Tag Archives: martin buber

What poetry does to philosophy.

I’ve been putting this off for weeks but have decided that now is the time. The berowed view that poetry and philosophy are incompatible has undergone some more waning but I’m now drawing a distinction between poetry that sets out as its main objective to ‘do’ philosophy and poetry that sets out to do Other Things that might have a philosophical component somewhere near the surface.

I’d like to consider first the nature of the poem and the nature of the philosophy tract. I accept that this is a very broad brush stroke but poetry is usually a compression whereas philosophy is usually an expansion. I’m making this distinction even though my reading of philosophy is quite sparse but it does seem that there’s a long windedness in terms of refuting all other philosophies before putting forward your own view.

Of course there are some poets, Lucretius, Pope and Jarvis spring to mind who are equally long-winded but most go the other way. Paul Celan and Edmund Spenser work by compression as does Charles Olson but in different ways and with different results. With regard to all of these, there is one element that I’d like to get out of the way before proceeding: the line between God and Truth aka between theology and philosophy. I’m taking Martin Buber, the Neo-platonics and Alfred Whitehead primarily as philosophers even though theologians have made extensive use of their work.

I’d like to start with Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie Which Frank Kermode referred to as the best philosophical poem in English. As the title suggests, it has change and time as it’s subject and this is one of Spenser’s recurring themes especially in The Faerie Queene. Essentially ‘Change’ puts forward the arguments for the priority of mutability over fixity and then Nature demolishes this with:

   I well consider all that ye have said
      And find that all things steadfastnes do hate
      And changed be: and yet being rightly wayed
      They are not changed from their first estate;
      But by their change their being doe dilate:
      And turning to themselves at length againe,
      Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
      Then over them Change doth not rule and raigne;
   But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine.

   Cease therefore daughter further to aspire
      And be content thus to be rul'd by me:
      For thy decay thou seekst by thy desire,
      But time shall come that all shall changed bee,
      And from thenceforth, none so more change shall see.
      So was the Titanesse put downe and whist,
      And Iove confirm'd in his imperiall see.
      Then was that whole assembly quite dismist
  And Natur's self did vanish, whither no man wist.

As a long-standing Spenser fan, this makes me want to jump up and down with delight because it’s supremely accomplished as poetry yet also manages in eighteen lines to express a fundamental aspect of 16th century philosopphical ‘truth’. Each stanza has one crucial and brilliantly crafted line, the first hinges on ‘dilate’. Bert Hamilton glosses the line with:

i.e. expand as they fill their natures, showing that change is not random but purposeful (see N.Frye 1990b: 160-161) acting in accord with the Pauline concept of sowing a natural body to raise a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15. 36-44). It is not circular, then but spiral in returning creation to its beginning.

This may be the case but I can’t help reading Ficino on God’s dance of joy into ‘dilate’ primarily because it seems a more logical and less complicated ‘fit’. Anyway, it is at once both plain and gloriously compressed and serves as a counterpoint to Spenser’s view of the world in continuous and relentless decline.

I think I need to note the extensive and frequently tiresome critical debate about the relationship between these Cantos and the rest of The Faerie Queene which is an argument without any facts. I will however set out the subtitle from the first edition of Mutabilitie which was published in 1609

   Which, both for Forme and Matter, appeare
      to be parcell of fome following Booke of the
               FAERIE QUEENE,
             VNDER  THE  LEGEND
                     OF
                 Conftancie 
              Never before imprinted.

‘Appeare’ is the tell-tale verb and we should leave it at that because we will Never Know.

The next act of compression comes from Paul Celan:


   ILLEGIBILITY
   Of this world. All things twice over.

   The strong clocks justify
   the splitting hour,
   coarsely.

   You, clamped 
   into your deepest part,
   climb out of yourself,
   for ever.

