Professor Hugh J. Silverman

Department of Philosophy

Stony Brook University

Fall Semester 2006

Tues& Thurs 5:20-6:40

Protocol # 8

Heidegger's Language and What are Poets for?

October 03, 2006

These notes are prepared by Mariya Norenberg and Arsalan Memon (Teaching Assistants).

These notes do not replace attendance in the class which is mandatory.

They are to serve as a reminder of what was discussed in class.

They are to assist students in understanding the readings and what is presented in class. (HJS)

Protocol by Mariya Norenberg and Arsalan Memon (revised by HJS)


         Heidegger already affirms the importance of poetry or poetizing (Dichtung) at the end of the “Origin of the Work of Art” essay. He writes: “Poetry is thought of here in so broad a sense and at the same time in such intimate unity of being with language and word, that we must leave open whether art, in all its modes from architecture to poesy exhausts the nature of poetry. Language itself is poetry in the essential sense”(OWA, 71-2).  

         Something that is thick or heavy is Dicht -- something that takes space. Dichtung means a ‘washer’ in German. A washer is a ring that acts as a buffer zone and fills the gap between a nut and a bolt. Dichtung thickens the space. Poetry, in German, is also called Dichtung. Poetry thickens the space and fills the gap. It condenses language down to its essence. In fact, according to Heidegger, language in its essential form is poetry. Poetry as Dichtung is different from poesy (Poesie). In a sense, it is like the Greek word musike, which sums up all of the different art forms, including philosophy. A better word for poetry in this sense would be poetizing, a way of using language in its essential form. “Art as the setting into work of truth, is poetry” (OWA, 72). Poetizing brings out the truth, sets it to work. “The nature of art is poetry” (OWA, 72).







                                   Work      work-of truth     Artist   

                                   of art





As can be seen from the circle, Dichtung is not simply a kind of artwork. It is the truth that emerges from the circle. It sets truth into work.

     Heidegger’s essay, “What are Poets for?”(1946) was included in the book Holzwege (early 1950s) . Heidegger begins the essay with a question, which is a quote from Hölderlin. Hölderlin is a 19th century romantic poet who was interested in Greek culture. While he was often looking back at Greek culture, he also writes about his own time. The question that he asks in an elegy, “Bread and Wine,” is the following: “What are poets good for in a destitute time?” Like most romantic poets, Hölderlin was very pessimistic about his time.

            Heidegger identified with Hölderlin in his pessimism about his own time. The essay was written in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II, and, as is known, Heidegger was on the losing side of the war. In April 1933, Heidegger had become Rector of the University of Freiburg and in May of that year, he joined Hitler's National Socialist Party. A year later, he quit his position as Rector, but was still under suspicion during the de-nazification period after the war. As part of the process, he was not allowed to teach at the University. The prohibition continued until 1950--a year before he is officially granted "emeritus status.". This was in fact a destitute time for Heidegger. Hölderlin describes this destitute time as a fleeing of the gods, leaving the mortals behind. The united three – Herakles, Dionysus, and Christ -- have left. The fourfold of the mortals, divinities, earth, and sky fell apart, leaving the mortals looking for a way to fill the empty space. “Not only have the gods fled, but the divine radiance has become extinguished in the world’s history” (WAPF, 89).

          Everything that Heidegger believed in philosophy is gone. “It [time] has grown so destitute, it can longer discern the default of God as default. Because of this default there fails to appear for the world the ground that grounds it” (WAPF 89-90). The fleeing of the Gods have left people with no recourse. What is left is an abyss or in German an Abgrund. The German word Grund means ‘ground’ and the prefix ab means ‘away from’ or ‘without,’ so literally, Abgrund means ‘without ground’ or 'absence of ground.' An abyss is a bottomless pit, an open space with nothing, which keeps going forever. The destitute time is an abysmal time. There is an open space that is left in the place where there is supposed to be a ground. The ground that is missing is truth, which is the ground of everything. Truth is Er-eignis or event.

              The gods have fled, and all that is left are the mortals who have to reach into the abyss, to look for the “traces of the fugitive gods.” Even though they are gone, it can still be possible to get back this ground that is absent by looking at the traces that they have left. The German word for traces is Spuren, which means something not present but also not fully absent. Interestingly though, in this destitute time, Heidegger did not look toward philosophers, but to poets for hope.

“He among mortals, who must, sooner than other mortals and otherwise than they, reach into the abyss, comes to know the marks that the abyss remarks. For the poet, these are the traces of the fugitive Gods” (WAPF, 91). According to Heidegger, it is the poet that will be able to do this.

             Here he departs from Hölderlin, who does not have much hope, and turns to Rilke. Heidegger asks, “Is Rainer Maria Rilke a poet in a destitute time? How is his poetry related to the destitution of the time? How deeply does it reach into the abyss?” (WAPF, 94). Rilke’s poetry starts to give us glimmers of hope for the future. There is a sense in Rilke’s poetry that through poetizing, mortals might know what to do and the open space in the abyss can be filled.

           In the 1924 poem with no title (WAPF, 97), Rilke speaks of the Open and pristine ground (Urgrund), which Heidegger interprets on as the ground of beings (WAPF, 99), that is Being. In the Being of beings or in the Open, Rilke is giving us a sense of possibility, a sense of escape. Rilke’s very poetry is going to answer the question about what poets are for. “If Rilke is a ‘poet in a destitute time’ then only his poetry answers the question to what end he is a poet, whither his song is bound, where the poet belongs in the destiny of world’s night. The destiny decides what remains fateful within this poetry” (WAPF, 139).

   Five years later in his essay, “Language,” Heidegger begins by making the statement that "man speaks." He uses the Trakl poem about a wintry evening to help him discover what language is. The poem describes a wanderer outside in the snow. This is compared to the warm, comfort inside a house. Heidegger interprets this as the inside of a hermeneutic circle and the cold outside as concealedness. In the circling of the circle, in the Open it is revealed to him, that it is not man who speaks, but language that speaks. "Language speaks" in the Open and it speaks the truth. Language languages, so to speak...