Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Nathaniel Tarn, The Hölderliniae
New Directions, 2021, $16.95

The Hölderliniae is a magisterial work, a book of enormous consequence coming to us in the sixth decade of Nathaniel Tarn’s poetic career. Because I have a good deal to say about it, I will not provide an overview of Tarn’s life and works, but since Tarn’s personal experiences are a crucial aspect of this sequence of poems, readers may want to look at this brief synopsis while keeping in mind that Atlantis, his long “autoanthropology,” is forthcoming from Duke University Press. A professional anthropologist who has done extensive field research in Guatemala and Burma, a visionary founding editor of Cape Editions and Cape Goliard Press, a groundbreaking translator, and a traveler to all seven continents, Tarn is a major figure in the ethnopoetics movement. At ninety-two, Tarn has gone from strength to strength: his substantial Selected Poems 1950-2000 was published by Wesleyan in 2002, but given the extraordinary books he has published in the twenty-first century, it does not do justice. Personally, I would say that some of the high points of his career include The Persephones (1974), Lyrics for the Bride of God (1976), and more recently, Ins & Outs of the Forest Rivers (2008), especially the magnificent meditation on Grünewald’s Issenheim altar, “Mathis At Issenheim.” But the case could be made that The Hölderliniae is an unprecedented accomplishment, a work of passion, intensity, and wisdom which speaks directly to our greatest contemporary human concerns while connecting us with startling immediacy to a crucial moment in our literary and cultural history.

As the title indicates, The Hölderliniae presents an extended act of communion between Tarn and Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), the quintessential poet of German Romanticism, whose life and work also represents an early instance of the “mad” visionary writer, at odds with social convention, misunderstood by friends and family, and yet still somehow felt to be attuned to the modern problematic of being-in-the-world. Heidegger (who Tarn sardonically calls “Mustache”) was famously obsessed by Hölderlin, writing and lecturing at length over many years about his poems, making him the cultural centerpiece for his philosophy. Translated regularly into English since the nineteen-sixties, Hölderlin’s poems are written in a remarkably fluid form that sounds to our ears as free verse, but also has its origins in the measures of ancient Greek poetry and drama, which he translated extensively. Tarn’s verse form is related to that of Hölderlin’s hymns, which in turn take us back to Hesiod and Pindar. But like William Blake, his contemporary, there is also something powerfully original about Hölderlin, something always new in the way he returns us to the archaic sources of the lyric impulse. The same may well be true of Tarn himself.

Tarn and Hölderlin inhabit each other in this book. To some extent, the poems follow out the tragic events of Hölderlin’s life, including his disastrous love for “Diotima” (Susette Gontard, whose children he tutored in Frankfurt from 1796 to 1798), and his eventual succumbing to mental illness by 1806, when he was forcibly institutionalized by his mother and then released into the care of the family of a Tübingen carpenter, with whom he lived the rest of his life. Tarn frequently juxtaposes moments from his own life against those of Hölderlin. But these are not persona poems—Tarn carefully distinguishes “I” (often used in the third person) and “He”—though Tarn’s agonistic identification with Hölderlin is palpable in every line. In regard to both poets, we are given “Minute particulars from pasts but barely lived through since and / now forgotten in all their burning details” (24). This is, therefore, partly a work of recollection.

The dedication page of The Hölderliniae, with its portrait of Hölderlin, indicates that the book is a requiem for him and Diotima, but Tarn also invokes “my Younger Co-Pilot Fryderyk Chopin” and, very importantly, “Beethoven of the Last Quartets.” Why late Beethoven? In On Late Style, Edward Said, following Adorno, explores late style as “a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against…” Beethoven’s “late works constitute a form of exile.” And Said quotes Adorno himself from Essays on Music: “As the power of dissociation, he [Beethoven] tears them apart in time, in order perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.” Catastrophe, exile, a deliberate going against: these concepts all contribute to our understanding of Tarn’s late style, tense, dissociative, darkly brooding, abruptly furious, suddenly elevated to a point of dizzying sublimity.

The stanzas of these poems are massive, monumental, like great blocks of granite riven with fissures. Tarn employs a long line, though unlike the typically American long line of poets such as Whitman or Ginsberg, we find relatively little anaphora. Rather, the dynamic power of Tarn’s cadences derives from syntax. I quote at length from the opening of section 21:

The task: to come down from above, bring down, translate,
to suffer through an alienation; from the pure spirit's mind
down to the human heart, (since holy ones feel nothing on
their own, as there can be no movement in them, being in
of themselves perfection - there is no room for any thought,
any volition, to add to what they are already.) Thus, they
who move through all the skies, the vacant skies and, since
they have no feet with which to land, interminably floating
through the air, there being not one landing space or limb
with which to land, and were thus known as birds of heaven,
birds of the paradise, ergo they rest down on a human heart,
they take great pleasure in such a dream -- almost as if they
were discovering themselves. And the human heart speaks
what it hears from those who land, breaks these words down
until a unity emerges from the spirit: not a real one, no just
a sleep, a dream of union, Oh! just the dream perfection's
landed, brought down to earth, a mind discovering that much
has been achieved on earth -- whether to benefit a single soul
or a whole polity! (61)

