Tag Archives: heidegger

Maybe and Perhaps in Prynne and Celan

I think it is reasonable to suggest that the two most accomplished poets since the Second World War might be quite good at prose. I’ve been re-reading Celan’s ‘Meridian’ address and Prynne on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and it strikes me that they may both be using the same rhetorical sleight of hand but with slightly different aims in mind.

The devices that I have in mind are:

  • “it may be” and “maybe” (J H Prynne);
  • “permit me” and “perhaps” (Paul Celan).

These are chosen because they are used frequently and express emphasis rather than doubt.

Before going any further with this entirely whimsical speculation, it might be as well to identify some definitions. The OED provides a number of definitions for perhaps:

  1. A1. Expressing a hypothetical, contingent, conjectural, or uncertain possibility: it may be (that); maybe, possibly. A1a. Modifying a statement or question;
  2. B 1. An instance of ‘perhaps’ used to qualify a statement; an expression of possibility combined with uncertainty, suspicion, or doubt; a doubtful statement;
  3. B 2. Something that may or may not happen, exist, or be the case; a possibility.

The following are the non-colloquial definitions of maybe:

  1. (adv) Possibly; perhaps. Occas. with dependent that-clause;
  2. (noun). What may be; a possibility; a speculation, esp. (usually in negative contexts) about a possible alternative outcome;
  3. (adj) Which is or are possibly to come; potential, possible.

“It may be” is (certainly in Prynne’s usage) giving a bit more formality to the speculation or suggestion whereas “permit me” is ostensibly asking to be allowed to do or say something.

‘The Meridian’ is the fullest statement that we have of Celan’s poetics and has been the subject of endless debate by both lit crit and philosophy types (and those in between). I don’t intend to add any more to this but I do want to think about this:

“Poetry: that can mean an Atemwende, a breathturn. Who knows, perhaps poetry travels this route – also the route of art – for the sake of such a breathturn? Perhaps it will succeed, as the strange. I mean the abyss and the Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automatons, seem to lie in one direction – perhaps it will succeed here to differentiate between strange and strange, perhaps it is exactly here that the Medusa’s head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the automatons break down – for this single short moment? Perhaps, here, with the I – with the estranged I set free here and in this manner – perhaps here a further Other is set free?”

Perhaps the poem is itself because of this … and can now, in this art-less, art-free manner, walk its other routes, thus also the routes of art – time and again?


Perhaps one can say that each poem has its own “20th of January” inscribed in it? Perhaps what’s new in the poems written today is exactly this: theirs is the clearest attempt to remain mindful of such dates?

But don’t we all write ourselves from such dates? And toward what dates do we write ourselves?”

This passage is the part where Celan sets out the bones of his praxis before going into further detail. ‘Perhaps’ is used in other parts of the Address but nowhere near as frequently as this. Needless to say, perhaps here denotes certainty rather than doubt, in fact it has a blue flashing light on its head to make sure that we do pay attention to the very precise statements that are being made. The entirely deliberate single word paragraph underlines the point. Some might feel that Celan is over-egging the pudding but this is far from the case, he does want his audience to think about what poetry is and does and to emphasise in German to his German audience the crucial importance of January 20th- the date when the Germans drew up the plans for the Holocaust.

Prynne’s use of ‘maybe’ is less concentrated but frequent enough to be noticed. I’ll start with ‘Huts’ which was published in Textual Practice in 2008.

“This hut is a place of fear and oppression, but the narrator makes these visits as if compelled by a poetic vocation to do so. It is a more extreme recourse than the guidance which took the author of the ‘Ode to Evening’ to his mountain hut; and yet there is maybe a relation in both between the idea of elemental refuge and human speech at the wellspring of poetic origin.”

This ‘maybe’ should be read as ‘definitely’ in that the link as described here forms the basis of the essay’s argument.

When I started out on this particular diversion, I wasn’t aware of the next example and I’m not cainig that it proves my point but it is odd:

It is time to turn to a recurrent theme in Heidegger which left its mark on the thought of Celan and maybe also on some deep features of his composing practice. As is well-known enough, Heidegger’s conception of primal metaphysics is bound up with a poetic understanding of early Greek and subsequent language usage, and it is this element that attracted Celan to intense study of Heidegger’s work over a wide range and for many years. For example, ‘urspru¨ngliches Sprechen’ (‘primordial speaking’) emerges as a recurrent concern in Celan’s reading notes on Heidegger’s Was Heisst Denken (What is Called Thinking) first published in 1954. And during his intense reading in 1953 of Holzwege (Wrong Paths), first published in 1950,21 which I recall myself studying with great ardency
more than forty years ago, Celan encountered and marked up a primal idea stated thus: ‘Die Sprache ist der Bezirk [templum], d.h. das Haus des Seins. . .[der] Tempel des Seins’ (‘Language is the domain (templum), viz. the house of Being. . .[the] temple of Being’).”

