November 28, 2006

Jonathan Bate on Poetry as The Song of the Earth

Jonthan Bate

Human beings have always had a powerful will to survive like all other animals. Yet reasoning and speech (posed as Ratio and Oratio_ by the Romans) set them apart and make them human. Animals have languages too, as we have discovered more recently, so what else defines us as human? Bate offers qualities such as justice and liberty and the disciplines of science, philosophy and poetry. Yet it is these aspects of being human that have created a divisive view of nature influenced according to Bate by ‘Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism and which was further developed in Kantian idealism’ (144). Some scientists have challenged this view, such as Lamarck who suggested that all life began with the protazoa. However, while the rights of man were furthered during the Enlightenment, the rights of nature have been ignored.

The relationship between man and nature is a divided one and Bate sees this an inherent part first of Cartesianism and later of the modernist and postmodernist concentration on Oratio. Human beings do not pay so much attention to the external world and philosophical revolutions have severed man from nature.

This divide was a great concern for the Romantics, who saw poetic language as a special means of expression with the potential to reunite man and nature even if they are aware that often this desire is illusory. The ecopoetic is the poiesis of the oikos (home/dwelling place), but Bate wonders whether nature and culture can be brought together so easily. He notes that in writing his theories of evolution, Darwin drew on Malthus’ biological science. Can natural selection the occur in the cultural setting of human beings? Doesn’t the poem survive via a kind of artistic natural selection?

Bate now draws on the poet, Gary Snyder , who compares poetry with a climax ecosystem in which organisms recycle dead biomass. Snyder believes that ‘fruiting’ is the work of the poet and that poetry recycles ‘the richest thoughts and feelings of a community’ (Bate, 247). Snyder uses the metaphor here as a means to understand hidden connections between things, yet his use of metaphor in this way would be frowned upon by some literary critics as mystification. How can one make poetry into an ecosystem when there is a postmodern crisis of representation? Wouldn’t such a tactic be naïve?

Bate now turns to Paul Ricoeur’s essay, ‘Writing as a Problem for Literary Criticism and Philosophical Hermeneutics’ and Bate notes that one should not forget that ‘nature’ is a word not a thing. There is a gap between the presence of the signified and its representation through a signifier. Does this mean that uniting the mind with the external world is impossible? Ricoeur believes that poetic writing is a solution. The problem in most writing for Ricoeur is that it detaches the ‘said’ from the ‘saying’. In speech one can show the object to which one is referring, but in writing one cannot check its meaning. Bate writes: ‘The act of inscription complicates affairs, for it severs the link with the immediate life-world of the speaker’ (249).

Ricoeur writes that one cannot tie a written text to its author but nor should one sever it from its author. Good analysis always creates a dialectic between reader and author to create an overlap. Existence in a situation or moment is all that an animal knows, where as human beings have knowledge, history, memory, imagination, so that they can transcend the momentariness of the body. Most writing goes through the motions of reconstructing a reality, another moment in time or space, but while most poetry does not abolish referents, it is not descriptive writing. With reference to Martin Heidegger , Ricoeur suggests that poetry offers not the experience of a person but of a project and an alternative mode of being. If this is the case, then poetry can be ‘imaginary states of nature, imaginary ecosystems, and by reading them, we can start to imagine what it might be like to live differently on the earth’ (Bate, 250-251).

Snyder’s metaphor can be recuperated as symbolic expression and a mechanism for coping in the world. The world for Ricoeur, us a horizon of possibility or a dwelling place, yet Bate notes that it is not a site of reality but of the mind.

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite possibility of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. And if writing is the archetypal place of severance – of alienation – from immediate situatedness, then how can it speak to the condition of ecological belonging? Heidegger replies with the other half of the paradox: there is a special kind of writing called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth. (251)

Bate turns to Heidegger’s essay, ‘What are Poets for?’, noting how in this work Heidegger elides poets, the earth and problems of technology. He pauses for a moment to consider ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ also by Heidegger. This essay suggest that although technology is often seen as instrumental, this concept of mastering technology does not express its essence. Instrumentalism is based ‘on the ancient idea of causality’ and we are aksed to imagine the making of a silver chalice, which has a material cause (the silver), a formal cause (the chosen shape) and an efficient cause (the silversmith’s work). Usually the silversmith would be thought of as ‘the key cause’, but Heidegger believes the opposite (252).

