Why do people read poetry? What exactly is it about rhythm and cadence that moves us into deep inner worlds? Better yet, why do Shakespeare’s sonnets sing so loudly so many generations after their initial expression?
One answer, according to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, is that poetry allows us to transcend the boundaries of literal language so that we can explore corners of human consciousness that we all intuitively recognize but don’t quite know how to put into sentences. It connects us to our core sense of truth. A poet sees exactly what both you and I see, but the poet goes a step further — she packages that insight into an expression that momentarily washes away the clouds in front of our eyes.
Heidegger spent a lot of time grappling with what it means to think and to be. But after writing his magnum opus Being and Time, perhaps the most influential work of philosophy written in the 20th century, he began to intuit that maybe pure philosophical language wasn’t enough to capture this aspect of the human experience, and his later fascination with art was born from this realization. Poetry, he thought, was the form that came closest to closing this gap between language and experience.
One reason literal language struggles to fully capture our lived experience is that, in many ways, life is movement. It flows — dynamically, fluidly — and it does so in a way that can’t be captured by the staticity of conventional words that have specific meanings in relation to other words with specific meanings. You may be able to utter the sentence, “I am going to walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water,” and that sentence may provide you with the utility to communicate what it is you are directing your attention towards, but it misses everything else that occurs in your field of consciousness as you actually get up to grab that glass of water. Adding more sentences may close a few of those gaps, but no matter how many sentences you add, the gap, no matter how small, will always be there. And that last remaining gap — the one that can’t be closed by literal language — is where the core of who we are lives.
This final gap has been communicated by various poets in various ways, and it has been labeled different things by different philosophers, but the way I like to think about the gap is that it’s creativity. When you do away with descriptions about what is and what ought to be, you are simply left with a space that expresses itself in a silent, latent way as it moves through you. When you are going to the kitchen to get a glass of water, you are doing that, sure, but you are also expressing your way of being with every step you take, every thing you notice, every object you interact with.
A good analogy is that of consciousness as a canvas. It’s an analogy I feel I have borrowed from somewhere without realizing, but ever since it’s stepped into my mind, it’s captured my imagination in an interesting way. When we are born, biologically, we may not be a blank slate, but experientially, we are. Our field of consciousness has a direction that it is biased towards, but mostly, we can think of it as a canvas without any paint on it. Objects haven’t yet been fully conceptualized, preferences haven’t yet been fully imprinted, and our idea of a separate self hasn’t yet been fully formed. Eventually, however, with time, this changes. We see more, experience more, interact more, and slowly, we paint this canvas, one color at a time, one shape at a time, until this painting tells a story, a specific story — the story of our lives.
It’s this deeply colored story that captures our individual being— a thing that can’t be totally captured in literal words — and it’s this individual being that expresses our creativity. Now, this creativity is simply how we connect separate, disparate things in our awareness into something new as we interact with reality. Each time we do anything in the world, some part of it is unconsciously expressed. The thing to note, however, is that this creativity isn’t always the kind that we should be expressing in certain contexts.
Every brush of paint that connects to our canvas of consciousness is really born from an interaction. Whenever you have an experience, there is a broader setting with things, objects, and subjects around you, but what you take away from each experience depends on which of these things, objects, and subjects you notice and interact with, because the interaction is what leaves the imprint, and this imprint is what shapes the future actions, future states, and future movements of an individual being.
When we do the work to pick out the right environments, focusing on the right interactions within the experiences of those environments, we create an internal story that works, one that is cohesive and whole — one that is expressed like a work of art. When we are aimless about the interactions we have, we get forced into internal states of disorder — ones that, again, paint the canvas of consciousness but do so in a way that is scattered and messy; broken and inconsistent; creative, sure, but never artistic.
When it comes to an individual being, the difference between the expression of artistic creativity and non-artistic creativity is a deep-seated logic or value-system that directs the things they pay attention to within their experience of a setting — the things they choose to absorb as interactions in their attempt to add new colors to their canvas of consciousness; a canvas that they creatively project onto the world through actions.
There are some people who when they speak, or when they move, or when they listen, or when they make things, or when they look at you, they do so in a way that hints at a deeper confidence and authenticity, one that begs for an explanation but doesn’t need it, one that is pure even when the impurities beneath show themselves. They have a secret, and it’s a secret that reaches beyond superficiality — a secret that, sometimes, they themselves don’t know the content of. But no matter what it is, no matter how it’s expressed, it’s always the result of work and intention, suffering and reconciliation.
Such people, once they have done what they need to, they discover a core, and this core is represented in the form of a cohesive painting that has colored their consciousness, a painting which is unconsciously shared with the world every time they do something, whether meaningful or mundane. They choose the interactions within their experiences carefully, and these interactions in turn allow them to express themselves with ease.
On some level, this may sound trivial. But if you think about it, it slowly becomes clear that this nuance matters, and it matters because it’s something we all pick up on in ways that go beyond hollow words. Rather, the only words that can describe this sense are words loaded with colors and shapes and sounds and movements and metaphors. And there is one poem in particular that I think captures this better than most.
Few people would put Charles Bukowski’s writing at the level of beauty and abstraction that some people think of when they think of true poetry, and maybe it’s true what they say — that maybe it wasn’t poetry at all. But what he did do better than most was express himself honestly, and without honesty, there is no truth, so even if true poetry was beyond him, poeticism was not. And in spite of his faults, he knew what meant to treat this canvas of consciousness, the thing that we call life, as a work of art. I write about it as a refined, logical expression of creativity. Him? He simply called it style.
“Style is the answer to everything.
A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing
To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it
To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art
Bullfighting can be an art
Boxing can be an art
Loving can be an art
Opening a can of sardines can be an art
Not many have style
Not many can keep style
I have seen dogs with more style than men,
although not many dogs have style.
Cats have it with abundance.
When Hemingway put his brains to the wall with a shotgun,
that was style.
Or sometimes people give you style
Joan of Arc had style
John the Baptist
I have met men in jail with style.
I have met more men in jail with style than men out of jail.
Style is the difference, a way of doing, a way of being done.
Six herons standing quietly in a pool of water,
or you, naked, walking out of the bathroom without seeing me.”
Join the newsletter
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
I send out at least one new essay every week. Join 40,000+ readers for exclusive access: