Mesocosm

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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Thoughts on the Romantics part 1: transcendental idealism, Buddhism, and Novalis

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schinkel

Schloß am Strom, Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Over the last few months I’ve been making a study of the early German Romantics, and I’ve been impressed by the continued relevance of their arguments on aesthetics, their analysis of the relationship of the individual to the absolute, and their critique of the totalizing rationalism of the Enlightenment. Some of the key figures I’ve focused on include the art critic Friedrich Schlegel, the poets Novalis and Hölderlin, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

As the scholar Manfred Frank has exhaustively chronicled, the early Romantics were extremely self-conscious of their status as the first creative generation to succeed the intellectual revolution inaugurated by Kant’s Critiques, and their subsequent elaboration by Fichte. The metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic concerns of the Romantics were largely shaped by the problematic of transcendental idealism, especially the relationship of the knowing subject to the unknowable ultimate ground of experience.

As a Buddhist, it has been enormously useful for me to explore a development of transcendental idealism conducted by artists and intellectuals firmly ensconced within the European tradition of psychological maturation and individuation, which differs in key respects from traditional patterns in India, Tibet, China, and Japan, where the individual ego is generally not valued in itself. The European tradition represented by the Romantics places high value on the individual development of a unique and independent perspective as integral to the process of becoming a mature adult. They likewise place a deep value on creative art which my Tibetan teachers would not have understood. I was once told by a Geshe from Drepung Loseling that the only art that has value is iconic contemplative art – all other forms of art are merely ornamental, essentially toys for children.

I know that that is false, of course – great aesthetic experiences can provide insight and illumination of a high order. Some of the most profound experiences of my life have involved great works of art – I think of my first experience seeing Wagner’s Ring cycle, or seeing the Sistine Chapel, or reading Dante’s Commedia, or Finnegans Wake, or Hamlet. Aesthetic experiences can be a vehicle for the veridical intuition of deep truths about life and the nature of consciousness. 

It is illuminating to explore the work of thinkers who are deeply concerned with the transformative and enlightening qualities of great art, while sharing a philosophical perspective that in core respects closely resembles the Buddhist philosophy with which I otherwise feel so at home. I have argued before that there are pervasive and important similarities between Buddhism and Kantian transcendental idealism, and if anything this sense has only been increasingly borne out by my deeper study of Kant in the last several years. I would emphatically recommend reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to any serious student of Buddhism.

The early Romantics also sensed a deep kinship between their philosophical enterprise and some of the traditions of India. For example, in his “Speech on Mythology” in 1802, Schlegel wrote (my translation):

If only the treasures of the Orient were as accessible to us as those of the ancient [Greeks and Romans]! What new sources of poetry could flow to us from India if some German artists had the opportunity, with their universal scope and depth of sense, and with the genius of translation they possess. [Our] nation, which is becoming ever more dumb and brutal, scarcely comprehends the need. We must search in the Orient for the ultimate Romantic, and if we can draw from the source, perhaps the appearance of the southern glow, which so charms us in Spanish poetry, will again appear, only sparsely and in Western guise.

In this perspective, Schlegel followed Goethe, who praised the great Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa in 1792, and who would emulate the Sufi poet Hafiz in his West-East Divan in 1819. It is my belief that the “Prelude in the Theater” in Faust was modeled after the introduction of Kalidasa’s magnificent play Recognition of Shakuntala, which includes a similar introduction of the work that will follow to the audience by the director.

Transcendental idealism is ultimately focused on the limits of reason and experience, and accounting for how consciousness is made coherent by regularities which structure any possible experience, such as space, time, and causality. These are seen as necessary features of consciousness, but their ultimate relationship to reality itself, independent of how we experience it, is unknowable.

This problematic was exhaustively analyzed philosophically by Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and also inspired a creative response from poets like Novalis and Hölderlin, who developed it from a very different center of gravity in the human psyche. Having assimilated the implications of transcendental idealism through exhaustive study (see Manfred Frank’s Unendliche Annährung), the early Romantic poets worked through the relationship of individuals to the absolute – of the knowing subject to the ineffable transcendent ground of experience – with the metaphorical tools of poetry and myth.

