I first introduced the idea of an ‘age of the poets’ in 1989. In spite of the word ‘poets’, the category ‘age of the poets’ is not immanent to poetry. It is not the poets who declared the age that was theirs. Some of them – but this concerns a trait which signals rather the closure of the age in question – undoubtedly adopted the pose of ‘modern poet’, as the prophet withdrawn from his own time, the one who proffers the crucial aphorisms that trace the destitute time of thinking. But it is not this ‘pre-Socratic’ pretence I have in mind.

Inspite of the word ‘age’, the category in question is not historicist. It does not pretend to offer a periodization of the different sequences of poetry. It is true that I – vaguely – situate this age between the Paris Commune and the aftermath of World War II, between 1870 and 1960, or between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Celan, with Friedrich Hölderlin being more of an angelical announcer. But this determination remains external to the category itself.

Finally, it is also not an aesthetic category, or one belonging to the judgment of taste. I am not saying that the ‘great poets’ of the period in question are the poets who best exemplify the age of the poets. My own taste also includes Victor Hugo, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, whom I do not inscribe as poets of the age in question, unlike Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Georg Trakl, Osip Mandelstam or Celan, whom I do inscribe as such, and whom I also love as pure poets, albeit no doubt from another angle.

The age of the poets is a philosophical category. It organizes a particular way of conceiving the knot tying the poem to philosophy, which is such that this knot becomes visible from the point of view of philosophy itself. ‘Age’ refers to an epochal situation of philosophy; and ‘poets’ refers to the poem as condition, since the earliest times, of philosophy.

I call ‘age of the poets’ the moment proper to the history of philosophy in which the latter is sutured – that is to say, delegated or subjected to a single one of its conditions. In essence, it is a question of the sutures to the scientific condition, in the different avatars of positivism and the doctrine of progress; the political condition, in the different avatars of revolutionary political philosophy; a mixture of the two, which is reflected in Marxism as ‘scientific socialism’ – that is, the superposition of a science of History and a political voluntarism whose philosophical projection has been dialectical materialism.

In these conditions, inherited from the nineteenth century, the poem can assume within thinking the operations left vacant by philosophy when its suture obliterates or paralyzes it

 

It should be clear that, for me, poetry always constitutes a place of thought or, to be more precise, a procedure of truth – or generic procedure. ‘Age of the poets’ by no means designates the ‘entrance into thought’ of the poem, no more than the ‘end’ of the age of the poets – an end which I declare a necessity – would mean a repudiation of ‘thinking’ poetry. I simply want to say the following: in a situation in which philosophy is sutured either onto science or onto politics, certain poets, or rather certain poems, come to occupy the place where ordinarily the properly philosophical strategies of thought are declared.

The centre of gravity of this occupation in my view is the following: the poems of the age of the poets are those in which the poetic saying not only constitutes a form of thought and instructs a truth, but also finds itself constrained to think this thought. In this sense, Mallarmé is emblematic, since we all know that he declares, as an assessment of his great intellectual crisis in the 1860s, that his thinking has thought itself.

However, to think the thought of the poem cannot be a reflection, since the poem offers itself only in its act. To think the thought of the poem supposes that the poem itself takes a stance with regard to the question ‘What is thinking?’ And what is thinking in conditions in which the poem must establish this question on the basis of its own resources?

The poem then finds itself unwillingly – I mean without this position stemming from a calculation or a rivalry – in a kind of breach, which is also an overlap, with philosophy, whose originary vocation is precisely to think the time of thought, or to think the epoch as site of compossibility of the different generic procedures (poem, matheme, politics and love). 

I will simply say that the age of the poets is signalled by the intrapoetic putting into work of certain maxims of thought, nodal points of the poem in which the thinking that it is indicates itself as relation or incision of thought ‘in general’.

Examples of such maxims are legion, and I obviously sample only a few of them.

Rimbaud, as early as in the historic and intellectual programme that he assigns to the poem in his letters to Paul Demeny and to Georges Izambard, declares the expirationpre-emption of the cogito as the investigative matrix of all possible thought: ‘It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: People think me.’ This deposing of thought in the anonymity of a trajectory authorizes its appropriation by the poem as dictation of being. 

