Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Adam Kirsch's Heidegger and Modern Poetry

"Sometimes," I recall my high school art teacher saying as he looked through my sketchbook, "it's by fucking up that we get the most interesting results." I never knew whether to take that as praise or as blame, and I don't know how Adam Kirsch would take what I'm about to say about his essay on Heidegger and modern poetry from the January issue of Poetry were he to read this. (Yeah, I'm just getting around to reading it — some of us are slow, okay?). But what I want to say is this: Kirsch has his Heidegger sideways, but I think his off-base reading of "The Origin of the Work of Art" takes him to some interesting places. "Fucking up" is, by the way, not really a fair way of describing Kirsch's piece, which isn't bad at all, despite the flattening-out of some of Heidegger's philosophical mountains — but those words from my art teacher are a touchstone of mine, and they do sort of bear on Kirsch's essay, which makes all of its headway out of what I take to be a misreading of Heidegger.

Kirsch's Heidegger

The most interesting thesis of Kirsch's essay, "The Taste of Silence," is that we could write an interesting history of poetry over the last century or so by examining it as a turn away from a poetry of the world and toward a poetry of the earth. Kirsch takes the terms "earth" and "world" from Heidegger's essay "The Origin of the Work of Art," where, he tells us, they have very particular meanings. In Kirsch's view, Heidegger's term "earth" refers to "the sensuous reality of the non-human, which we tend to forget when we are engaged in practical tasks" while "world" refers to "the historical human context in which we work, suffer, and hope." Both of these are inevitably present in the work of art, but for Kirsch, the poet can align himself or herself with one or the other side of "the dichotomy of earth and world."

Where the poet lines up in terms of this dichotomy will have an effect on the nature of the poetry itself. "If the poet is primarily concerned with earth—with displaying particular being and concrete reality," says Kirsch, "he will tend to conceive of poetry as a passive art, concerned with perception and preservation. The ideal of such poetry is naming..." But if the poet is "more concerned with world—with the historical, mythic, and spiritual context that the poem creates or invokes—he will tend to see poetry as an active art, and in some sense even a domineering one." In this case, the poet "wants to interpret experience for the reader. He goes beyond names to commandments." In fact, his art "imposes an order" on reality.

A Journey from the World to the Earth

After laying down this précis of Heidegger, Kirsch applies it to the history of poetry since Modernism. "The Modernists," says Kirsch,

looked to poetry to re-establish a world, in the Heideggerian sense, at a time when the world they inherited had been shattered. Modernist poetry wants to ... projec[t] new coordinates of meaning and order. In Yeats's ghosts and gyres, in Pound's sages and tyrants, in Eliot's "idea of a Christian society," we find various attempts to create a world. Yet none of these worlds is authoritative enough ... to inaugurate a new cult and a new history. Instead, they remain—like Heidegger's own work, perhaps—expressions of longing for a lost world, and nostalgia for a time when poets had the power to make a new one.

After what Kirsch sees as the Modernist failure to establish, through poetry, a system of meanings and values, poets have turned from this world-making project to a poetry with more modest, less legislative ambitions, a poetry concerned with what Kirsch thinks of as Heidegger's earth:

Yet the failure of the poetry of world has not meant the end of Heidegger's influence. On the contrary, poets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are deeply in his debt, directly and indirectly. That is because the decline of the poetry of world has meant the rise of the poetry of earth. This poetry—our poetry—prefers to imagine the artist not as a creator, but as a witness.

Judging from the examples Kirsch sites, I'd say the common thread of this poetry is its emphasis on a defamiliarization of the ordinary, material world (a great image from a Heaney poem about the "Scissor-and-slap abruptness of a latch./Its coldness to the thumb" is my favorite of these examples). And Kirsch really does seem to think that this is the common denominator of contemporary poetry after modernism — he calls it "our poetry" and claims that it extends across a range of poets "as different as Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, and Billy Collins." That range — all the way from A to B, or possibly to C — may well give one pause. But more on that later.

Heidegger without Kirsch

I actually don't think we should give everything Kirsch says the chuck, but I've got to say that the ideas he presents don't really have much of a basis in Heidegger's essay. I mean, I don't know what they told Kirsch about Heidegger up at Harvard, but at the University of Manitoba we heard something different about "The Origin of the Work of Art." (Which is not to say that I nailed Heidegger on the first take: I remember how, years later, both Gerald Bruns and Krysztof Ziarek had to go upside my head with a copy of Sein und Zeit before things Heideggerian really began to gel for me).

