skip to Main Content

The Poetic Core of Eric Voegelin

The Poetic Core Of Eric Voegelin

It is a good thing, when launching a war, to be clear as to what you are fighting for. Don’t gamble unless you know how much is piled on the table.

Men go to war over material issues, of course, when what is at stake is water rights or a fertile field or the privilege of selling bootleg beer in south Chicago, but the most intense conflicts are occasioned by spiritual issues.

Wars over trade may be negotiated, but issues of political justice are hard to solve without an overwhelming victory of one of the sides, and wars of religion do not stop short of exhaustion and sometimes not even then, because men want more than anything else to know that they have done right.

In the field of literature, riven by quarrels and animosity, the most bitter debates occur regarding  poetry.

Merely to affirm a definition of poetry is to start a quarrel.

If John says poetry should be thus, George, who follows a different school, draws the (perfectly valid) inference that John is disqualifiying George (and those poets George loves) from a valid claim to the title of poet. Much is at stake, we are not playing for match sticks.

It is with great trepidation, therefore, that we ask:

What use might Eric Voegelin to be poets, and vice versa?

There are two questions here, pounded together like the ingredients of a pesto.


Is there any  defining quality of poetry at all?

Is there what we might call a poetic core?

Second, if there is a poetic core (and of course we are going to argue that there is, you knew that) is that core a characteristic in the works of EV?

And if it is, what follows?

In this essay, we will take the first question. Next time around, we apply the case to our favourite political scientist.

Is Poetry One Thing or Several?

ἀπορια και πασων χαλεπωτατη . . . .

(or in English: a really tough question)

The things we class as poems are wildly divergent in qualities. What has Basho to do with Homer? Or Homer with Emily Dickinson or James Merrill? Yet they all claim the same predicate.

In a first cast at definition, we might say that poetry is deliberate speech–separating it from aimless chit-chat and shouts of emotion.

Secondly, it is speech that is separated from ordinary deliberate speech by formal limitations on  the words themselves.

Ordinary speech, however well thought out, is what we call prose. Poetry is not-prose. The formal means differ from case to case.

Through the centuries a meter of some sort has often been used, but meter seems a very broad term. The practise of Anglo-North-American, since the early part of the last century, is to arrange the phrases of poetry  in distinct lines but without any meter whatever. This is so universal that anyone now using meter is said to be writing “verse,”  an outdated species of poetry. There are, by the way, solid advantages to meter, but to employ it, in opposition to a solid bloc of consensus, is to argue the benefits of the poke bonnet.

The effect of this limitation of form is to draw a mental line around certain groups of words and declare them set apart for some  (as yet undefined) purpose. A poem is, in an old sense, sacred, reserved, dedicated, special.

So far, we are pretty sure of general agreement. From this point on however . . .

Does a poem have a purpose?  Is it a directed good?

Common sense suggests that it has to be. A poem is an artefact, like a chair, and an artefact must have a purpose. Otherwise why would it be made the way it  is?

What purpose, then? As speech, a poem communicates data. But a communication of data, once the information is passed, is done and no longer of use. The fruit is dissolved into nutrition and taste, as Valéry remarks. But a poem, he notes, seems to demand that it should be repeated exactly. Part of what a poem is, is that it should be exactly what it is. The mark of ordinary communication, on the other hand is that it may be paraphrased. “Johnny, the window is  open,”  “Johnny, shut the window,“ “listen you idiot. shut. the. damn. window,” are all roughly equivalent, because they are all aimed at the same purpose.

If a poem is a communication, therefore, it seems likely that part of what is communicated flows from the formal limitations (whatever they are in the particular case) that cause group of words X to be considered a poem.

What do Formal Limitations Communicate?

What, then, do those formal limitations communicate?

The base purpose of words is communication of truth, of some sort, about reality, in some aspect.

