On Poetry

On Dread, Love, and Poetry

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My former teacher, the poet Mary Ruefle, has an essay in the June 2012 issue of Poetry on the relationship between dread/fear and poetry. She considers the poet's fear that "one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility….something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel"[1] as well as the fear of pain and torture, the difference between emotions and feelings, and negative capability, among other things.

Reading Mary's essay, I was intrigued by passages from the writings of fifteenth-century anchorite Julian of Norwich, who says that "Love and dread are brothers" and that there is a form of dread "'born of reverence,' the holy dread with which we face that which we love most, or that which loves us most."[2] In bringing dread, love, and poetry together, Mary touches on an important relationship, one I'd like consider further by looking at a different set of materials than those Mary has explored.

To start, here are three poems by Sappho on love:


Some say an army of horsemen, others
say foot-soldiers, still others, a fleet,
is the fairest thing on the dark earth:
I say it is whatever one loves.

Everyone can understand this—
consider that Helen, far surpassing
the beauty of mortals, leaving behind
the best man of all,

sailed away to Troy. She had no
memory of her child or dear parents,
since she was led astray
[by Kypris]…


Once again that loosener of limbs, Love,
bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,
seizes me.


Love shook my senses,
like wind crashing on mountain oaks.

(trans. Diane Rayor)[3]

What is love according to Sappho? It is something that seizes, shakes, and crashes. Beyond rationality and intention, love arrives bearing an inexorable mandate. Love consumes, loosens and reduces, casting all things on the "dark earth" in its light. In the grip of Aphrodite, Helen finds herself at the mercy of an overwhelming force. And yet, crucially, she is left with a decision: Helen must embrace her love and its effects.

In her introduction to Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, Diane Rayor notes that "Sappho's poem does not judge or blame Helen for the consequences of her decision….Who is to blame for the destruction in the Trojan War, the woman who followed her desire for one man or the men who followed their desire for war? Sappho accepts Homer's position in the Iliad, that Helen should not be blamed for the war, but emphasizes Helen's choice and desire in the matter. The most beautiful woman, the object of men's desire, became the subject of desire in leaving her husband to follow her heart."[4] Helen accepts the will of the god as her own, a commitment both anguishing and "limb-loosening," dreadful and ecstatic. Her risks are substantial: she risks death (her own and others); she risks the irrevocable loss of the familiar and familial; she risks becoming a reviled foreigner, trailing war and havoc. It is in Helen's commitment to her love while understanding and embracing these risks that she becomes a "subject of desire," laying claim to what is hers and in the process bringing about unforeseeable transformations.

Helen's choice is reminiscent of that of Sophocles's Antigone, though Antigone's love, a familial and religious love, is of a different kind. Love makes the same demand of Antigone as it does for Helen: that she place everything at risk ("Chorus: You risked all, my child. You climbed to the highest summit of Justice."[5]). In burying her brother, Polynices, Antigone risks being stripped of her remaining family and of the promise of a future family, and she ultimately risks an early death. It is Antigone's acceptance of her fate, her act of joyfully moving out to greet it, that gives her her particular power.

In a famous choral ode from Antigone, we find that

Numberless wonders
terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man—
that great wonder crossing the heaving gray sea,
driven on by the blasts of winter
on through breakers crashing left and right,
holds his steady course
And speech and thought, quick as the wind
and the mood and mind for law that rules the city—
all these he has taught himself
and shelter from the arrows of the frost
when there's rough lodging under the cold clear sky
and the shafts of lashing rain
ready, resourceful man!
Never without resources
never an impasse as he marches on the future—
only Death, from Death alone he will find no rescue...[6]

This ode was important to the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who translated the Greek to deinon, Sophocles's word for "wonders" in the passage above, into das Unheimliche, the "unhomely" or "uncanny."[7] The human being is to deinotaton, das Unheimlichste or the unhomeliest one: the ever venturing, ever restless, most violent and uncanny being—the being that uses the violence of techne to carve itself temporary residences amid the violence of nature.[8] Dread for Heidegger is not the fear of a particular thing; rather, it is a mood that "attunes" us to the basic condition of our uncanny being in a world, in time and language.[9]