I’d argue that what we have here is a struggle with philosophy, an incredibly dense working of the major strands of 20th century thought with it’s concerns about perception, temporality and personal responsibility in the shadow of the Holocaust. Of course, many argue that this is too dense, that the distillation is too great and falls into meaningless and psuedo-mystical babble but this seems to miss the point entirely. Throughout his writing Celan is concerned with very Big Things indeed and explores the challenges inherent in living any kind of purposeful life when surrounded by our many violences and absence of thought.

Many who do accept the brilliance of this material insist on imposing the work of Martin Heidegger as the main philosophical thread and equate the ‘mystical’ quality the poetry with Heidegger’s later work. This seems to overlook other influences far removed from and (in some cases) directly opposed to all things existential. Martin Buber’s concerns with the demands of and responsibility for the Other are also very much present in the above. As with Spenser, I don’t want to examine the acres of critical pondering on this but I would like simply to point out that poetical philosophy, in the hands of genius, can be a more profound and provocative exploration of Truth in all its manifestations.

I’d like to finish with Charles Olson’s frequent nods to Whitehead’s Process and Reality in his Maximus series. In the past I have expressed the view that the work in its entirety can be seen as a transcription of Whitehead into poetic form. I’d now like to amend that view, Process and Reality was clearly a central aspect of Olson’s view of the world and this is apparent in parts of the sequence but there is much more of Olson the man here than there is of philosophy, even his clearest expositions are made by using himself and his everyday experience to make the ‘point’.

So, the best poetry adds other dimensions to philosophy because it can distil and intensify. This does not mean that poetry is in any kind of privileged position with regard to Truth but it does mean that it can, on occasion, push the conversation a little bit further.

Getting a bit deeper in with Celan and Levinas

As I seem to be doing this with greater frequency (well, this week anyway) I thought it might e a good time to reiterate the two bebrowed positions that are unlikely to change, the first is that David Jones is unjustly neglected and the second is that Paul Celan produced the best (in every sense) poetry of the twentieth century. Unlike most of the tentative and provisional posturings expressed on this blog, I can and do argue both of these positions from a number of positions and am entirely comfortable in doing so.

Before we get to Levinas I want to recognise that there are more than one Paul Celan, there’s the botanist, the anarchist (socialist utopian ranch), the husband and father, the translator, the disciple of Martin Heidegger, the poet, the Jew, the german speaker, the follower of Martin Buber, the devotee of Jewish mysticism, the existentialist, the anguished mad man, the lover, the witness. All of these are mixed up in my head and various aspects come to the fore as I read the work and all those that have paid attention to this remarkable material will have there own ‘blend’ of the above.

The above is the conciliatory approach along the lines of: “it’s good and proper that everyone should have their own views and respect the views of others”. Unfortunately this is the world of poetry where consensus and rationality feature was down in the pecking order. One major piece of discord is over the relative importance of Martin Buber’s strand of Jewish thought and the existentialist teachings of Martin Heidegger.

Last August I drew attention to Celan’s use of ‘wholly other’ in the Meridian address and linked this with the Buber/Levinas side of the argument.

The ‘point’ of the above is to announce that I have recently fallen across a 1978 Levinas essay, ‘Being and the Other: On Paul Celan’, which quite fiercely claims Celan as a member of the Buber gang. He also goes on to add his own partisan reading of the Meridian which seems to throw up some tricky questions for the makers and users of poetry.

Here’s the claim:

The poem goes toward the other. It hopes to rejoin it, free and unoccupied. The solitary work of the poet carving the precious stuff of words is an act of “ambushing” a “vis-a-vis.” The poem “becomes conversation – it is often futile conversation . . . encounters, a voice’s paths to a thou capable of perception” – Are Buber’s categories to be preferred then? Are they to be preferred to so much inspired exegesis to the benefit of Holderlin, Trakl, and Rilke, that descends in majesty from the Black Forest in order to show poetry opening the world in Being, between heaven and
earth, where man finds a dwelling place? Are they to be preferred to the aligning of structures in the intersidereal space of Objectivity -the precariousness of which, in Paris, the poet rightly senses, having the good or bad luck to align himself, be longing, with the entirety of his being, to the very objectivity of these structures? Poetics of the avant-garde where the poet has no personal destiny. Buber is without question preferred to them.