For example, in his celebrated “Hymns to the Night” (here in German, here’s a dated English translation), Novalis employs this problematic as a framework for rendering his deeply personal experience of mourning the death of his young betrothed. He joins the image of the lonely consciousness in the inchoate night of the Absolute with the memory of keeping vigil at the lonely grave of his beloved all night. In both cases, subjective experience is like an isolated lighthouse in an infinite, dark, and silent sea (see the Caspar David Friedrich painting below). 

This poetic work harnesses the structure of transcendental idealism as a framework for giving modern expression to the age-old motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which has been a major feature of German literary culture at least since the time of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan in the early thirteenth century. The image of the falling night encompasses sleep, death, the unconscious, the undifferentiated sphere of the absolute, and transcendent union with the Beloved.

Here is my rendering of Novalis’ second Hymn:

Must morning always come again?
Will earth’s dominion never end?
Profane commerce consumes
The heavenly advent of night.
Will love’s secret sacrifice never
Burn eternal?
Light and waking’s time
was measured,
But night’s dominion is timeless,
The span of sleep eternal.
Holy sleep!
Do not too seldom bless
those in Earth’s acre
who consecrate the night.
Only fools mistake you,
Knowing no sleep
But the shadow
You compassionately cast upon us
In that dawn
Of true night.
They do not feel you
In the golden flood of grapes,
In the almond tree’s
Miraculous oil
And the poppy’s brown juice.
They do not know
It’s you
Who float about the maiden’s
Tender breast,
Making heaven of her bosom;
Do not sense
That out of old stories
You open heaven coming forth to meet us
And carry the key
To the chambers of the blessed,
Silent messenger of
Infinite secrets.

In my next post on this subject I’ll look more specifically at the aesthetic theory underlying the work of the Romantics, especially as it was expressed in Friedrich Schlegel’s “Speech on Mythology.” I’ll also have a look at how this theory has been interpreted by the modern theorist Karl Heinz Bohrer.

CDF

Zwei Männer am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich

Written by Mesocosm

May 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

52:12 Wondrously Embraced Within the Real

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Bodhisattva, Tang Dynasty

Bodhisattva, Tang Dynasty, China

This week I’d like to talk about the “Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” by Dongshan Liangjie, founder of the Chinese Caodong school of Ch’an Buddhism, better known in the west in its Japanese form, the Soto Zen school established by Eihei Dogen in the 13th century CE.

Many of the world’s mystical traditions express themselves in complementary styles, with analytical philosophical traditions and poetic traditions. For example, if we were to set the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas side-by-side with the “Canticle of the Sun” by his near-contemporary Saint Francis, we would the most extreme difference in style, though the ultimate import and reference might be similar.

I began my studies of Buddhism with a deep dive into the speculative philosophy of the Tibetan Buddhists, and only after many years did I turn to the Zen approach, which is staggeringly different in its rhetorical priorities, but ultimately in close accord with respect to meaning. I’ve written about this difference at some length in Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism.

Having been bound to the intellectual rigor of Tibetan Buddhism for so long, my encounter with the exceedingly poetical style of Zen authors was something of an ecstatic release for me. That is not to say it is ultimately a better approach, and it has its own vortices where the unwary can get stuck for a very long time. But the complementary approach of holding those two different streams was, for me, extremely rewarding.

Dongshan Liangjie possessed a miraculous insight and great powers of expression. As a practitioner he was deeply concerned with the aliveness of things, and his testimony leaves no doubt that his realization was encompassed by that focus. It often seems to me that the character of the realization of ultimate truth seems to be structured by the set of concerns the questioning mind brings to bear when asking after the final nature of reality, and in that sense the flavor realization seems to play out in highly personal ways. For example, one could compare one’s sense of the realization of the Dalai Lama with that of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, so similar, but so different.

But I digress. I first encountered the “Mirror Samadhi” at the San Francisco Zen Center, and I was immediately overwhelmed, not just by what it plainly said, but by the greatness of the mystery it evoked.

A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.

A statement like this in the context of the poem is crystal clear in image and effect, even though its literal meaning is exceedingly obscure. We’re not dealing here with a murky obscurantist, but with someone articulating a kind of experience well outside of the frame of ordinary discourse.

I’d like to get on to the poem itself and offer it here to you without my obstructing commentary. As a set up I will only say this – the “precious mirror samadhi” of the title refers to a meditative absorption on the final nature of reality, in which the mind and its object both fall away, disclosing a prior unity. Without further ado, I give you the poem, as it is superbly translated by Taigen Daniel Leighton in his book Cultivating the Empty Field, one of the most prized volumes in my library.

Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi

The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors.
Now you have it; preserve it well.
A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.
Taken as similar, they are not the same; not distinguished, their places are known.
The meaning does not reside in the words, but a pivotal moment brings it forth.
Move and you are trapped, miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation.
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
Just to portray it in literary form is to stain it with defilement.
In darkest night it is perfectly clear; in the light of dawn it is hidden.
It is a standard for all things; its use removes all suffering.
Although it is not constructed, it is not beyond words.
Like facing a precious mirror; form and reflection behold each other.
You are not it, but in truth it is you.
Like a newborn child, it is fully endowed with five aspects:
No going, no coming, no arising, no abiding;
“Baba wawa” – is anything said or not?
In the end it says nothing, for the words are not yet right.
In the illumination hexagram, inclined and upright interact.
Piled up they become three; the permutations make five.
Like the taste of the five-flavored herb, like the five-pronged vajra.
Wondrously embraced within the real, drumming and singing begin together.
Penetrate the source and travel the pathways; embrace the territory and treasure the roads.
You would do well to respect this; do not neglect it.
Natural and wondrous, it is not a matter of delusion or enlightenment.
Within causes and conditions, time and season, it is serene and illuminating.
So minute it enters where there is no gap, so vast it transcends dimension.
A hairsbreadth’s deviation, and you are out tune.
Now there are sudden and gradual, in which teachings and approaches arise.
With teachings and approaches distinguished, each has its standard.
Whether teachings and approaches are mastered or not, reality constantly flows.
Outside still and inside trembling, like tethered colts or cowering rats.
The ancient sages grieved for them, and offered them the dharma.
Led by their inverted views, they take black for white.
When inverted thinking stops, the affirming mind naturally accords.
If you want to follow in the ancient tracks, please observe the sages of the past.
One on the verge of realizing the Buddha Way contemplated a tree for ten aeons.
Like a battle-scarred tiger, like a horse with shanks gone grey.
Because some are vulgar, jeweled tables and ornate robes.
Because others are wide-eyed, cats and white oxen.
With his archer’s skill, Yi hit the mark at a hundred paces.
But when arrows meet head-on, how could it be a matter of skill?
The wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.
It is not reached by feelings or consciousness, how could it involve deliberation?
Ministers serve their lords, children obey their parents.
Not obeying is not filial, failure to serve is no help.
With practice hidden, function secretly, like a fool, like an idiot.
Just to do this is called the host within the host.

I don’t want to overdo the commentary, as I find the process of engaging with its beguiling imagery to be very rewarding, but I would like to call out a few things that may aid the interested reader.

Enso

Putting it philosophically, this poem is concerned with a state of nondual realization of the ultimate nature reality which transcends and mediates the binary conceptual distinctions that typically structure our experience of the world into good and bad, right and wrong, me and you, this and that. Buddhism holds that this type of conceptually-mediated thought and perception obscures the true nature of phenomena, which are in truth a dynamic interplay of distributed patterns of information and energy, registered by consciousness.

Words of the kind I’ve just used can be helpful in pointing the way, but the experience is something much more immediate, vivid, and transformative, and the poem warns throughout about the tension between pointing the way with language and ideas, and the ultimate leap beyond language and ideas that characterizes realization itself.

One of my favorite aspects of this poem is the extraordinary imagery its author uses to evoke the sense that this realization makes the world come to life where it was previously inert, and the mundane suddenly sparkles with a miraculous quality. “The wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.”

Some of the references in this poem are obscure to modern readers, but would have been clear allusions to Dongshan’s contemporaries. For myself, when I get to the bit about hexagrams, it suffices to know that this is a reference to the I Ching, and I move on. Likewise with the five-flavored herb and the five-pronged varja, which both refer to the five aggregates, or the five constituents of being in Buddhist metaphysics, united in a single expression.

The “host within the host” at the end refers to another one of Dongshan’s writings, the “Five Ranks,” in which he poetically describes the stages of realization. Thomas Cleary renders the final verse of that poem thus:

If you are not trapped
in being or nonbeing,
who can dare to join you?
Everyone wants to leave
the ordinary current,
but in the final analysis
you come back
and sit in the ashes.