Experiencing dread, we find that the world trembles and appears strange, unfamiliar. We come up against the "nothing," which in the stasimon above concerns nature's violent erasure, but is also the busied hurrying toward nowhere and nothing of a world that delimits and absorbs us, and is the nothing of our own possibility, the permanently unsettled matter of what we are and may choose to become.[10] To dwell poetically, Heidegger says, is to become homely in this being unhomely. Rather than trying to escape, like her sister Ismene, into the safety of familiar relations and routines, Antigone takes up her uncanniness, asserting that to love and live rightly is better than to live comfortably or long.

How, as poets, do we contend with this uncanniness? Heidegger notes that "Poetry, creative literature, is nothing but the elementary emergence into words, the becoming-uncovered, of existence as being-in-the-world."[11] The poet George Oppen says something similar:

The Little Hole

The little hole in the eye
Williams called it, the little hole

Has exposed us naked
To the world

And will not close.
Blankly the world

Looks in
And we compose

And the sense

Of home
And there are those

In it so violent
And so alone

They cannot rest.

—from "Five Poems About Poetry"[12]

Poetry attunes us to the fact that we are "exposed…naked / To the world" and that it is we who "compose / …the sense // Of home." Oppen suggests that to be an "us" or a "we" is to be, like Antigone, unsheltered and is to participate in the shared circulation and composition of sense. He also points to the violent agitation of those who "cannot rest"—those continuously engaged in mitigating their exposure. Though it is unclear as to whom exactly the "so violent / And so alone" refers, it is noteworthy that the language of exposure and risk is also the language of nationalism and finance. As this past decade has shown, one mitigates one's "risk" and "exposure" by, say, purchasing a credit default swap or mobilizing to secure the "homeland" against a need for resources and a terrorism that has no end.[13]

There is with dread a sensation of falling away from the homely, the world, the comforting bustle and chatter of the known. Here is Elizabeth Bishop from "In the Waiting Room"; the scene is of a child reading a National Geographic magazine at the dentist's:

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
—Aunt Consuelo's voice—
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I—we—were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
—I couldn't look any higher—
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How—I didn't know any
word for it—how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?[14]

With dread, we experience a loss of identity, and in this "falling," the world as such, the interconnected totality of "boots, hands, the family voice / I felt in my throat, or even / the National Geographic / and those awful hanging breasts," presents itself. Mutlu Blasing, in her Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words, tells us moreover that "…without the system of language, the cry—not of the aunt but of 'Elizabeth'—would be inaudible. It could not have happened; the history—of an 'I' and of wars—would not be. Lyric poetry is the one medium that can stage the formation/formulation of an 'I' in the passage into language. The uncanniness of the experience—'I knew that nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen. / Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone?'—is the recognition, as in a dream, of a dissolution into a cry and an emergence of sense at the brink of the abyss: 'I was saying' 'you are an I.'"[15] Consider, too, the sense of wonder in Bishop's remark that "nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen." Dread is not only a pivot into uncanniness but into the poetic and philosophical disposition that asks why there are beings instead of nothing.[16] Bishop stands exposed to the astonishing, "unlikely" fact that things are, that being is, rather than is not: a disposition of wonder foundational to poetry and philosophy.

As genres, tragedy and the lyric offer contexts, but neither is reducible to its respective genre conventions or historical developments. Greater than the sum of their parts, they are instead horizons against which a self and world might be accessed in a certain manner. The texts, techniques, and structures of tragedy and the lyric are at once material supports and transmissible reservoirs that continue to make legible certain forms of being and life. They are potentials of making and orienting, understanding and acting. Tragedy and the lyric converge in that each grapples with irreconcilable ambiguities, an implacable debt to history, and the possibility of transformation. Each is furthermore suffused with the dread of the nothing on which beings and their supports take their ground.