When Mallarmé concludes his testamentary work with the maxim ‘every thought emits a dice throw’, the ‘every’ comes to outweigh the singularity of the poem, by the foundational connection it establishes between thought, chance, and number.

In the ‘heavy-handed’ poetry of Trakl, which Martin Heidegger fallaciously pushes in the direction of a sacralization of presence, the operations which indicate the ‘salvific’ thought – hence the effect-less effect of a truth – are not discernible except at the most profound level of experience, which is certainly linked to suffering, to pain, to blood, but which the poem delivers with a strange neutral pain. The axiom of the poem is the essential link between dereliction and the power of truth. See, in ‘Grodek’, the following: ‘Tonight a mighty anguish feeds the hot flame of spirit.’ But this suffering, this bloody loss, is material, related to work – it does not metaphorize any moral or sacred presence. Thought resides in the silence of labour:

 

But muter humanity calmly bleeds in a dark cave,

Assembles the redeeming head out of hard metals. (‘To the Muted’)

 

Trakl holds that a thought always stands under the visible imperative of death, and that its labour is as taciturn as this imperative.

In the guise of his heteronym in the position of mastery, Alberto Caeiro, Fernando Pessoa multiplies the maxims. Their tension, which is both paradoxical and serene, is the result of the fact that, for Caeiro, the essence of thought is to abolish thought. We could evoke Mallarmé who, after having announced that his thought has thought itself, adds ‘I am utterly dead’, if it did not quickly turn out that Caeiro is anything but a poet of death. Non-thought is rather, for him, the living wisdom of thought itself, and in particular of philosophy in its entirety: ‘There’s enough metaphysics in not thinking about anything’ (The Keeper of Flocks, poem 5)). The word ‘metaphysics’ indicates quite well the relation of breaching/overlapping that forms the knot between the poem and philosophy. Caeiro implicitly seems to understand that the error of (philosophical) metaphysics has been to establish itself in the affirmative reflection of thought. The poem restores the ‘thing’ to its un-thought. As he says even more radically (poem 34): ‘Nothing thinks about anything.’ Is it then a question of nihilism? Not at all. The thought of which the poem declares the abolition in non-thought qua true metaphysics is the thought subjected to the cogito. For it is conscious reflection that constitutes a monadic, or closed obstacle, to the evidence of being, to presence as such – evidence whose well-nigh constant poetic sign, for Caeiro as for many other poets of the age of the poets, is the Earth: 

 

If I think about these things

I’ll stop seeing trees and plants

And stop seeing the Earth

For only seeing my thoughts…    (The Keeper of Flocks, poem 34)

 

Being does not give itself in the thought of being, for all thinking of being is in reality only the thinking of a thought. Being gives itself in the immediacy of a test; it is what I feel in the unreflective element of this probing experience that works as proof:

 

I try to say what I feel

Without thinking about things I feel.

I try to lean words on the idea

And not need a corridor

From thought to words.     (Poem 46)

 

What is an Idea in this context? The Idea is properly the thought that is not a thought of thought: thought subtracted from the mediation of the cogito. Thought becomes a corridor  as soon as it establishes itself only in relation to itself. For the poem as thought, it is a matter of not borrowing the path of this corridor, and thus of enduring directly a speech which is such that, between thought as Idea and the Earth, we do not have the time of thought’s closure onto itself.

Hence the almost untenable imperative under which the poem operates: ‘wholly being only my exterior’ (Poem 14).Thinking, such as Caeiro’s poem states the maxim of thought, is the insurrection of an outside without interiority.

In the guise of his ‘modern’ heteronym, Alvaro de Campos, Pessoa apparently says almost the exact opposite. Campos indeed exalts absolute interiority, the salvific correlate of an outside structured by the noise of a machinic desire. However, here too negation comes to strike thought. Not because we would need the law of non-thought, as Caeiro claims, but because it is indispensable to think of nothing. Between Caeiro, the master, and his most loyal disciple, Campos, there is the distance that is almost nil between the nothing of thought and the thought of nothing. Here is a poem from 6 July 1935, the year of Pessoa’s death:

 

To think about nothing 

Is to fully possess the soul.