Written by Mesocosm

November 19, 2016 at 11:12 am

Bashō’s Narrow Road

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It’s interesting to find how much your experience of a book can change when you’ve put on a few years. Today I’m having that experience going back to Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. It didn’t make much of an impression on me when I first read it, but now I find it nearly overpowering.

Great moments:

“I went to see the shrine of Muro-no-yashima. According to Sora, my companion, this shrine is dedicated to the goddess called the Lady of Flower-Bearing Trees, who has another shrine at the foot of Mount Fuji. This goddess is said to have locked herself up in a burning cell to prove the divine nature of her newly-conceived son when her husband doubted it. As a result, her son was named Lord Born Out of The Fire, and her shrine, Muro-no-yashima, which means burning cell. It was a custom of this place for poets to sing of the rising smoke, and for ordinary people not to eat konoshiro, a speckled fish, which has a vile smell when burnt.”

Small moments:

“I mounted the horse and started off, when two small children came running after me. One of them was a girl named Kasane, which means manifold. I thought her name was somewhat strange but exceptionally beautiful.”

Excerpts are from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Noboyuki Yuasa.

Written by Mesocosm

April 27, 2015 at 11:38 am

Posted in Literature, Poetry

The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones

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Conrad Aiken’s beautiful and haunting little book of poems uses E. A. Wallis Budge’s translation of the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day, popularly known as the Book of the Dead, as a framework for exploring that which is eternal in the light of individual, transitory experience.

While the Book of the Dead instructs souls journeying to the afterlife on the visions they will see and the trials they must pass, Aiken makes an afterlife of this very world, giving voice to chairs, rooms, mirrors, and various other objects and allowing them to bear witness to the life of its titular character. They speak from a perspective strangely outside of time, giving an impression something like hieratic Egyptian figure drawings.

It is a stage of ether, without space, —
a space of limbo without time, —
a faceless clock that never strikes;

and it is bloodstream at its priestlike task,–
the indeterminate and determined heart,
that beats, and beats, and does not know it beats.

Or take this bit from “Mr. Jones Addresses a Looking-Glass,” possibly an echo of the classic Egyptian text “Dialog between Self and Soul”:

Mr Jones

how can you know what here goes on
behind this flesh-bright frontal bone?
here are the world and god, become
for all their depth a simple Sum.

The mirror

well, keep the change, then, Mr. Jones,
and, if you can, keep brains and bones,
but as for me I’d rather be
unconscious, except when I see.

Voices speak with a curious lack of interiority, and the effect is one of depersonalization, and of dawning awareness of a more transcendent movement passing through life.

and it is life, but it is also death,
it is the whisper of the always lost
but always known, it is the first and last
of heaven’s light, the end and the beginning,
follows the moving memory like a shadow,
and only rests, at last, when that too comes to rest.

A fascinating read, but sadly, rather difficult to find.

Written by Mesocosm

June 5, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Poetry, Reviews

Canzon: The Yearly Slain

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Ceres and Proserpina (detail)
Ludwig Schwanthaler
(c) Barnaby Thieme

Today I’d like to share a lovely poem by Ezra Pound drawn from Canzoni & Ripostes by Pound and T. E. Hulme.

The poem was conceived as a response to Frederic Manning’s charming but inferior “Korè“. The subject of both poems is the goddess Persephone, daughter of Demeter and queen of the Underworld, sometimes called Kore, or maiden.

The locus classicus of Persephone’s well-known story is the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter“, written in honor of her mother, goddess of corn, known as Ceres to the Romans. One day, while gathering flowers, Persephone was seized by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who dragged her below the earth to make her his queen. Demeter was heartbroken by the loss of her daughter and abandoned her office, and the land became barren and the fields infertile.

This time of infertility is widely interpreted in European literature as autumn and winter. However, in Greece, the time of infertility is not winter, but summer, when the fields lie untilled as the hard earth bakes beneath the harsh Mediterranean sun. The great Greek fertility festival honoring Demeter’s return to activity, the Thesmophoria, was held in autumn, at the beginning of the planting season.

Pound and Manning associate Persephone’s absence with winter, and beautifully employ melancholy autumnal images to signify her departure. Using the more generic term for the goddess, Kore, or maiden, they transpose the story onto a higher plane of generality. The loss of the maiden is also the loss of the beloved, and the sorrow of solitude is externalized by the falling away of the summer leaves.

