1946 What Are Poets For?

Heidegger begins: "...and what are poets for in a destitute time?" asks Hölderlin's elegy "Bread and Wine." We hardly understand the question today. How, then, shall we grasp the answer that Hölderlin gives?" 

So, what is the nature of this 'destitution' Heidegger is quoting? The Gods (not only Christ but the Classical Gods) have defaulted, have 'died' as an organising principle, and with them our civilisation has been decentred. This is a common enough theme in modernist literature. Most famously in the English speaking world, William Butler Yeats explored this in the first verse of his celebrated poem, The Second Coming (1920).   

The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
In beginning with Holderlin's view of our age as one of God-bereft desolation, we have to also be mindful that this work was written in 1946, following the final collapse of Germany. Heidegger himself was called to account for his early engagement with National Socialism, and was banned from teaching by the occupying French authorities. Germany was divided and in ruins, Europe was in ruins, and the terrible truth of German atrocities and genocide was being shown to Germans, that "blood-dimmed tide" more awful even than the first world war Yeats was alluding to. Not surprising that Heidegger laments that "The world's night is spreading its darkness" (p. 89). The "passionate intensity" of the old regime was over. In its wake the default of the Gods is clearer than ever. Where does that leave us? “Because of this default, there fails to appear to the world the ground that grounds it” (p. 90). The loss of 'ground' leaves us on the edge of an abyss [Abgrund]. Now "The age for which the ground fails to come, hangs in the abyss."

Will it however be possible to come back from that brink. that desolation which has been developing for centuries, and which might now be entering into its final crisis? We find ourselves in a wasteland with no clear way out, with no single guiding narrative. Born only a few months before Heidegger, T. S. Eliot would be a suitable companion for English speakers, to Heidegger's exploration of this desolation. The Wasteland is perhaps the most celebrated poem of the early 20th Century in English:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

In both Heidegger and Eliot's visons of human desolation we cannot expect a deus ex machina, no rescue from the gods. If we are to be saved from the darkening age, we will have to do it ourselves. But how? Through the advent of some monstrous second coming, as in Yeats? That is too close to the false 'messianic' regime of the Nazis, the solution cannot be a political system. The 'organising principles' of our world need to be put back in place, in short, these 'gods' must return in some form or other. But

The gods who "were once there," "return" only at the "right time"—that is, when there has been a turn among men in the right place, in the right way. For this reason Holderlin, in the unfinished hymn "Mnemosyne," written soon after the elegy "Bread and Wine," writes (IV, 225):

. . . The heavenly powers
Cannot do all things. It is the mortals
Who reach sooner into the abyss. So the turn is
With these. Long is
The time, but the true comes into
Its own.

Long is the destitute time of the world's night. To begin with, this requires a long time to reach to its middle. At this night's midnight, the destitution of the time is greatest. Then the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution. That inability, by which even the destitution of the destitute state is
obscured, is the time's absolutely destitute character. The destitution is wholly obscured, in that it now appears as nothing more than the need that wants to be met. Yet we must think of the world's night as a destiny that takes place this side of pessimism and optimism. Perhaps the world's night is now approaching its midnight. Perhaps the world's time is now becoming the completely destitute time. But also perhaps not, not yet, not even yet, despite the immeasurable need, despite all suffering, despite nameless sorrow, despite the growing and spreading peacelessness, despite the mounting confusion. Long is the time because even terror, taken by itself as a ground for turning, is powerless as long as there is no turn with mortal men. But there is a turn with mortals when these find the way to their own nature. That nature lies in this, that mortals reach into the abyss sooner than the heavenly powers. Mortals, when we think of their nature, remain closer to that absence because they are touched by presence, the ancient name of Being. But because presence conceals itself at the same time, it is itself already absence. Thus the abyss holds and remarks everything.

So, the way out is through the possibility that we mortals, because we are mortal, are "touched by presence" which can counter the current absence. Mortals are able to "reach... into the abyss" to prepare the ground for the possibility of these powers returning to us. They are gone but not wholly gone, they have left traces for us, if we can but read them. But what kind of mortal is able to reach into the fearful abyss, to follow the traces and prepare the way for the return of cosmic order?  

Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods' tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning...To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy. This is why, in Holderlin's language, the world's night is the holy night.
    It is a necessary part of the poet's nature that, before he can be truly a poet in such an age, the time's destitution must have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him. Hence "poets in a destitute time" must especially gather in poetry the nature of poetry. Where that happens we may assume poets to exist who are on the way to the destiny of the world's age. We others must learn to listen to what these poets say—assuming that, in regard to the time that conceals Being because it shelters it, we do not deceive ourselves through reckoning time merely in terms of that which is by dissecting that which is.
    The closer the world's night draws toward midnight, the more exclusively does the destitute prevail, in such a way that it withdraws its very nature and presence. Not only is the holy lost as the track toward the godhead; even the traces leading to that lost track are well-nigh obliterated. The more obscure the traces become the less can a single mortal, reaching into the abyss, attend there to intimations and signs. It is then all the more strictly true that each man gets farthest if he goes only as far as he can go along the way allotted to him. The third stanza of the same elegy that raises the question—"What are poets for in a destitute time?"— pronounces the law that rules over its poets:

        One thing stands firm: whether it be near noon
        Or close to midnight, a measure ever endures,
        Common to all; yet to each his own is allotted, too,
        Each of us goes toward and reaches the place that he can.

Those of us who are not the great poets must "learn to listen", we must help sustain their word and thereby do our part. For Heidegger, Holderlin is particularly powerful in articulating this desolation and the way out of it. His "thinking poetry" (p.93). But there are still dangers in this path:

Suppose, however, that this oblivion were the hidden nature of the destituteness of what is destitute in the time. There would indeed be no time then for an aesthetic flight to Holderlin's poetry. There would then be no moment in which to make a contrived myth out of the figure of the poet. There would then be no occasion to misuse his poetry as a rich source for a philosophy.

We must avoid being charmed by the aesthetic, misusing poetry by mining it for philosophical or other uses. Think of the use of poetry among politicians. And Heidegger does not consider himself to be using Holderlin's poetry, rather to be thinking through the lens of Holderlin's poetry, so that Holderlin comes to exert an ever greater influence on Heidegger's thought and terminology from the mid-1930s onwards. So, if we can avoid these dangers, what will we gain from following Holderlin? By being preservers and listeners of his poetry?

But there would be, and there is, the sole necessity, by thinking our way soberly into what his poetry says, to come to learn what is unspoken. That is the course of the history of Being. If we reach and enter that course, it will lead thinking into a dialogue with poetry, a dialogue that is of the history of Being. Scholars of literary history inevitably consider that dialogue to be an unscientific violation of what such scholarship takes to be the facts. Philosophers consider the dialogue to be a helpless aberration into fantasy. But destiny pursues its course untroubled by all that.

So we are following the poets who are able to read and articulate the traces. Holderlin is one, now Heidegger introduces another whom he considers to have that power, Rilke. For Heidegger, 

Rilke comes to realize the destitution of the time more clearly. The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality. Mortals have not yet come into ownership of their own nature. Death withdraws into the enigmatic. The mystery of pain remains veiled. Love has not been learned. But the mortals are. They are, in that there is language.Song still lingers over their destitute land. 

We have a way out of this wasteland. While "song still lingers over their desolate land," there is still the possibility of hearing and heading this call.

The singer's word still keeps to the trace of the holy. The song in the Sonnets to Orpheus (Part I, 19) says it:

        Though swiftly the world converts,
        like cloud-shapes' upheaval,
        everything perfect reverts
        to the primeval.
        Over the change abounding
        farther and freer
        your preluding song keeps sounding
        God with the lyre.
        Suffering is not discerned,
        neither has love been learned,
        and what removes us in death,
        nothing unveils.
        Only the song's high breath
        hallows and hails.

Meanwhile, even the trace of the holy has become unrecognizable. It remains undecided whether we still experience the holy as the track leading to the godhead of the divine, or whether we now encounter no more than a trace of the holy. It remains unclear what the track leading to the trace might be. It remains in question how such a track might show itself to us. The time is destitute because it lacks the unconcealedness of the nature of pain, death, and love. This destitution is itself destitute because that realm of being withdraws within which pain and death and love belong together. Concealedness exists inasmuch as the realm in which they belong together is the abyss of Being. But the song still remains which names the land over which it sings. What is the song itself? How is a mortal capable of it? Whence does it sing? How far does it reach into the abyss?