So, that’s fairly unequivocal and I don’t want to dwell on it too much except to note that its far more caustic about the majestic Heidegger than it is about the Parisian avant garde. This might appear odd as Levinas ws instrumental in bringing all things Heidegger to Paris in 1931.

Levinas then goes on to construct a further model around his version of Celan’s poetics. The general thrust of this is that the poem’s quest for an encounter involves a loss of the self. The evil that springs from self-interest is central to Levinas’ thought- this fixation prevents from paying attention to the needs of the Other and he sees Celan’s idea of the poem as a loss of self sovereignty in order to attend to those needs.

Of course the argument is much more detailed nd better put than that but that seems to be the main gist of it. This loss of self brings to mind ‘Unlesbarkeit’ which ws published in the posthumous ‘Schneepart’ collection in 1971:

    ILLEGIBILITY
    of this world. All things twice over.

    The strong clocks justify 
    the splitting hour,
    hoarsely.

    You, clamped
    into your deepest part,
    climb out of yourself
    for ever.

The last four lines here (as well as Celan’s notes for the Meridian) would seem to bear this out, self interest keeps us clamped into ourselves and we need to clamber out of this state in order to ttend to the ‘wholly other’> of course the bebrowed slant would wnt to throw in the possible references to suicide as a mens or release from this clamping and the previous six lines describing the experience of mental anguish. To add a bit more credence to this, it can be pointed out that many of us with experience of severe depression contemplate and ttempt suicide to avoid going through the anguish, to which we feel episodically tethered, ever again. I might also need to mention that the brain/self is ‘clamped’ when we receive ECT.

However, Levinas then makes use of the term ‘Meridian’ to instill some kind of hope/salvation into this loss of self:

In this adventure where the I dedicates itself to the poem so as to meet the other in the non-place, it is the return that is surprising- a return based not on the response of the summoned relation, but on the circularity of the meridian-perfected trajectory of this movement without return?, which is the “finality without end” of the poetic movement. As if in going toward the other, I were reunited with myself and implanted myself in a soil that would, henceforth, be native; as if the distancing of the I drew me closer to myself, discharged of the full weight of my
identity?a movement of which poetry would be the possibility itself, and a native land which owes nothing to rootedness, nothing to “prior occupation”: a native land that has no need to be a birthplace. Native land or promised land? Does it spew forth its inhabitants when they forget the course of one who goes off in search of the other. Native land on the meridian – which is to say: a here which is also the everywhere, a wandering and expatriation to the point of depaganisation. Is the earth habitable otherwise?

I’m regretfully of the view that this is a step too far, there’s nothing in my reading of Celan to suggest that one meets the self in the act of going toward the other, indeed I can point to many instances where this kind of movement is made in the knowledge that there can be no return to the self and it is this loss that must be borne. I’m not suggesting that all of this essy is flawed but this quite central point says more about Levinas than it does about either Celan or poetry. It has prodded me into re-reading the work, which is always a Good Thing.

Projective verse and breath-units, the Olson/Celan mix.

This might take some time, I’ve been adding some stuff to the Celan section of arduity with regard to the notes and drafts to the Meridian, a book which was published in 2011. In the course of looking through the notes I came across a reference to the “breath-units” and “(Buber)”. Now, I’d normally see this as vindication of the view (nearly wrote ‘fact’) that the thought of Buber was more influential in Celan’s poetry than Martin Heidegger ever was. To some this may seem a small and trivial point but it’s one of the view bits of lit crit that are important to me simply because putting, as many still do, the poetry within distinctly German brackets (Heidegger, Rilke, Holderlin etc) is missing the point.

We now come to the Charles Olson element in this revelation. Aficionados of all things Cambridge will know that Charles Olson produced in 1950 a statement of poetics, ‘Prospective Verse’ which contained this:

And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.

