What are poets for?

‘Who wants poets in lean years?’ That was how Michael Hamburger translated the phrase ‘wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?’, from Hölderlin’s poem ‘Bread and Wine’. ‘What are poets for in a destitute time?’ is how the question reappears with different emphasis and tone in the English translation of Martin Heidegger’s essay ‘What are poets for?’, written in commemoration of Rilke on the twentieth anniversary of his death. It is a question that bears reiteration.

For Hölderlin, what characterized the ‘poverty-stricken time’ (to quote another translation) was a modernity that distanced human beings from (in Hamburger’s version) the ‘free self-content’ of the ancient world when language was new with ‘words like flowers leaping alive’. For Heidegger, ‘To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods’, a task that necessitates eschewing any functional role: ‘The song of these singers is neither solicitation nor trade’.

In our own economically lean times, the injunction to abjure trade will fall with leaden irony on the ears of poets whose work is rewarded outside, or at the best on the edge of, a system of financial reward. Heidegger’s focus on the stubborn intransigence of the poet’s role is, however, one that can be recognized today, as is the resigned conclusion that he appropriates from Rilke:

in the end,
It is our unshieldedness on which we depend…

The great Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean, as W N Herbert’s review of his new Collected Poems in this issue reminds us, had such an unshielded intransigence both in politics and in love. It takes a certain assurance to present a poem to your beloved written in a language that she has no access to, and there is a stubborn obedience to the truth of what is in his unpartisan portrayal of the victims of war in the North Africa campaign. A similar indifference to how things will be seen by others in the face of how they are seen through the poet’s imagination underwrites Apollinaire’s war poetry, also discussed here.

In Michael Hamburger’s autobiography String of Beginnings, there is a photo of a children’s party from the late 1920s taken in Kladow, a suburb of Berlin. Along with Hamburger, animated in their bathing costumes, are among others his brother, later the publisher and philanthropist Paul Hamlyn, and their Berlin neighbours, Clement and Lucian Freud. Lucian Freud’s daughter, the poet Annie Freud, speaks to Ahren Warner, in the latest in our series of interviews, of a concern with ‘what poetry is for’ and of poems ‘experienced as mattering in the world’. When she says ‘I can only write poems I need to write’, it is good to hear the note of unshielded intransigence again.

Earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize more than two decades after she was awarded it. The Nobel Committee chairman expressed his wishes that Liu Xiaobo (the imprisoned Chinese poet and human rights campaigner awarded the prize in 2010) would not have to wait so long to come to Oslo. Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies, also reviewed here, consists of twenty responses to the Tian’anmen massacre and commemorations of its victims together with five love poems. Written once a year, often in conditions of detention, they are fearless, often emotionally raw, expressions of truth to power. At its extremity perhaps that is what poets are for.