Thus, if a poem is all it should be, then whatever the subject material of the particular poem in question, the message of that poem is an unspoken truth about that particular subject material. It is unspoken because it flows from the fact that the words are a poem  not from the words in themselves.

Further, if  poetry is one as a genus, it ought to have a generic communication.

This is the point, reader, where we climb way out on a limb.

We submit that the only message that transcends all subjects this way (from Achilles to Basho’s frog), and yet is true in every particular subject is the message of transcendence itself. We conclude, with hesitation, that the message of poetry, as a genus, is that reality as a whole and every part of it, is charged with transcendent significance, that it means something beyond itself, that it is sacred.

The events of the Iliad are significant  as a whole.

The sound of Basho’s frog has a point we ought not to miss.

The encounter of E. Dickinson and the snake is significant as a whole.

Now the “why” of the universe, as Leibniz points out, is inexplicable. and whatever is in the universe inherits that strangeness. What the poet is speaking about is strange.

And here is the point of all this neo-scholastic rambling. The same attitude to reality, the poetic core, as it were, works, we suggest, in the vision of Eric Voegelin. And that is what we are going to argue in our next essay.

Let us posit as an assumption that the effective core of poetry might be defined as an expression of the transcendent nature of the poem’s subject.

What use might Voegelin be to poets, and vice versa?

It is a difficult question.

The simplest tack, of course, might be to write poetry on Voegelinian themes, rather as Lucretius did for Epicurus. One might compose an ode on the Metaxy or a sonnet sequence on the failings of Martin Luther.

We can’t help feeling that this would not likely be a good idea.

Sermons in verse are deadly to write, and worse to read. Also, by the consensus of our society (note this is not something to be ignored lightly), we communicate information in prose and mathematics, not poetic numbers. And finally, and most importantly, such an approach would only bear on the subject of this or that poem, not on poetry as a whole. It would be about something Voegelinian, but it wouldn’t be poetic.

May we suggest another road?

Among the many topics in Voegelin’s work, five stand out:  transcendence, response, tension, symbolism, and luminosity.

These terms are not items of information but indices to experience. Further, none of them may be correctly understood without the others. There is no response without transcendence, no tension without response, no symbolism without the recognition of tension.

The experience to which this nest of terms points is familiar. John, Mary, Socrates, confront a universe and recognize themselves as individuals and the universe as a mystery. They articulate the experience with language symbols, such as “mystery,” “zetesis,” “tension,” and “myth.” The language symbols thus created are liable to various deformations.

A similar pattern occurs, I believe, when we compose and read poetic imagery.

A very simple example:

O, my Luve is like a red, red rose

Consider this line from a Voegelinian point of view.

The Mystery, the Image, and the Respondent

The poet speaks in response to an unsettling and mysterious reality, in this case, the lady in question. Anyone who has taken up a new field of study, whether another person, the Latin Language, or the income tax code, knows that it is only at this point that one learns how far one stands from the new object of passion.

Burns articulates the experience by the creation of two poles. The woman becomes the “Luve” and the poet by implication, the lover.

Note that these terms are understood as provisional and partial. No one believes or is expected to believe that the parties involved are defined by such language.

At the same time it is a fact.

The tension between these poles, between the mystery and the respondent, is bridged with the image of the rose.

So far, so good.

But the line cannot work by itself.

To communicate truth, it needs, firstly, the rest of the poem (which we will not go into), and secondly, from the reader, a balanced response.

If the poet is lucky, the reader will understand the line for what it is; that is, in its formal capacity, as an element of an entire poem, and as an example of a large class of imagery: and the reader will also understand it for what it is not; for example, a doctoral thesis. The reader, if the poet is lucky, will use this line as a help to understanding the poet’s reality, and thus, as far as that reality may match the reader’s experience, his or her own situation.

Unlucky Poets and the Sinister Readings

Often, of course, the poet is not lucky.

