SK: Do you also see significant connections between music and nature?
LF: Due to the non-representational character of music, in contrast to many of the other arts, music is more difficult to relate to nature. However, rhythm is essential to music and to the natural world (seasons, tides, reproduction, breathing, pulse). Moreover, the integrity of a piece of music (its meaningful wholeness) and the unfolding development of melodies and motifs resemble the unity of organisms and their processes of transformation (the growth of a plant from seed, to leaf, to blossom, etc.).
Music, like all art, is a free human creation and thus differs from nature, which we depend on but do not create. Nevertheless, I think that what not so long ago was called ‘genius’ is the remarkable capacity to create something new which has the same kind of internal necessity as a natural organism (in an organism there is a co-dependence of part and whole – the part is dependent on the whole and the whole depends on the cooperation of the parts). A great work of art is the free creation of necessity. It thus reveals the lawfulness of nature but is not determined by nature; it is brought forth in an unprecedented manner by freedom. For related reasons Goethe described art as the ‘spiritual-organic’. Why is this view still important today? Learning to see the deeper connections between nature and art can be an important step towards healing our relationship to the natural environment, of moving beyond a consciousness that is dissociated from the natural order and the destructive consequences of this consciousness.
SK: In addition to poetry, philosophy is one of your main areas of expertise. Could you say a few words about how philosophy ties in to these matters?
LF: I did a PhD in philosophy and developed a keen interest in philosophy already in my teens (the same time in which I started seriously reading and writing poetry). I have written a book on some of the significant ways in which I think poetry can address philosophical issues in a manner that exceeds philosophy itself (The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems). Here, I will simply say that I think that philosophy needs to become more poetic (than its traditional conceptual form) and that certain kinds of poetry can reveal the truth (the goal of philosophy).
SK: ‘The’ truth or ‘a’ truth? It might be interesting to reflect on the kind of distinctive truth poetry offers.
LF: How about ‘th-a’ truth? There are perhaps problems both with the definite and the indefinite article but I don’t want to take up a great deal of space distinguishing their semantics. Let me just say that ‘a’ truth sounds too relativistic but ‘the truth’ could appear as too singular (but many things can, in fact, be ‘the truth’ as long as they don’t undermine each other). My conception of truth owes a lot to Martin Heidegger’s conception, which is more fundamental than many other views. Rather than locating truth in the correctness of an assertion, Heidegger regards truth as, more fundamentally, an unconcealment of what is (being). This is the kind of truth that one finds in poetry. The most profound poetry does not simply tell us what we already know but reveals the world and ourselves in a new light; it is an experienced event of unconcealment and not a statement about a pre-given static state of affairs. Poetic truth is distinctive in that it is an event of illumination through a composition of language, a lingustic work of art. Philosophy is generally abstractly universal and its language is more purely intellectual. Poetry can get at a more concrete and imaginative insight into things (through phanopoeia, for instance) and affectively attune us to the world in distinctive ways.
On a simpler note, I think poetry (and the other arts) can marry feeling, thinking and perception (the senses) in a way that traditional philosophy cannot. Poets of the Romantic era (Coleridge, Schiller, Goethe) thought of poetry as a kind of harmonious working of all the human faculties, whereas philosophy is a more one-sided, though highly significant, achievement of reason. I think that philosophy and poetry can benefit one another, but that they also need to maintain their own identities.
Getting back to your opening question about what is most important to me: At this point I would prefer not to establish a hierarchy and rather emphasise that all these areas are interconnected. Reality is a diverse and interconnected whole; it is symphonic. In terms of my creative work, though, poetry and philosophy are the most important (I am not a composer and am only an amateur musician), and on a personal level I value poetry above all.
SK: What is it about poetry that you value most? I ask because for me, poetry is critically important (more than anything else) but it is music that stirs me most in an emotional way. It’s as if poetry gets the synapses going and so remains fundamentally an intellectual delight, but music speaks to the emotions and the body more. Is that how you see it?
