University of Aberdeen | Published: 15 March, 2008
ISSUE 3 | Pages: 1-9 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2008-2933
2008 by Shane Alcobia-Murphy | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how a reading of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy might illuminate McGuckian’s work and to examine the ways in which it helps to define (and affirm) it as poetry. Based on original research into the sources of McGuckian’s poems, I want to argue that her texts often declare their status as poetic texts, that an uncovering of her intertextual borrowings can aid in the grasping of their “cognitive import”, and that the intertexts themselves suggest interpretative frameworks for analysing the poetry.
Este artículo propone demostrar que una lectura de la filosofía de Martin Heidegger puede arrojar luz sobre la obra de McGuckian, así como examinar las maneras en que ayuda a definirla (y afirmarla) como poesía. Basándome en investigaciones inéditas sobre las fuentes de los poemas de McGuckian, sustento que sus textos a menudo definen su estatus como textos poéticos, que al desvelar los préstamos intertextuales se ayuda a captar su «relevancia cognitiva», y que los propios intertextos sugieren marcos interpretativos para analizar la poesía.
McGuckian; Heidegger; Intertextualidad; Poesía; Recepción
I have nothing to say. I am saying it and that is poetry.
(Cage, 1973: 109)
It is by now a critical commonplace to describe Medbh McGuckian’s poetry as “obscure”, a term rarely used in approbation with regards to her oeuvre. Accurately summarising the current critical consensus, Rui Carvalho Homem writes that “
If we are to use ‘vieldeutig’ to understand the essence of poetry we must, says Heidegger, decompose the term into its literal meaning: ‘of many things’, possessed of a ‘multiplicity’ or ‘richness in meaning’. For to every ‘genuinely’ poetic word belongs an ‘inexhaustible’ range of ‘complex spaces of [semantic] vibration (vielfältige Schwingungsräume)’, from which it follows that, unlike the word of (at least ideal) information exchange, the poetic word has no ‘definition’. It communicates, means, more than can ever be captured in words, is, to use a familiar word from the philosophy of art, unparaphrasable. (Young, 2001: 103)
While poetry as a singular linguistic construct is one that “overreaches the self-understanding of the poet, that is irreducible to the personal and communal circumstances of its production and inexplicable in terms of psychology, logic or philosophy” (Pattison, 2000: 170), it does not follow that as readers we ought to side-step the issue of comprehensibility and assert that “her poetry only becomes difficult if the reader attempts to find meaning, and tries to intellectualize her writing” (Burgoyne-Johnson, 1999: 1); rather, as Julian Young notes with regard to Heidegger’s conception ofvieldeutig, to argue that “information transference is not the point of poetry” is “not the same as saying that poetry lacks ‘cognitive import’” (2001: 103). Of course, since the interpretations which follow constitute a paraphrastic rephrasing of the poetic texts, they will run the risk of doing violence to them: they will put “in other words what the poet could onlyhave said poetically” (Froment-Meurice, 1996: 11). However, there is too much at stake here to avoid the attempt at providing at least a glimpse at the rationale behind McGuckian’s poems; as Patrick Grant has put it, “the future reputation of McGuckian’s work as a whole might well depend on whether or not the critical consensus is that she provides mainly alluring enigmas […] or that there is a key to these enigmas, releasing a coherence that readers find illuminating and not just arbitrary” (2001: 94). In previous work I have unearthed many sources which lie behind McGuckian’s work and have demonstrated how an uncovering of her intertextual borrowings can aid in the grasping of their “cognitive import”. Indeed, the intertexts themselves often suggested interpretative frameworks for analysing the poetry.1 In what follows, I want to argue that McGuckian’s texts often declare their status as poetic texts and that her use of Heidegger, in particular, can provide the compass with which to best appreciate her images. This does not mean that her work is any the less oblique since it still requires considerable scholarly effort to unearth the sources; nevertheless, an analysis of how she uses Heidegger counteracts claims that her work is somehow irrational and meaningless.