To think about nothing 

Is to intimately live

Life’s ebb and flow.

 

However, in all these cases, Caeiro and Campos seek to distribute the connection between thinking and the void. Every maxim of thought is a localization of the void. For Caeiro, the void is interiority, which delivers the event of a pure, untotalizable outside. For the late Campos, the void is exteriority, which delivers the event of a pure, unqualifiable inside.

For Mandelstam – at least the Mandelstam of the great poems of the 1920s – poetry initiates thought as thought of the century. To be more precise, the poem demands what are the conditions of a thought that embraces in all its effects the seism of 1917. The polemic of the poem is aimed against everything that would pretend to make sense of these effects, against any presupposition of a sense or meaning of History that the song would have the task of celebrating. To the contrary, the poem-thought demands of its subject that it proceed from turmoil as its base, from the innocence of being properly lost in the century. I quote Mandelstam (poem from 1 January 1924):

 

Oh clay life! Oh you, dying century! 

I’m afraid that no one can know you

without that helpless smile,

mark, emblem of the man who has lost

           himself.

 

Thought has as its condition that, at the very place where the fury of the time demands the hero, as the dispenser of plenitude, there comes to be the one who operates according to an essential insufficiency of self for self, which is such that it is impossible to represent it as a fixed point or origin of the poetic word. In ‘Whoever Finds a Horseshoe’, Mandelstam, speaking of the coins that the past bequeaths to us, indicates the present of the century as a breaching of the past that can only be discerned as a subtraction from itself:

 

Their time tried to bite them through, here are the teethmarks.

Time cuts me down like a clipped coin

and I’m no longer sufficient unto myself.

 

This effect of the incision of thought cut down by the time of the century, this withdrawal of plenitude, remits the poem to a kind of terrestrial anonymity, a petrification which is not without evoking Caeiro’s ‘thing’:

 

What I am saying, now, is not being said by me,

it’s dug from the earth, like grains of petrified wheat

 

Thus, for Mandelstam, the thought of the poem’s thought is the defection of a place of incision, of dislocation, of insufficiency, from where proceeds an anonymous and disoriented speech. There the time of the century can be stated, precisely because it is the century that is declared full, centred, self-sufficient, oriented. Contrary to what the historical century declares, the poem resides in the weakness of sense, and in the non-contemporaneity of this sense with the real contemporary. This sheds light on why Mandelstam, in another poem from 1924, comes to exclaim: ‘I was never anyone’s contemporary, no.’18 The thought of its time is the thought of a weak point disassembled from this time itself. (But suddenly I think that here we should name Gennady Aygui, the Chuvash poet, for example: ‘Let us ask ourselves where, in which writing, there is most sleep’).

We could then say that Celan, who is like a fraternal inversion of Mandelstam, takes the imperative of the weakness of sense all the way to the point of breakdown of song, because in the intimacy of song there still remains something like an excessive deposit of sense. For Celan, the clear and unblinded thought supposes the breakage of the poem as aesthetic ethos, the immanent annulment of numerous or rhythmic thought (I quote from Zeitgehöft): 

 

If one who

smashed the canticles

were now to speak to the staff

his and everyone’s

blinding 

would be revoked.

 

If the canticle’s song is broken, if the poem is relieved of the poem, if we accept the narrowest cut of a single deadly mark (and I recognize in this ‘narrow cut’ the breaching, the subtraction of Mandelstam), a mark without aura or echo, then a new meaning arrives, at the heights of the defection from all presence:

 

There also comes a meaning

down the narrowest cut,

it is breached

by the deadliest of our

standing marks.

 

I read Celan as saying that, yes, the poem demands to be relieved of the poem – but Caeiro had already written: ‘I write the prose of my verses’ – or else that the poem-thought arrived at the breaking of its support, of its song, demands to be reopened onto the pure dimension of its meaning or sense. This can also be said as follows: the age of the poets is closed.

With regard to this terminal point, we are entitled to ask whether, of all these jurisdictions of the poem about thought, of all these maxims of thought that illuminate the poem, we might retain and fixate a few that would bring them together.

