Speech of Monika Rinck: The truth about poetry
Speech of Monika Rinck, Festivities for 10 years of lyrikline.org
26.10.2009, Palais (Kulturbrauerei) Berlin
THE TRUTH ABOUT POETRY
Federal President, Mrs Köhler, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends,
Poems exist. This is true. People often complain about the difficulty of poetry. Difficult it may be. But it’s no more difficult than the rest of our present, and it seems logical that in order to say anything at all about the world, one should not fall short of its complexity. People say poetry is inscrutable, awkward, that is doesn’t surrender itself readily. But without poetry, how would I know that there’s anything to be seen where the poem blocks my view? That there might be a path where the poem gets in my way? And it does surrender itself – doing so in exchange for the attention entrusted to it. This doesn’t mean that it takes time away from me. On the contrary: it gives me time. Poetry goes against a brash regime of attention that deploys spectacular trailers, teasers and appetizers in its attempts to steer me towards its own greatest profit. I am given time. I am given time which I am enabled to see as a process of understanding. The poem allows me to give time to a thought. It shows me how agreeable it is to begin over and over again with the business of thinking. And there is nothing with which one can begin again so often as with thinking. Thankfully.
Just imagine we understood everything straight away. There would be no resistance, neither inner nor outer. Would this not prompt me to insist that the world corresponds exactly to my powers of cognition, that it is quasi head-shaped, rendering the existence of surprise and astonishment obsolete? Surprise arises from the contrast between an earlier and a later belief. “If I am surprised, then I come to believe among other things that my original belief was false. (..) Surprise about some things is a necessary and sufficient condition of thought in general.” In this way, poems can promote thinking.
In the process of cognition, there is hidden pleasure. The difficulties change, sometimes they cease. It’s a matter of fullness, of a linguistic practice to be experienced. In this sense, the poem is a philosophical act. It brings together the sensory and intellectual possibilities of the human mind in sequence and in parallel. And it reminds us of the need to think of the whole, since leaving one or other sphere to stand on its own would be a betrayal. This may sound like asking too much, an impossible challenge, and in some cases it is. But we are not talking here about reducing complexity by grinding down all concerned, as we know it from other procedures. Perhaps thinking of the whole is beyond me. The poem also reminds us of such difficulties as this. And it can proceed boastfully or modestly, wildly or cautiously, always aiming to think the matter in hand as many-layered as it is, and to think in fragments because reality is fragmented. Is this not familiar to us? Think, for example, of a poem that works like memory: over here in the glaring light stands an image, as if burned in, but over there is a blank, the diffused, partially deleted event.
The poet John Keats spoke of Negative Capability – by which he meant the ability to dwell in uncertainty and indecision. This is not synonymous with being tentative or avoiding decisions. It is a matter of tolerance towards what at first appears inaccessible to me. One might also call it the opposite of fundamentalism. The skills I require in order to enjoy a poem are good skills: heightened presence of mind. The poem brings its own context with it, but it doesn’t make a show of it. It is an agile being. I turn a page and immediately find myself in different, unfamiliar surroundings. I hear the poet breathe in, and then I hear what follows.
“How truth falls true now at the turn of page, at time of telling. Truth one by one falls true.”
Let us recall one of the basic assumptions of human communication: I don’t know what’s going on in the other person’s head. But I can see his or her face. I am required to interpret. Writing in German, Peter von Matt compares the poem, Gedicht, with its German rhyme Gesicht, the face. Both are finite surfaces with infinitely expressive content. “Both hide their truth, while energetically proclaiming the existence of this truth.” In this light, reading becomes a talent, an infinite talent. Just as I must learn to be a better and better reader of the unclear conditions of my present surroundings in order to draw better conclusions. Again and again, I am faced with the question of which lead to follow, at each and every moment. Fortunately, language is at my disposal to answer this question.
Aristotle defines the human species as zoon legon echon, the animal that possesses language.
And the ways this animal possesses language – or the ways it is possessed by language – are numerous, as shown by a children’s language game.
“The children’s truth game ‘Kannst Du die Wahrheit sagen?’ [the German translates as both “Can you tell the truth?’ and, more literally, as “Can you say the truth?”] which rejects all answers to this question as false except one—“the truth”—only works with a tautology on a superficial level. For the child, the answer, which equates telling the truth with merely saying the word, has the attraction of an epiphany, making the gap between “truth” and “saying truth” disappear for moment: “the truth” seems to be an immediate presence. The appeal fades as soon as the motif of duping someone gets the upper hand, and disappears forever when the child learns words in other languages that mean the same thing. But do they mean the same?”
I can take the word for a thing, I can use it for games and incantations, as a magic formula, sacred or regressive, serially or on its own, as a word devoid of meaning, as a sound event. Of course, I can also use it to speak. I express myself, but how do I do this? Good poems expand and renew our awareness of language. They have a refreshing effect because they are always also a critique of language, criticizing blunt and thoughtless usage, simplification, separation of intellect and perception. They teach us that where an image is not quite right, the thinking behind it is usually not quite right either. If language is a cognitive tool, then it must also be possible to detect cognitive failures via language. This is all the more true of poetry – which exhorts me to focus my attention on details, on the smallest units of language, on the constituent parts of words and their history.
