Introduction: A Thinking Poetry

The poetic character of thinking is still covered over... But a poetry which thinks is in truth the landscape of being. 

The poem...[is] a vortex that snatches us away. Not gradually, but...suddenly... We are forcefully drawn into a conversation.

- Heidegger


Given that close readings of poetry are essential to Heidegger's thought, I intend to follow his thinking through his readings of poetry from his earliest writings, and through his own poetry. The poetic is particularly strong in his later writings, when he contrasts poetry with technology, to him two essentially opposed forms of truth. Different though not necessarily irreconcilable. The fault of modern civilization is not that we have technology, but that we see the world through our technology, through science alone. Science, to Heidegger, doesn't think, it works things out technically. Poetry however can think. In articular, it is Heidegger's engagement with the work of Friedrich Hölderlin that was most fruitful for his developing thought. Hölderlin (1770-1843), was one of the most important poets of the German Romantic movement, and influential in the development of philosophical idealism in Germany. But to Heidegger, engagement with Hölderlin's 'thought', offered the possibility of articulating the very essence of the current age, in which divinity had defaulted, and know-how had come to obliterate actual thought on human being and being itself. In his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger stated, “I do not consider Hölderlin to be just any poet, whose work literary historians also treat together with many others’. Hölderlin is for me the poet who points into the future, who awaits the god.” In the prefaces to his collection of lectures and essays on Hölderlin, written decades after the works, Heidegger is careful to clarify his intent in studying thought through poetry. His intention is not to engage in literary criticism, but to enter into the truth of the poems studied. The author's Preface from the 1971 edition: "The present Elucidations [Erläuterungen] do not claim to be contributions [Beiträge] to research in the history of literature [literaturhistorischen Forschung] or to aesthetics. They spring from a necessity of thought." In the 1951 preface, he explains his hope that

For the sake of preserving what has been put into the poem, the elucidation of the poem must strive to make itself superfluous. The last, but also the most difficult step of every interpretation [Auslegung], consists in its disappearing, along with its elucidations, before the pure presence of the poem. The poem, which then stands in its own right, itself throws light directly on the other poems.

Because Heidegger believes that language is so fundamental to human being, true poetry, a "poetry which thinks" [denkende Dichten]. through its intense and thoughtful use of language, reveals and even shapes the essence of human being, if it is not reduced to an aesthetic experience. To Heidegger, our current technological world-view presents a world of subjects and objects, of material and human resources, giving us an understanding of existence increasingly framed by technology. Poetry offers us a possible path out of this dangerous world-view, which led us to Hiroshima and Auschwitz. This poetic path is one Heidegger spent many decades following, and which led his philosophical work to become increasingly poetic in form.

Heidegger's approach to poetry, which he takes pains to disclaim as literary criticism, does perhaps anticipate more recent 'literary' approaches to poetry. This might partly be due to the great indirect influence Heidegger has exerted on literary studies, perhaps also due a broadening of the methodologies used in studying literary texts during the earlier part of the twentieth century, which had more to do with philology than philosophy. Heidegger's work on poetry attempts mitdenken to 'think with' the poems he elucidates. In exploring the relation between poetry and philosophy, Heidegger illuminates both modes of discourse. In his use of the term thought, rather than 'philosophy' in much of his later work, he bridges the gap between those two modes. Thought is what poetry and philosophy have in common. To Heidegger they are simply differing modes of expressing it, different languages in which thought occurs.

In the introduction to Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats  (Harvard University Press, 2004), Helen Vendler writes:

Poetry has often been considered an irrational genre, more expressive than logical, more given to meditation than to coherent or defensible argument. The “proofs” it presents are, it is judged, more fanciful than true, and the experiences it affords are emotional and idiosyncratic rather than dispassionate and universal. The additional fact that poetry is directed by an aesthetic imperative, rather than by a forensic or expository one, casts suspicion on the “thinking” represented within and by poetry... Unlike the structure of a perspicuous argument, the structure of a poem may be anything but transparent, at least at first glance.
    In short, the relation of poetry to thought is an uneasy one.
    Some law other than the conduct of an argument is always governing a poem, even when the poem purports to be relating the unfolding of thought. On the other hand, even when a poem seems to be a spontaneous outburst of feeling, it is being directed, as a feat of ordered language, by something one can only call thought. (1-3)

“Intellectuals” and their “ideas” (invariably expressed in prose) occupy at this moment a privilege in academic and popular discussion which is (absurdly) denied to poets and poems—as though poetry and responsible ideation could not, or did not, overlap. “Great books” curricula, while including epic and narrative poetry, have on the whole suppressed the very presence of lyric in Western literature, as though lyric poems had nothing to contribute to thinking. (6)



Heidegger on Language and Poetry




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