This ‘maybe’ conceals a lot more than certainty, Prynne wants this Heideggerian theme to have made its mark on Celan’s practice because it made a similar mark on Prynne who was reading Heidegger with ‘great ardency’. Here is not the place for any kind of discussion on the nature of the Heidegger / Celan dynamic nor is their space for speculation on why Prynne should feel the need to place his personal experience here at this point in the essay. What is important is that ‘maybe’ is again being used (with a smaller flashing blue light) to make us sit up and pay attention.

In the interests of balance, this is the third and final instance from ‘Huts’:

“By this evidence the hut-place is not idyllic but is the site of alienation and its social costs. And as for
Heidegger’s upgrading of the hut or house to ‘the temple of Being’, recall the comment of Peter Shaw as cited by Johnson, that ‘the hand which cannot build a hovel may demolish a temple’; maybe they both were thinking of the history of Jerusalem.”

The history of Jerusalem isn’t taken any further and, of course, we will never know what either Shaw or Heidegger had in mind so perhaps this ‘maybe’ is being used in its ‘proper’ sense.

The final and rather amiguous example comes from the “Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems” essay which was published in the third issue of the Cambridge Literary view. I think this might be a case of fluttering to deceive:

“If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self=dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.”

The “may become” variation is used ostensibly to add and element of doubt as to whether contradiction and self dispute do become ‘a dialectic practice’ when Prynne knows that these elements define dialectic analysis. So, the phrase may be used here to add emphasis but it also adds a bit of distance for our author as this paragraph is probably the clearest statement we have of Prynne’s praxis.

I am tempted to go through the other recent essays but I have a feeling that they will confirm much of the above. I am going to return to the books on Herbert and Wordsworth to see if there are any further variations. I’ve also started to look at the notes to the Meridian for more instances of ‘perhaps’ And this is before I’ve made a start on the poems.

Incidentally, I’d forgotten just how good ‘Huts’ is even though I still only agree with about 7% of it.

Poetry as therapy

I’m currently undergoing one of those periods of clinical depression that are wearily familiar to those of us who are of the bipolar persuasion. This isn’t quite as traumatic as the last few- I’m not in hospital but I’m not pleased. I’d forgotten the effect on loved ones and how much this thing hurts.
The default mode for me is to withdraw and to read. In the past I’ve read Pepys’ diaries as a way of keeping the bad thoughts away and this has worked because there’s a lot in the diaries and I can distract myself by the sheer oddness of the past contained in those pages. So, given that I’m not suicidal and I am able to function at some level, I decided to try reading poetry to see if any verse might have a similar effect. I’m not looking for a ‘lift’ in mood but I am looking for something that will occupy and involve me in a way that keeps some of the demons at bay.
I’ve just bought ‘Clavics’, the latest Hill offering and whilst it’s very odd, it isn’t really big enough to provide an enormous distraction. It also suffers from not being very good and this isn’t helpful. I then tried poets writing about poets and discovered that Hill is more absorbing than Prynne. This is a surprise because I think ‘Field Notes’ is a lot more insightful than any of Hill’s essays yet Hill seems to write in a way that is more involving. I also find that Prynne is more frequently wrong than Hill even though the latter is incredibly opinionated and crabby. Neither however managed to occupy me for longer than a couple of hours and I do need something for the next six weeks.
I’m steering clear of Celan (for fairly obvious reasons) but have found bits of David Jones to be sufficiently absorbing and not at all annoying and I’m re-reading John Matthias’ ‘Trigons’ which is oddly soothing. With Jones I’m alternating between ‘The Sleeping Lord’ fragments and ‘The Anathemata’ which in some ways complement each other and I’ve found it useful to read the words through before thinking about the notes, I know that ‘The Anathemata’ has this fearsome reputation for difficulty but on this reading I’m more impressed by the use of ‘ordinary’ language and the integrity of the poet’s ‘voice’. It’s not particularly soothing but it does manage to hold my attention and keep the demons at some distance. I’m also working my way to a connection between the ‘Middle Sea and Lear Sea’ section and Michael Drayton’s ‘Poly-Olbion’ but I’ll need to be more motivated and alert before I can check this out.
‘Trigons’ is being read closely for the third time and more treasures are being unearthed. I’ve said before that I think that Matthias is one of our most accomplished poets and ‘Trigons’ shows off his skills and predilections in full flow. I’ve also said before that Matthias is adept at making the difficult look easy, he shares with Olson the ability to communicate complex ideas under the cloak of conversational ease. On this occasion I’m beginning to work out how this is achieved rather than chasing up the references- Matthias is a shameless dropper of names – and this is proving absorbing.
In the search for occupation (I don’t need to be instructed and I’m past the stage of being entertained) I’ve come across Heidegger’s ‘Off the Beaten Track’ collection which Prynne claims to have read with “ardency” at about the same time that Celan was beginning to pay a similar kind of attention.
There is an essay entitled ‘Why Poets?’ that I couldn’t resist and I am finding it more involving than most of Heidegger’s later output- I’ve had to re-read the first ten pages several times thus far without progressing to the end. There’s a typically oblique refutation of the mysticism charge –