The poet’s writing may be simply clumsy. The author may misjudge the audience, as in the example quoted by D. L. Sayers in chapter 10 of the Mind of the Maker:

The [something] torrent, leaping in the air,
left the astounded river’s bottom bare;

[Sayers herself was quoting from memory]

More sinister errors arise from the audience’s side.

A valid image may become a cliché through overuse. No “I see what you mean,” is evoked from the audience. Many of our most familiar political terms, such as “democracy,” “fascism,” and “human rights,” have suffered this fate.

Very often, in political and philosophic language, a cliché ossifies into dogma. There is not much danger to Burn’s line, unless we were to debate learnedly whether, as a rose, the beloved should be pruned or covered with compost. But the dogmatization of poetic language in the Bible, and in other scriptures, is still with us.

Worse, we may mistake the poetic process itself.

Someone may assert, perhaps someone has, that Burns did not, could not, concern himself with the woman he speaks of in her own reality. On this view, no one operates except from appetite; our image is therefore an instrument of seduction, or domination (he is reducing her to a plant!). In this case, the lady is understood as real only as reflection of the poet himself. She has, in fact, been immanitized.

Even worse would be to adopt the error as a tool. This takes us into the realm of verbal magic, sophistic rhetoric, and advertising.

Is this similarity in pattern accidental?

Poetry and Politics and Philosophy

The same attitude to reality, the poetic core, as it were, works, I suggest, in the vision of Eric Voegelin.

In the Voegelinian universe, we operate between an upper and lower limit. Below us is an unsettling sense that we are not quite as real as we would like to be. We have names for this fearsome possibility, such as death.

Above us, described in the two famous questions of Leibniz, is a horizon of mystery.

In the altogether tense middle ground we describe as life and reality, our political and philosophical terms are responses, true but qualified, to our situation, and are meant to be understood as such.

Clearly, Voegelin is not composing poetry. He works in prose and that prose aims to formulate insight as explicitly as words will allow.

But his central insight is that the phenomena of politics and philosophy are poetic, that is, symbolic, potentially luminous for transcendence, and working by persuasion. This insight is, I believe, part of Voegelin’s essential flavour. It may explain why he appeals so intensely to a limited audience, and is so widely and thoroughly ignored. That the universe may mean more than itself, that it has a symbolic, not to say sacramental core, is a most disquieting thought.

How  does this bear on  politics and political science?

According to the consensus of our society, poetry is personal, private, allusive, and non-judgemental (in a nice way). Politics is, or ought to be, realistic, that is, founded on money or force majeur. Actually, as Chesterton pointed out years ago, a politics founded on money or force is almost wildly un-realistic. He is quite right, it is unrealistic, and it is unrealistic because it is unpoetic. It is unpoetic because it has been made so. The great theme of the History of Political Ideas is the more-or-less deliberate “thinning” of the poetic, that is, the transcendent, dimension from our civic affairs. The unspoken theme of Order and History is the re-discovery of this dimension.

A Road to Authentic Public Poetry

What then can the political Voegelin do for the poets?

Voegelin’s insight and his decades of acute analysis restore the whole range of politics as an object of poetic contemplation. It may provide a road to authentic public poetry. Who will write it is in the hands of heaven. To bring out the mystery in something without sermonizing, to evoke, to seduce (in a nice way) is about the hardest job in literature.

After all, if the universe is mysterious, so is everything in it. The luminosity that shines through our great political symbols–Rome, Jerusalem, Tienamin, Washington–continues through the whole fabric, down to the county clerk’s office.

Clearly, we are not looking for propaganda. The job of poets is to communicate wonder, not state policy. We do not need any more late Horatian odes.

At the least we can learn to look at the phenomena of politics with an awareness of how profoundly strange it is.

And, if we remember the insights of Eric Voegelin in this matter, we will remember too, and bear more closely in mind, Plato’s insight that the state is the best of dramas, and it may be that in doing so, both in politics and poetry we will do all right.

Max ArnottMax Arnott

Max Arnott

Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.

Back To Top