LF: Yes, more or less. Poetry is really the most intellectual of the arts, I think, because poetry is the art of language and language is so crucial to how we think about and understand the world. Nevertheless, like other art forms poetry also embodies feeling and sensuous existence. Music speaks to us with incredible immediacy. It is marvelous how it can almost instantaneously transform one’s state of mind. Music converts sounds into a universe expressive of feelings, of feelings far more refined than our usual mundane emotions, into an elusive and transforming architecture of tones in which we find ourselves and more than ourselves. Perhaps music is the most sublime or even divine of the arts because of the way it transports us and in not re-presenting any empirical reality seems to transcend the mundane world. In certain respects I think music is a higher art form than poetry, but I think poetry demands a broader engagement of our capacities. Poetry, through its work with language, is more consciously engaged with the making and re-making of meaning.
SK: Let’s go directly to your poetry − and a favourite of mine, ‘Tübingen’. I’m interested here in the notion you expressed earlier that we are ‘shaped by places and the natural environment [and that] we are inhabited by places as much as we inhabit them …’ This idea intrigues and resonates with me and I immediately think of the poems of ‘place’ that I love, (including ‘Tübingen’). In ‘Tübingen’, it all seems somehow more febrile and that the poem is expressed through a compelling hesitancy (paradoxically enough) and a profound realisation to do with the shifting nature of place, language, relationships and time. It’s as if we can’t rely on any of them. And the identity of the poet here is mutable as well – also shifting (according to setting and mood as it were). I find this both deeply interesting and liberating. Would you comment on the idea of ‘mutability’ (or ‘instability’ perhaps) with particular reference to ‘Tübingen’?
LF: While I don’t think a poem is reducible to its connections to a poet’s biography, a discussion of some biographical context might be helpful. I lived and studied (undertook doctoral research) in Tübingen – an old university town not far from Stuttgart, Germany – for over two years (from 2005-2007). As the opening of ‘Tübingen’ suggests, I wrote the poem five years after this period. The first draft was written on a flight with my impressions of a short visit still fresh in my mind. Whatever I say here will only paraphrase what the poem says better, but you are right to notice the dynamic and mutable character of the evocation of place. Rather than a place being viewed as a static space, it is evoked as a dynamic web of shifting factors: friendships, memories, language, the natural environment, history (Tübingen’s poetic and intellectual history are particularly important to me – the great poet of the Romantic era, Friedrich Hölderlin lived in the yellow tower described in the poem in the last period of his life, when he had lost his mind – and Hölderlin and the philosophers Hegel and Schelling studied together at the Tübingen seminary), etc. The poem describes the experience of a kind of homecoming (Tübingen, second to Sydney, is the place that is most like a home to me) and my awareness of a way of being and distinctive possibilities that are connected to this place. In some sense, if I now lived in Tübingen (instead of Sydney) I would be a slightly different person, have a different life, have slightly different inclinations (of course, the town itself is also changing). Approaches to life are determined by the mood of the place, friendships, institutions, language (German). The poem evokes these constellations as well as the knitting together of international relationships made possible by contemporary technologies. It also interweaves two languages – English and German – and reflects on how a given language embodies unique connotations. The beginning and the end of the poem convey the dynamism and mutability of place through a textile metaphor. Entering the town, the speaker finds himself ‘wearing a fine old coat’ that he ‘thought had been torn’; this describes an inner experience of being embraced or clothed by the place as he arrives. The poem ends with the speaker leaving the town and his sense of ‘the weave undoing’. All the threads of this place (friendships, environment, history, memory, language) come undone again; a certain life and sense of place are only possible if one lives in that place. My current life in Sydney is made up of different constellations and possibilities than my former life in Tübingen. That said, these different places continue to inhabit me, have shaped me in distinctive ways, make up a wider constellation of changing factors (this theme is also explored in ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’) and I am still in contact with friends in Tübingen (I also met my wife there). On a more recent visit to Tübingen, I gave a poetry reading in which I read poems from Paths of Flight (although I did not read ‘Tübingen’).