Weekend Reading: The Hazard of Modern Poetry
I received this small, clothbound edition of Erich Heller’s The Hazard of Modern Poetry (an ex-library copy purchased from the United States) on Friday afternoon. Not knowing anything about the book other than being a fan of the author’s other critical work, I was slightly disappointed to discover the work in question was such a slim volume (a mere 47 pages in fact). I had prepared myself for immersion in a great tome such as Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry or one of Michael Schmidt’s equally bounteous volumes of criticism, something penetrating deep into the recesses of the poetic art. Instead I had the arrival of this short text comprising a set of talks given to the BBC Third Programme, with some form of dialogue composed as a postscript. Not wishing to cave to this initial dismay, and deciding that, if nothing else, it constituted a couple of hours of pleasant reading in the Friday evening sun, I sat down and began to read. Nothing about my initial response could be further from the experience of reading this explosive work. So much unexpected beauty, apposite aphoristic phrasing, and attuned invective is crammed into the book it is difficult to avoid simply copying out the whole text in the manner of an overly-excited child.
Heller takes the Marburg Colloquy, the argument between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as a founding moment in the transformation of art; in fact describing Zwingli’s argument as ‘doing for art, religion and poetry what sometime later Copernicus did to the status of the earth’. This moment for Heller, which ‘reduced the stature of the symbol to the merely symbolic’, is what began a transformatory process of our understanding of the world and the practice of poetic-making that has led to the state of poetry today. Via this founding rupture Heller traces the trajectory of the poetic art from romanticism through to Eliot and beyond. By forcing a rift between the symbol and the real ‘depriving religion and art of an essential degree of reality’, the two forces, symbolic (art/religion) and reality, were allowed to develop in an accelerated and separate manner. Part of the consequences of this, in the case of reality, was an empiricism and search for ‘objective truth’ which Heller radically questions, some of the phrases he uses to do so are worthy of any aphorist:
‘Experience is to the empiricist what the sand is to the ostrich’s head.’
‘All relevant objective truths are born and die as absurdities.’
‘The workshops in which our truths are manufactured are surrounded by swarms of unemployed affections.’
‘That which is systematic in a system is merely the trivial aspect of true order.’
Heller turns, inevitably, to Nietzsche, whose dismissal of the pursuit of objective knowledge for the question of values was so often explicitly concerned with the relation between truth and poetry. And also to Pascal, whose coeur was a knowing of things inside the heart, no irrationality or unreason but a logic of values rather than a logic of prepositions.
In the historical space between these two thinkers, Heller argues, poets were those who asked this question about the degradation of order most vitally, citing Hölderlin’s Bread and Wine ‘in such spiritless times, why be a poet at all?’. In answering, the poetry of those like Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Hölderlin was a place where ‘speechlessness itself seemed to burst into speech without breaking the silence’. However this ‘frenzied passion of art’ so close to madness was short lived. The process of the ‘devaluation of the created world’ meant ‘no lasting universe of beauty’ could be ‘built from the fragments of creation.’
In this place we call modernity, where poetry is no longer able to trust the reality of the magical symbolic world it forges, where ‘only uncertainty is ineluctably real’ Heller, in his concluding remarks, asks whether there might be a home-coming. The meaning of poetry, for Heller, is nothing less than ‘the vindication of the worth and value of the world, of life and of human experience.’ To contend with the question of modernity poetry is to contend with the present state of humankind.
Here, instead of merely following Nietzsche into mastering uncertainty, we might recover some kind of ‘true order of the heart’, but only after we have admitted that the:
great experiment of separating meaning from reality, and symbol from fact, was a failure. That our passion for ‘reality’ has rendered absurd our desire for meaning. That our insistence on ‘fact’ has given the lie to truth. That our love of truth has begotten an unlovable world…We are the chaos inhabiting the tidiest of all worlds. We calculate splendidly, but our calculations show we have not enough to live by…What I mean by true order? An order that embodies the incalculable and unpredictable, transcending our rational grasp precisely where it meets the reasons of the heart.
When his imagined interlocutor objects that we simply cannot go back to a ‘single-minded symbolic order of the Middle Ages’, Heller replies, ‘Clearly not. But from this it does not follow that we must rush forward. The order is neither behind us nor before us. It is, or it is not. The sensible movement is in another dimension.’
To this the listener replies questioningly ‘I wonder.’ Heller’s simple reply, the final words of this fascinating text are:
‘So do I. Maybe we differ only in degrees of wonder.’