First of all, no doubt, there is the will to have a method. These poets set up the method of the poem qua poem. The (philosophical) discourse on method is followed by the poems of method. ‘We assert you, method!’ says Rimbaud, or again: ‘impatient to find the place and the formula’. Indeed the poem establishes guidelines for thought, proposing singular operations for it. ‘Operation’ here is opposed to the romantic theme of the meditation, or of contemplation: the patriarchal and prophetic figure of which Hugo is the emblem, which can still be heard in Paul Claudel, of course, but also, muted, ordered and abstract, in Paul Valéry or Rainer Maria Rilke. To grasp the age of the poets would require first of all that one establish an inventory of the operations active in the poem. For these are the operations that, from within the poem, legislate about and against the sutures of philosophy.

I will only mention three: counter-romanticism, detotalization, and the diagonal.

 

1) The poets of the age of the poets have all been forced to subtract the poem, in its role as thought, from its romantic definition. This subtraction takes the form of a series of prohibitions, which aim to centre the poem on a tacit concept rather than on the power of the image. Poetry is that place, Mallarmé will say,

 

where the true poet’s broad and humble gesture must

keep them from dreams, those enemies of his trust.

 

Similarly Rimbaud, with that touch of promptitude and fury that is characteristic of him:

 

Ah! dreaming is shameful

Since it is pure loss!

 

Caeiro, Mandelstam and Celan share this prohibitive vocation of the poem as the counter-image, the affirmative interruption, of the dream. But, by a paradox which is that of poetry itself, defined as a thinking of the sensible as such, the vector of an image almost always carries the prohibition that strikes the image. This image, which is rather the imaged subtraction of the image, is that of the earth. Rimbaud again:

 

If I have any taste, it is for hardly

Anything but earth and stones.

 

This earth is by no means the nostalgic sheltering, the appropriation of the origin, or the great natural Mother. It is the naked place of the poem’s address, ‘space, its own peer, whether it fail or grow’ (Mallarmé). It is that which is not sacred or sacralizable, which turns away from complacency with the dream and the image in order to entrust the poem to the rigorous laws of metaphor. Again from Mandelstam – for whom air and sea are, in different operations, equally essential (‘Whoever Finds a Shoehorse’):

 

They stood on the uncomfortable ground

Too, as on a donkey’s spine

No word is better than another word,

the earth honks with metaphor

Air kneaded thick as earth—

you can’t leave it, and it’s hard to get in

 

Subtracted from presentation, as the place of regulated metaphorical exchanges, this 

ungrateful earth of the poets does violence to all nostalgia.

 

2) Against the supposition of a Great Whole – a supposition from which even someone like Charles Baudelaire never fully escapes – the poets of the age of the poets think detotalization, the separate, irreconcilable multiplicity. They impose on themselves the rule of a principle of inconsistency. Caeiro is in this regard the most conceptual, the most ‘prosaic’:

 

And a real and true wholeness

Is a sickness of our thought.

Nature is parts without a whole.

 

But it is without a doubt Celan who offers the maxim to which the philosopher has nothing to add, the central maxim of all intervening thought in the conditions that are our own:

 

Lean yourself 

On the inconsistencies.

 

A whole poetic tradition, emerging out of epic and great lyric, proposes to cross in ordered fashion the strata of signification, to unfold, as story or initiation, an order that would appease the chaos and console the lamentation. The poets of the age of the poets would much rather draw a line in language that would trace a diagonal stroke through whatever classification one imagines for it, to produce a short-circuit in the circulation of linguistic energy. It is principally not a question of attempting paradoxical comparative 

approximations, as in Paul Eluard’s famous ‘the earth is blue like an orange’. Such attempts are only the secondary rhetoric of the diagonal operation. It is a question of a statement of the poem wagering that a nomination may come and interrupt signification, and from the point of this interruption for a localizable thought to establish itself, without any pretence to totality, but capable of being loyal to its own inauguration. I am thinking for example of the opening lines of Trakl’s poem ‘Psalm’ (and I like to think that this title is also that of a poem by Celan): ‘It is a light, which the wind has blown out.’ The ‘it is’ or ‘there is’, which is so frequent in Trakl, is never anything but the ‘there is’ of a lack, for the sole benefit of a breath of air. And is this not exactly our site of thinking, in which no light is nameable any more except inasmuch as the wind of History has forever extinguished it?

