Kocbek Edvard:
On Poetry

    A human being calculates the value of his life in two ways: first, through a rational understanding of reality, that is to say, through a systematic and practically organized knowledge of it; and second, through the experience of reality as a spontaneous and liberating overcoming of its logicality. We call the first activity science, the second, art.

    The purpose of science is to discover and organize the cognition of basic laws with the help of various techniques so as to improve the conditions of our risky life. Science progresses by moving from one relative truth to another, and it can never reach global comprehension. The position of science is agnostic, spiritually neutral, it strives for the most secure and objective identification of things in achieved truths. It must ignore all questions about ethical and ultimate concepts, because scientific cognition provides only a partial view of human wholeness and our deepest curiosity which is of a metaphysical nature. This possibility is given to humankind’s second type of curiosity, whose power does not lie in causal logic and carefully bound examination. It is given to art. 

    For art, we should say poeticism, and while poeticism is an essential element of visual art and music, it is first and foremost the essence of verbal expression. Poeticism is the all-encompassing, munificent, and salvatory experience of everything that is. It is thus alogical and noncausal, as well as a complete and ecstatic comprehension of truth as a giving over to being and the liberation of the soul. Poeticism is proof that, despite all the achievements of science and victories of technology, we live in a world of unpredictable and incalculable becoming, that is to say, in a world of fate and mystery, most of all with a feeling of constant insufficiency. If science strives for identification, poetry lusts after authentification. To be authentic is to sense the center of the universe and from that center to pronounce complete experience. If science is the systematic organization of exact laws concerning dead and living matter, then poeticism is the irrepressible and joyful embrace of imaginative play with the most varied elements of fate with the goal of using them to create a holistic vision.

    In the conditions of everyday life, there is not and should not be an opposition between scientific and artistic truth such that the values of one cancel out the values of the other. On the contrary, it appears that both—each in its own way—have a role to play in the process of overcoming the self, one through reason, the other through imagination. We call this process of overcoming creativity, and what interests us here, most of all, is artistic creativity in which we would like to discover the central movement of poetic activity. 

    As far back as we can remember, humankind has been aware of the possibility of qualitative improvement. A desire to overcome the present order of things through imaginative intensity is inborn in human beings. The most interesting fact is that in this imaginative process we have a strong inner conviction that only in the realm of fantasy can we move from reality to authentic truth. At times we are overcome with the sensation that only through this inventive method can we satisfy our desire for the wholeness of things or phenomena. The consciousness of humankind is so organized that everything that is given is given only partially, and thus we need to supplement each partial given through the ecstatic intensity of our soul. The imaginative capability is invisible, nevertheless, its spontaneous appearance in human spiritual life shows that it is a necessary and actual phenomenon, and without it we cannot imagine the qualitative change that is the essence of creativity. We will see that only in poetry is creativity a category of pure, intensive, and whole labor.

    Long ago humankind identified the origins of poetry with the myth that speaks of the loss of wholeness. This is the ur-history of humankind which encompasses various explanations of humanity’s loss of freedom. The myth says that the original human being was exiled from a paradise of happiness due to some fatal transgression. Exile mutilated the original human, making him merely part of the whole; afterwards, only nostalgic memories and longing confirm its existence. That exile marked the beginning of a psychological straining toward wholeness and unity for the human being. Thus, poetry is a yearning for lost harmony. With acute hearing in the cosmic and fateful atmosphere, a poet searches for the separated notes of a lost harmony: sounds, words, sentences, melodies, and with these meter, rhythm, verse, and rhyme. This poetic game takes place in all peoples and at all times, except that its nostalgic content changes. Thus, from time to time, out of the mass of humankind a poet arises who can take us, mired as we are in depressing moments of emptiness, estrangement, and desperation, and light our way with the god-like strength of his wholeness and universality so that we experience moments of immortality. Every true artist stands in opposition to death—our most fateful border—as a ruler over the tricks of fate. He looks death courageously in the eyes, as did Kafka when he said, "all of the best things I have written come from the capability, that will allow me to die satisfied." Whoever achieves poetic transcendence obtains power over death itself. 

    Poetry is the guarantor of authenticity in music, as it is in painting and dance. But her truest medium is the word. For the poet, poetry is linked to language, that same linguistic material through which he became human and through whose words, as the carriers of meaning, he first made contact with the mysteries of the world when he was still being caressed by his mother or playing with his earliest friend. The word is thus given to the poet at the beginning, it is present in his cradle. That is why verbal poetry is the most natural of all the arts. The poet Francis Ponge says that through verbal play every person is guided towards the wisdom of nature and the justice of things. Through words, the most broadly shared vehicles of expression, poetry should be at home in every person, says the linguist Chomsky, since language is not limited to practical communication, but also serves as the means for free thought and original self-expression. Language is unquestionably the most humanizing faculty of man and the highest achievement of his development; and the highest achievement of language is not logical thought but rather poetry, asserts Ivan Svitak, and thus the lyric contains the highest concentration of humanity, it is the acme of human potential. 