Let us recall that within the concepts we use today on a daily basis, there is always a sediment of the experience of their earlier usage. We know, for example, that reason, raison, Vernunft once meant something different to what we associate with it today. Around 300 years ago, it was reasonable, raisonable, vernünftig not to be against the burning of witches. The history of concepts is the history of conflict. Anyone who uses words with care has a part in this. I am responsible for the mode of my speech. This begins at the level of naming. Language cannot be reduced to the pure conveyance of information. Another quality on which poetry depends for its life comes into play here: musicality.
Let us listen to the sound, the beat, the rhythm of a thought. I want to ask you to imagine that thoughts can rhyme. That it is rhyme alone that allows me to say something, that I am guided by the sounds. That figures, words, sentences could detach themselves from an inner stammering and not sink back into fear and desperation, but could show me a path, make connections, rearrange what is given. These are old means: bound up in rhyme and rhythm, what is said is proposed to memory, and memory is happy to oblige, effortlessly shouldering what will accompany us.
Sound can point to the material origin of an onomatopoetic word, can give an idea of the way speech is embedded in affect. We hardly remember what words were to us when we did not yet understood them. They calmed us, put us to sleep, and woke us. We may experience a distant echo of it in a foreign country whose language we do not speak. But that is something different, for as speaking creatures, we cannot go back to a state before language. Nonetheless, our sense of hearing has remained attentive to the detectable phonetic envelope of a concept.
The musical word, Lorenz Wilkens writes, is enveloped in an element of non-linguistic expression. Rejoicing, lamentation, fear, hurry, calm. “In this way, its meaning is not only underlined and accompanied but also, in a sense, rejected.” I can offer the word a new level of attention, repeat it until it becomes opaque and strange, accompany it with lamentation and rejoicing, knock it askew with a rhyme that binds the word to its semantic adversary. “Träumt die taube Nüchternheit, sie lausche, / wie der Traube Schüchternheit berauschen !” These are tricky verses that burden language with the responsibility for crazy bonds which can suddenly no longer be separated. Ludic pleasure, repetition, harmony, song – all this may play a part.
The late lamented Danish poet Inger Christensen advised: “From time to time it helps to stare into space and just listen to the sound and rhythm of the words, to feel your way forward and listen to this music for as long as it takes, until you know that the music has a meaning, it just has to be teased out.”
The poem invites me to join it, to join in, as I am, as we speak. My perception, my experience, is invited to supply coherence in a place where I initially came to a baffled standstill. What could this be? My own speculations hurry to the scene. Who and what might all this resemble? We are dealing here, then, with a redeeming multiplication of the mimetic, beyond gloomy oppositions. In this way, via bold metaphorical connections, poetry can create new resemblances that may be disturbing at first but which then – with a push, and another push – set me thinking and help my sphere of perception and experience to attain a new resonance.
The poem may be saying: Don’t make it too easy for yourself. But it also makes a promise. How pleasing it can be when one’s head opens up to transfer this or that into the arsenal of one’s own images. Great cheerfulness. Then the poem plays its part in the emergence of new routines that will be with me a long time because I too, rushing to join in, was equally involved in their making. Then the poem shows that the intellect, like the breath, is both inside AND outside. Saying something differently, in the sense of the freedom given to me: then it is the thrill of describing anew that makes me distance myself, from prejudices and attributions, from the easiest path – and which can lead me, in the midst of uncertainty, to think better. That is an ethical obligation. To achieve this, perhaps I must move a little closer to the shapeless, to diffusion, even to stupidity, if I wish to shed light on the not-known, on that which is not yet thought. This also takes courage. Finally, though, one is not alone. In this light, the tradition of poetry lies not only behind, but also before us: as a possibility of speaking differently for which the history of poetry vouches. I can entrust myself to it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us straight to Lyrikline, which we are gathered here this evening to celebrate. Lyrikline shows that poems exist. An exceedingly accessible, low-threshold proposal, a small door that leads into a gigantic stairwell. I remember when I first came across the site, years ago and thought: I’ll never get out again. So much the better. This is no game of hide and seek. The poems are there to be read, to be listened to, in all their languages, in all their manners of speech, the languages of coming and of going, the languages of closeness and distance. And how they transform themselves – in translation. The poems show that the world, language, change, transition, difference, diversity, experience, and exchange exist and that consciousness never stops reaching for images, looking for the right words, in moments of happiness and of sadness: an archive of humanity. It’s true, the poem exists. And here it is again, in the voice of Elke Erb, as you can hear it on Lyrikline:
JÄGER UND SAMMLER
Das Leder nicht der Handtasche, der Hüfte
nimmt entgegen, Haut nur. So entlegen –
den der stumme Umkreis kantet – jeder Rand
um mich, die stets aus dem Gesicht verliert das Land,
in das Gesicht auch sammelt: Schrank vor Wand –
ich möchte nur das schlaue kleine Hinternchen des Rehs,
des durch Gebüsch sich tauchenden – wahrhaftig! – Farn!
– ich sammle!
weißgeflecktes Hinternchen noch sehn – ich sehs!
& den gemeinen Lebensstrick, bis er den Kopf hat, Ganglien,
elektrisieren, diesen nicht verlieren!
Finally: why should we, of all people, succeed in abolishing poetry? That would be an overestimation of our capacities, depressing and arrogant in equal measure. Poetry exists. That is true. And I would like to conclude by thanking my friends that accompanied the work on this address – and by giving the answer to the riddle: it’s a cow. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never not see it again.
Thank you for your attention.
Monika Rinck (poet, Berlin)