But there is also this poem from 1937, in which Mandelstam begins precisely – this is the rule of interruption – by saying ‘No comparisons: everyone alive is incomparable’ – and which, echoing Rimbaud, continues by saying ‘I’d drift down an arc of journeys that never began’. That there could be a light without light, or that one could navigate without ever having left: such are the acts by which the poem, naming a disappearance, suspends the game of sense and makes a diagonal of being and its annulment. . . . The poetic diagonal declares that a faithful thought, thus capable of truth, makes a hole in whatever knowledge is concentrated in significations. It cuts the threads, for another circulation of the current of thought. This sectioning off, though, is not a negation – it is not a labour of the negative. On the contrary, the diagonal is always affirmative: it says ‘I’ or ‘there is’. 

Obviously there would be many more operations to list. But, as far as philosophy is concerned – that philosophy which beyond its sutures we can place again under the condition of the poem as much as of the matheme, politics, and love – there are finally two principal kinds of gesture by which the poem points towards its own thought.

First, against the reduction of thought to knowledge, whereby knowledge exposes being in the figure of the object, the poetry of these poets activates a de-objectification.

What is an object? It is what disposes the multiple of being in relation to meaning or signification. The age of the poets animates a polemic against meaning, thus targeting objectivity, which is being as captive of meaning, and proposing to us the figure without figure, or the unfigurable figure, of a subject without object. Caeiro says this with his habitual clarity:

 

Things don’t have meaning: they only have existence.

Things are the only hidden meaning of things

 

Let us understand that, for Caeiro, the ‘thing’ is by no means an object. The thing is the 

multiple-existent as such, subtracted from every regime of the One. Consequently, the 

entire poem is destined to place us in this subtraction, to extract us from the pressure of sense, so that the restrictive paradigm of the object is succeeded by the pure dispersion of existence.

 

This is also the meaning that I think we should give in Celan’s poetics to the unstable multiplicity of that which is the most fixed, the most illuminating, which Plato even makes into the very metaphor of the One: the sun. Thus, in Zeitgehöft:

 

There are two suns, you hear,

Two,

Not one—

Yes and?

 

Or, in ‘Erratic’, a poem from the collection Die Niemandsrose

 

Near all

Dispersed

Suns, soul,

You were, in the ether.

 

Here we see how the address aimed at the subject as other, at the ‘you’ on whom Celan bases his hope in language, supposes the dispersal of the one, the dissipation of the recourse to this one that might put some order in objectivity. The soul finds its ether only if it is withdrawn from any objective correlate and is linked only to inconsistency.

 

Second, against the apology for the sense or meaning of History, the poetry of the age of the poets organizes a disorientation in thought. We already saw that this disorienting operation was at the heart of the thought of the century in Mandelstam. But also, or already, in Rimbaud, so concerned with History, we find the absolute gap, which is totally disorienting, between on one hand the active and wilful hatred of the established order, of existing society, the idea of radical revolution; and, on the other, a kind of stagnation, an impossible departure, or ineluctable restoration. As if, as soon as it became barely visible, the violent orientation of sense turned out to be illusory and unpracticable:

 

 Industrialists, princes, senates,

 Perish! Power, justice, history, down with you!

That is our due. Blood! Blood! Golden flame!

All to war, to vengeance and to terror,

My Spirit! Let us turn about in the Biting Jaws: Ah! Vanish,

Republics of the world! Of emperors,

Regiments, colonists, peoples, enough!

… I am here! I am still here!

 

The ‘I am still here’ runs counter to the ‘enough!’ of revolutionary profanation, and revokes the meaning that negation teaches us. Just as, in A Season in Hell, the ‘you cannot get away’ cancels the anticipation of a departure that would dispense an orientation of life.

