A friend asked me what I thought of Heidegger’s book Poetry, Language, Thought. I didn’t know what to say, I was a few pages in and had to admit to myself that I wasn’t so much as paying attention to what Heidegger was saying but to how he was saying it. I have read his Being and Time, The Essence of Truth, and What is Called Thinking? Similar themes had come to me, but I really wasn’t paying attention, which was wrong since it was not about what I found in Being and Time, which is about the trillions and trillions of activities, thoughts, and so fourth going on at once in life. Imagine that. It is like there are trillions of you going through the same thoughts and feelings simultaneously and they are just as valuable as people and just as interesting and perhaps more. That’s amazing to me.
What I like to do with a book is to think about its title. He is talking about three things. Those things are equal to each other in terms of the grammatical presence of commas. Poetry comes first, language second, and thought third.
What does Heidegger mean when he talks about Poetry?
He says it “memorializes” and “responds to life.” It is “genuine thinking,” “speaks of truth,” “is the unconcealedness of beings” (which he speaks about in The Essence of Truth), “a correctness of a proposition” (also spoken of in The Essence of Truth), “what things actually are,” “that which aids in seeing the bright possibility of the world,” “an absolute connection to the actual event,” “what is spoken but what is never what is said.” Poetry that thinks, he said, “breeds perfect ideas,” “elaborates upon something much greater than reality,” a “thingly character,” “the core of something,” “words buried in its nature,” and “the real.”
What does Heidegger mean when he talks about Language?
He is talking about “where thinking is able to say what it thinks.” It is “the way something is spoken/said.” It is “an author’s vision of truth and being,” “reporting what is seen, heard,” “authentic, which equals poetry.” It is “spoken purely,” “building,” “dwelling,” “growing, as a fitness for philosophy,” “thinking,” “rethinking,” “thought into language.” It is “the truest nature of things.” It is “a use of reason,” “old-new thoughts,” “not necessarily said,” “a context within which poesy and poetry take place.” “It belongs to the closest neighborhood of man’s being.” “It is everywhere language speaks.” “It is speech, an abode for mortal being.” “An audible means of the communication of human feelings, accompanied by thoughts, expression, activity, presentation, and representation of real and unreal.” “Enunciation,” “language,” and “not man,” “speaks;” “peal of stillness,” “by camping out,” “bearing,” “endearing,” “of the world,” “ringing of bells as indicative of a change of stillness,” “able to speak in their own way in sounds.”
What does Heidegger mean by thought?
“Memorializing and responding.” “Poetry when genuine,” “voice is poetic because it is truthful, concealed,” “examining things as themselves,” “truth,” “Roman thought takes over Greek words without corresponding,” “equally authentic experience of what they say, without the Greek word.” “Questioning.” “Essential discourse equals philosophy,” “dwelling when listening to others,” “respond,” and “recall.”
What I missed completely or did not give enough credence to is that the poem in the beginning of the book is most important in that it brings all these ideas together. It amazes me that while Heidegger is such a genius as a writer of philosophy, he is also a great poet. His poem “The Thinker As Poet,” is one of the best I have read that conveys ideas of life that answer a deep question about life, which is inherently that we have nothing to worry about. The truth is always there and “The world’s darkening never reaches/to the light of Being.”
As a poet, or at least, this might be the thing I am when I am writing poetry, which is not to say that I am good at it, but I have written poems that have done to me what other poems have that I have loved. I have not written that many and love John Ashbery, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and others, more, for example, who have gotten great distance from themselves. When writing poetry that relates to abstraction some words and their combinations have provided “memory and response to life” [I would venture to say that poetry is life], is “genuine,” etc.
Poetry is often, as it has been said in Buddhism, that it is the space between ladder rungs. All these words are spoken, but the hard wood steps of the words are not the thing or space between them. The ladder is utility. Being on the ladder can be elevating or freeing. It is our relationship to the ladder that is about the ladder and what it means.
Let’s go into the poem at the front of the book to get a sense of what Heidegger is communicating:
Way and weighing
Stile and saying
On a single walk are found.
When we walk, we weigh the events of life, existence, how we feel when we stroll, what we are thinking. When we are advancing toward a wall and each placement of our steps toward that wall and quest to cross over and as we are saying to ourselves, in our minds, on this walk, we are in contemplation.
Go bear without halt
Question and default
On your single pathway bound.
Heidegger says to go and enjoin life and do not falter, question it, and move despite other distractions toward a single journey.
He compares the “Early morning light” as something Being-oriented, poetic, and a cause and inspiration for existential fact. He relates this experience to Man him/herself.
He does this throughout the poem and the book, where language, especially the language of poetry, makes you stop and think if you ever expect to get what he is trying to say. Poetry almost often demands that you consult the dictionary, because no one really has access to all the denotations and connotations of all words. Such a grasp of the nuances of words allows for one to cross over to the poem as it might be understood or perceived. The definitions of words and grammar limit or qualify interpretation and provide evidence for or against the author as having said something that is profound or not.
The nature of the words: Poetry, Language, Thought as provided above give you a sense of the possible elements and relationships of his ideas, and you can put them together to expand the breadth and depth of what he might have meant.