    A poem does not accommodate itself to habit nor is it subordinate to any human order. It expresses itself according to its own free will, and it reveals itself without declarations or preparation. A poem is thus revelation and grace. Absolute chance. Frightening lawlessness. And while in the depths invisible cohesive forces bring it into being, pushing it toward a meeting with our earliest memories and presentiments in order to produce a chaotic eruption. A person experiences this quiet torment day and night, slowly mulls it over, turns it over in his hands, thinks about it, falls asleep with this torment and wakes up with it, endures it for many days and nights, becomes blind and deaf to the world, begins to drag it around like a pregnant animal before going into labor. You breathe ever harder, anchored only in the unknown depths of things, knowing nothing of the banal world, its vegetativeness, its rules and laws. But then relief begins, for you look and around and find a word, and you connect it to another, still unrecognized, then to a third, a germ of meaning appears, the melody of a sentence takes shape, and thus you release something that comes as a liberation. And behold, here is a newborn being. Your heart beats with joy. It is filled in and rounded off, a body among other bodies. Now all that remains is the external side, the polishing, the first oral presentation. All that remains is to give thanks with closed eyes, for the conception and birth simultaneously. Finally, you are left with a melancholy mood, as is usually the case after making love with a virginal being.

    We possess various definitions of poeticism. I will note a few here: poetry is an appeal to mankind to leave its vegetative state and move to the heights of loftier values; poetry is a vision of the truth, and it allows for greater and deeper revelations than can be provided by rational knowledge; poetry is the sovereignty of the human spirit which is based not on rational but on artistic truth; poetry is the creative expression of a cosmic and portentous wholeness; poetry is the ecstatic perception of materiality as infinitely rich meaning; poetry is the magical revelation of human capability; poetry is the means by which man becomes reconciled with the world, secures himself against it, and mystically rises above it; poeticism is man’s sensation of freely controlling the world; poetry is linguistic adventure that uncovers unknown and unknowable qualities in human beings and the universe; poetry is divination on the border of the world of dreams and the world of reality; poetry is the abjuration of evil and the appellation of good, the exorcism of the malevolent spirits and the conjuring of good ones.

    Let us look more closely at how poetry expresses its paradoxical meaning. Most important, we should note that words in poetic use become polyvalent. That is to say, a word in a poem loses its one-dimensional meaning and takes on multiple meanings. Even the most overused word becomes polyvalent in a poetic context. In general, when speaking of poetic use we have to do with two major conceptions which compete with each other, especially today: the semantic and the structural meanings of a word. The former conception is based in the gigantic lexical richness of each language, while the latter is built on the formal and functional definitions of logical syntax. The greatest abundance of meanings arise in semantic syntax: its space opens out to such strong and free atmospheric changes, that in its aura words take on a broad gamut of meanings. Three basic experiential categories influence the meaning of words most strongly: vital ecstasy, tragedy, and universal eroticism.

    Whenever we look at a poem in toto, the first thing we recognize is that a poem in totality implies a complete transformation of meaning. In the face of this fact, a person might say that a poem has nothing to do with everyday reality. That is to say that a poetic text is not as true as other everyday texts, like, say, pamphlets, legal documents, scientific reports, or newspaper articles. None of these texts is poetic. This is not to say that a poetic text is actually less valuable or that it is an expression of a higher truth; rather, it means that a poetic text is based on a qualitatively different foundation than so-called realistic texts. The basic language of the two types of texts is identical. The difference is in the subtle and disciplined choice of words. In an artistically effective text, each word is in its proper place, none is superfluous, nothing is missing. The essence of poetic thought is also the unsubstitutability of words. A poem is distinguished by the tension between provocation and risk, between expression and silence, in short, between content and form, between the sincerity of content and the integrity of form.

