The world’s darkening never reaches to the light of Being.
We are too late for the gods and too early for Being. Being’s poem, just begun, is man.
To head toward a star - this only.
To think is to confine yourself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the world’s sky.
In the line “Being’s poem, just begun, is man.” Heidegger gives a fascinating view of the meaning and power of poetry. For him, the human person can be understood as a speaking being for whom language is a purveyor of meaning. What makes us humans unique among creatures is our ability to grant significance to the world that surrounds us. According to Heidegger, that ability extends its reach to even metaphysical significance. What things are, they are to us in philosophical, linguistic, and emotional terms. This combined significance is exemplified in poetry.
We live in the realm of the “triadic creature”, as Walker Percy explains in a brief discourse in semiotics (2000). He explains that dyadic creatures inhabit the cosmos as organisms that respond directly to the external and internal forces in their environment. It is a relationship based on reactions, such as those caused by hunger, sexual drive, or fight or flight instincts. But humankind, “dim miniature of greatness absolute”, is alone among cosmic creatures by virtue of being a triadic creature that not only perceives signals but interprets meaning beyond those signals. This connection forms a triad made up of the subject, the signifier, and the signified - which serves as the basis of language. Words are signifiers we use to refer to signified concepts.
As a consequence, we triadic creatures inhabit not only an environment but a world in which we construct meaning, thereby acquiring a worldview that informs our very being. We are immersed in construed conceptions of ourselves and the universe, constructions whose building blocks are the complex systems of communication we call languages.
There is an interesting theory of linguistic relativism known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that people perceive the world differently according to the language they speak. The diversity of language strongly affects the internal logic of each linguistic group to the point that it entirely determines its way of seeing the world. There exist untranslatable properties unique to each language, and these properties shape worldviews to the point that they control completely how we view the world, even its physical properties.
Some experiments based on this theory have found, for example, that cultures with different concepts of colors differ in their ability to perceive the various types of colors in color wheels, exemplifying how linguistics can control perception. Such is the case with the Candoshi-speaking people of modern Peru, who lack a word for color and, as a supposed consequence, have more difficulty differentiating colors on a color wheel than, say, their Spanish-speaking counterparts.
Although the Sapir-Whorf theory has been highly debated, the fact remains that language is a hugely important informer of our society and culture, and, even more importantly, of our very selves. Our self-perception, and the internal monologues we constantly verbalize, are all linguistically coded and decoded. The development of meaning, even about our own existence, is intricately linked with language. In On Interpretation, a work that mixes early semiotics and logic, Aristotle states that “spoken words are the signs of the soul’s experiences”, and so it is that our entire perception of experience and being have their clearest manifestation through language.
Creative and fictional literature is often described as an immersion in worlds beyond our own. Through words, we create true worlds of meaning. We inhabit language, and consequently, we inhabit meaning. Our narrative traditions support this view. Our earliest shared cohesive structures are mythological in nature - from simple explanations like the story of the origin of the Narcissus flower to complex and profoundly significant explanations of the human condition, such as the myths of Sisyphus and Prometheus.
Most, if not all of these narratives were elaborated in poetic structure and form. Perhaps they are not as polished as later poetry, but still, they are created to delight and at the same time explore the potential of language as an explication and manifestation of the extraordinarily mysterious nature of our existence.
Such narratives were at the forefront of oral tradition and, later, written language, and as such, they played an extremely important role in how we constructed and understood meaning, perhaps even more so than factual works. This is not to downplay the importance of scientific or historic truths, but simply to serve as a reminder of the role of the narrative and poetic traditions as purveyors of meaning. In a modern age ruled by positivism, we often overlook that narrative truth is as essential as facts to our construction and understanding of ourselves and our world.
According to Donald Spence, “functioning as artists and storytellers in the analytic hour, it is in our interest to build a seamless web of belief (to borrow a phrase from Owine and Ullian. 1970) in which all findings can be captured” (p. 23). Narrative truth underlines every aspect of our lives because our worldviews, our particular and unique narratives, are the spheres of meaning within which we process and order our worlds. Our narrative tradition over the millenia not only explains its own historical spheres of influence but also, in a sense, will always refer back to ourselves, to the human tradition that we are inescapably a part of. We are the perceivers of the cosmos; living, breathing, and spinning the tapestry of human experience, each one of us providing our own web of belief.
Narratives and beliefs are obviously related to their specific temporal and spatial location, but, taken as a whole, they have relevance for every culture, especially in today's comparatively globalized society, albeit an imperfect one riddled with pockets of division and war.