Here is Maurice S Friedman’s (1955) description of the Bible translation into German undertaken by Buber and Rosenzweig:

The translation is set in the form of cola (Atemzüge) rhythmic units based on natural breathing pauses. These serve the purpose of recapturing the original spoken quality of the Bible.

Given that Celan gave his speech in 1960 it is likely, according to my small brain, that (as a literary translator) he would have been aware of the Olson manifesto but it is Buber’s name that appears in the notes. Given that Olson was fairly ploymathic, it may be equally reasonable to suppose that he was aware of the rationale behind Buber’s translation.

The reason that this apparent similarity struck me is that I’m an undiluted fan of both and really want them to be singing from the same song sheet if only because the breath principle undermines many centuries of syllable and rhyme-based notions of form and structure.

The only problem that I have as a reader is that I don’t see this breath-unit mularkey reflected in the subsequent work of either poet but this may be because I haven’t been looking. In my head, Olson has always been more about what the line does rather than what it is. With Celan, the vast majority of lines seem to be too short to be ‘breath-units’.

I can however see how both poets were attempting to struggle free from the traditional constraints of verse and produce work that was a conscious challenge to what had gone before. There’s also the fact that poems were spoken before they were ever written down and that the breath is probably a more authentic unit in this regard than the metre.

Olson’s ongoing concern with the line is much more in evidence in ‘Maximus’ and this goes back at least as far as his time at Black Mountain College in the early fifties, in a letter to Robert Creeley he remarks what a pleasure it is to talk with Cy Twombly about the line because they both had the same view. Obviously this is not the place to juxtapose the Twombly line(s) against those of Olson but it is to suggest that Olson might be more concerned more about what the line can do rather than as a measurement of breath.

I’m going to try and illustrate this with Olson’s poem about his dad which starts of in fairly conventional fashion:

      I have been an ability - a machine - up to 
    now. An act of "history", my own, and my father's
    together a queer (Gloucester-sense) combination
    of completing something both visionary - or illusions (projection? literally
    lantern slides, on the sheet in front-room Worcester,
    on the wall and the lantern always getting too hot

The minor breaks with tradition consist of double spaces between words and lines starting in the middle of the page and some passages with bigger indents than the rest.

The end of the poem has lines which are impossible to put into HTML, some slant upwards forming a curve which is followed by a circle of text which starts with two upwardly slanting lines in the middle, the words then go anti-clockwise in a circle. After the circle is more or less complete, there is a way line that is upside down before we conclude with lines that slant down / up / down / up ending with ‘Forever Amen […]’

I would argue that the very variable line length in ‘Maximus’ does not relate to the exhalation of breath but is more concerned with what that physical length achieves as well as the occasional use of block capitals and lines from one word to another and the use of single and double underlines. I am however more than prepared to be proved wrong, I’ll readily confess to having only a superficial knowledge of the Projective manifesto but it does seem to be contradicted in the work.

Olson is much more accessible than Celan but both of them have a clear interest in line length and the shape of the poem- this ‘Vom Grossen’ from the Atemwende collection:

    BY THE GREAT
    Eye-
    less
    scooped from your eyes:

    The six-
    edged, denialwhite
    erratic.

    A blind man's hand, it also starhard
    from name-wandering,
    rests on him, as
    long as on you,
    Esther.

Any attempt to pay attention to the above must, I would argue, delve around the Eye- / less line break and have a look at six- / edged as well to try and get an idea of what’s going on with line length and whether this is just about structure and shape or whether these breaks place a different kind of emphasis on the sense. What I think is reasonably clear is that single syllable lines can’t be counted as ‘breath-units’ unless each line break is meant to signify a pause for breath but this seems to spoil the run of ‘starhard / from name-wandering’ which is a completely brilliant phrase in itself but which would be marred with a pause.

Incidentally, Pierre Joris has recently posted Two uncollected Celan poems on his blog from 1968.