    For some poets, this tendency goes to such lengths that they are silent more than they speak. The poet Günther Eich says: "I sense some kinship between a poem and Chinese writing. In the latter, meaning is concentrated, because the Chinese do not render words alphabetically or phonetically, but through pictures, that is to say, in maximally gnomic fashion." This is why we can speak of so-called gaps in poetic texts. A realistic or documentary text must be filled with information, such that at every moment and in every place we can verify whether the text is adequate to its purpose. Artistic texts do not recognize such definite and rigidly organized structures. The essential individuality of a poem is predicated on its willingness to break up the flow of its narrative or to jump around within it. We say that poetry is characterized by empty spaces. This we could identify as the poet’s creative freedom. We are not speaking here merely about the elimination of everything superfluous in a poem; rather, we are speaking about an artistic device which invites or compels the reader to fill in the information gaps in a poem with his own inventions. In other words, by its very nature a poem is an invitation to the re-creation of poetic language and its fateful history. Through these lacunal in the poem a poet leads the reader into unknown lands, as if the poem were a guidebook; sooner or later some kind of congruity is reached between the markings on a map and one’s actual path through an unknown city. Here, too, although a poem offers certain documentary lines, it can preserve its fictiveness only if it contains or simulates a pseudo-documentary authenticity, since a work of art in its development is an imagined reality despite the fact that it is constructed of elements of first-order reality. With every sentence we read, our perception of distorted reality becomes fuller, although, paradoxically it also becomes more open. Whenever a literary work coalesces into an authentic whole in the reader’s imagination, only one of its potential variants is activated.

    Literary art is thus not identical with truth. Poetry is only a challenge or the answer to a challenge. Despite the fact that it does not have anything to do with unmediated or real events and despite the fact that the author has no such intention, a true work of art always contains newly-prepared historical power. At any time and place, its contents can be understood as an answer to the most oft-posed questions. This disturbing role of poetry has been beautifully described by the German literary theorist Dieter Wellershoff. When musing on the difference between literature and life, he began by comparing literature to the new technology of the simulator. He took this

metaphor from new techniques of space flight, which deals with new and unexpected experiences by modeling them in a special training room. There, astronauts can adapt to weightlessness, train to control themselves and thereby become acquainted with all the phases of their upcoming flight. This system of simulation, in his analogy, can help us understand poetry. Poetry for him is a simulator for the exercise of the mind, a playground for inventive manipulation in which authors as well as readers can go beyond their practical experience without subjecting themselves to any real-world risk.

    I believe that this comparison is useful. For indeed, literature is not reality, nor does it express verifiable impressions of reality. Instead, it provides propositions or points of view on life situations to which we have never been exposed, but which are nonetheless possible. We certainly can’t adapt ourselves to situations of mental manipulation the way an astronaut in a simulator can, because his movements are strictly limited while a poet is far freer. Thus, the problem with the analogy is that a poet’s position allows for far greater and freer manipulation. In other words, the goal of poetry is not the exact modeling of some situation, but rather a constant and irrepressible investigation of the possibilities of mental play. The purpose of human literary creativity is precisely in its exploitation of the unlimited possibilities for variation and fantasy. The writer and poet undoubtedly also see a very real picture of the human being in society, history, nature, and in himself. That is why many of these fantasies are quite serious. Whenever, in their desires or thoughts, writers examine happiness and unhappiness, good and evil they must risk as much as the astronaut when he leaves the simulator. The difference is that the writer or poet cannot use any patterns worked out in advance.

    A formal and a sensual instinct rule over mankind and the world. The sensual instinct expresses a need for sensual experiments with matter, the formal instinct expresses a psychological need for measure and abstraction. The tension between them leads to a dangerously antagonistic relationship. We can bridge this dangerous gap only by turning to a third instinct, the instinct for free play. To this instinct is given the potential to overcome the antagonistic forces within us and in our activity. This third instinct operates especially in the realm of art, the realm truly designed for the triumph of play. No other arena of life can provide us with as much freedom as we can achieve through artistic creation. In these musings on poetry we discover its basic meaning. Art is the play of the human gambler who stakes everything, even freedom itself, although in so doing he does not in any way impinge on the freedom of others. Science and technology understand and transform the world, lengthen human life, raise the standard of living, eliminate sickness and poverty. All of this is absolutely necessary. But all of this means nothing more than the creation of crucial initial conditions. The most important and necessary things follow from this. For they do nothing more than create the space for that redemptive play we call freedom. I achieve liberation whenever I do battle with all the structures of instinctual and abstract terrors not only in legal and ethical situations but also in my commitment to my own play, because my decisions are most sovereign and because I am in the highest state of imaginative in which I constantly give myself over to new challenges and new victories. In the authentic space of creation, I am most true to my humanity. In this space my responsibility is greatest because it is confronted with deeds of a magnitude greater than the legal or the moral. In poetic creation I am free for, but not from, anything. In this space my free decisions are an answer to all of life’s truth.

    In this space the important and leading recognition is that man is greater than himself. In this space the belief that we live only for production, accumulation, manipulation, and advantage loses its power. It is replaced by the recognition that true humanity is based on ecstasy, on unquantifiable wholeness, and on playful freedom. A human being is not an object to be controlled, but rather a subject who can conquer and outgrow himself. That is the sovereign word of poetry.

Translated by Andrew Wachtel