So what does this all mean for the world of poetry, the most classical and inspirational form of language? Arguably, poetry is the most narrative version of truths and the truest version of narratives. It is an exploration and expansion of the expressive capacity of language and, as such, of the human soul. Poetry has mostly provided an expression in the purest form of the vital experiences of the human condition. Poems describe what is scientifically indescribable, they go further than expressions of emotion, and deeper than self-reflective soliloquies. At its best, poetry is profound, sublime, and enlightening. Its popularity through the ages derives from the honesty of its intentions, the brutality of its expressions, and the elegance of its form. It is the most human of narratives.
Poets enrich the sum total of human knowledge and experience by expressing shared feelings across the spectrum of human experience. In a traumatised world shocked and silenced by the brutality of a world war, T. S. Eliot asks “That corpse you planted in your garden, has it begun to sprout?” An anguished Catullus laments the death of his brother as he “speak[s] in vain to silent ash”, which the original Latin et mūtam nēquīquam alloquerer cinerem renders so mournfully alliterative. At the other end of the emotional scale, a besotted young Lord Byron extols his beloved who "walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies.”
Returning to where we started, it could be said that Heidegger’s understanding of the poet is similar to that of an explorer of the truth. In his enigmatic way, he posits that poetry is a quest to reveal the truth of being. The world we inhabit has been, and always will be, mysterious and chaotic, with truths to uncover and questions to ponder. It is clear that poetry isn’t the only, perhaps not even the best, way to comprehend or describe the world. But it is undoubtedly the greatest tool that humanity has to express its deepest truths about itself. Language is a human thing, and poetic language is a human thing about what it means to be human - a true revelation of the inner richness of our shared humanity, if only we dare explore it.
Aristotle. On Interpretation. Classics.mit.edu, classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/interpretation.html
Byron G. G. "She Walks in Beauty" 1814. Poetry Foundation, 2019, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43844/she-walks-in-beauty
Camus, C. The Myth of Sisyphus. Penguin Classics, 2006.
Catullus “Catullus 101 Translation.” ca. 84-54 BC. Ancient Literature, 2016, www.ancient-literature.com/catullus-101-translation.html
Eliot, T. S. "The Waste Land" 1922. Poetry Foundation, 2019, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land
Heidegger, M. "The Thinker as Poet" The Floating Library, 1947, thefloatinglibrary.com/2008/06/30/the-thinker-as-poet-by-heidegger/
“Heidegger’s Relationship Between Poetry and Poetry.” Bartleby, www.bartleby.com/essay/Heideggers-Relationship-Between-Poetry-And-Poetry-FJ2SEHSQ3G
Jones, N. “Does the Concept of Color Exist in All Cultures?” Sapiens, 9 Feb. 2017, www.sapiens.org/language/color-perception/
Pell, A. Truth and Being: Heidegger’s Turn to Poetry Truth and Being: Heidegger’s Turn to Poetry. 22 Apr. 2012, digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1205&context=theses#:~:text=Heidegger
Percy, W. Lost in the Cosmos : The Last Self-Help Book. Picador, 2000.
Prinz, J. “Culture and Cognitive Science.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2020, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020, plato.stanford.edu/entries/culture-cogsci/#BiaCulTra
Spence, D. P. Narrative Truth and Historical Truth : Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis. American Psychoanalytic Association, 2008
Cover: Moth, F. (2020) Follow Me [Digital Illustration]. Frankmoth (2020). Retrieved from: https://frankmoth.com/art/
Figure 1: Timehin, R. (2020) Sahara Desert & Morocco [Photograph]. Sahara Desert, Morocco. Ron Timehin Photography (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.rontimehin.com/sahara-desert-morocco
Figure 2: Kandinsky, W. (1913) Squares with Concentric Rings [Watercolor, Gouache and Crayon on Paper]. Museum of Modern Art, New York. C.S. De Monitor (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2013/0411/Kandinsky-spoke-language-of-color
Figure 3: Kolesnikov, S. (2017) Sisyphus [Oil on Canvas]. Russia. Russianpaintings.net (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.russianpaintings.net/artists/artist_kolesnikov_sergey_246953/sisyphus_250500/ (Quote from Camus, A. The Myth of Sisyphus. Penguin Classics, 2006)
Figure 4: Smith, N. M. (2020) Found Poetry Silhouette [Art Print]. Fine Art America (2020). Retrieved from:https://fineartamerica.com/featured/found-poetry-silhouette-nikki-marie-smith.html?product=art-print