Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 0. Nr. Februar 2003

Poetry in our lives today*

Peter Horn (Kapstadt)


Our lives have little to do with poetry. There is a discontinuity to our lives, an experience of lost control. When I get up in the morning, my destiny is decided already, in Washington, in Tokyo, in Hongkong or in London. What happens to us, seems to be in the hands of some faceless anonymous system, a matrix of numbers on a billboard in the stock exchange in New York, and these numbers in turn react to a multitude of disparate events all over the globe. There is a rupture between my dreams and my plans and an alien reality which is not shaped by me.

Mysterious forces decide whether I will have a job tomorrow, whether my water supply will be polluted, or whether cholera and typhus will run rampant in the shanty towns of Cape Town. Some lobby in Washington will decide that the profits of the oil industry are more important than the desertification of the earth. My grandchildren will live in a world of overpopulation and shrunken resources. Six million children are at immediate risk of starvation in Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, due to drought, illness and Aids, and there is a water, health and education crisis in these countries.

Somehow my body has been slotted into this machine which seems to be out of control. As we awaken out of troubled dreams, we might not find ourselves transformed into a monstrous insect like Kafka's Gregor Samsa, but we might find that we have become something of an automaton. Getting up in the morning, my day is predetermined by a routine over which I have little control. Breakfast, traffic jam, office, lunch, office, traffic jam, television. The variations which I can insert into this series are limited. I can read a book instead of watching TV, and that's about it. My "Self" has been lost.

Our everyday life is anti-poetic. Our lives lack the humaneness, the exhilaration, the meaning, and the inner consistency of poetry. All that is "human" is fiction, all that is "real" is unreality, and all that is "meaningful" is artifice.

This is why we need poetry in our lives: to remind us that life could be different. To develop strategies that say: we want to live. Among all the things over which we have no control we erect an edifice out of bits and pieces of realities to say: but we do exist. Poetry is the force to reverse the universal law of entropy, the extreme fleetingness and transitoriness of existence in time. It increases order, decreases disorder, but not the order of the law, but something analogous to the organisation of living beings.

Neruda screamed: "Give me back my son!" A crazy demand which only a poet can make, who is neither satisfied with the comforts of religion nor the reasonable pessimism of Schopenhauer when he says that the death which concerns us is our death as individuals. But our existence as individuals is itself only an illusion of the world or appearance, since it is only in the illusory world of spatiotemporal appearance that individuation can occur. Thus death, like the individuality whose end it marks, is only an illusion of the phenomenal world and has no ultimate reality. Indeed, but that is no consolation to Orpheus or to Neruda. Poems are allowed to make these unreasonable demands because their demands are read as metaphors, not as demands. Poets utter such impossible commands as "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon" (Joshua 10:12-13), and expect them to be obeyed: "And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed." All this, of course is not only absurd, but plainly irrelevant and superfluous in a world which has discounted our futures and sold the harvests which might have fed billions to make billions for a foundation which bears the name of freedom and democracy. At best it can be tolerated as a metaphor, a transfer into another reality, which nobody needs to take seriously, since it does not create profits and dividends. But the freedom of the markets is not the freedom of the poets.

Desperately Gottfried Benn has said to life: "No, you shall not seep away," knowing all too well that anti-entropy in the end cannot win over entropy, because each anti-entropic system, by using some of the energy of the wider system increases the entropy of that wider system. Yet somehow, after all, as the universe ebbs towards its final equilibrium in the featureless heat bath of maximum entropy, it manages to create interesting structures. Imagination, as Coleridge has defined it, is a living power and the prime agent of all human perception, and it is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. Such Romantic notions rely on the miracle of inspiration. But the poem desires the miraculous, if in the form of the metaphor. Or to say it differently: the poem works for the triumph of the pleasure principle, freeing the signifier from the signified, which like the reality principle represents the limiting conditions of existence. The poem opposes the hilariousness of its movement to the seriousness of death and pain which is the servility of thought.

That task of the poem does not exclude other, more urgent, more concrete and more immediate commitments against death-producing forces like fascism, apartheid, religion, morality, education, psychiatry, concentration camps and death squads, in fact its very fundamental task demands that it enters such commitments. The poem is not weltfremd, it is turned towards the concrete conditions of being human, its historical conditions, and it operates precisely where a plurality of pasts and presents intersect, personal and impersonal, actual and fictional. Because the function of poetry is life, in view of one's own death, and the death of others, it cannot disregard Somalia or Rwanda, the street children or the Aids sufferer, taxi violence or drug mafias. The poem does ask questions like: Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies. No text can, or would want to, ever completely eliminate its reference to something in the real world, for if it did it would destroy the very trace of the text.