The Meridian

I’m not entirely sure whether the recently published translation of the drafts and notes that Celan made for his Meridian speech is a volume for Celan devotees or whether it demands wider attention. Either way, Pierre Joris has done a magnificent job translating this material into English for the first time.
I’ve said before that Celan is the most important 20th century poet. To me this seems so self-evident that it doesn’t need any further qualification- the work continues to speak for itself and to demand our attention. ‘The Meridian’ is the name given to Celan’s acceptance speech when he was presented with the Buchner Prize at Darmstadt in October 1960 and has been argued about ever since as it contains the most detailed description of Celan’s poetics. The notes are a revelation and demonstrate the care that Celan took to arrive at the speech as it was delivered.
Before I get into the material itself, I’d like to make a couple of observations. The index of proper names shows that there are more references to Mandelstam than anyone else and that there are far more references to Buber than there are to Heidegger. This may only be significant to me but it may take us some way from the Heidegger / Holderlin obsession that seems to infect most Celan critics.
Before we go any further, I recognise that I have in the past been more than a little critical of the J K Lyons tome which is a close reading of the notes made in the Heidegger books in Celan’s possession. I’ like to argue that the Meridian material is different in that there is less room for speculation / guesswork in that the notes were made with a specific aim and can ( to some extent) be followed through- this is not the case with the Heidegger marginalia.
I haven’t yet fully got to grips with the editorial cross referencing but the final speech appears first followed by drafts and revisions which are in turn followed by sections headed ‘Darkness’, ‘The poem’, ‘Breath’, ‘Breathturn’, ‘Encounter’, ‘Hostility to art’ and ‘Time critique’.
‘Darkness’ is the one that (so far) I have paid most attention to. Celan always vigorously denied that he was an obscure or hermetic poet, expressing the view that his poems were like messages in a bottle that could be understood by those that they reached. The speech (in response to the charge of obscurity) has: “This is, I believe, if not the congenital darkness, then however the darkness attributed to poetry for the sake of an encounter from a – perhaps self-created – distance or strangeness.” Now we have:

In other words, the poem is born dark, it comes as the result of a radical individuation, into the world of language, thus, i.e. as far as language manages to be world, laden with world.

So, it would appear that Celan does actually see this darkness as congenital, one of the sub-sections of the notes is heade “The congenital darkness of the poem”. A first reading might lead us into the specific experiences of Celan as a holocaust survivor and manic depressive, we may postulate that anyone who sees his role as one of witness to Nazi atrocities may be inclined to see these events as clouding or occluding poetry in an absence of light. Things may however be a bit more complex. I’m taking ‘congenital’ in its fullest sense of something present since the beginning, something that is resistant to attempts at alteration and that has a degree of implacable inevitability.
The notes also contain two quotes from the Psalms, the first (in Latin in the original) is:

Night is my illumination.

The second is in Hebrew and is translated by the editors as:

…and night shines like the day, darkness is like the light.

I think this demonstrates that Celan was thinking of poetry as a whole and that this kind of ‘illuminating’ darkness is inherent to every poem regardless of its time or subject matter. It also indicates the strength of Jewish belief and mysticism that goes to the root of his poetics.
It’s important to stress that I am not in any way advocating that we should abandon or ignore the clear influence of Husserl and Heidegger but rather suggesting that critical attention needs to be a bit more balanced. End of shortish rant.
Of course, none of this would be useful if we weren’t able to relate it to the poems. Thus far I’ve added a number of additional dimensions to ‘Erblind’ and ‘Aschenglorie’ in that the ash and the blindness both now have more of a paradoxical quality that I’ve missed for the last forty years.
Every time I read and think about Celan I realise again just how fundamentally good his stuff is. For anyone who shares this view ‘The Meridian’ is absolutely essential. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface and know that it will keep me busy for many, many months- I haven’t yet allowed myself to look at the ‘Breathturn’ Section…..

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