The very title of McGuckian’s “The Self-concealing” (2003: 87) pointedly alludes to the text’s dislocation of narrative voice; it initiates what Danielle Sered terms a “radical […] disruption of a traditional concept of authority”: what we perceive is the “animation of […] the speaking voice, an opening up of the text to endless proliferations, and an absent – or at least different– lyric centre” (2002: 273). The second and third stanzas express, through the related tensions of multivocality/single voice and sound/silence, the correlative conflict that arises from a venture that imbricates borrowed textual fragments within a lyric poem: what supposedly “ring out”, or sound vigorously, are the dispersive “voices” and not the author’s distinctive voice, whose “ownmost self” is shielded. Yet McGuckian’s poetry disrupts this opposition: while clamorous, the “ringing out of voices” is not discordant, and as readers we do not perceive “the silent voice / of this joining” to be dissonant; rather, the author’s characteristic voice is constituted by the weaving together of the unperceived and unattributed voices. Structurally, the poet conveys the seamless nature of her enterprise through thematically apt enjambments: firstly, between the stanzas (a structural “joining”); and secondly, between the opening lines of the third stanza (initiating its own “flow”). Indeed, the stanza-break itself intimates the silent voice being described, graphically represented as it is by the liminal white space over which the reader’s eye must pass:
not only through a ringing out
of voices (202)
Only with the greatest difficulty
can we hear the silent voice
of this joining (203)
And the name flows from the naming (215)
more willingly beauty
dwells on earth (204)
spares its appearing (203)
Not only through a ringing out
of its voices,
but with the greatest difficulty
can we hear the silent voice
of this joining. The name flows
from the naming,
and more willingly
beauty dwells on earth, but spares
its appearing, as its ownmost self.
McGuckian’s poem is made up of carefully selected quotations from Heidegger’s Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry,2 a series of essays which, steeped in an idiosyncratic Graecocentrism, lament the departure of the gods and depicts the modern epoch as characterised by alienation, meaninglessness and nihilism: “In the dis-enchanted world of Gestell, the age in which, as resource, everything ‘obtrude
The two stanzas cited above envisage poetry as “the deepest revelation of what is” and project a way of breaking free from “the grip of technologically oriented thinking” (Pattison, 2000: 162), and are written in answer to a question posed in the preceding stanza:
But to where could we step back? (202)
this destiny of denial (202)
its fourfoldedness (203)
encircles the globe (202)
To where could we step back
from this destiny of denial
encircles the globe?
The “fourfoldedness” is the ideal unity, “the fourfold of earth, sky, mortals and gods” (Pattison, 2000: 160), one which modern man cannot achieve because he no longer has an originary encounter with the world; as Heidegger states, “
It is the center of the whole infinite relation. It is pure destiny itself. What is uncanny encircles the globe now that destiny strikes the men of this age directly, not only through a ringing out of its voices. Destiny approaches man silently – a mysterious kind of stillness. Thus, he is still unable to correspond to this destiny of denial. Rather, he evades it through his more and more hopeless attempts to master technology with his mortal will.As soon as we trouble ourselves to reflect on this, a supposition arises: the ordering of a joint may hold sway within the power of that provocation, that is, within the absolute, essential domination of modern technology, from which and through which the whole in-finite relation joints itself into its fourfoldedness. Only with the greatest difficulty can we hear the silent voice of this joining. For in preparation for this listening, we must first learn again to hear an older saying, in which the once great destiny of Greece rang out. (2000: 202-3, emphases added)
To counteract a world that is led by a nihilistic, yet all-encompassing, belief in the primacy of scientific technology, Heidegger proposes art (Dichtung) as a means of illuminating the ordinary, of ripping “us for a time out of the ordinary into another world” (Inwood, 1997: 111). Championing this poetic use of language, he contends that “[b]eauty is truth experienced in a Greek way, namely, the unconcealing of what comes to presence by its own power, of φύσις that nature in which and from which the Greeks lived” and that art “as the pointing that allows the appearance of what is invisible, is the highest kind of showing” (2000: 185, 186). “For Greek thought,” says Heidegger in “The Origin of the Work of Art”, “the essence of knowing consists in alētheia, that is, in the revealing of beings” (1993: 184), and it is poetic language that acts as the mode of unconcealment, a projective saying, “a bringing forth of beings in that it brings forth what is present as such out of concealment and specifically into the unconcealment of its appearance” (1993: 184). As a title, then, “The Self-concealing” refers directly to that “older saying” in which “the once great destiny of Greece rang out”, echoing as it does Heraclitus’ Fragment 54 which declares: “The joint that denies its appearance is of a stronger ruling than the one that comes to appearance” (Heraclitus in Heidegger, 2000: 203). Glossing this phrase, Heidegger states that it intimates how “we must experience all Greek beings, nature, men, human works, and the divinity; everything visible in terms of the invisible – everything sayable in terms of the unsayable – everything which appears in terms of the self-concealing” (2000: 206-7). Thus, the title not only meta-poetically alludes to the self-concealment that consequentially arises from McGuckian’s strategic arrangement of intertexts within her poems, it also refers directly to the Heideggarian notion that “[p]oetry is the saying of the unconcealment of beings” (2000: 198). When she cites Heidegger as saying that “the name flows from the naming”, she is thus referring to the idea that naming “unveils, reveals”, that poetry is a “showing that discloses what and how something is to be experienced and preserved in its presence” (2000: 215). Hence, quoting directly from Hölderlin’s “Greece”, she is able to contend that, with the poet as mediator between man and the gods, “more willingly / beauty dwells on earth” (Hölderlin in Heidegger, 2000: 204).
Now, now words for it (214)
the eyelids of those eyes
the eyes’ blue school (190).
whose school is the blue of heaven (194)
Now, now, words for it,
the eyelids of those eyes,
the eyes’ blue school,
whose school is the school of heaven.
In Heidegger’s commentary on Hölderlin, the singer’s voice is said to call out to heaven, looking for immortality. Yet the gods are reconciled to their concealment – they “cover the eyelids with art”, “the eyelids whose school is the blue of heaven” (2000: 194). The poem’s opening cites a well-known line from Hölderlin’s “Bread and Wine” which, in context, suggests that, since man is “incapable of openly and directly receiving” the gods’ presence, he must be resigned to “bearing one’s burden”: he must wait for the words to be found and to blossom (2000: 214):
Such is man; when the good is there, and a god himselfCares for him with gifts, he neither knows it nor sees it.
First he must suffer; but now he names his most loved,
Now, now words for it, like flowers, must spring to life.
Yet the same line, transplanted to “The Self-concealing”, becomes both declarative and affirmative: for this poet, the words are now blossoming. Hence, at the poem’s conclusion, she can declare that immortality is conferred:
Insofar as death comes, it vanishes (190)
death is also a life (189)
Insofar as death comes, it vanishes,
and whether it comes from afar,
it is also a life.
McGuckian’s text has named the names; its projected saying finally breaks the “destiny of denial”.
The importance of Heidegger’s conception of poetry for McGuckian can hardly be overstated as he is one of the few exemplars to whom she returns in subsequent texts. In “Four Voices without an Instrument” (2004: 19-20) she again presents a manifesto on poeisis and the poet’s status using textual fragments borrowed from the German philosopher. The title, however, is a quotation from a letter written by the composer Felix Mendelssohn to his sister, Fanny, commenting on his proposed settings of Heine’s Volkslieder(1839): in a departure from his more usual piano/voice arrangement, he intends to set them to “‘four voices without an instrument’” (Mercer-Taylor, 2000: 132). According to Mendelssohn’s biographer, Mercer-Taylor, this constituted a move away from the “Romantic instincts of his youth” and towards “the Biedermeier”, a type of art which was “embraced as the embodiment of all that was insufferably decorous, comfortable, complacent and respectable in the conservative culture of the decades following the Napoleonic wars” (2000: 131-2). One could well conclude that, with such a title, McGuckian is playing into the hands of those who wish to dismiss her own work as “merely arch”, “maddeningly fey”, “insubstantial” and “irritatingly whimsical” (Lucas, 1988: 38). Yet the title does have a more immediate relevance for the poem, referring, in part, to the “four voices” in her text – her own, Heidegger’s Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, Oliver Taplin’s edited collection of essays entitled Literature in the Greek and Roman World, and Peter Mercer-Taylor’s biography of Mendelssohn3 – and it is in the weaving together of such voices that we find an insistent poetic credo.
In the month of March (H, 103)
temperature had been further raised (Taplin 107)
a self-opening (H, 79); in mourning (H, 80)
the becoming-light (H, 80)
The northeast wind (H, 103)
Reading the quarters of the sky (H, 111)
When day and night are equal (H, 103)
Another March month has come
to raise the temperature of the world,
a self-opening, clear, in mourning,
The northeast wind
reads the quarters of the sky
where the moon falls awake
into its own mouth
till day and night are equal.