When V.N. Voloshinov maintains that the "organising center of any utterance, of any experience, is not within but outside in the social milieu surrounding the individual being," then he correctly describes the social structure, the very law and language which is prior to poetry, but against which poetry constantly writes, and it is the energy of that against, and the consequent inventiveness, seriousness or playfulness of its transgression, not its content or its decorations which makes poetry poetry.

One of the great problems for poetry is that for those who consume art in therapeutic doses as a leisure activity if at all, poetry is metaphoric, which is a nice way of saying that poetry is a lie, and you can read it as a non-lie only if you read it as a text which has no reference in the real world or that it is not connected to any reality, any desire or any interest. That means that the space of poetry is a "fictive institution which in principle allows one to say everything. [...] but to say everything is also to break out of prohibitions" (Attridge 1992: 36). Yes, you can break out, but it has no consequences, not for the poet, not for the reader, and not for the text. It is not thoughts but words which are free (Theweleit 1986:1). Against this repressive tolerance the poem insists that what it wants it wants for real. It wants to produce a real change.

The way we deal with those disjointed bits of reality and the way we assemble them into a new whole is style. Poetry chooses style as a process of ironic self-construction, so that we can look serenely about and within ourselves, and laugh at the absurdity of life. We throw ourselves beyond our unreal self into a fictional "self", and become a hyperbole, something thrown beyond the fragmented self which we experience. Poetry is, as Roland Barthes has said, "the very mode of the impossible, since it alone can speak its void, and by saying it, again establish a plenitude".(1)

Therefore it does not help to approach poetry with 'good taste': "so-called 'good-taste' takes fright at all the deeper effects of art and is silent when the thing at issue comes in question and externalities and incidentals vanish. For when great passions and the movement of a profound soul are revealed, there is no longer any question of the finer distinctions of taste and its pedantic preoccupation with individual details. It feels genius striding over such ground, and, retreating before its power, finds the place too hot for itself and knows not what to do with itself."(2)

Poetry is not communication, it does not end in a game of sending and receiving messages, because all communication works under the illusion that we understand each other, that we have understood each other even before we communicate, that we know what we mean when we utter words and sentences; communication functions on the basis of habituation; poetry functions on the principle of undermining habituation. "Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. 'If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.' And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony." Against the habitualisation of every-day life, art, according to Sklovsky (1969: 20&21), uses defamiliarisation (ostranenie, 'making strange'): making things strange breaks the automatic way we see things, and new ways of saying things startle us into new ways of seeing things. Brecht, too, believed that the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) was one of the most important devices of art, countering the process of making things appear 'natural', 'normal.' And even Brecht's greatest foe, Aristotle, seemed to have something similar in mind, when he described the force of the metaphor (and, by the way, the joke) on the basis of the surprise which the unexpected turn of phrase springs on him, bringing about both alienation and recognition: "Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that."

If we say that poetry is not 'communication,' what do we mean by that? Communication is either the communication of knowledge, of assertions and propositions, or the communication of intentions and orders to act. Poetry does not 'inform' us about the world in the way that science, gossip or news broadcasts inform us about the world. Neither does poetry 'order' us to do certain things in the way a military order or a moral injunction attempt to oblige us to act in certain ways. Nor does it conform to any of the other possible speech acts which we normally perceive in 'communication.' Poetry is also not communication in the sense that communication will direct much of its energy towards making it easy to be understood by the receiver of the message.

If poetry is not communication, what it is then? Poetry is script of an event, where we understand scripts as patterns for recognising sets of features in an experience and acting when this set of features occurs. A poem is a process which creates a peculiar kind of presence, an origin, a beginning; it is a speaking event, a verbal happening, which brings about one species of experience, the experience of the aesthetic object.

Because of the fact that it follows its own illusions, ideals, movements, and because life is anti-poetic, poetry always must enter into a struggle, a war, against a reality not fashioned by us and against the discourse of the media, of government, the economy, which affirm this reality, and against any interpretation, which wants to make poetry harmless. For the poet it is impossible to obey the law. Especially for the poet. Especially the fundamental law that death is irreversible. The very existence of that law forces the poet to take up his pen and march into the underworld like Orpheus to plead with the gods of the darkness for the life of Eurydice,

She who was so loved that out of one lyre
arose more lament than ever from lamenting women;
so that there arose a world out of lament, in which
everything was once again.(3)

Perhaps that rebellion is the source of the energy which produces passions more real than those which other men are accustomed to feel in themselves. Strangely enough poetry enters this struggle not by shouting, but by refusing to say certain things, by a very disturbing silence. The poet has a near neurotic sensitivity against words and sentences which have been misused to advertise the "good life": The promises of meaning in shiny cars and insipid soft drinks, the seduction of mindless images, the promises of careers, fame and power. The silence of writing can be very puzzling, and that enigma is not solved at all by transforming what I have written into an oral presentation. The illusion of the presence of the writer in orature or performance poetry does not alter the constellation of writing: the writer is absent, even while he reads or performs his poem.