The primordial meaning – the Being, or, more accurately, the being-there (Dasein) – of the chalice is its chaliceness. Its material, its form and its function are all part of that meaning, whereas the work of the silversmith though instrumental towards it, is deatched from it’ (253). In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates suggests that there are different kinds of poiesis or calling of things into existence. Heidegger describes poiesis as a bringing-forth into presence, yet the craftsman splits poiesis and physis (the principle of growth or change in nature), because poiesis is bringing a concealed thing out of its concealment, as a tree unconceals itself with blossom. Heidegger calls this kind of unconcealing Aletheia (the Greek word for truth). In contrast, technology represents a mode of revealing which is very human and necessary to human life. Technology tends to visualise nature in term of storing its energy. Heidegger sets up a contrast between a hydroelectric plant and a bridge; one harnesses nature and the other coexists with it. Modern technology sees nature only as a reserve to be used for human consumption. Bate notes that in his thinking here Heidegger is influenced by Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s critiques of mass culture and to Marcuse’s theorising of one dimensional man as alienated from nature.

For Heidegger, technological man sees the world in terms of ‘enframing’, a mode of being in which everything is diverted into the system. Heidegger believes that this destroys unconcealed being. Society is dominated by the Styrofoam cup not the silver chalice. This order of being conceals the truth of things and the history of technology represents a loss of wonder and enchantment. After Christianity, nature was only on the level of ‘the created and science brought nature towards commerce and consumption. Man has lost touch with nature, but poetical brings back truth.

Human being must embrace technology to some extent since it is a necessary part of human life, but it need not be all-encompassing. Bate notes that ‘poetry is our way of stepping outside the frame of the momentary wonder of unconcelament’ (258). But why poetry? Bate suggests that language is ‘the house of being’ and the agent of ‘unconcealment’ (258). He adds: ‘By disclosing the being of entities in language, the poet lets them be’ (258).

Heidegger plays on a quote attributed to Holderlin , which states ‘ poetically man dwells on this earth. The quotation in fact came from Waiblinger’s novel Phaeton in which the mad sculptor protagonist is based on Holderlin. In the poem, the poet is taken out of slef to consider the external world and it is clear that human beings are both connected with and dislocated from the earth.

Bate wonders if ‘dwelling’ has a further meaning beyond simply ‘belonging’. Could poetical dwelling suggest a linguistic inhabitancy of a place? But surely one also feels prelinguistically and although poetry is constructed via language, it ‘is not merely language’, but the agent for invoking the essence of situations through what is unsaid, the silent and the white spaces on the page.

Heidegger reveals something about this in his essays, ‘Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry’ and ‘…Poetically Man Dwells’. Here dwelling is being open. Poetic dwelling is a’presencing not a representation, a form of being not of mapping’ (262). This view grows from Heidegger’s analysis of Holderlin, Trakl and Rilke , as well as Paul Celan . For Heidegger, the poem is like a peasant in the Black Forest; it inspires care, grounds and enables one to dwell. Heidegger sets the earth up in stark relief with the world, as representatives of respect for the difference of entities and an instrumental world view.

Rilke’s Duino Elegies represent respect for difference according to Bate. Rilke gestures not towards a Christian Beyond, but to ‘language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinization of the immanent world’ (263). Rilke’s angel represents ‘the transformation of the visible into the invisible, of erath into consciousness’ (263). The poet or poem is the angel offering an open mode of being and an explosion of the divide between nature and consciousness. In Rilke’s eighth Duino elegy, Bate sees the desire to reconcile naïve and thoughtful modes of being.

Bate notes that Rilek uses ‘America’ as shorthand for the technological and he suggest that in Rilke’s view, the poet ‘must stand in for the ancient Roman lares, those everyday gods who guarded hearth and home’ (264). Bate concludes that poetry will ‘haunt us with the lost feeling of what it might have been like to experience the ‘laral worth’ of house and well’ (265). In Rilke’s ninth Duino elegy, he expresses regret for things that are vanishing. Bate believes that the task of the poet is to sing of such things and on such a mission, it is important not to proceeds ‘with ambitions of conquest and mastery’ (265).

In speaking of man and nature, the poet offers an experiential journey rather than a descriptive one: ‘a poem may be a revelation of dwelling’ (266). Ecopoetics must be pre-political (and Bate recalls here that to be ‘of the polis’ means to be ‘of the city’). For Bate, ecopoetics’ ‘controlling myth’ is ‘pre-political and ‘prehistoric’ (266). So where do Green politics come into this? Shouldn’t literary critics bring a political agenda to their readings as Marxist and feminist critics do? Bate believes on the contrary that rather than setting up an agenda for policy change, critics should be reflecting on the idea of dwelling. But can ecopoetics really be separated from ecopolitics?