More than description, these lines are a verbal enactment, fulfilling what Tarn calls “the task,” a bringing down and a translation (carrying across), which for the poet involves suffering both the closeness and the distance of the “birds of heaven” that hover over the human heart. In the heaving force of Tarn’s long declarative sentences, we stand in the presence of “a mind discovering that much / has been achieved on earth,” that same discovery that takes place in Hölderlin’s Patmos and In Lieblicher Bläue (and, given those heavenly birds, in the Duino Elegies of Rilke, Hölderlin’s poetic descendent). “Brother of some two hundred years,” asks Tarn of Hölderlin, “what did you know exactly? The / knowledge has to leap out -- all at once.”

Poetic knowledge is indeed a kind of leaping, though more often than not, the poet is constrained by personal circumstances, if not betrayed by history. In the opening poem, Tarn presents Hölderlin as having been “murdered,” forced by his mother, who controlled his finances, to train for the clergy when he longed to live a literary life. Likewise, Tarn struggled against his businessman father, who also did not appreciate his son’s literary ambitions: “He is a failure. I am a failure. Will be ever a failure” (24). Tarn’s recounting of Hölderlin’s life, and his deep engagements with specific poems, including long passages of translation (section 25 consists entirely of a magnificent version of In Lieblicher Bläue), is on one level his attempt to justify and redeem poetic desire, given both poets’ understanding of their calling.

One of the most moving sections of The Hölderliniae presents Tarn’s meditation on Hölderlin’s love of rivers, which led to some of his greatest poems: “For him the rivers carried life backward and forward. He / loved them dearly as the demigods, brothers and sisters to / other demigods: the poets.” “In fine,” Tarn then explains, “a river also is the human mind / working in recollection back from ocean into the poet’s life” (48). In what follows, Tarn takes his brother in poetry “from Rhine and Danube, far from yr. / native Swabia, to a wider world where sundry rivers run / that stopped me in my tracks.” We, along with Hölderlin, are given an enormous catalog of rivers, the rivers of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, all of which this world traveler has visited, until Tarn brings the poem to an end with a sublimely rhapsodic vision of humanity among the stars, “not far off, after // my own demise”:

…mankind will sail along the boundless seas
of space, finding the Lord alone knows -- should there be a
Lord -- how many rivers, among his countless planets and
the deep stars gone wild beyond all calculation. Did you not
sometimes stop to consider this when, looking up at your
skyfull of stars still pure, unglazed by so much human light?
To think of it, the stars also have courses up in the oceanic
heavens from which they shine like distant ships carrying
gods backwards down to their dwellings -- then humans joy
in their kindness, their tenderness to them while they suffer
the pains of any era and mankind's lack of culture; wisdom;
lack of the means to move with satisfaction into other ways,
other dimensions, with hearts at rest. (48-49)

Regarding Hölderlin, Tarn distrusts Heidegger (“too much indeed with tinges of the dreadful / party swastika”); nevertheless, he acknowledges that these rivers “are not symbols, absolutely not: as Mustache, / in his great monograph on “Ister” demonstrates” (50). According to Heidegger (in the translation by William McNeill and Julia Davis), “The river is the locality of journeying because it determines the ‘over there’ [Dort] and the ‘there’ [Da] at which our becoming homely arrives, yet from which, as a coming to be at home, it also takes its departure. The river does not merely grant the locale, the sense of the mere place, that is occupied by humans in their dwelling. The locale is intrinsic to the river itself. The river itself dwells.” My feeling is that despite Tarn’s rightful suspicions of “Mustache,” passages of this sort resonate powerfully for him, for they speak to both his and Hölderlin’s lifelong desire for the “homely,” the “locality,” and for journeying, the antitheses which may be said to define their poetic identities. Indeed, the rivers are not symbols; they are embodiments, wherein their poetic being dwells. In a powerful moment, when the two poets and their understanding of themselves are again conflated, Tarn writes that Hades, the god of death, “takes me down to the one final river / we all traverse to make an end of it. And I cannot be married for / now already married, cannot be married to my poet’s song; I / cannot hear his song, his song of praise, a wedding song, for I / am married to a river” (37). But Tarn and Hölderlin aremarried to both river and song: on the deepest level, I would argue, they are one and the same. Or as Tarn translates the famous line from In Lieblicher Bläue, “Deservedly, albeit poetically, man dwells on Earth” (70).