If we enter upon this course, it brings thinlung and poetry together in a dialogue engaged with the history of being. Researchers in literary history will inevitably see the dialogue as an unscholarly violation of what they take to be the facts. Philosophers will see it as a baffled descent into mysticism [ein Abweg der Ratlosigkeit in die Schwamerez]. However, destiny pursues its course untroubled by all that.

Which once would have made me quite cross but now just brings a smile. Then there’s this masterpiece of nonsense, the sort of thing that gives continental philosophy its reputation for affectation-

The being of beings is the will. The will is the selfmustering
gathering of each ens to itself. All beings are, as beings, in the will.
They are as things willed. Do not misunderstand: beings are not primarily and only as things willed; rather they are, so long as they are, themselves in the mode of willing. Only as things willed are they what wills in the will, each in its own way.

In my current state unpacking this is quite helpful, it may also be completely futile but at least it’s occupying me in a way that doesn’t get distracted or despondent.
Others that I’ve tried and given up on include Browning’s ‘Sordello’, anything by John Ashbery, Keston Sutherland and Ezra Pound all of which had been occupying me prior to this bout kicking in.
I am going to look at Charles Olson in the next few days but I’m not optimistic.
I’ve also tried ‘Infinite Jest’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’ and got through the first two hundred pages of the first before giving up but only the first twenty of the second. With ‘Infinite Jest’ I keep waiting for the point where I suddenly realise what all those people who I respect have been raving about becomes clear. This is my fourth attempt and that point has not yet been reached.
So, David Jones and John Matthias are now placed alongside Pepys in times of crisis. Any other suggestions will be gratefully received. I’ll also get to the end of ‘Why Poets?’ Eventually.

Difficult Poetry and Philosophy

This may take some time, I’ve been writing about ‘The Maximus Poems’ the arduity project and I really wanted to talk about the influence of Alfred North Whitehead on the work but didn’t because I feel that this may deter first-time readers. Since then I’ve been giving more than a little thought to the complex relationship that poets have with philosophy. It seems to me that writers of difficult poetry are, in part, difficult because they are dealing with fundamental issues and in this there is a big similarity with philosophy.

The issue becomes more problematic when we consider the exact relationship between the two. Olson is relatively straightforward in that ‘Maximus’ can be read as a reworking of ‘Process and Reality’. We know that this was one of the most thumbed and annotated books on Olson’s shelf and that Olson referred to it as his guiding light. So, it would appear that Olson’s view of our perception of time and space was informed by Whitehead and this conceptual framework was used to shape ‘Maximus’. The next question to be asked is was this a conscious thing – did Olson deliberately set out to write a poem about the world according to Whitehead or was the work so ingrained under his skin that this had become his reading of the world?

The situation gets more complex with other difficult poets, a straight line can be drawn between Henri Bergson (via T E Hulme) and the early work of Pound and Eliot. On closer inspection however this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. In terms of form Bergson may have been influential but Bradley is certainly more influential on Eliot in terms of content. It would also be impossible in my view to point to any straight lines influencing Pound.

Then we come to the Heidegger problem. I’ll leave aside my previously stated view that Heidegger was wrong about poetry and consider instead his  well-documented influence on the work of Paul Celan.  The relationship was never an easy one as Celan could never forgive Heidegger’s studied silence about his Nazi past but it is clear that Celan read Heidegger from the early fifties on over. As a lifelong reader of Celan, I’ve looked for traces of the existential Heidegger in Celan’s work and they aren’t apparent.  I’ve also read long and learned essays that purport to show me that they are apparent yet I’ve never been convinced. What can be said is that there is a lot of mysticism in Celan’s work, as there is in Heidegger’s later output but we also know that Celan was an enthusiastic reader of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Unpacking these various threads in Celan’s notoriously resistant verse is almost impossible.

