Epigram for Poetry
by Heiner Müller, translated by Mesocosm
Pegasus served the brave and honest of the poets of old
Carried them wingedly away over the terrestrial dust.
Today, busy with making the earth more palatable,
we need poets who are earthly and mechanized.
But our poets – what do they do? Drag out the old,
reliable horse from the stable, where he fed on charity.
Before the fragile one, they span the fast-driving
The lame horse behind the fast vehicle.
And it does not bother them, if he stumbles and breaks a
Spending old moans for new songs.
For J. K.
Dogs value lamp posts as much as birches.
Not so, the poet — he holds to birches alone.
To be permitted, it is allowed, one must only be capable, wrote one who was able.
Could the gods do nothing, because they could not?
I looked at this poem in particular because I’ve been reading Heidegger’s rather profound interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymns recently. Hölderlin perhaps represents the pinnacle of the German nostalgia for classical Greek culture, which he depicted in his poems as a distant realm of the absolute spirit, a place where gods walked the earth.
Hölderlin contrasted Greece with the materialistic and systematic character of his own culture, and interpreted Greece’s power to inspire the German imagination as the pull of the dialectical contrary or antithesis. In a sense, he believed, the spiritual vitality of Greece belonged more to the people of Germany, who, in making the journey outside of their home to the place where spirit made unveiled, encountered that realm in a way that the Greeks could not.
It is interesting to compare that view of of classical Greece with another great German poet, Heiner Müller, who worked a century and a half later. If Hölderlin’s Germany was animated by questions implied by the dialectical idealism of his close friend Hegel, then Müller’s DDR was structured by its antithesis, Marx’s dialectical materialism.
In Müller’s poem we have a much more ambivalent and tragic view of Germany’s use of classical Greece. Instead of the acme of immortality, the lyricism classical culture embodies is intensely fragile, and its message is perhaps no longer audible over the roar of the engines.
Müller’s own work is very much involved with reconceptualizing Europe’s relationship to its own heritage – please see my post on his masterpiece The Hamlet Machine for more on that subject.