The enigma remains. The enigma of the poem enfolds the enigma of the world:

There is engraved an enigmatic token
Full deep into the jewel's glowing blood;
Of likeness to a heart may well be spoken
Which holds the stranger's image like a bud.(4)

Thinkers and philosophers have described art in terms of "beauty": therefore the books on aesthetics always had difficulties in dealing with the ugly, the tragic, the sublime, the experience of being overwhelmed by a fate much stronger than any individual will, the unexpected bolt of lightning which shatters the lives of people.

Art, however, is not about beauty: it is about creating meaning and coherence in a world ruled by the laws of cause and effect on the one hand, and sheer chance - contingency - on the other. Meaning and coherence are not properties of the world in which we live. They must be created.

On the one hand, I am a body in an empirical world, prone to accidents and diseases, in need of food and shelter. My life is merely a contingency, and every life ends in nothingness. This nothingness is the limit beyond which there is no meaning at all.

On the other hand I am the origin of ideas which to me do not seem to be predetermined. While I can only think by means of words which are always already there, around me, as the language of the community which existed before I was born, I experience myself as a thinking and feeling entity endowed with a metaphysical freedom to depart into a new direction. But that metaphysical freedom is created by myself as artist: it is a necessary illusion without which I cannot live.

Illusions are not nothings: they can change the world, they are very real. Wittgenstein said: That about which I cannot know anything, but want to know something, is in the world because of me. There is nothing, neither substance nor form, without language. Things are there only when there are words to describe them. Language is creative, to it we owe the existences and structures that populate our world-versions. The intensity of 'feeling alive' - however inadequate that description may be - is poetry. "Without words, no reason, no world. Here is the source of all creation and order!"(5)

It is words which assign value. Montaigne says this clearly: It is not facts or objects which move us during our lives, but the representations, which we make of things. Even the dollar and the euro derive their value from sentences which spell out their value. A currency in which nobody believes is just a piece of paper with a number printed on it. A billion might not even buy you a postage stamp. Even gold has no intrinsic value: its price fluctuates from day to day. It is pretty and rare, but in many cultures you could not buy a slice of bread with an ounce of gold. And, of course, it is words which assign value to actions, things, a way of life, customs, religions, beliefs. The only things which have value before words, are those that satisfy our animal needs: food, water, air, warmth. But the specific way in which we perceive them and use them is embedded in the values of our culture, is grounded in poetry. When it comes to hamburgers: you have to persuade people that eating meat, and in this form is good for you. Anything which is culture-specific depends on words.

Poetry is thus about consistency, meaning, value, pleasure, exploration, transgression, invention. The poet is the one who can change the very language that we share, in which we think, and which is our communal version of the world, both inner and outer. A poet wishes to give pleasure, but not necessarily the pleasure of entertainment and diversion. Popular culture keeps people down and dumb. It is composed to be sold as well as to divert people from the ordinariness and unhappiness of their lives.

It is generally thought that human beings are above all thinking beings who are able to discipline their imaginative faculties with concepts. Thinking directed to explanation and knowledge is considered more valuable than the speculative thinking of fantasy.

I am not claiming any mystical properties for poetry or for literature in general. I am not claiming that poetry is some secret code accessible only to the initiated, it is not. The fact that many people do not understand poetry has more to do with their inhibitions than with their lack of intelligence or insight, and whatever knowledge is necessary to understand even so-called 'esoteric' poems can be acquired by anybody.

I am merely stating that poetry is a fundamentally different discourse, it disappears the moment it is 'normalised,' projected into the grammatical and ideological structures of other discourses, be they theory or criticism or mere paraphrase. The poem is exposed, not shielded by any rule or boundary. The poem thus is always lost, like Eurydice, the object of the desire, for whose sake the poet undertook the journey into the world of the shadows: it never remains the same and at the same place in its relation to itself and to other texts.

The poet therefore has nothing to fall back on: no technique, no craft, no store of themes or topics, no treasury of exquisite tropes. In order to exist poetry always has to begin again, to lose the key which yesterday opened all the doors, it means to forget the competence which one had yesterday, to return to the unwritten pages. When the poet sits in front of an empty piece of paper or a white screen, he realises that he has no ideas: at the beginning there is always the blank. Sitting there he is confronting a form of nothingness, or death, a form of entropy, a becoming nothing.

