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Poetry and Poiēsis: The Question Concerning Technē

The day before yesterday (Friday, 12 May) was the last day of the Literary Festival. It was the 21st annual festival and I had come across a number of “21”s in the couple of days previous. I enjoyed the events I attended, with only one reading leaving me dissatisfied and puzzled. That reading was Susan Stewart's reading of a piece of autobiographical nonfiction about her 1976 journey to Ireland with a lover. I'm conflating the narrative details of the story Francine Prose read the next night (Friday night), the title of which is escaping me, though I do recall a cat named Hecuba, a narrator named Polly, a husband named (I believe) Matt, and the mother (of an old girlfriend) named Lucia . The ex-girlfriend's name started with an A, I think, or a “Ch.” (UPDATE: One of my colleagues, Paul Jones, reminded me that Prose’s story is titled “Hansel & Gretel” and the ex-girlfriend's name is Marianna. Thanks, Paul.)

Though Stewart's non-fiction narrative left me slightly confused--I had followed the narrative attentively but was unable to establish a stake in what happened, perhaps because the narrator, a textual representation of an earlier version of Stewart herself, was only a stranger to me--I was dazzled by Stewart's Friday afternoon lecture wherein, among other things, she spoke of “the feel[ing] of not to feel it” (Keats) and the impossible sanctuary offered by such a place since all one could ever know is the feel of feeling it. Though she did not emphasize this aspect and she likely would not have phrased it this way, for Stewart, desire (renewal) in the realm of the human (or the sensate) cannot be ignored even for lack of experience. Keats's speaker avers

The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it,
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never versed in rhyme.

Thus, art cannot provide insensate shelter, this last my own ham-handed linguistic concoction. Paradoxically, poiēsis is compensatory precisely because it opens on to experience.

Stewart finished her lecture with a discussion of her poems “Dark the Star” and “Cinder,” the second of which has been set to music by James Primosch.1 Stewart played two versions of Primosch's composition, the first version was written for piano and sung by soprano Dawn Upshaw. This piece was sparer and more melancholy than the second which was sung by soprano Susan Narucki.2 The poem itself is about a paradox which is represented in the first three lines by the fact that “We needed fire to make / the tongs and tongs to hold / us from the flame; [. . .]”

In these lines, Stewart's speaker illustrates the paradox of poiēsis (and of perception) as a paradox of technē. Heidegger addresses this problem in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” at one point explaining that “[t]hrough bringing-forth the growing things of nature as well as whatever is completed through the crafts and the arts come at any time to their appearance” (317). Heidegger clarifies that “bringing-forth” is the movement from concealment to unconcealment which he equates with revealing and, ultimately, the emergence of truth.

From an instrumental point of view, nature takes its shape from the activity of humans, but for Heidegger this is to misunderstand that ordering nature according to human scientific categories (establishing “standing-reserve”) presupposes that the investigator

has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges [one] to approach nature as an object of research,until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve.

Modern technology, as a revealing that orders, is thus no mere human doing. (324)

Implicit in such a scenario is a “challenging-forth” to allow nature to reveal itself fully and truthfully or, as Heidegger later puts it,

the challenging-forth into the ordering of the actual as standing-reserve remains a destining that starts man upon a way of revealing. As this destining, the essential unfolding of technology gives man entry into something which, of himself, he can neither invent nor in any way make. (337)

In this way Stewart's “Cinder” can be partly read as the poetic posing of “The Question Concerning Technology.” Stewart's speaker considers the relationship between tool and material revealing the generation of each from the other, a kind of reciprocal genesis between instrument and substance. Stewart's poem, however, goes in a different direction than Heidegger's essay. As philosopher, Heidegger takes pains to warn that truth may be obscured by too narrow a focus on human agency in the domain of science. Stewart's poem has no such didactic function, avoiding irresolvable arguments about how to evaluate truth.

Instead, “Cinder” raises its levels of observation from the terrestrial (“fire” and “ash”) to the heavenly (“stars” and “light”) to the metaphysical (“death” and “time”), establishing through relationships the revelatory nature of poiēsis. The poem's final lines rhetorically dramatize this interrelationship of genesis and generation by enframing the interrogative within an imperative, challenging “Tell me, ravaged singer, / how the cinder bears the seed” while simultaneously placing the reader in the position of the speaker.

Multiples reside within the one. end of article


1 According to Stewart, Primosch is presently working on an arrangement for “Dark Star,” the last two lines of which present a problem for song since, unlike prose, song cannot say much.

2 The first version features the pianist Gilbert Kalish while the second features the 20th Centuury consort of Washington D.C.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: HarperCollins, 1977: 307-341.

Keats, John. from “Stanzas” in The Complete Works of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman (1900)

Stewart, Susan. “Cinder.” The Forest. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1995.