Kevin Hart: Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry

Jacob McGuinn

Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry Book Cover Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry
Kevin Hart
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50

Reviewed by: Jacob McGuinn (University of London)

Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.

Psalm 119:18

Kevin Hart’s attention moves from what he calls his “native tongue,” (10) phenomenology, towards theology. His work is consistently concerned with attending to the theological in the phenomenological. This turning to theology has manifested through readings of modern philosophy, most particularly, and perhaps surprisingly, in reading Maurice Blanchot, whose concerns with the impossibilities of literature have lead Hart towards the parallel impossibilities of the sacred. In Poetry and Revelation, Hart resumes these themes: the religious constructions of philosophy, and poetry’s difficult role in shaping and articulating those constructions.

Poetry and Revelation is explicitly concerned with phenomenology, and with developing a phenomenology of reading poetry. Such a project is certainly aligned with contemporary trends in poetics, many of which are favourable to religious experience. Here, for Hart, the shape and structure of this phenomenology is itself afforded by the theological experience of reading. Reading is already theologically inflected, and so is any phenomenology. So while Hart is concerned with the experience of reading poetry, he is at the same time concerned with the ways such reading shapes our sense of phenomenology, and thereby with a theological inflection to phenomenology. Reading modern religious poetry – Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, first of all, and then other Australian and European voices – means responding to the range of Christian theology which frames that poetry, and in to the ways this reading frames a version of phenomenology. If there is a religious ‘experience’ of poetry, then it is attuned to the world under the revelation of faith. This is the world experienced as ‘created’, in which that creation is given. And if there is any phenomenological bracketing of the world, it is through a capacity to register shifts in representation framed by this religious experience. The book is therefore a meshing of specifically Christian experience of modern religious poetry with the phenomenological apprehension of that experience; and the two, for Hart, are mutually inflecting. Religious revelation can be subject to phenomenology, “a ‘religious’ experience” where “the speaker has been converted to see things from a new perspective” (54). And this ‘conversion’ of revelation, for Hart, mirrors the epochē of phenomenological bracketing. But it also exceeds phenomenal appearance – and here is Hart’s problem. If there is a religious, revelatory experience, it is of something that transcends the given, because “the phenomenon of divine revelation, centered in Incarnation, saturates our intentional horizon” (59). If we are to speak of a phenomenology of revelation, then, we must do so attentive to this “saturation,” whether disabling of the resources of phenomenology or not.

Poetry can offer new resources for such a phenomenology, and this is the connection Hart is concerned with excavating. Husserl’s injunction that we return our thinking to appearance is, for Hart, “as valuable to a philosopher as to a poet: one must learn how to attend to phenomena, and not merely inherit a sense of the ‘poetic’.” (151) From Husserl, then, Hart’s modernity inherits a double demand: both to think about appearance, and to write it. This twinning shapes his book. The question of ‘phenomena’ in poetry collides with the question of the ‘phenomenological’ reading of it. Both, Hart suggests, are modes of ‘revelation’, and both are therefore channelled through religious experience and writing. Religious poetry, attentive as it is, for Hart, to phenomenal appearance as ‘revelatory’ of religious truth, can span these two poles: its concern with its own poetic ‘phenomena’ models a ‘phenomenology’ of its appearance as poetry. Poetry, in this way, cooperates with phenomenology, defined by Hart as an “attentive response to what is given” (77) – poetry is both response to the world’s phenomena and doing its own phenomenological work. Hart’s Husserlian poet is already involved in a bracketing of experience, an epochē, because a poem’s strategies of manifestation in language already include not merely the questions ‘what’ or ‘why’, but also ‘how’ something appears (156). The artist is “someone wakeful” (157). But “Art is not attention; it is a change in the quality of attention so that we can see that we have already been in contact with what we see.” (157) If the poet is phenomenologist, that phenomenology is articulated in the vocabulary of poetry, and its consequences are registered in a poem.

We are in the orbit of a poetics of phenomenology, here, with, in Part I, Eliot distinguishing between a poetry written in the language of philosophy, and a philosophy articulated through the language of poetry. We favour the latter. Hart’s Eliot is “concerned with how one thinks in verse, not how one translates philosophy into poetry,” (45) and Hart traces his question through poetic encounters, letting these reading encounters shape his articulation of phenomenology. Part I develops a close reading of religious poetry as a phenomenological theology. Hart reads Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot as poets of religious revelation. In Part II, this attention shifts to the limits of religious poetry, described by Geoffrey Hill, and the limits of poetic revelation, rather than of the poetry of revelation. Parts III-V then retrace these two positions – revelation and its limits – through Australian, and then French, Italian, and American, poetries. This poetic scope is matched by a philosophical scope, asking after the limits of phenomenology from Husserl to Derrida, Heidegger, Michel Henry, and Jean-Luc Marion, but also with Levinas and Blanchot, in particular. And Hart brings each of these discourses into a further conversation with Christian theology, ranging from Patristic thinking forwards.