Poetry is the untranslatable. Once 'translated,' even into the mother tongue of the poet by means of a paraphrase, it is poetry no longer. Poetry as a media event similarly ceases to be poetry and becomes intellectual glitter. When a poet writes his poetry as a script for a media event, what he writes is not poetry.

I cannot tell you what poetry is. It is impossible to define what poetry is, because poetry is not an object or a set of objects with borders which clearly delineate what is inside poetry and what falls outside it. Poetry is something that makes the limits of our language tremble. To call a text a poem is to ascribe to this text a value, and that is the reason why the very word 'poetry' is a contested field. Value judgements always function within the logic of a perspective created by a culture. Any attempt to create a definition for a set of texts called poetry, any attempt to find "a common trait by which one recognises, or should recognise, a membership in a class" called poetry, will necessarily end up in contradictions, because poetry defies the law, it is itself defined by overflowing, excess, participation without membership. While poems may have stylistic or generic features which could be used as evidence that a particular text should be read as a poem, these features are never definitive.

Existence is difference. Spelling out this difference in words is poetry. A lifetime is not long enough to spell out the difference which is "I", and yet we may have said all we want to say in one stanza of one poem. This tension between saying it all in four lines and the desire to fill the world with our words is the root of poetry, or as Hölderlin said:

Meanwhile spare, o mighty one, of him
who lonely sings, and give us songs enough
until it has been declared, how we
mean it, our soul's secret.(6)

Poets, while not isolated from the world, are not at home in the market: not even committed poets. They want a rebirth, they want another world. An infantile desire, admittedly. But all the most wonderfully perverse desires are infantile: transformation, conversion, eternity, the blue sky and the glassy sea.


Let me end with a poem by myself about the poet and poetry:


Listening to a voiceless voice
As for the poets

only those who go astray follow them
Have you not seen that they wander

           distract in every valley
And they say what they do not do.

           Al-Qur'an, Ash-Shua'ara v.224-226

When you listen to poems,
forget what you learned at school,
what they told you at university,
forget the literary critics,
and listen to the voiceless voice
speaking from the flames
with the lightness of birds,
sounds burning themselves out,
the torture of words chained together
which hate each other while they rhyme.
There are a lot of reasons
why a poet never leaves his bed
why a poet never cuts his hair
why a poet drinks himself to death
why a poet jumps out of a moving train
there are a lot of reasons, believe me.
Of course everyone would like to float
and to write in larger than life letters
in a manner which says their own name indelibly
in a loud voice so that everyone can hear.
But there are simply too many writers
there are not enough people to listen
and his poems do not make the top twenty.
So he waits for posterity,
breathing invisible poems,
his smile is extinguished in the mirror,
the mirror in the pool vanishes,
and everything he has to say is silenced,
but even in silence there is a kind of beginning,
a lost trace to be recovered.
Poets have written their dark songs
while there was low tide in their blood,
their voice breaking through clenched teeth
they utter the original scream, Eva's song,
a bellow, a roar, a howl,
what else should they do in a deadly town,
except bury their heads in the earth?
The heart whistles a sad whisper
a whisper which sings without a tune
in memory of burnt houses,
the sadness of ivory dipped in silver and
the tears of children with dirty faces,
the weight of the earth,
the heaviness of mountains,
the force of the sea.
Sometimes nothing is left of the poet
except a voice: childish and fragmentary
querulous, asocial and amoral.
At the end of the day
when the watches cycle through their numbers,
what kind of a stammer
vibrates in human mouths?


© Peter Horn (Kapstadt)

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* Keynote address at the 9th Kuala Lumpur World Poetry Reading, 1-5. October 2002.

(1) Barthes, Roland (1972), Critical Essays. trans. Richard Howard. Evanstone Ill.: Northwestern University Press, p.131

(2) Hegel, G. F. (1979), Introduction to the Berlin Aesthetic Lectures of the 1820's. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.34f

(3) Rilke, Rainer Maria (1955), "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes." Neue Gedichte. In: Sämtliche Werke. I. Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, p.544.

(4) Novalis, Schriften, ed. Paul Kluckhohn a.a.o., Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 1977-84, vol. I, p.218f.

(5) Johann Georg Hamann, Sämtliche Werke. Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe, ed. J. Nadler. Vienna: Thomas Morus Presse, 1949-1957, vol. II, p.199.

(6) Friedrich Hölderlin, To Mother Earth. Der Mutter Erde: "Indessen schon', o Mächtiger deß / Der einsam singt, und gib uns Lieder genug, / Bis ausgesprochen ist, wie wir / Es meinen unsrer Seele Geheimniß." (Große Stuttgarter Ausgabe, ed. Friedrich Beißner. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 1946f, vol. 2/1, p. 124.

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Peter Horn (Kapstadt): Poetry in our lives today. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 0/1997. WWW:

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