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Apollo and Journalism: On Hölderin’s "Descriptive Poetry"

Die Beschreibende Poësie
Friedrich Hölderin

Wißt! Apoll ist der Gott der Zeitungsschreiber geworden
Und sein Mann ist, wer ihm treulich das Factum erzählt.


I’m translating the title as Michael Hamburger does – “Descriptive Poetry.” The two lines read for me:

Know! Apollo has become the God of newspaper writers,
and one is his, who faithfully narrates fact to him.

“Descriptive poetry” is an actual school of poetry. The idea was to let things speak for itself and avoid allegory and symbolism. If things are described, the nature of things should show, no?

One might argue that the very notion of descriptive poetry can only lead to bad poetry. That would be my argument, but I can see how someone with an immense amount of skill might be able to pull this off. Finding the right words to describe something is never easy, and when those words are found, we might be able to revel at least momentarily in the execution of the thing.

But one could say that Hölderin here is arguing that descriptive poets are nothing but journalists, and journalists descriptive poets. I think that’s the safe route – the only thing that has changed from age to age is the name of the thing, not the execution or purpose.

And what is the purpose? What do we make of the reference to Apollo, and what does it mean to belong to Apollo in the reporting of fact?

There seems to be something wrong with “to him:” a poet may have been inspired by the Muse, but did all a poet do is take something from one god and tell it to another? No – it seems like a poet is the one speaking from God to men, always.

To assert that, though, I have to assert epic as the primary sort of poem, from which all other types of literature – drama, epigrams, lyric, etc. are derived. I’m comfortable making that assertion. Would a descriptive poet, though?

What a descriptive poet seems to do is focus only on the things in front of him, and his own skill. There is no wrestling with what the god says, nor any real consciousness of an audience. Words and things are the only relevant factors.

So where does God come into it? Especially Apollo? I don’t know that we can say Apollo inspires Homer, given that Apollo is described as just one god in Homer’s story. But he is the god of poetry – perhaps of lesser poets?

It isn’t clear Homer is enthralled by the gods in the way some others are. Epic means the poet isn’t merely a vessel, but someone the god chose because of his skill and thought. This theme is repeated in every single major epic poem, except for Virgil’s “Aeneid,” which starts “I sing” – it isn’t clear Virgil gives a damn about the Muse.

A lesser poet, though, is completely taken in by the gods. Their skill lies purely in reiterating the mere fact of Creation. And thus their audience isn’t really people. They’re really talking to a deity and telling him that things are, and he’s accepting of their complete subordination to him and their implicit gratefulness.

The conclusion of what I’m saying is preposterous: How can journalism not have us, the democratic masses, as its audience? The thing we gripe about most is that journalism is dumbed down, trying to cater to everyone at once. It looks like journalism is too people centered to do anything higher, no?

The easy way around this is to say that in this democratic age we worship ourselves. But I think that’s too glib given the lines: we have to look at how a journalist may think in Hölderin’s mind.

The deeper issue is precisely the lack of purpose, a life that is a sacrifice for an aesthetic ideal to a god unknown. It isn’t clear, despite our emphasis on objectivity, that the news is objective. It isn’t clear that we’re becoming more educated or more able to rule ourselves despite more media, much of it very good.

We do, however, spend a lot of time describing things, and not inquiring into why those things are, or how they might help or hurt. Those descriptions are beautiful – most of us read the news as if it were entertainment, we don’t need to be reminded of civic purpose – and we are indeed faithful.

1 Comment

  1. Not much into journalism myself, but I enjoyed the comparison to poetry. We really do love to be entertained, don’t we?

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