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The Bow and the Lyre

The Poem. The Poetic Revelation. Poetry and History.

Why poetry is important in everyday life. Taking a leaf out of Octavio Paz’s book to make a strong case for poetry in our daily life, culture and society.

Octavio Paz, the author of this book was a Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat, recognized as one of the major Latin American writers of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. This book The Bow and the Lyre contains timeless and profound ideals for our life, society and culture.

The Image

Images are product of imagination. We use the word image to invoke several different meanings. Each image or a poem consisting of different images contain many kinds of opposite or disparate meanings. Saint John speaks of Silent Music where two incompatible terms are put together. According to Paz, the image is key to human condition.

A child is surprised to know that a pound of stone and a pound of feather has the same weight. It is the character of the matter that appeals to the child. Paz calls it poetic reality. The poetic reality of the image cannot have its claim to the truth. The poem never says what it is, but what it could be. The realm of poem resides not in the realm of being but in Aristotelian “likely impossible”.

In dialectical process, the image of stone and the feather are completely opposite. Sometimes first term devours the second and vice versa. But some of the best images are where stone and feather continue to be ‘this is this’, ‘that and that’ and ‘this is that’ at the same time. In poetic terms, the stone is stone, the feather is feather as well as the stone is feather. This violates laws of thought and dialectic approach as dialectic proceeds with a string of reasons.

Since pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, the uprooting of Being from primordial chaos, constitute the basis of our thinking. “Clear and Distinctive ideas” come from this difference between what is and what is not. The banishment of poetry and mysticism from western history has diminished its value. Western metaphysics ends in solipsism, i.e. the idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist. Hegel’s attempt to go back to Heraclitus was futile. 

Despite Husserl’s call to “get back to the facts”, his idealism leads to solipsism.

Heidegger’s effort to go back to Parmenides’ era to find an answer hits the stone wall. Despite Western history going to an astray, Paz is optimistic about finding a way into the world and starting all over again.

On the contrary, Oriental thought has not suffered the same defeat. When Western World conceives ‘this or that’, the Eastern World pitches ‘this and that’ or even ‘this is that’. The fundamental texts of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism reiterates the opposition amid the terms but at the same time mediates the necessary reconciliation between conflicting forces. In the most ancient Upanishad, a fundamental text of the Sanatan Dharma or Eternal Order, it is stated, “Thou art woman. Thou art man. Thou are the youth and the maiden… Thou are the seasons and the seas.” “There is nothing that is not this and there is nothing that is not that” says Chuang -Tzu. He elaborates, “Life is life in relation to death and vice versa. Affirmation is affirmation in relation to negation and vice versa”. It is this very moment when stone and feather fuse together. As per Eastern philosophy,:

Truth is an experience, and everyone must attempt to it on their own.

Learning cannot be just accumulation of knowledge or facts, but it is the attuning of body and spirit. Meditation teach us to let go of things, to unburden ourselves of the knowledge. To think is to breathe as thoughts and life are not separate entities but the same communicating vessel.  The ultimate quest for identity remains between man and the world, consciousness and being, being and existence. All our endeavors remain to rediscover the old path between magic and poetry, science and religion; the forgotten way of communication between the two worlds.

In principle, Tantric systems consider body as an image of cosmos. Sense centers are knots of energy. Triple rhythm of sap, blood and light rules each posture of the embracing bodies.  

In Eastern thought, truth is a personal experience and cannot be communicated. Who knows does not speak and who speaks does not know. Hence the Sage preaches without words. The condemnation of words come from the inability of language to transcend the world of this and that.

The words point to meanings which in turn shows to objects. Objects are beyond the grasp of language. The wordless preaching the Chinese philosophers refer to a language that is more than a language, a word that expresses the inexpressible.

Image and Language:

Each word has a certain number of meanings. When they are used in a sentence, they make a coherent sense. This time, the other meanings of the word disappears. In the case of Image, the multiple meanings remain present. For a poet, meanings of images dwell on different levels. The first one is the authentic one- the poet has seen or heard them. In second case the images are objective reality- the landscape painting by a painter and the actual landscape are not the same. They are two different parallels of the same order. Poetic images have their own logic.

Finally, the poet’s images tell us something about the world and about ourselves, and this something reveals to us what we are in this world.

All things that we represent through syllogism, descriptions, scientific formulas limit themselves to representing or describing it. They do not re-create what they are trying to express. If we see a chair, we would try to analyse its material, color, texture, shape etc. In poem, the chair is present in its totality. The poet does not describe the chair. He puts it in front of the reader.

“The poem does not represent, it presents” says Machado.

