our natures partake of the invisible.

This brings us close to the deep meaning of Heidegger’s claim that poets may save the earth. As the solidity of things is replaced by the evanescence of commodities, so the poets must stand in for the ancient Roman lares, those everyday gods who guarded hearth and home. On another level, as the realm of nature—the wilderness, the forest, that which is untouched by the human, the Being that is not set upon—has diminished almost to vanishing-point with the march of modernity, of technology and consumerism, so a refuge for nature, for the letting-be of Being, must be found in poetry.

Our grandparents were intimate with house and well. We move from house to house and our water comes from reservoirs, not wells. That is progress, but it is also alienation. So it is that we need poetry which will haunt us with the lost feeling of what it might have been like to experience the “laral worth” of house and well. In the ninth Duino elegy, Rilke writes of how “Things that we might experience are vanishing.” The silver chalice was a vessel to experience and to live with, whereas the styrofoam cup is an object to use and to dispose of—in Rilke’s and Heidegger’s special sense, that which is mass produced is not a true “thing.” The task of the poet is to sing of things: “Sag ihm die Dinge,” tell him of things, writes Rilke in the ninth elegy. We have been here before with Wordsworth’s “We see into the life of things,” with Husserl’s Dingelfahrung, and Heaney’s Seeing Things. Poets let being be by speaking it:

For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into
the valley,
he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window,—
at most: column, tower?…but to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.

Gentian, house, pitcher and fruit-tree do not know their own being. For Rilke and Heidegger, earth “apparently needs us” and “in some strange way / keeps calling to us:” things need us so that they can be named. But in reciprocation we must return from our experience of things, from Rilke’s mountain, content with word and wonder. We must not set upon the earth—or each other—with ambitions of conquest and mastery. Perhaps that is why the ninth elegy hesitates over column and tower. Rilke himself was a wanderer and an exile. Born in Prague, he moved across Europe and watched the pillars of the Austro-Hungarian empire collapse. His attunement to earth was not synonymous with love of fatherland. He could embrace the being of the trees because he had no roots of his own. With Heidegger, it was a different story.