Sunday, January 12, 2003

Heidegger, my muse and bane, is famous for saying that "Language is the house of Being." I identify the basic tension I feel as a poet in that statement and its reverse, "Being is the house of Language." On the one hand you have Heidegger's basically Romantic view of things: the poem uses language to disclose the experience of Being—an experience which, as near as I can tell, is something like that of the sublime. The poet's language, which is lifted out from ordinary language and purged of its instrumentality (language which is always for something, language as resource or "standing reserve," the language of industry, commerce, and production), becomes an experience in its own right, language for its own sake, which somehow (there's the rub! somehow) creates for the reader an intuition of experience that is not normally speakable. This is the "order of angels" behind ordinary experience, available only to the poet who can perform that act of "clearing" the language, who can deinterpret the world:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I'd be consumed
in his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.
   And so I check myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobs. Alas, whom can we turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans,
and the sly animals see at once
how little at home we are
in the interpreted world.
—from Duino Elegies, translated by Edward Snow (New York: North Point Press, 2000), p. 5.
So there's that. On the other hand, angels have been done to death, and Rilke's dark sobs banalized through repetition, and Derrida and the Language poets and even Heidegger in a different mood will tell you that subjectivity, the "I" of the poet is a fiction useful primarily to the dominant ideology, and Romantic poetry questing for an indvidiualistic experience of Being is mostly a cover for the solipsistic reification of what has become under late capitalism an emptor ergo sum. Thousands of poets stand in their backyards with a glass of wine in their hand, experiencing the last-line epiphany bestowed by a language that, in cleansing itself of everyday associations, has accidentally and by-the-way been removed from any conceivable context of encounter, sociality, or politics. These are the folks nodding along to Auden's "Poetry makes nothing happen" and thanking their lucky stars. Standing in righteous opposition to them are a bunch of Marxists every bit as concerned as the Romantics with renovating ordinary language. But they aren't chasing the sublime: they want to rub your face in the toxicity of language in the service of ideology so that you'll wake up from your carceral slumber, Matrix-style, and be moved not into some (necessarily?) depoliticized sublime but into political action. The best expression of this point of view (a point of view explicitly hostile to art if art is conceived in any way as a palliative or compensation or commodity), in content if not perhaps in form, is from Michael Palmer's "Baudelaire Series":

A man undergoes pain sitting at a piano
knowing thousands will die while he is playing

He has two thoughts about this
If he should stop they would be free of pain

If he could get the notes right he would be free of pain
In the second case the first thought would be erased

causing pain

It is this instance of playing

he would say to himself
my eyes have grown hollow like yours

my head is enlarged
though empty of thought

Such thoughts destroy music
and this at least is good
—from Sun (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988), p. 19.
The irony of both poets' being published by the same press is another suggestion to me, though an irrational one, that these two opposed positions might not be inseparable. Perhaps it's just a question as to which point you privilege when you negotiate your piece of turf between them.

I haven't really expressed here what "Being is the house of Language" might mean, but I imagine it has something to do with an insistence upon the experience of the signifier qua signifier as being central to poetry. That is, it's a quasi-theoretical way of insisting upon something I haven't touched on at all, which is the transformation of language into a rich and strange sensory experience as being the crucial component of the poetry I value most. Both of these texts partially fail that test: the Rilke because it's in translation, the Palmer because it isn't sufficiently divorced from ordinariness. Of course Rilke does succeed wonderfully in the original (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?) whereas the dryness of Palmer's language is very much part of his point.

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