It was Bachelard who challenged the term, ‘ancestral’, in The Politics of Space and here he is employed by Bate to consider Heidegger’s reliance on the Black Forest. How do aliens, immigrants, the homeless and those discriminated against fit into Heidegger’s model? Anna Bramwell is cited as a critic who has found links between deep ecology and fascism and Luc Ferry’s essay, ‘Nazi Ecology’ from The New Ecological Order is mentioned. Bate notes that the translation of political ecology into politics is fraught and he thinks that Green politics should not fit into the usual political spectrum. He suggests that a politics of nature is ‘self-contradictory’ (268). Ecopoetics cannot become ecopolitics. Ecopoetics cannot fit into histories, theories or political systems because they are all ‘enframings’. Even a poem can be an enframing according to Bate when it ‘becomes […] a cog in the wheel of a historical or theoretical system’ (268). For Bate, the elision in Heidegger of Nazism and ecopolitics id a mistake which has been outlined by Adorno in Jargon of Authenticity. Ecopoetics must reject ‘enframings’.

Bate turns back to Celan at this point, a poet who knew of Heidegger’s mistake, yet was till fascinated by his notion of ‘dwelling’. In 1967, Celan visited Heidegger and the result was a poem entitled ‘Todtnauberg’. The poem shows the short-sightedness of Heidegger and also expresses a hope for him to be penitent. The description of the environment moves from clarity to darkness. Bate suggests that Celan is homeless and that the only place where he can dwell is in poiesis itself. Heidegger never really renounced his Nazism and made further mistakes in the 1950s such as the comparison of the mechanisation of agriculture to the holocaust. For Celan, the Jew is like the orchid that appears as a symbol in his poem; both orchid and Jew are unique and necessary to the human race. Interestingly, although the poem is based on Heidegger’s folly, Celan speaks the language of dwelling that Heidegger presented to the world. The orchid represents the unconcealment in the poem.

Bate now moves on to consider Edward Thomas and the poem, Home , a piece of analysis which is replicated in his earlier essay, Poetry and Biodiversity . Bate notes that Thomas was writing in a different context to Heidegger, but he still believes that Heidegger’s notion of dwelling is relevant here. In thinking about dwelling, Bate turns to notions of home and he writes: ‘A home is a house in which one does not live but dwells’ (274). Thomas normally writes about roads and the lack of home, but in ‘Home’, it becomes a place of authentic being where the mind and nature, the self and the environment can be reconciled. In the poem, the cottage is not a house, but a dwelling, built by those with an awareness of dwelling, since ‘humans who dwell take only from their own locality; they know that if they uproot, they must also plant’ (275). The sawing at the end of the poem does not represent human consumption but rather oneness, since ‘sawing’ is also a name for the song of the thrush.

Yet Bate has problems with Thomas’ presentation of the man and birds being under one nationality. How can the thrush represent itself as a national subject. Would nature even think in such human terms? Bate prefers the bird song of ‘Adlestrop’ in which ‘the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire […] are heard in a regional circle’ (276). Bate wonders whether ‘nation’ is in fact an appropriation to refer to biological regions rather than the nation state.

Bate links the birdsong and returning labourers in ‘Home’ to a Burkean mode of thinking, noting the immemorial quality of the subjects in Thomas’ poem. Burke argues that government should preserve the constancy of nature in the conduct of the state and he puts his faith in a kind of ‘wise passiveness’ (278). The earth’s decay and rejuvenation are a model for the evolution of government. In this case, nature’s models are reflected by society in the pyramid model of society for example or in the dominancy of patriarchy. However, Burke’s philosophy is also tied up with the transmission of governance and privileges and he endorses the sustenance of a system that maintains the privileges of the rich land-owning class. This is not reflected in nature where eco-systems must be shared.

Bate notes that Thoreau sees the owning of property as a dead weight that denies dwelling which is not the same as possession. In poetical dwelling, the emphasis is on the imagination rather than possession. Poetry is rather an ‘opening to the nature of being, a making clear of the nature of dwelling’ which is achieved through ‘a dividing and a destroying’ because we cannot escape Cartesian dualism (280). Writing occurs through the technology of pen and paper and it is always divided from ourselves. The poetic is divided in two ecological senses according to Bate, ‘as it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognizing that our only home (oikos ) is a language (logos)’ (281). Ultimately though, Bate asks us to discover the poem as ‘not only a making of the self and a making of the world, but also a response to the world and respecting of the earth’ (282).

Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. London: Picador, 2000.

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