In fact, I think the first thing hard-core Heidegger guys like Bruns and Ziarek would say to Kirsch is something along the lines of "Dichotomy of earth and world?!? Dichotomy?!? Dichotomy you say? Surely you don't mean dichotomy but dialectic! DIALECTIC, I SAY!" And yeah, they'd have a point: if a dichotomy involves (as my second-favorite dictionary of philosophy tells me) "the division of things into two basic parts that are regarded as fundamentally and/or irreducibly different," and a dialectic involves "the process by which a thought or an existing thing leads to or changes into its opposite," then Heidegger definitely sees the manifestation of earth and world in the work of art as having a dialectical relationship. But let's not start there. Let's start with what Heidegger means by earth and by world — because what he means by those terms is rather different than what Kirsch seems to think he means.

Check it out. Contra what Kirsch implies, when Heidegger writes about earth he isn't referring to, you know, physical stuff per se — not rocks, or trees, or door-latches. Instead, he's referring to the tendency of things to resist our ability to understand, or even to notice, them. There's a whole realm of the unknown and not-understood out there, and it surrounds and contains us, even makes up a great deal of our physical self and our psyche, and this is what Heidegger has in mind when he writes about the earth (yeah, I know, it's an odd term, but it plays into a whole series of extended metaphors in Heidegger's writings, so let's let it slide). There's a famous passage, in "On the Origin of the Work of Art," in which Heidegger talks about a Van Gogh painting depicting some old, worn-looking peasant shoes. He says that shoes like this are generally things we don't notice (as opposed, one imagines, to the sort of shoes you'd buy here) — we wear them and use them as equipment, for their instrumental value, and we tend not to notice them when we do. Shoes like this, when they're actually worn, "belon[g] to the earth" says Heidegger — and they belong their not so much because they are material objects, but because they go unnoticed and un-thought-of. But we notice them in Van Gogh's painting, where they become part of something more. Here, in the painting, they get noticed or, in the standard translation of Heidegger, become "unconcealed." It's the concealedness of the shoes before they get into the painting, when they're just something around us that we don't notice, that makes them belong to the earth. The earth and the things that belong to it are self-concealing, and withdrawn from our attention and understanding.

But what about the world, in Heidegger's sense? Yeah. Okay. So it's like this. The world, for Heidegger, is the context in which and through which we apprehend, understand, or notice things — it's where things become (to use the Heideggerian term) "unconcealed." I mean, Kirsch is sort of semi-right when he says that world consists of "the historical and the mythic," but it's broader than that, and the important thing here is the fact that things like history and myth make us aware of things, they unconceal them. History, myth, etc. give us a way of noticing things, talking about them and feeling their presence. Heidegger's "world" is sort of like what a later generation would call "discourse" — the systems of thought and representation that let us notice things. As an example, let me mention how I had a pretty visceral experience of entering a different world than my habitual one when I started taking long bike rides through the woods with colleagues from the biology department — after a few months, my sense of my environment went from one where I noticed only greenery and bugs to one where I could tell my myriapods from my bryozoans. Well, on a good day I could. Anyway, you get the point: the world I'd entered, or that the bio boys led me to, made a whole lot more of the earth apparent to me. But maybe this is misleading, since it seems to imply that the earth is all a matter of material, ecosystemic stuff for Heidegger, which it isn't. I imagine that if I were to hang with my musicologist pal some more, and enter his world a bit, I would become more aware of sound patterns. That is, it would make non-biological, non-material stuff come out of earthly concealment into the unconcealment of the world. I mean, it's important not to think of the earth here as material stuff, but rather as that-which-we-don't-notice-or-understand, or that-which-conceals-itself-from-us (although that last phrase, which is closer to Heidegger's, gives the earth a weird kind of agency). This is really where Kirsch's essay distorts things most. Anyway, you get the idea, right? What? Move on, you say? Right.

