Academic journal article Philosophy Today

"What Are Poets For?": Renewing the Question with Hegel and Heidegger

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

"What Are Poets For?": Renewing the Question with Hegel and Heidegger

Article excerpt


I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all

this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

it after all, a place for the genuine.

Hands that can grasp, eyes

that can dilate, hair that can rise

if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but


they are

useful. When they become so derivative as to become


the same thing may be said for all of us, that we

do not admire what

we cannot understand: the bat

holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf


a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that

feels a

flea, the base-

ball fan, the statistician-

nor is it valid

to discriminate against 'business documents and

school-books'; all these phenomena are important. One must

make a distinction

however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the

result is not poetry,

nor till the poets among us can be

'literalists of the imagination'-above

insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them',


we have

it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,

the raw material of poetry in

all its rawness and

that which is on the other hand

genuine, you are interested in poetry.

(M. Moore)

1. "Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?"

Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?" asks Hölderlin in his 1800-1801 elegy Brot und Wein. The very fact that the poet finds himself posing the question already betrays the historical predicament of modernity in which poetic activity and poetic language are no longer, as in the ancient Greek world, naturally and immediately flowing from the things themselves, from the proximity of the gods to-and even unity with-the natural and the human world (Brot und Wein, 5). In fact, the poet who self-doubtingly raises the question is the poet who feels that as a poet he has "come too late." The ancient times belong to a long-gone, irretrievable past, the gods are once and for all removed from the disillusioned human world, and if they have not entirely disappeared they do live "in another world," the poet is alone ("ohne Genossen"). In the fracture that is modernity the poet's question arises: why then and for what be a poet in "destitute times"? Poets seem to be "the holy priests" of the "god's wine" (Weingott), "who wandered from land to land in holy night" (Brot und Wein, 7). This is what the poet's "friend" Heinze suggests. Poets are those mortals who pursue the fugitive gods wherever this pursuit takes them: in a chase from land to land but always in the darkness of night-albeit a holy one.1

Hölderlin's question is raised again in 1946 by Heidegger. Other, indeed much darker and much more troubled times hover over the question at this juncture. Now the interrogation is further removed from the poet. In fact, it does not come from the poet himself but from the philosopher. If the question still expresses a (self-) doubt it is the doubt of the philosopher who now turns to the poet for a possible "salvation," for the possibility that a new "beginning" of philosophical thinking itself be revealed to him by the poet. This is, in effect, the way in which Hölderlin's poetry has opened the path for Heidegger's new way of philosophizing beyond the strictures of metaphysics and contemporary phenomenology. It follows that now the question does not regard only the "what for" (wozu) of poetry but also and in the first place the identification of those poets whom the question may be seen to concern (let's name then the poets in-and of-our destitute time, the poets who may save us; is Rilke one of them, and in what way, namely, "how is his poetry related to the destitution of the time? …

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