J H Prynne’s debt to Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Marx and others is fairly well-documented but again we have the problem of many ‘influences’ coming together in different ways. I’m currently giving priority to Merleau-Ponty but this is only because I’m reading him and his thoughts on perception seem to tie in with the way that I read Prynne. The socialist perspective clearly comes from ‘Capital’ and the notion of poetry as truth stems from Heidegger (amongst many others).

As a (weak) practitioner, I try and write poetry that makes sense of the world but I don’t do this with any particular philosophy or ideology in mind. I do however acknowledge that the way that I live my life is formed by a cognitive map that has many influences. My understanding of the way power works is informed by Foucault, my reluctant comprehension of how culture functions is informed by Bourdieu, my personal relativism is influenced by Richard Rorty, my sense of place I get from Henri Lefebvre and I wish I could write like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida. I’m currently writing a long poem about the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday and no doubt all of the above will ‘inform’ what I write but even I couldn’t begin to sort out the strands.

So, poets write about fundamental stuff and sometimes take from philosophy a framework for thinking about their subject. Undertaking an objective analysis of that ‘influence’ is however immensely difficult and often a waste of time

Heidegger and the Americans

Earlier this year the great Stanley Fish created a bit of a fuss in the New York Times with a few comments on Terry Eagleton’s book which is critical of the Dawkins/Hitchins stance on religion (they’re against it). The response on both sides was unusually shrill and rapidly descended into a childish game of name calling rather than addressing the issues that Fish had tried to raise. At the time I put this down to the strange relationship Americans have with religion and thought little more about it.

Now it’s happened again in response to a piece by Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education on a book by Emmanuel Faye which examines the nature of the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and Nazi ideology. The article is expressed in forthright terms, Heidegger is referred to as ‘a pretentious old Black Forest babbler’ and a buffoon, his philosophy is derided and Romano asserts that he should be the butt of jokes rather than dissertations.

The piece has elicited more responses than any other Chronicle article this year and the furore has now been reported in the New York Times. The comments range from those depicting Heidegger as a charlatan and a fake who ought to be ditched forthwith to Heidegger as the greatest and most influential thinker of the 20th century. There’s also a strand criticising Romano’s lack of intellectual rigour and a further strand criticising (in true academic fashion) the quality of the comments.

I can’t see this kind of thing happening in the UK- it’s not that we don’t care about this kind of stuff but we aren’t really prepared to enter into fist fights over it and I wonder what it is about the USA that encourages people to get so worked up. Could it be that this level of aggression  is a further symptom of the ultimate free market culture or is that too reductive? Or is it that Americans are more prepared to indulge in posture than to actually debate the issues?

There is a very serious debate to be had about philosophy, ideology and politics. In some cases ideologues have been known to appropriate philosophical ideas to give their political actions some additional credibility. It is well known that Heidegger was an arch-conservative with a strong authoritarian bent and that he was professionally ruthless. The Der Spiegel interview of 1967 shows this quite clearly. Hew also saw it as his mission to resurrect German culture from its fallen state.

I don’t entirely buy into the Goldhagen thesis that all of German society held an eliminationist position towards the Jews but I am prepared to accept that Germany between the wars was mired in the very worst kinds of antisemitism and that Martin Heidegger was a German who embraced those views. I’ve read the infamous Rectorship Address and bits of it make me wince- I don’t buy Heidegger’s much later assertion that he was simply trying to save the German university system. I think he was trying to feather his own nest by currying favour with the new regime. I also find it pathetic that he should spend so much time screwing many of his female students.

So, an odious character who we wouldn’t want to take out for a drink (the only criteria worth applying) but what about his work?  Heidegger had one great thought and many other lesser thoughts. He posed the question of Being which burst on the last century like a thunderbolt. This thought is great because it is blindingly simple and goes to the very heart of existence.  Undoing this thought is an impossible task, when you ask the question you let the genie out of the bottle and now it pervades almost every aspect of our cultural and social life. I’m happy to admit that the lesser thoughts are more prone to repudiation but we can’t (even if we really wanted to)  dispense with the question of Being.

The New York Times debate on Hitchins and Dawkins missed the point that Dawkins’ real target has always been relativists (like me) and that Hitchins is still a Trotskyist and his agenda will always be coloured by that fact. The correct atheist position, I would argue, is that people who believe in God are fundamentally but understandable mistaken and they should be left to get on with it.

