The State of Poetry

A speech for the 51st International Poetry Spring Festival, Vilnius, Lithuania. I was unable to attend because of an illness, but here is the address, just to have it somewhere.

The state of poetry: the concept sparks the mind to invent a fabulous fable, a possible past, where the bards Plato threw out of his rational state had, in exile, gathered on a mountain, perhaps like the one where Marsilio Ficino’s humanistic dialogues took place, a monastic mountain, after the manner of Karmel, to form their own polis, a closed cloister of monks each reciting the glory of their own, personal god. The mere image of that ivory tower sends shivers down the spine. Let prose guard us from such a possibility!

All humor aside, it is apparent that there is and can be no state of poetry, that it is, at best, a metaphor: either the timeless white page as a place of communion for the unavowable community of Blanchot or a diplomatic government of the tongue, where Ovid shakes hands with Seamus, and Zbigniew with Octavio.

Such an idea is nothing if not ironical in a time when there are, what, a hundred thousand, a million or more poets in the world, and the way we read and write has changed forever, now that the page is a screen and the letter a pattern of pixels.

Today “we”, whoever we are, since most of us will never hear of each other, are a cosmopolite community of those who are lucky enough, or enterprising enough, or white or western enough, or politically desirable enough to succeed in the business of poetic fame and ascend the networking ladder of translations and publications and residencies and lectureships all the way up from the Berlin Poesiefestival to the pages of the Paris Review.

And yet, what is a state? Is it an institution, or a kind of dance? A game or a war, a factory or a party? Is it the achaeans voting on who gets the dead Achilles’ shield and breastplate, or the twelve tables of the Roman state, each, in their own way, settling a score by setting it in stone? Or, is it all of these things in a formation we find hard to comprehend: people together in their sense of togetherness, stranded under a mountain, where the poets went, waiting for one of them, preferably Moses, to come down with the law?

Is the state, in other words, a place where rules rule, where manners, customs, tools, things and language all conform to their place and time in and as the schools and hospitals, the police and churches we – our kind of people – have, there to be recognized as such by those who go abroad and return to see the familiar bread and wine shine forth like Trakl’s poem has it, from the kitchen table?

What is it that sees us then? The nation as the kinds of spoons and forks we like to use, the manner of women and the mien of men we like, us, reproducing, again and again, in those things, what we are and how we sit and talk in the way we like to eat and feel? Is the state a place, a made thing, or our state of being?

What would it mean, to continue in this perhaps too poetic a manner of questioning, here at the other end of thought’s history, to claim something as outrageous as Plato once did, and to say with Hölderlin that man, though full of the merit of her works, if ever she dwells on the earth properly, she can only do so poetically: that poiesis, the word calling ourselves out as those who bring, through our techne, our skillfullness, absence into presence, non-being into being, truth into its disclosure, yes, that poetry is the word for our proper mode of being in the world, or, that what we do and are is, in a word, creation.

How does this help us? The prose of the world will not let us continue in this way, it demands sobriety: whatever the word “poetry” might have been able to mean in the marvelous mind of Hölderlin, a kind of constitution for an Albion as great as the one Blake envisioned, it cannot be that thing anymore. For one, Hölderlin was able to think as he did because he lived in a time when poetry was still one thing, lines of verse on a page. As such, poetry owned its past in its form and its destiny in its words.

Today, the vessels have shattered, and their light has travelled to innumerable worlds, cubistic, conceptual, surreal, digital and virtual, where the speaking picture of Horace, his ut pictura poesis, is now a Hydra of art with too many heads for any critical Jason to ever cut off. And what if he did? There is no golden fleece, it was all a myth, and whatever chimera Yeats prophesied has reached New Jerusalem, there to give birth to its monstrous revolutions in style and content for ever and ever, amen.

Still, and still: if where we live is not a place but a way of being, if the state of our country and birth is less like a tablet of laws and more like a manner of speech, then, even if poetry cannot be a state, and poets cannot become a nation, poetry can still, perhaps, be words to live by, or, as Saint John of the Cross once said, an image is not made for us to appreciate its craftsmanship, but to call forth our devotion.

Human existence is creation of human existence. We build worlds, and we live in them. What makes a world worth living in? We know that a country is not the bare minimum of earth and sky, plant and animal, that a state is not defined by its borders. It is a people, with a history, who settle around a way of being here, and the “here” of that “being” is a house built by words.

Words, here, mean the most basic condition of meaning: the simple fact that you cannot hear your own language as a foreign one, and no matter how well you learn to speak another, you can only speak the truth in your mother tongue, as Paul Celan said. And yet, I can only look out from my face, and never at it, just like I can never hear my speech spoken as someone else’s.

In this shattering of the self that language is, I am given back to myself in things outside myself: the sparks of the One in the Many, but only if they are already my own, absolutely particular, as if Nietzsche’s eternal return of the Same were the same as Rilke’s absolute Once.

This is why the state of poetry cannot be a cosmo-polis, a common, shared table, unless we lie, unless we think of the self as universal, and language merely as a mode of communication, translatable information that lives forever, like a machine might. But language is not information, it is life that also dies with us who live it, and to believe otherwise is to build the tower of Babel, that state without borders where no one lives, where we only visit, waiting for the inevitable fall, which does not come as a catastrophe, but something like this:

I would have liked to have said that for the ancient Finns, poetry was not an art, but medicine: magic spells that hid within them the secrets of creation. But I realize that I am writing this on my living room table. My yoga mat is on the floor. There’s chocolate on the left, an empty coffee cup on the right. My laptop is hot from the sun. I am cold and alone. Where did all these words come from? What was that place I went to, just now?

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