Hart’s methodology is, to use his own metaphor, ‘triangular’ (and no doubt Trinitarian), triangulating poetry with theology and phenomenology. The work of the book is in plotting this triangulation, and this plotting is subject to its own transcendental scrutiny: what kind of experience could account for the conflation, or at least the coincidence, of these distinct modes in the act of reading? In Part I, in close reading Hopkins’s poems (themselves acts of close reading the world), this act of getting reading right is itself theological, and this seems to be Hart’s central point: exegesis can be revealed as intum legere, reading from the inside, in which interpretation is not a determination of experience but its phenomenological revelation. There is certainly a phenomenological shaping of reading experience. The more obvious reference point is Jean-Luc Marion, and his sense of the limits of intuitive experience, but Hart poses the question directly to Husserl. The epochē is resituated as a theological bracketing (22-24). But this in turn resituates theological experience, more explicitly making its transcendent claims part of an experience of immanence. Revelation is the key to this conversation. Under revelation, the phenomenological sense of the world’s unfolding takes on theological dimensions – as one mode of creation, and of faith – as much as theological experience undergoes a phenomenological reading.

A revelatory experience of the world, immanent or not, requires an epochal shift in our sense of the world. Hart is attempting to uproot the theological assumptions in such a bracketing, and to imply that the representational shift of dimensions involved in it are coincident with a ‘revelatory’ Christian tradition. The triangulation of theology and phenomenology with religious poetry is therefore an attempt to demonstrate that shift. Reading such poetry compels us to recognise the revelatory as at once a phenomenological bracketing, and an epochal shift in representation of the world. So Christianity adds to phenomenology “another protocol that does not change it but clarifies its range” (23). Faith opens experience to new intentional horizons. Religious poetry emerges from a contemplation of the world through this faithful bracketing: a sensual imagination of the world as ‘instressed’, to use a word of Hopkins, by faith. For the poem, attuned to faith, the world appears as revelatory: through a phenomenologically guided shift in representation (28-34). “There is no special revelation, only a conversion of the gaze that intensifies the meaning of general, public revelation for the poet.” (34) Hopkins is here participating in a revealed world, not revealing it. Reading a poem, then, means assuming a phenomenological position towards the text: just as the poem is already bracketed from normative experience (here Hart follows Jean-Luc Marion closely, for whom certain experiences are ‘saturated’ with intuition which exceeds any concept invoked (15)), so too a reader of a religious poem is bracketed from expected objects of experience. The poem is ‘of’ revelation to the extent that it is ‘revealed’ (and “reveiled” (10)) through being read.

The question, then, is how much, or in what way, poetic revelation coincides with or collaborates with phenomenological reading. Hart seems to shift his emphasis with each momentary reading of a poem. In Part I, with Eliot, we are explicitly concerned with philosophy articulated in the language of poetry, and not with the poetic adornment of philosophical truths. As suggested, Hart’s Eliot is “concerned with how one thinks in verse, not how one translates philosophy into poetry.” (45) But as we proceed through the book – starting in part II with Hill – religion shifts from being a phenomenological mode of poetic writing to a mode of poetic reading. Hart reads the poems through religion, in a sense suggesting that exegesis is one of the poetic modes of articulation these religious poems inhabit. We shift, then, from the poetic experience of revelation to the revelation of poetic experience. This shift is important, because it opens up one of the ambiguities of this work. To what extent is the articulation of experience something poems do, and to what extent is articulation itself something by which poems are experienced? Do we ‘experience’ revelation in a poem, do we witness, as attuned readers, the revelatory experience poems themselves articulate, or is ‘revelation’ one of the experiences readers can bring to a poem? Is this poetry as revelation, or poetry for revelation? How are these two modes aligned in reading and writing about poetry?

In Part III, describing the saturated sensuality of A.D. Hope’s poem “The Double Looking Glass”, Hart remarks that, “What we see of Susannah in the poem has not all been seen before; it was never so visible.” (138) The poem, here, is exposing the reader to an experience of saturation, and is making visible phenomena which would not otherwise be so. In the poem, “the story [of Susannah] becomes a visionary narrative, a poem in which sensuality and transcendence cooperate rather than compete” (139). In this ‘visionary’ work of making visible, the poem combines the revelations of religious transcendence with the revelations of phenomenal sensuality. The revelatory ‘vision’ of the poem is in making this combination, and cooperation, visible. In part IV, Hart turns explicitly to the idea of poetry’s experience – poetry of, or as, experience – and the congruence of such experience with religious experience. Again, Hart marks poetry as, and not about, experience; but as such, structuring or making visible certain experience. “I am not thinking poetry as Erlebnis, lived experience, but as Erfahrung.” (194) The question raised here by religious poetry is of the experience of transcendence. Such ‘experience’, however, is complicated by the way that poetry draws upon an impossibility of experience. Hart’s point of contact here is the Italian poet Eugenio Montale. There is an inconceivability to this poetry, because of the inconceivable – unthinkable – range of possibilities both inscribed and erased from the poems. Such poetic experience is therefore both ‘impossible’ experience and an experience of ‘impossibility’. Here Hart draws upon Blanchot, and thinks of the ways poetry can configure ‘impossible’ experience itself through its presentation of language: “the poem brings into meaning something that refuses to settle into a definite meaning”. (196)