As you read the poem, note the intricate and demanding rhyme scheme. Each stanza is ABCDEFG, repeating precisely throughout the entire poem (i.e., the first lines of every stanza rhyme, and so forth). This rhyme scheme is developed and perfected by the great Provençal Troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Pound regarded as perhaps the greatest of all poets. If the poem is slowly read aloud, the rhyme scheme produces a powerful musical effect that binds the whole together.

Canzon: The Yearly Slain
  (Written in reply to Manning’s “Korè.”)
       “Et huiusmodi stantiae usus est fere in omnibus
       cantionibus suis Arnaldus Danielis et nos eum secuti
       sumus.

              Dante, De Vulgari Eloquio, II. 10.

I

Ah! red-leafed time hath driven out the rose
And crimson dew is fallen on the leaf
Ere ever yet the cold white wheat be sown
That hideth all earth’s green and sere and red;
The Moon-flower’s fallen and the branch is bare,
Holding no honey for the starry bees;
The Maiden turns to her dark lord’s demesne.

II

Fairer than Enna’s field when Ceres sows
The stars of hyacinth and puts off grief,
Fairer than petals on May morning blown
Through apple-orchards where the sun hath shed
His brighter petals down to make them fair;
Fairer than these the Poppy-crowned One flees,
And Joy goes weeping in her scarlet train.

III

The faint damp wind that, ere the even, blows
Piling the west with many a tawny sheaf,
Then when the last glad wavering hours are mown
Sigheth and dies because the day is sped;
This wind is like her and the listless air
Wherewith she goeth by beneath the trees,
The trees that mock her with their scarlet stain.

IV

Love that is born of Time and comes and goes!
Love that doth hold all noble hearts in fief!
As red leaves follow where the wind hath flown,
So all men follow Love when Love is dead.
O Fate of Wind! O Wind that cannot spare,
But drivest out the Maid, and pourest lees
Of all thy crimson on the wold again,

V

Kore my heart is, let it stand sans gloze!
Love’s pain is long, and lo, love’s joy is brief!
My heart erst alway sweet is bitter grown;
As crimson ruleth in the good green’s stead,
So grief hath taken all mine old joy’s share
And driven forth my solace and all ease
Where pleasure bows to all-usurping pain.

VI

Crimson the hearth where one last ember glows!
My heart’s new winter hath no such relief,
Nor thought of Spring whose blossom he hath known
Hath turned him back where Spring is banishèd.
Barren the heart and dead the fires there,
Blow! O ye ashes, where the winds shall please,
But cry, “Love also is the Yearly Slain.”

VII

Be sped, my Canzon, through the bitter air!
To him who speaketh words as fair as these,
Say that I also know the “Yearly Slain.”

Written by Mesocosm

October 26, 2012 at 8:30 am

Ophelia

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The Melancholy Spring, Wilhelm Lachnit
photo (C) Barnaby Thieme

by Georg Heym, translated by Mesocosm

I

A nest of young water rats in her hair,
And ringed hands like fins
In the flood, so she pushes through the shadows
of the great forests that come to rest in water.

The last sun that stumbled into shadow
Sinks deep into the sanctuary of her brain.
Why did she die? Why does she drive,
so alone, in the waters that fern and leaf confound?

The wind stands in the deep reeds. It drives
The bats off like a hand.
With dark pinions, wet from water,
They stand like smoke in the dark waterway

Like clouds of night. A longer, wiser eel
Slips over her breast. A glowworm shines
From her brow. And a willow weeps
foliage on her silent agony.

II.

Grain. Seeds. And noon’s red sweat.
The field yellow wind sleeps quietly.
She comes, a bird who wants to sleep.
The swan’s wing covers her white.

The blue lids shadow gently down.
And by the scythes naked melodies
She dreams of a crimson kiss
The eternal dream in her eternal grave.

Gone, gone. Where the river bank roars
The sound of cities. Where the white river
is forced through dams. The reverberation is heard
With distant echoes. Where sounds below

Echo full of streets. Bells and chimes.
Screams of machines. Struggle. Where westward threatens
dull sunset in blind panes.
In which a crane with giant arms,

With black brow, a mighty tyrant
A juggernaut, so the black slaves kneel.
Burden heavy bridges, which draw above
like chains on the river, and hard spell.

