The Procedure for Writing a Poem According to Hölderlin, Made Simple

On or about the end of 1799, Friedrich Hölderlin worked on an essay in which he was attempting to philosophize on the procedure or method of writing poetry.1  This was no small undertaking for he, like many Romantics of the time, thought of poetry as the foundation of human thought, so in reality he is undertaking a essay on the very foundation of being!  He never finished the essay.  The existing text is a difficult read even for scholars of German literature, partly because it never reaches the stage of final draft and partly because Hölderlin was stressed at the time from the on set of mental issues that ultimately end his serious work.  As one is laboring at grasping its meaning, the question occurs as to whether anything so complicated could have ever led to a poem.  So well you might ask, what sort of fool would dare to promise his readers a simplified form of Hölderlin’s method? Bear with my foolishness for a moment. 

Step One:  the poet is to locate himself or herself in the ‘unity-of-opposites’ which constitutes reality.

Hölderlin would have disliked this translation of his term which is Harmonischentgegengesetztem.  Jeremy Adler, translates this compound German word as “the harmoniously opposed”in his English translation of Hölderlin’s essays and letters.2  In Stephen Pricket’s discussion of a similar concept used by the English Romantics, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Maurice, speaks of “unity-intension.”  The reason for this difficulty is that Hölderlin, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Maurice as well, thought that one of the major errors made by philosophers of their times was an appeal to unity which meant that the oppositions would some how be dissolved.  If we use black and white as examples of opposites, then unity seems to imply that (a.) The black covers the white, (b.)  The white overcomes the black, or (c.) the black and white become gray.  These are all false unities, for a true unity would hold the opposites together, black remains black and white remains white.  Reality is the an endless interplay of the one with the other.  A perfect world is not imagined as black or not white, but a kaleidoscopic interplay of black and white.  

Step two: poets must practice the ‘unity of opposites’ in their daily life.  

Much of Hölderlin’s essay is a demonstration on how one makes this a way of life.  In this demonstration he makes the point that the “I” (the Poetic I) is not an absolute “I,” but that the “I” that arises from relating to its opposite.  This relating includes a naive encounter with its opposite, childhood, in which one identifies with the object, a heroic encounter with its opposite, youth, in which one struggles with the object, and an idealic encounter, maturity, in which one contemplates the unity of what is not “I” and what is “I.”  Life is according to Hölderlin triadic, and therefore the types of poetry are triadic as well, being naive, heroic or idealic.  Most important, Hölderlin insists that there is no end to this as long as we exist.  The idealic must return to the naive and so on. Step three: The poet lays hold of the matter.  The matter of a poem might be a thought, an emotion, or an object.  The choice of the subject will produce a poem which will be respectively, idealic, heroic or naive.   The subject matter needs to be grasped in a way that is open and/or ready for transition.  By transition, Hölderlin means the movement which will connect it with the other modes of reality.
Let us take a Robert Frost poem for an example to see how this would work.   His poem “Tree at my Window” is an example of a poem in which an object, a particular tree, is chosen as the subject of the poem.  Thus we could say that in Höderlin’s view it is a naive poem.  But if it is poetic, it must be ready to move to its opposition which in this case is the author of the poem observing it though his window.    In the Frost poem, we are suddenly dealing with the emotion of the poet, his anxiety, his fear, and his courage.  Thus, the poem becomes heroic as well as naive.   Yet to be truly poetic, it must move yet one more step which is the movement to the idealic, to the uniting idea.   The full sense of Frost’s poem is to be found in the thought that there is some kind of relationship which exists between the poet and tree.  There is a communion that is evoked which is beyond the naive sense, I am the tree, or the heroic sense, the tree is a metaphor for my struggles.  With this thought, the poem becomes idealic.  Now Hölderlin will insist that it ought to return to its beginning and re-engage with the naive joy in the physical tree.  The motion should not stop, because it is in the motion that we find the meaning of the poem for us and it is ability to actually represent reality.
This exercise, it seems to me, to illustrate that Hölderlin philosophical description of the poetic process actually works.  It is an open question about who would be more surprised by this result, Hölderlin or Frost.

Step four: The poet can still any doubt whether he or she has grasped the reality of unityin-opposites, by reference to interior intuitive feeling.  This that transcendental that allows for the recognition of the unity-of-opposites.   Hölderlin reminds the would-be poet that his grasp of the unity-in-opposites is based on this intuition saying: “For this is only possible in a beautiful holy, divine feeling.”3

In the essay this sentence identifies what seems to come as a side track.  It is as if Hölderlin looked back on his argument for the possibility of the poetic life and decided that it needed to be reinforced.  Indeed this section interrupted his work on the essay to the extent that he left essay unfinished, not taking up previously announced topic “(b) . . . poetic representation.”  Moreover the tone of this section seems to be not so much philosophical discourse as it does a theological one.

Outside of the back and forth of everything, stands an intuitive feeling which gives one the ability to grasp that the back and the forth are nested in a unity.   This is similar to the assertion of a mystic or of his contemporary German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose theological method rest on a transcendental which he identifies as “the feeling of absolute dependence.” Hölderlin was not by any means an orthodox Christian and he thought that the institutional church of his day had become irrelevant.   He was, however, trained as a theologian in the Lutheran Seminary at Tübingen, and he believed that he had not lost his faith.  He thought that there would be a rebirth of the church largely thorough being poeticized.  He was in a sense religious and he rather implies that making of a poem is an essentially religious act.

It remains to be seen if Hölderlin’s philosophy of poetic method, can shed light on our own ability to experience one of his own mature poems?  Suppose we take, for our example,  a quintessential poem like “Ister.”  Like the poet who wrote, it we should prepare ourselves by locating ourselves in that sense of reality that Hölderlin called the “unity of opposites.”  Once we are confident that we are aware of reality in this way, we can ask ourselves what is the subject matter of this poem?

Our first thought might be that “Ister” is a poem about a river, but that would be a mistake.  It is not clear that Hölderlin ever visited the Danube, but even more to the point there is in the poem no location or moment, real or imagined, when the poet is observing the river.  Even the fact that the river goes by its ancient name in the poem is a clue that the physical river is not the first moment of the poem.  That moment is a thought, making this, in Hölderlin’s terms, an idealic poem.  Accordingly, this thought was taken as subject matter in a manner in which it could make a transition to a river.  The idealic moves to the naive.  Thought moves to the sensuous opposite.

The river, that is, the particular river known in modernity as the Danube, becomes the poem’s lead metaphor.  This is, however, more than a literary devise, for the poet encounters the river in a vivid sensuous manner.  “It dwells in beauty, garland pillar burn and stir, lining wildly its banks.”  This is the naive aspect of the poem.  Having fulfilled this part of the transition, Hölderlin’s poetic method requires the poet to discover the energetic opposite.

The poet finds the energetic opposite in human action, first represented in the poem by the human resolve, “Here we will build.”  This brief statement is fraught with emotions, desire, courage, and fear.  Building stands for the whole human enterprise. This, then, is the heroic aspect of the poem.  The story of Hercules’s mythic visit to the upper Danube on a hunting expedition, follows this reference for the parent purpose of underlining that this will to build is to be taken as heroic action.
According to Hölderlin’s poetic method the dynamic now requires a return to the third,  originating aspect, the idealic.  The idealic in this case is an idea which we can now better identify.  Hölderlin’s initial thought must have been centered on the migrative/journeying-nature of humanity, humanity on the move, which can also be understood as human progress, with the caveat that for Hölderlin this progress is a continuing activity to the end of time.    In this thought which grasps the progressive nature of human life, is united with the sensuous identity with nature, the river, and is united with the elan of the human spirit to building.

The discovery of the triad gives the poem its dynamic character which explains why we keep reading and rereading it.   We feel that in it lies a clue to our own destiny.  The poem is not an artifact, to be observed, but it is a process in to which the reader is to be drawn.

        While this exploration is hardly an adequate discussion of this splendid poem, it suffices as a demonstration the Hölderlin actually employed his poetic method which described in this essay and that we, as readers, might usefully employ to better understand Hölderlin’s poetry and, indeed, poetry in general.

1.  While the text of the essay is without a title, the Groddeck and Sattler German edition of Hölderlin’s works supplied the title “Über die Verfahrungsweise des poetisichen Geister,” which they lifted from a sentence of Hölderlin that occurs in the essay.  Verfahrungsweise is translated “procedure” or “method,” hence my title for this essay.
2.  Friedrich Hölderlin Essays and Letters, Penguin Books, Jeremy Adler, “When the poet is once in command of the spirit. . .” page 277-294.  Adler identifies Hölderin’s essay by means of the opening words, instead of the titles created by Groddeck and Sattler.
3.  Ibid., page 293

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