The ‘impossible’ also signifies the space left for poetry after the ‘departure’ of the Gods (here Hart is after Hölderlin): after a symbolically meaningful religious experience of the world, poetry presents the impossibility of such meaning so that, in such saturation, meaning might be preserved (205-6). Hart’s question, however, is not of a post-Christian experience, but rather, “In a reality held to be finite what sense, if any, can be made of transcendence?” (206). Hart’s thinking about the poetic image in Jaccottet and about poetry’s experience in Montale thus resolves into a question about poetry’s transcendence, or not, of possible experience. The terms of a Husserlian ‘bracketing’ of experience are thereby channelled through a poetic claim that “one cannot simply suspend reference to transcendence in the case of a text, literary or not. One can at best fold that reference.” (207) The ‘transcendence’ Hart has in mind is, of course, religious, and revelatory: an experience, such as Hopkins’s, of the transcendence of the world itself, rather than of any world beyond it. This question is “skewed in advance” by an insistence that modernity is “co-ordinate with the finite” (208). In such insistence, “we distance transcendence from experience at the cost of rendering transcendence unintelligible.” (209) Hart’s task, here, is a reintegration of religious transcendence to our sense of finitude through poetry’s Erfahrung.

Section V leads us to the work, implicitly assigned to poetry throughout, of imagination: that poetry’s invocation of images does not merely ‘present’ a world, but also ‘contemplates’ it, contemplation historically indexed by Catholic devotion to Mary. The picturing of the world in contemplation, as in poetry, reveals the world as not just materially inert, but immanent with poetry’s revelation of meaning. The question of such contemplation is phenomenological: how, we ask in contemplating Mary, does the incarnation happen? How does transcendence happen? In this way, contemplation of Mary and poetry parallel a (more overtly Protestant) Hegelian ‘concretion’: “the particular ways in which the dialectic gathers all that there is and makes it into an ever more concrete reality.” (229) The poetic contemplation of Mary, asking ‘How’ Mary becomes meaningful, thereby also makes the transcendent concrete (242); and in doing so, despite its transcendent object, invokes a phenomenology. Hart’s final question, then, comes into focus here: the question of revelation is the question of ‘how’ the world becomes meaningful, and in a religious sense ‘transcendent’; and as such, the question of poetic revelation exposes us to a phenomenology of the transcendent which other versions of phenomenology might conceal. Religious poetry invokes a bracketing of experience in order to present the transcendent as the ‘impossible’ – sacred or silent, but still one intentional horizon in which the world becomes meaningful. In reading poetry this way, for Hart, we employ a phenomenology. And in this employment, phenomenology is exposed to a religious intentionality it might otherwise conceal, or have concealed. This is not just a compatibility of religious experience with phenomenology, but their coordination.

This coordination amounts to an intervention in our conception of phenomenology – the intervention of theology which, as Hart has repeatedly suggested in his career, is not in an intervention so much as an anamnetic recovery of revelation. In the final chapter, Hart attempts to describe this intervention. Without mentioning recent work on Derrida’s theology, Hart plays deconstruction against this kinds of ‘negative theology’ he has been detailing. Deconstruction takes différance to be a quasi-transcendental condition for the play of meaning between text and context, whereas in negative theology the transcendent idea of God yields multiple meanings in experience of the world. In this situation, however, the two are “back to back,” and in fact, “deconstruction can only ever be the ghost of apophatic theology precisely because it answers to a structure of transcendence and not a divine transascendence” (259). Derrida’s exemplary readings yield a silence behind their texts. Hart asks whether ‘other’ silences might be read, too, and this is where theology becomes operative. Husserl’s presupposed exclusion of the transcendence of God from phenomenology would in such a reading be exposed to a different version of appearance. “In uncovering this presupposition we may ask ourselves what happens if we do not limit our phenomenality at all, restricting it neither to objects (Husserl) nor being (Heidegger), and instead granting everything the right and the power to manifest itself in whatever way is appropriate to it.” (259) For Hart this attitude is indexed through the theological tradition of engaging with the world in its revelation, and articulated by a religious poetry concerned with what the word might reveal (or not) in the world. Undertaking the phenomenology of reading such poetry would only be to rediscover a phenomenological attitude concealed in the Husserlian bracketing of the transcendent from the transcendental. Religious revelation, as religious poetry shows us, is the manifestation of its own transcendent mode of showing, and theology is its shaping construction. After all, “Every prayer is an epochē that can make the writing of theology possible, and theology only begins when we are led back from the world we master and that tries to master us to a created world” (260). And religious poetry is attuned to such creation, the “morning knowledge” of “the way of knowing granted when things are seen as created, invisibly tied to God” (260).

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