So anyway, about that whole 'the relation of earth and world in Heidegger is a dialectic not a dichotomy' thing. It's true! That is, in the work of art, earth and world are always involved in a kind of struggle. If a work of art were pure world, it wouldn't be art, it'd be propaganda, or ideology: a closed system of mental coordinates that never come into contact with anything that resists it. It'd be sort of Orwellian. But the art work doesn't allow anything so easy to happen. Even as it starts to open up a whole world (or discourse, or paradigm, or way of understanding) for us, it gives us elements that resist appropriation into that world. If the work of art in question is, say, a poem, we might say that it resists paraphrase, or closure; or that parts of it remain indeterminate; or that it shoots off so many connotations that we're uneasy reducing it to a denotative meaning. Any attempt to make the art work into mere world runs up against all kinds of elements that escape that world. Robert B. Stulberg put it this way in a fantastic little article in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism back in 1973:

In the calm self-repose of the work, the world and the earth are engaged in a struggle, a struggle in which each 'opponent' attempts to assert its own self in the art work. The earth — the concealing and self-closing realm — tries to draw the world into itself. The world — the open and unhidden realm — tries to surmount the hidden earth... Heidegger ... explains that the struggle is never entirely resolved in the work of art...

Earth and world oppose one another, but they also need one another. You wouldn't exist as a conscious entity without some kind of world, or paradigm; and a work of art wouldn't function without proposing one, however partially and provisionally. At the same time, no world is absolute, no world exhausts the possibilities of earth. I mean, think like Bakhtin for a moment and it all becomes clearer — for Bakhtin, no one kind of language reveals all of the truth, in fact, each conceals a certain part of it (medical language gets at the truth of your body, but not of your personality, say; legal language gets at the truth of your rights in a given society, but not at much else). Or maybe the better analogy is with Wittgenstein, and his famous statement "the limits of my language are the limits of my world." For Heidegger, all worlds are limited, all conceal even as they reveal. And I think it's the failure to emphasize this part of Heidegger's thinking that leads Kirsch to some suspect statements about Modernism.

Meeting the Moderns

Hey. You must really be into this whole Heidegger deal if you're still with me. Either that, or you bear Adam Kirsch some strange animus, and are looking for me to really lay into him (you're out of luck if that's the case: I'm going to wheel this essay around in the next section and claim that, despite his somewhat dodgy take on Heidegger, Kirsch makes an intriguing, and quite probably true, point about contemporary poetry).

Anyway. Kirsch's take on the Modernists is that they are drawn to the idea of world-creation, to projecting systems of values and to the "domineering" act of forging "new coordinates of meaning and order." This, I have to say, I don't quite get. At least not in most cases. Kirsch argues that the Modernists wanted to present worlds in the sense of thrusting domineering, totalizing systems of knowledge upon us, but that they somehow failed to make these things come together. But come on. It isn't like Eliot wanted to say that there was a single key to all mythologies — if he did, he'd have written a book like Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance, not a deliberately fragmentary poem that riffs on that book, and refuses to settle into a smooth whole. In fact, Eliot's The Waste Land seems much more like Heidegger's idea of the work of art as a place where a world starts to open up for us, but then falls away into concealment and unmeaning. Kirsch might have a point when it comes to Pound, who seems to have wanted The Cantos to cohere into a kind of ideology, and who's confession near the end of the poem that he couldn't "make it cohere" sounds like an admission of failure. But this failure to create a coherent world wouldn't be a failure from a Heideggerian perspective: it would simply be an example of the work of art doing what it does, and ought to do: bringing world (or unconcealedness) into relation with earth (or concealedness).

[Would it be muddying these already murky waters to point out that William Carlos Williams, with his "no ideas but in things" poetic, is a Modernist who doesn't try to project value systems so much as he tries to focus our attention on material things — thus making him a poet of "earth" in Kirsch's sense, though not necessarily in Heidegger's? Yeah, you're right, it probably would. So I won't mention it. Right, then. Moving on.]

Kirsch without Heidegger

So okay. Kirsch's take on Heidegger is a bit sketchy: his notion of earth being out of whack with Heidegger's, and his sense of the relation of earth and world being different from that proposed by Heidegger, too. But let's set all that aside. I mean, does an idea really need a pedigree to be taken seriously? There's one element of Kirsch's essay I want to take seriously: his proposal that poets have become reticent about projecting "coordinates of meaning and order." I think there's something to this. I don't want to propose that "our poetry believes" that we shouldn't project coordinates of meaning. That would be a generalization (even a totalization). I mean, is this really universal? I'd say it's just prevalent. There's also a reification in Kirsch's statement ("our poetry" is an abstraction and doesn't believe anything, it's poets who believe things). I'm skittish around both the totalization and the reification, but I do think Kirsch is on to something. There are plenty of poets who do what Kirsch says "our poetry" does: they "witness" (Kirsch's word) "the sensuous reality of the non-human" things of the world, and draw our attention to them, without aiming to issue "commandments" about how we should judge, interpret, and value these things.

