Kierkegaard on poetry

I am currently wading through Soren Kierkegaard’s work, “Philosophical Fragments,” which he wrote in 1843 under the pseudonym, Johannes Climacus.  Because I have been reading and rereading this piece for a paper I have been working on, his theological ideas have had a significant impact on my work for the past few weeks.  Interestingly, in a section of the work that is somewhat like an aside to the reader, Climacus discusses the issue of originality and poetic authorship, so I thought I would share his thoughts on the matter:

“After all, every poet who steals, steals from another poet, and thus we are all equally shabby.”

“Or is this poem perhaps like a proverb, of which no author is known because it seems as if all humanity had composed it?”

“…since we both are now standing before this wonder, whose solemn silence cannot be disturbed by human wrangling about what is mine and what is yours, whose awe-inspiring words infinitely drown out human quarreling about mine and thine, forgive me my curious mistaken notion of having composed it myself.  It was a mistaken notion, and the poem was so different from every human poem that it was no poem at all but the wonder.”

At first, it might seem like Climacus is perhaps not giving poets enough credit.  It is tempting to assert that not all poets are thieves and that we are capable, occasionally, to manage something other than shabby plagiarism.  Surely not everything we write is simply stolen from the ideas that humanity holds in common.  But perhaps what is original about poets’ works are not the wonders that our poems reveal, but simply the words we use to reveal them.  The trappings of the poem, then, are original; poets are the true authors of the words they choose to form the poem.  But the ideas that underlie those particular lines of poetry are everyone’s.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that if that spark of common humanity is not present, then the poem falls flat.  Poetry that reveals only the particular can have meaning only to those few people who know that particular, but true poetry is that which, through its particulars, can show us something that we knew all along and held so innately within ourselves that we didn’t even realize was there.

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