For this exploration, I am using Albert Hofstadter’s translation in the Harper Perennial Modern Thought edition (2013) of Poetry, Language, Thought as my launching point. I have never read Heidegger in German and am not in a position to comment on his poetry in the original language. Fortunately for me, Hofstadter provides a sort of opening critique of The Thinker As Poet in his introduction. Hofstadter says
These pieces should not be thought of under the heading of”aesthetics” or even under that of “philosophy of art”
That statement is extremely counter-intuitive and relates to a trend I’ve noticed in recently published non-fiction books; books whose titles are distinctly inconsistent with their contents. Here we find a terrific example. The book’s title is as direct as can be: Poetry, Language, Thought. It is entirely reasonable to assume that the book will contain matter that might be judged on qualities of aesthetics and philosophy of art. Instead, Hofstadter suggests…
The Poet need not think; the Thinker need not create poetry; but to be a poet of first rank there is a thinking that the poet must accomplish, and it is the same kind of thinking , in essence, that the Thinker of first rank must accomplish, a thinking which has all the purity and thickness and solidity of poetry, and whose saying is poetry.
Perhaps these self-contradictions speak with adequate purity and thickness that I can defer comment and move on to considering the poetry itself – as nearly as I may. But who can resist a comment or two to establish a few perspectives?
I disagree with the argument that the poet need not think. I also disagree that a thinker doesn’t need to write (communicate) with aesthetics in mind. I don’t have much regard for un-necessarily inconsistent language. I distrust the koans of zen and I distrust a philosophy that relies on conflation rather than clarity. I’ve argued that I don’t like convoluted language…but that’s, perhaps not fully the case…it is the inconsistency and self-contradiction that frustrates and annoys me. If, as I’ve indicated, the book’s contents may not be judged by the matters it says it will address – in other words, that it is not positioned reasonably.
All of this is to indicated that it is a fair position to declare that Hofstadter and/or Heidegger are NOT REASONABLE. Taking the maxim “don’t judge a book by its cover” into hand….what I can only conclude that the book’s contents should not be judged as within reason. Self-contradiction and inconsistency is what this stuff is made-of, apparently. This allows me to treat Heidegger as a complicated, but ultimately untrustworthy and unreliable writer. How long until the next lie…I mean inconsistency?
The Thinker As Poet is a very digestible dozen pages. Structurally, the first and last pages contain two short stanzas each. They function as bookends and I’m tempted to assume that the first page is the poetic thinker and the final page is the thoughtful poet. Between the bookends, each page of poetry contains a few introductory lines as a kind of thinker’s abstract or theme followed by a main poetic theme in three or four stanzas. I’m reminded of the marginal notes in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner – each standing apart as a guide to the poetic text. I approve of the structuring of the poems. Some thought appears to have gone into it.
The poems have a slightly archaic and austere tone – whether that is a conscious attempt to exaggerate the “thinkerishness”, whether Heidegger was attempting to channel a prophetic voice used by Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra) or Blake – or whether this was Heidegger’s own push for obscurity, I’m not aware. The effect is not, however, mystical. Only ponderous.
I particularly enjoy the page devoted to the three dangers that threaten thinking.
When the wind,shifting quickly, grumbles
In the rafters of the cabin, and the
Weather threatens to become nasty…
Three dangers threaten thinking
The good and thus wholesome
Danger is the highness of the singing
The evil and thus the keenest danger is
Thinking itself. It must think
Against itself, which it can only
The bad and thus muddled danger
I enjoy the unexpected connection this selection has to the classic Sergio Leone western, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Given that Heidegger wrote The Thinker As Poet in 1947 and published in 1954, Leone was the follower…though assuredly also more widely popular (as followers and imitators often are). The resonance between Heidegger’s “Good-Evil-Bad” trio and Leone’s “Good-Bad-Ugly” is, of course, little more than amusing and obscure. Beyond that bit of pop culture irreverence, the selection is intriguing as a clear set of propositions (i.e. thoughts) argued in Hofstadter’s introduction. The language carries a nice touch of pathetic fallacy. Perhaps it acts as a kind of counterpoint to other forms of fallacy. Meta-literary pun anyone?
In Heidegger, it is easy to find that complicated intellectualism does not necessarily result in profound intellectualism. Sometimes it is merely bafflegab. Sometimes big words are used to hide little ideas.
Frequently Heidegger seems to channel Blake’s Proverbs of Hell with such lines as “Patience nurtures magnanimity.” or “He who thinks greatly must err greatly.” On the whole , Heidegger does achieve a showcase of his Thinker as Poet project. It is a document worth studying for its ideas and for its design. You don’t have to agree with the premise to appreciate the execution and the use of language.
Earlier in this essay, I’ve failed to address “language”; I want to rectify that now. Language, quite clearly, is the medium/tool of poetry in its role to express thought. Language is not arbitrary. Language is a tool for expressing meanings – precised ones whenever possible. Poetry is, or should be, an extremely well-thought (or at least, long-thought) and intentionally structured representation of thought. What Heidegger attempts to do is undermine reliance on language as a functional tool of poetry. He wishes to violate reliance on a trusted tool to fulfill its function.
References and Citations
- Poetry, Language, Thought. Martin Heidegger. https://www.harpercollins.ca/9780060937287/poetry-language-thought/
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- Original draft: October 13, 2016
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