The meaning of the image is image itself. It is self explanatory. It can’t be said with other words. Commentaries, explanations and analysis are superfluous. The poet does not try to say. He just says. Unlike sentences and phrases, images are not means. In a similar vein, the sense of poem is in poem itself. Image causes words to lose their mobility and interchangeability. When Language is touched by poetry, it ceases to be a language. Poem transcends the language.  The poetic experience cannot be reduced to words though only word expresses it. Truth of poem relies on the poetic experience. This experience is unutterable. Poetry puts man outside himself as well as makes him return to his original being.

The Poetic Revelation

Poetic experience, like religious experience is a mortal leap. It makes us forget where we are, who we are, only to be rediscovered later. Man reveals to himself though poetry. Religion on the contrary, aims to reveal a mystery alien to us.

According to Rudolf Otto, Sacred is a priori category. But Paz questions, the idea of perfection as a prerequisite of the priori category. The super powerful God must rely on sacrifices of human blood to keep the cosmos in order. God moves the world, but the blood moves the God! Religion is terra incognita for reason.

Paz insists, the experience of sacred does not lie outside to us – but in the opening of heart so that the hidden Other may merge. Religion allures us to an eternal life. It promises to redeem s from death, but it makes the earthly life a punishment.

“In killing death”, Paz says, “religion de-lifes life”.

As life and death is inseparable, death is present in life and we live dying. Each moment that we live, we die. Religion offers death of this life by promising eternal truth. To live is to die. Death is not something that is created in the void of life, but it completes it.

Heidegger pointed out joy in the presence of the beloved is a mean of access to reveal ourselves. He says what is all know with our prior obscure knowledge is love, the joy of love which is a revelation of being.

When man suddenly realizes, there is no meaning other than dying, the fall I the chaos is inexpressible. In the face of the world we are reduced to nothing– but at the same time the nothingness illuminates us to the light of being. “We ourselves annihilate ourselves in creating ourselves”, Paz goes on “we create ourselves in annihilating ourselves”.

Poetic word is a rhythm and being in rhythm is to embrace life and death in a single utterance. Poetry is not a judgment or interpretation of our existence  but it is a revelation of our original condition.

Being is born of nothing. The same rhythm moves us, the same silence surrounds us.

Japanese poet Buson puts it:

Before the white chrysanthemums
the scissors hesitate
for an instant.


True poetry recreates man and makes him assume the true condition, that is not being in dilemma, but understanding the totality of life and death at a single instance.

Before the white chrysanthemums

the scissors hesitate

for an instant.

True poetry recreates man and makes him assume the true condition, that is not being in dilemma, but understanding the totality of life and death at a single instance.

Signs in Rotation

What is the place of poetry in Society? There is no poetry without society- poetry simultaneously affirms and denies speech which is very social at its root. Also there is no society without poetry as it will lack a language – where everyone will say the same thing or nobody will understand anyone.

In a universal society as it was envisioned that every human’s radical difference, singularity and freedom of thought will be celebrated, similarly at one time or the other, all the great poets believed that poem would cease to bring the contradiction of the human society that simultaneously affirms and denies history. In the new vision, it was expected that poetry would be at least practical. However, some traits of contemporary society are : degrading standard of life yet improving standard of living , evaporation of sympathy for fellow men, annihilation of personal communication but raising standard of communication system.

Technology is not an image nor a vision of the world. It is not an image because it cannot reproduce the world and it is not vision because it is unable to conceive the world as shape and its occurrence is more or less shaped by human will. Disappearance of the image is making technology possible.  A mosque or a roman cathedral are impregnated with so many meanings. They endure not only because of the material property, but the significance of the meanings they produce. On the other hand, technological apparatus ceases to function and loses its significance when a higher efficient system is put in its place. Technology has not given us new world image and instead made it impossible to return to old mythologies. Technology’s philosophical virtue contains in the absence of philosophy itself. In absence of thousands of years of history and philosophy, Paz notes sarcastically that human being can find its own way with technology.

For Heidegger, we were too late for the Gods and too early for the being, whose poem already begun is being. Our historical situation is defined by too late and too early. We are lost in things; our thoughts are circular, and we hardly perceive anything.

Poetry, music and dance were originally perceived as a whole. Poetry reading is now a private activity. We don’t hear poetry but see it. We read poetry for ourselves. The transition of reading poetry from a public act to a private act has made the experience solitary. Now thanks to the technology of making sound from the word, we are hearing the world again.

If man is transcendence, poem is a sign of that transcendence- going beyond himself to discover through the otherness. If Man wants to be himself, without losing a key to this world, to unite with the other, then Poem is the key to it.

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