How is the "nothing" related to love? The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in a discussion of Jacques Lacan, remarks that "Everywhere in Lacan's system you have this haunting nothingness, which here gives perhaps a certain pessimistic or ironic sound to his definition of love, 'to give what you don't have,' but…I would underline that the impossibility of love should not be interpreted as a lack, as an originary lack, because every lack is to be filled if possible. Love means precisely to fill the emptiness with emptiness, and thus to share it."[17] If "love means precisely to fill the emptiness with emptiness, and thus to share it," it means to risk devoting oneself to an impossibility and in the understanding that suffering is certain, loss inevitable. (Ismene to Antigone: "… you're in love with impossibility….You're wrong from the start, you're off on a hopeless quest."[18])

The poem—hopeless or, as Mary Ruefle has it, likely "an imbecility" —moves out into strangeness and exposure toward its own irrelevance and nullity but also toward the impossible possibility of an encounter. Love calls out for an encounter: a point of contact (with another, a past or future, with language itself) as well as a potential catalyst of an unforeseeable transformation in which a new configuration of life might begin to emerge and take hold.[19] This is a wakeful yet ardent and ungrounded love—an emptiness that shapes, lights, and gives direction.

Thrown back on ourselves, groundless, we desire what we dread and dread what we desire: our own freedom.[20] The tasks of encounter and transformation begin with the dread-inducing recognition of the very possibility of possibility and with the risk of exposure and of claiming what one loves and wants to defend.

Where does the poem stand? What does it love? What are its commitments?

[1] Mary Ruefle, "On Fear," Poetry June. 2012: 277.

[2] Ruefle 278, 283. Emphasis Ruefle.

[3] Diane Rayor trans. and Sappho, Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece (Berkeley; Los Angeles; Oxford: University of California Press, 1991) 55, 62, 63.

[4] Rayor, "Introduction" 13.

[5] Sophocles, Antigone, trans. Nicholas Rudall (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998, Kindle Edition) 572.

[6] Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Book, 1984) 76-77.

[7] See Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister," trans. William McNeill and Julia Davis (Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996) 55-122 and Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven; London: Yale University Press 2000) 156-221.

[8] A number of important questions and concerns about Heidegger's reading of Antigone are raised by Véronique Fóti in "Heidegger, Hölderlin, and Sophoclean Tragedy," Heidegger Toward the Turn: Essays on the Work of the 1930s, ed. James Risser (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999) 163-186.

[9] Dread is given extensive treatment by Heidegger in Being and Time.

[10] For more detailed readings of these distinctions see Simon Critchley's recent work, especially "On the Nature of Faith" in The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (London; New York: Verso 2012).

[11] Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1982) 171-172.

[12] George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2008) 101-102.

[13] For more on this last point see Jennifer Bajorek's "The Offices of Homeland Security, or Hölderlin's Terrorism" in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Summer 2005): 874-902.

[14] Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (New York: The Noonday Press and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983) 160-161.

[15] Mutlu Blasing, Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007) 87.

[16] Heidegger comments on the relationship between dread and wonder in the 1929 lecture "What Is Metaphysics?" (Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell [New York: HarperCollins, 1993] 109.) For a detailed examination of the question "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" see Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics.

[17] Jean-Luc Nancy, "Love and Community: A Round-Table Discussion with Jean-Luc Nancy, Avital Ronell and Wolfgang Schirmacher," The European Graduate School site, August 2001 .

[18] Sophocles, trans. Fagels 64.

[19] In In Praise of Love, trans. Peter Bush (London: Serpent's Tail, 2012, Kindle Edition) 26, 28, Alain Badiou remarks that "Love is always the possibility of being present at the birth of the world….Love starts with an encounter. And I would give this encounter the quasi-metaphysical status of an event, namely of something that does not enter into the immediate order of things" (emphasis Badiou).

[20] See Søren Kierkegaard's The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) 42: "Anxiety is a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy" (emphasis Kierkegaard).

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