The poem’s opening stanzas depict the anticipated primaveral relief from a bleak winter’s darkness: spring brings welcome light and life to the world. However, it is “another” March month not only because of the calendric certainty of its recurrence, but also due its poetic return in the form of a quotation from Hölderlin’s “Remembrance”: “The northeast blows, / Of winds the dearest / To me
The “northeast wind”, significant, of course, due to McGuckian’s domicile in Belfast, is said to be “the wind […] which in the poet’s homeland brightens up ‘the air’ […] and extends gaiety into the distance” (Heidegger, 2000: 109). The pervasive imagery of brightening is all-important here since, being alienated from the “holy ‘fire’”, man’s task in a modern world characterised by spiritual destitution is said to be “the opposite of the Greeks’”, that is, “to recover the ‘fire’” (Young 2001: 97). Who exactly can achieve such a task? The answer is, unsurprisingly, the poets. The northeast wind is said to set the mariners in Hölderlin’s “Remembrance” on their travels, and these sailors are read by Heidegger as figures of the poet: “They say the holy. They must therefore know the heavenly bodies and be masters in reading the quarters of the sky” (Heidegger, 2000: 111). To where are these poets-mariners voyaging, and what draws them there? In fact, their journey to a foreign land is, in essence, a homecoming. “In this preference for the northeast,” says Heidegger, “there reigns the love for the experience of thefiery spirit in the foreign land. The love for what is not like home, purely for the sake of becoming at home in what is one’s own, is the essential law of destiny by which the poet is sent into the foundation of the history of the ‘fatherland’” (Heidegger, 2000: 111-2). Such a statement makes for uncomfortable reading given Heidegger’s past affiliation with the German fascist regime in the 1930s, but when he says, commenting on Hölderlin’s text, that the northeast wind “‘calls’ the poets to find themselves in the destiny of their historical being”, it does not pertain to matters solelyDeutsch; rather, it is a further call for poets to act as mediators between the gods and man.
The journey, simultaneously to a foreign land and homeward, is neatly suggested in stanza three of McGuckian’s poem:
‘there is no dust’ (Mercer-Taylor 52); “no deluge” (H, 74)
“the blue city” (Mercer-Taylor 96)
“the city had swollen” (Mercer-Taylor 79)
“his dark ship” (Taplin 27)
“the reverberating sea” (Taplin 28)
There is no dust, no deluge.
The blue of the city has swollen
or returned to itself
in its dark ship
the reverberating sea.
The extracts taken from Literature in the Greek and Roman World come from the editor’s own essay entitled “The Spring of the Muses”, a title which is directly linked to the thematics of McGuckian’s text. Indeed, the essay begins with a crucial image which pervades “Four Voices without an Instrument”, that of sunrise: “The rosy fingers which heralded the extraordinary era we know as ‘ancient Greece’ first gradually spread between 900 and 700 BCE” (Taplin, 2000: 22). The specific quotations taken from Taplin’s text are from a passage where he is quoting Hesiod’s Works and Days to tell of how that poet’s father changes his livelihood from agriculture for a life on the sea, “quitting Kyme in Aiolis, all the way in a dark ship” (Taplin, 2000: 27, my italics). Like the mariners in Hölderlin’s “Remembrance”, the father is compelled to undertake a journey to an unfamiliar territory.4 What then follows is a section on seafaring in which Hesiod states: “I shall show you the measures of the reverberating sea, / Uninitiated though I am in the skills of seamanship and boats” (Taplin, 2000: 28, my italics). The journey’s trajectory, however, is homeward: the city figured in McGuckian’s poem returns “to itself”. To illustrate this, the stanza depicts a second artist journeying southward: Mendelssohn travels to Italy in 1831 and describes Florence in a letter as “the blue city” (Mercer-Taylor, 2000: 96). Yet that foreign territory is conjoined in the poem with the Mendelssohn family home at 3 Leipzigerstrasse, a magnificent, idyllic and enclosed plot: “there is no dust” because “one doesn’t hear any carriages or see anyone” (Mercer-Taylor, 2000: 52).
In the following stanza, the poet registers the fear that “Even the light … would never be allowed its brightness”. This refers to Heidegger’s commentary on Hölderlin’s poem “Homecoming”: having described how the angels, the “messengers of gaiety”, greet the poet, the philosopher contends that the poem describes how, “above the light, gaiety itself opens itself up into its pure brightening, without which even the light would never be allowed its brightness” (2000: 37). While McGuckian is initially afraid that such gaiety will not come to pass, the remaining stanzas reaffirm her faith in poetic speech:
“Since we have been a conversation” (H, 56)
“three-in-one” (H, 38)
“this sign has become my chosen one” (H, 61)
“a garden, which is itself surrounded by
other gardens” (Mercer-Taylor, 52)
“houses those times we call the seasons” (H, 36)
“their lives may have overlapped” (Taplin 27)
“the musicians actually blew out their candles
And left the stage one by one” (Mercer-Taylor 141)
“the sunburst of winds” (Mercer-Taylor 117)
“on their lowest strings” (Mercer-Taylor 202)
“Not without wings” (H, 134)
“When the mists vanish” (H, 109)
“the brightening earth is the first angel” (H, 35)
“first ‘angel of the year’” (H, 36)
et since we have been a conversation,
the three-in-one sign
of your stained-glass voice
has become my chosen one,
a garden surrounded by other gardens,
housing the seasons.