As for Heidegger jokes, I’ve learned recently that the hut is more of a bungalow than a hut and that it isn’t actually in the trees but on the side of a valley. I’m also amused by the fact that he always wore an acorn in his lapel.

Catching up with Jeremy Prynne

I bought the Bloodaxe Prynne collection ten years ago following recommendations from people that I admire (Carol Rumens, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd). I started to read in expectation of something wonderful but found instead (apart from the very early stuff) a mass of words that made little sense and became increasingly perplexing with each reading. I did however note one very impressive poem dedicated to Paul Celan.
Lately I’ve been quite severely depressed and my normal source of consolation during recovery is to read Pepys’ diaries but on this occasion I finished the Arcades Project, re-read Boyd Hilton on 19th century England and then turned to Prynne.
I have to report that I have found the Prynne experience to be both frustrating and oddly involving, frustrating because initially some of the phrases don’t make any kind of sense but involving because the search for that sense leads you to think about the world and language in different ways. Reading Prynne has also led me to read Olson’s Maximus Letters (and for that I am profoundly grateful), Heidegger on poetry, Celan and Holderlin.
Whilst I can ‘hear’ the influence of Celan and late Beckett on Prynne I am totally deaf to the voice of Olson in his work even though Prynne is one of Olson’s biggest advocates and spent some time in the mid sixties trying to get the later parts of the Letters into a publishable format.
Prynne’s essay on Resistance and Difficulty is a densely worded argument that points out that every subject puts out various levels of resistance to being understood and that we experience difficulty when we encounter these resistances. He then goes on to say that it is the task of the imagination to gain access to ‘the resistance beyond our several difficulties’. Prynne ends with a quote from Rilke that he feels establishes his point about the quest for a fusion of resistance and difficulty. This seems fair enough to me and would seem to point out some kind of justification for the level of difficulty in Prynne’s work- which seems to be about using ‘difficult’ ways to speak about a world that is very resistant to our comprehension. Incidentally, in this essay Prynne refers fleetingly to the work of Gabriel Marcel. The only other person that I know who refers to Marcel is Geoffrey Hill, that other ‘difficult’ English poet.
I’ve been carrying the Prynne tome around with me and I’ve had a number of comments- “too obscure”, “too intellectual” and “the only poet that’s trying to do something different from the mediocrity that is English poetry but I only like the parts that aren’t incomprehensible”. I’d agree with all of these if I didn’t find reading him so absorbing and if I didn’t find re-reading the ‘incomprehensible’ bits so rewarding. After reading Resistance and Difficulty I then felt that I had to re-read Heidegger on the ‘Origins of the work of art’ which Prynne refers to (using the German title) as “brilliant”.
My relationship with Heidegger has changed a lot over the years. I started with ‘the greatest thinker of the 20th century’ view then moved on the “he was a Nazi but’ view rapidly followed by ‘Being and Time is brilliant but the rest is polluted by a weird kind of German mysticism’ view. My recent view is that worrying too much about the Being of beings is probably a waste of time but I am pleased that someone asked the question. My reading of the Origins this time around was disappointing. I don’t feel that poetry has a “privileged position in the domain of the arts” nor do I feel that “poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of beings”.I think poetry may be many things but Heidegger fails to convince me (by means of evidence) that it has this privileged position and power.
Still, Jeremy Prynne thinks that this essay is brilliant and I therefore assume that he shares its view and has incorporated this in some way into his practice. This then brings me to the question of the relationship between poetry and philosophy. Should we view both activities as trying to tell some kind of truth? Has philosophy got anything to say poetry and vice versa? Are there dangers when poetry and philosophy get mixed up? I don’t have any kind of answer to these questions other than there is a real danger when any discipline tries to take itself too seriously.
In my attempts to make sense of Prynne, I’ve stuck with two poems- The Warring of the Clans and Word Order. I’ve been able to construe the subject matter in both but there are still bits that I’m falling over. I don’t understand how butter can be ‘bardic’ although I like the juxtaposition nor do I understand how a shadow can be ‘cardiac’ but that may be because I haven’t spent long enough with the OED.
The other question is should we all be following Prynne’s lead or should we be content to write in the ‘mediocre’ tradition? Is Prynne writing himself into obscure oblivion or will he be revered in fifty years time as the only serious English poet?
My view is that we all need to catch up with Prynne because his work is clever and radically different from anything else, I don’t think we should slavishly imitate him but allow his work to inform our own. With regard to posterity, I do hope he gets more notice than what passes for good in the current mainstream.