In fact, if we move beyond the excruciatingly narrow range of poets Kirsch discusses, we find a related phenomenon among writers of more experimental verse. Take a guy like Jeremy Prynne. He's certainly not a no-ideas-but-in-things poet, who defamiliarizes the common objects of the world for us as a way of avoiding making Big Totalizing Statements and Proposing A Dominant Ideology. But he's got a goal quite similar to poets who take that path: he's all about avoiding the kind of world-projecting, or ideology-creating that Kirsch writes about. In the polydiscursive poetry of his early period, for example, he's all about showing the limits of any particular kind of language, or ideology, or world-projection. As N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge put it in Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne, "Prynne would want a poetry neither useful to some manipulative power, nor providing musical accompaniment to a commodifying culture," and he structures his poems accordingly. In Heidegger's terms, there's a whole lot of earthly concealment going on in them, and a lot of undoing of worldly unconcealments. Prynne makes a big deal out of the idea of "rubbish" — the sort of thing we don't notice, and have no use for, and would like to exclude from our worlds. For him,

Rubbish is
pertinent; essential; the
most intricate presence in
our entire culture

(from "L'Extase de M. Poher" — the spacing is quite different in the original, but my html skills are weak, people, weak)

That is, he finds the idea of the excluded and unnoticed and unused important, because it points to the limitations of our systems of meaning. Rubbish is, by definition, something that we discard and don't want to think about. It highlights the limits of our world.

Okay. So I don't have any more empirical evidence than Kirsch does, but I do sense from my general rooting-around-in-poetry that the reticence about proposing systems of value that Kirsch sees among his range of poets exists; and my sense is that, in different ways, this reticence is shared by many members of an experimental writing community that seems to lie outside of Kirsch's range of knowledge, or maybe just outside his range of sympathy. But if this is indeed the case, one might well wonder, you know, why? Why don't many poets want to do that Dante thing and lay down The Authoritative Values of Our Culture in Unambiguous Four-Part Allegory? Ah! I think I have it! And I think I can break it down in a a single paragraph! (Well, in a provisional kind of way — the confidence is not so much me as it is the coffee. Can you tell that I've been writing this while working my way through a giant carafe of Intelligentsia Panamanian El Machete Fair Trade Goodness?).

The Culture of Critical Discourse

Yeah. So it's like this (in a provisional, non-totalizing, probably-part-of-the-answer way): much contemporary poetry, both of the Nobel-and-U.S-laureate type Kirsch describes and the freaky-experimental school I mentioned, eschews the projection of authoritative coordinates of meaning because of... (drumroll, please, Anton) ...their embrace of the Culture of Critical Discourse! [insert wild applause here]. And what's that, you ask? Ah! It's all laid down by the late, great Alvin Gouldner, sociologist-of-intellectuals extraordinaire. In The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, Gouldner argues that a common characteristic of virtually all contemporary intellectuals is their commitment to the Culture of Critical Discourse (or CCD, as he always abbreviates it). The CCD is pretty much what it sounds like: a set of received assumptions about the nature of truth; specifically, assumptions about how truth isn't a matter of authoritative revelation, but a matter an open-ended inquiry. If we buy into the CCD (and the contemporary educational system, especially at the university level, is all about the CCD), we don't expect truth to be something that can be set down once and for all. We expect truth-claims to always be subject to questioning, and we expect that our paradigms will probably have to change as new evidence comes in from our investigations. To paraphrase The Dude in The Big Lebowski, we expect new shit to come to light. Poets, as a subset of the class of intellectuals, just don't have faith in the idea of truth being something one can set down once and for all any more (there may be exceptions, but they'd be outliers, from areas of our culture beyond the mainstream. I suppose there may be poets out there belonging to one or another of the fundamentalist movements who think that the coordinates of meaning can and should be set down once and for all, but they are eccentric with regard to the dominant poetic culture of our society, which is heavily conditioned by the CCD). So, don't expect any Dantes, at least not Dantes with an MFA. People coming out of a sympathetic identification with university culture (long may it wave) just aren't likely to believe they can set down everlasting systems of value.

Oh, and Don't Miss This!

If you're in Chicago on August 22nd, and have recovered from my turgid prose, check out The Printer's Ball at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tout le monde of Chicago poetry will be there, and the good people from Beard of Bees Press promise no one will be hurt this time when they fire up the Gnoetry Poetry Machine.