There are certainly different poetic operations that put under erasure the presumption of a sense that gives meaning and orientation to History. To disorient thought itself, Trakl opposes to it this absolutely disruptive figure that is death: not the care or the chagrin of death, not the subjective effect of death, but death itself, the corpse of the young man on the surface of the visible (an image we may associate with Rimbaud’s ‘A Sleeper in the Valley’). Trakl’s means are pictorial: it is a matter of capturing death in the intense networks of materiality. Colours are the emblem of this depthless visibility: gold, blue, green-black, the blood of the prey, the green river come to present the dead as the latent centre of a given space. There is a slowness in the appearing of death in the place of these colours, colours which cut out a segment of time and bring it to a halt. Trakl’s poem disorients us with a pure present of material death, as if death found its point of the real in space rather than in time. Disorientation, for Trakl, is a loss of time in the slow and sweet trials of death. Let us give way to this loss by listening to ‘Elis 2’: 

 

A gentle glockenspiel sings in Elis’ breast

At evening, 

When his head sinks into the black pillow.

 

A blue prey

Bleeds softly in the thornbush.

A brown tree stands in isolation there;

Its blue fruits have fallen from it.

 

Signs and stars

Sink softly in the evening pond.

Beyond the hill it has turned winter.

At night

Blue doves drink up the icy sweat

That flows from Elis’ crystal brow

Along the black walls

Forever drones the lonely wind of God.

 

Notice how such a poem is radically non-addressed. No reader is supposed or marked in the forms and colours that frame an evasive and elongated figure of death. Disorientation is taken to the point where our place is nowhere attested to. Thought is assigned its residence, without 

any vision, in the pure ‘there is’ in which the sole advent, in the lonely wind, is that of a cadaver.

Deobjectification and disorientation concentrate whatever this poetry opposes to 

the sutures of philosophy, a poetry that dissolves the objectivity of science – which captivates the positivisms – into pure multiplicity, and disorients History – which fascinates revolutionary thought. The age of the poets bequeaths to us, in order to liberate philosophy, the imperative of a clarification without totality, a thinking of what is at once dispersed and unseparated, an inhospitable and cold reason, for want of either object or orientation. To the coldness that 

de-objectifies and disorients, the poem even restores a subjective tonality, which is like the winter ‘colour’ of the subject without object. Mallarmé is the winter poet par excellence:

 

Let the cold with its scythe-like silence run,

I shall not howl out any void lament, not one

if this so white frolic on earth’s bare face

denies the honor of some feigned vista to any place.

 

But Celan, when he encounters the silence of the masters, which is precisely the sutured abdication of philosophy, also names at once the inseparate, the clear and the cold, as thought which is imparted to us in thought:

 

Before the 

masters en-

silencing us,

in the undifferentiated, attesting

itself: the clammy

brightness.

These poets have detected everything that the infinite weight of the situations contains, in terms of its being, as latent void: the void that the event alone summons, even if it is the event of the poem itself. This void is ubiquitous in Mallarmé, ‘on the empty room’s credences’, the ‘blank paper’. But it is everywhere, and even in Mandelstam, no doubt more concerned than the others – except for Rimbaud – with filling it. Look at this poem from 1910, in which the whole movement goes from absence to emptiness, mediated by the wild torment of the world:

 

The sail stretches its delicate ears,

staring eyes go empty

and a silent choir of midnight birds

sails over the soundlessness.

 

I’m as poor as nature

and as simple as the sky,

my freedom is as ghostly

as the singing of midnight birds.

 

I see a stagnant moon

and a sky deader than canvas: 

oh emptiness, I accept

your morbid wild world!

 

The poem’s aim is to find, for this void latent under the weight of the world, the supernumerary grace of a name. And the only norm of thought, that which the poem thinks, is to remain faithful to this name, even as the weight of being, which for a moment has been suspended, comes back, returns always. 

A Poem from the age of the poets is to go with the void, in the midst of gravity, under the emblem of a name. Celan, to conclude:

 

It is the weight holding back the void

that would 

accompany you.

Like you, it has no name. Perhaps

you two are one and the same. Perhaps

one day you also will call

 
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