The Hölderliniae is imbued with this awareness, and it accounts for two more crucial dimensions of the poem. The first is political, having to do quite literarily with how man dwells on Earth. For years now, Tarn has been writing poems that address ecological disaster, speaking against the shortsightedness, greed, corruption, and violence leading, to cite the title of a long sequence from Gondwana (2017), to “Exitus Generis Humani.” “I too have loved & hated in one breath” (30), Tarn now admits, angrily declaring that “A nation bred, as ever nation was, in violence, people addicted, / like angry prophets, to a cult of guns, cannot breed speakers who / speak with open voice…This way / a nation can begin to die, (this way my love, my lovely nation), / this way a nation can destroy itself, this way a nation murders / many peoples, under the guiding chiefs, the absences-of-mind, / blathering day to night in endlessly repeated communication / systems like bloated vermin…” (31). Tarn’s political poetry is “protest poetry,” of course, but more accurately, it is a poetry of lament, infused with an almost overwhelming feeling of sorrow. I observed above that Tarn rarely makes use of anaphora, but one striking exception is the opening stanza of section 8: “…This land / is burning’s; this land is digging’s; this land is mining’s; / this land is excavating’s; this land is quarrying’s; dredging’s; / drilling’s; tunneling’s; fracking’s. This land is bombing’s; / gassing’s; this land is subject to nuclearization. This land is / open to subtraction; redistricting; all mortgaging; theft; tax; / development…” (28). These lines are as dark as anything in Tarn’s earlier work. It may be, however, that Hölderlin’s spirit, despite the darkness of his situation, gives Tarn a measure of hope: “Our man, our holy poet knew that some distant day a present / darkness would abstain from people and a so distant and so / forgotten glory in the past would be recovered” (29). Later in the poem, in a long passage that begins with Tarn thinking of Hölderlin’s republican politics, he imagines all of our present problems solved by what is in effect a form of democratic socialism. This rueful utopianism concludes with “Readers / accustomed to civility will qualify this stanza as a rant. / It is but ceasing: we must desist from language games and other / puerilities. It is but honest” (40).

No language games: if man dwells poetically (and if, as Heidegger tells us, language is the house of being), then the honesty upon which Tarn insists is fundamental to the poetic identity. The Hölderliniae is a textbook of poetry. Here I am thinking of Jack Spicer’s A Textbook of Poetry (in The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether), though I have to say that much as I love that work, it is obscure compared to the direct and forceful statement language, the sheer illumination, of the sections of Tarn’s work where he discusses the art that he has practiced for sixty years. Poets at any stage of their careers would do well to heed him. In a passage about the mythic poetry of ancient Greece, Tarn observes that “you need to recognize that / such a poetry must be initiatic” (21). It could be that all poetry is initiatic, but in any case, there is an essay to be written on the place of Tarn’s work in the traditions of shamanism and mystery cults. For now, consider these lines, which open section 14:

The most mysterious moment, far more mysterious than
any birth in nature. A word, a run of words, moves from
the poet's mind (throat, nostrils, mouth) onto a page. Poet
dictates. And poet, in that vast immediacy, shares with
potential readers - perhaps you? - out of so many maybe
readers of the poem. Poet says "Calling! This poem calls
you. Are you available? Do you accept a call?" In the face
of time. The poet serves with all the other poets a major
potlatch in the teeth of time. The guests arrive into this
tragic era bereft of their ancient gods… (41)

The intimacy of the poet’s experience as the poem is given birth is matched by the ensuing relationship between poet and reader, the reader who longs, despite our secular life, for the lost gods. But “The gods of now are not the ancient gods. They are the / longed-for visitors of now”—what Tarn calls “that vast immediacy.” Paradoxically, the deep knowledge of modern worldly conditions which the poet offers the reader is still sacred, and for Tarn, the poet “must confront the sacred and emerge / victorious” (56).

How so? The poet faces a “hard acceptance of the / gift the gods are offering, the gift of speech, of the poem.” The poet’s role is an ancient one, that of the namer, and “Naming, knowing of naming, ends by / a call from those approaching.” But it is not merely that the gods, the powers of the poem, impose themselves upon the poet. Even more importantly, “The poet is that other / whom the gods require. The gods have need. The poet / answers and provides.” As in the Hebrew Scriptures, when Yahweh calls and the patriarch or prophet responds with Hineni (here I am), the poet, the mortal “other,” answering the call, actually fulfills a divine need. Then, “when / celestial light descends, He [Hölderlin, but also Tarn, or, in general, the Poet] willingly holds in His head / past light and lips withholding poem. Withholds until / He writes and writing’s done” (42).

But however sweeping this cosmic (or as Heidegger would say, ontotheological) drama might be, Tarn also knows that poetry is making: “the art of poetry, in nature infinite, demands form’s limitations to speak at all” (26). Tarn’s forms, as I mentioned, are monumental: he is a great builder, an architect of language. Considering how Hölderlin’s poetic career ends in a veiling, the descent of a sacred silence, Tarn tells us that a “workshop made of the life and life’s experience, all that to be / devoured, consumed in the work’s heart. The work emerges as / life vanishes: a monument” (79). In creating a monument to itself, late work casts an enormous shadow upon us. Even as we seek shelter beneath it, we are deeply disturbed and left sublimely ill at ease. Thus does The Hölderliniae begin its dwelling upon the earth.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 5/8/2021 at 12:00 PM