Though our lives may have overlapped
the musicians that blew out their candles
and left the stage, one by one,
now blow for me
a sunburst of winds
on their lowest strings;
so that not without wings,
when the mist vanishes,
the brightening, endangered earth
is the year’s first angel.
These final stanzas bring together the poem’s key strands of imagery, each suggestive of completed transitions: movement from one season to another; the journey home; the visitation of the muse/gods/angels. The poet is “at home” in two senses: physically, since the description refers to the secure and peaceful surroundings of 3 Leipzigerstrasse (“‘A whole row of rooms opens on to a garden, which is itself surrounded by other gardens’”
In “Four Voices without an Instrument”, the poet self-reflexively comments on the influence on her of her exemplars: having been in “conversation” with them, they become her “stained-glass voice”. They have become her muses, her visiting angels, and they help her affirm her own belief in poetic language (in the Heideggarian sense). Man’s being, for the German philosopher, “is grounded in language”; however, he argues, “this actually occurs in conversation” and “since language has authentically come to pass in conversation”, the gods are said to “have come to expression and a world has appeared” (2000: 57). The stanza in which McGuckian mentions this “conversation” is made up of quotations which speak of enabling influences. The first extract comes from Taplin’s essay which talks of how the lives of Homer and Hesiod “may have overlapped”, how they may have been contemporaries and may have participated “in the same poetic occasions” (2000: 27). The second refers to Mendelssohn’s “advocacy of older music”, particularly in his 1838 series of four “Historical Concerts”. During the second of these concerts, which closed with Hayden’s “Farewell” Symphony, “the musicians actually blew out their candles and left the stage one by one” (Mercer-Taylor, 2000: 141). The third extract also comes from Mercer-Taylor’s biography, referring to Mendelssohn’s self-quotation in his Italian Symphony in which “the sunburst of winds with which the piece begins is lifted more or less directly from a colouristic wash early in the ‘Prosperous Voyage’ [an earlier piece]’” (2000: 117). Appropriately, the stanza as a whole constitutes a plea for influence: while her exemplars’ work has been completed and may be rooted in the past, she asks for the musicians “to blow for me”. The sound produced is a curious hybrid of the melancholic and the uplifting: she asks for the cheerful “sunburst of winds” to be played on “the lowest strings”, referring here to the second movement scherzo from Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F-minor from 1847 which features the “cheerless, dark-hued trio (the cello, viola and second violin spend nearly the entirety of the trio on their lowest strings)” (Mercer-Taylor, 2000: 202). That double-edged sound is apt given that the earth in her final stanza is described as both “brightening” and “endangered”: while poets like McGuckian may act as messengers of the gods to affirm the “fourfold unity”, the earth is still in thrall to their “destiny of denial”.
Perhaps the foregoing analyses of McGuckian’s texts confirm that her poetry is “obscure” since the references are all unattributed and it requires scholarly effort to trace the allusions. However, what cannot be denied is that there is a clear rationale behind these poems and that they constitute not only intense negotiations with past art, but also a deeply felt belief in the primacy (and efficacy) of poetry in the modern world. Such analyses ought to prompt critics to look more closely at McGuckian’s texts and perhaps read them in light of Heidegger’s philosophy.
- See Alcobia-Murphy, Sympathetic Ink (2006). [↩]
- Heidegger, 2000. Citations from Heidegger are cited here on the left of McGuckian’s text. [↩]
- The poem is made up of quotations from Heidegger (2000 – referred to as “H” in the offset quotations), Taplin (2000) and Mercer-Taylor (2000). Citations from these texts are cited here on the left of McGuckian’s text. [↩]
- See Taplin, 2000: 28. [↩]
- See Froment-Meurice, 1996: 22-3. [↩]
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_______. 1993. Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. London: Routledge.
_______. 2000. Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry. Trans. Keith Hoeller. New York: Humanity Books.
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_______. 2004. The Book of the Angel. Meath: Gallery Press.
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