Invisible she swims in the escort flood.
But where she drives past, the swarms of people pursue
With great wings of a dark grief,
Which cast shadows over both banks.

Gone, gone. As the darkness inaugurates
The westerly high summer day late,
Where in the dark green of the meadows stands
The distant evening’s delicate exhaustion.

The river carries them far away, the submerged,
Through some mourning port of winter.
Down from time. On through eternity,
which the horizon smokes like fire.

 
Georg Heym was an early Expressionist poet who spent much of his short life in Berlin. In 1912, he drowned in icy waters at the age of 24, while attempting to save a friend who had fallen through the ice.

Written by Mesocosm

May 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Poetry, Translations

Tagged with , ,

Heidelberg

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by Hölderlin, translated by Mesocosm

Heidelberg Castle

Long have I loved you – wanted, for my own delight,
  To call you mother, and to offer you an artless song,
    You, the loveliest town that I have seen
        in the fatherland.

As the bird of the wild flying over the summit
  Swings past the river where it glistens above you,
    So the bridges, light and strong,
       From which wagons and people resound.

As if sent by the gods, a spell on the bridge
  once held me where I went over,
    and the beautiful distances shone
      to me here, in the mountains,

And the child-river moves off the plain,
  Bittersweet, like a heart overcome
    by its own beauty, downfall-loving,
      casting itself into the flood of time.

To the fugitive, you gave wellsprings
  and cool shadows, and all the shores
    watched after him, and the scene
      Quivered from her image’s waves.

But hard in the valley hung the gigantic
  destiny-knowing castle, down to the ground
    Torn apart by the weather;
      Yet the eternal sun poured

Her rejuvenating light on the aging,
  Colossal image, and around the green,
    vital ivy, friendly forests
      rustled down over the castle.

Bushes were blooming down, to the edges where
  the serene valley leaned on the hills or held the bank
    Your friendly streets
      Rest below the fragrant gardens.
 
All images (c) Barnaby Thieme. Click any to enlarge.
 

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg

Written by Mesocosm

May 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Epigram for Poetry

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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
                                                                    tractor,
The lame horse behind the fast vehicle.
And it does not bother them, if he stumbles and breaks a
                                                                    bone
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?

 
Comments

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.

Written by Mesocosm

May 18, 2012 at 10:13 am

It Must Be Abstract

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Mark Chagall’s palette, 1974
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

From “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” by Wallace Stevens.

It feels good as it is without the giant,
A thinker of the first idea. Perhaps
The truth depends on a walk around a lake,

A composing as the body tires, a stop
To see hepatica, a stop to watch
A definition growing certain and

A wait within that certainty, a rest
In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake.
Perhaps there are times of inherent excellence,

As when the cock crows on the left and all
Is well, incalculable balances,
At which a kind of Swiss perfection comes

And a familiar music of the machine
Sets up its Schwärmerei, not balances
That we achieve but balances that happen,

As a man and woman meet and love forthwith.
Perhaps there are moments of awakening,
Extreme, fortuitous, personal, in which

We more than awaken, sit on the edge of sleep,
As on an elevation and behold
The academies like structures in a mist.

Written by Mesocosm

May 3, 2012 at 9:26 am

Posted in Poetry

Like Apples

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The Three Judges (detail)
Georges Rouault

“The field was the length
of this whole building, as far
across as the street is wide.
We’d fill it with potatoes.
I came from a big family
and we ate most of ’em –
they keep for a long time
in a cellar.”

He mostly turns toward me,
half-looking over his shoulder.

“We had a big triangle made of wood,
that had three points. We’d pull it
behind us with a rope. That was the rows.
And I’d go with a broom handle or a hoe
and poke holes into the ground just like this.”

He gestures two or three times.

“And my dad would come along with the potato,
or the eye of the potato,
and he’d stick it in the ground
and we’d cover it up.
They grow out in vines and
the potatoes grow underground, maybe
six of ’em on a plant. They had flowers
like anything else – white ones.”

He walks around to the other side of the big table.

“That was Pennsylvania. My father’s brother
owned a farm and let us use part of the land.”

He doesn’t look me in the eye, maybe shy.

“I remember in August the new potatoes – oh, God.
We would eat ’em like apples, they were so good.”

Written by Mesocosm

March 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Poetry

Tagged with