KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 10: Fall 2018
Essay/Translation: 1,509 words [R]

Three Lines by Hölderlin

[Poets as holy vessels]
by John Olson

Heilige Gefäße sind die Dichter,
Worin des Lebens Wein, der Geist
Der Helden sich aufbewahrt.

I became very intrigued with this little verse by Friedrich Hölderlin recently. I neither speak nor read German, but I wanted to present it in German because Hölderlin chose his words very carefully, and I wanted to come to know them in their original German. Words have a very specific meaning in German and are key to unlocking its essence. As the Japanese man who appears at the end of the movie Paterson puts it, “poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.”

There are a number of online German to English dictionaries to help unravel the meaning of this deceptively simple poem. There’s an entire philosophy—Weltanschauung—packed into the stratification of these words.

No matter how small a word or what language is involved, each word has an evolution that corresponds to a particular range of perceptions and orientations and attitudes within the domain of human experience. “Speech,” observed the linguist Edward Sapir, “is a human activity that varies without assignable limit as we pass from social group to social group, because it is a purely historical heritage of the group, the product of long-continued social usage. It varies as all creative effort varies—not as consciously, perhaps, but none the less as truly as do the religions, the beliefs, the customs, and the arts of different peoples.”2

So: heilige Gefäße. What’s that? It means “holy vessel.” Vessel in the sense of glass, or cup. A receptacle. Something that holds, that contains. Why holy? Because of the content, the substance (though in this case more like an energy, a noumenon) of what it contains.

“Sind die Dichter.” This translates roughly as “are the poets.” Poets are holy vessels. Who didn’t know that? Poets are holy because...why? What makes poets holy? The nature of their endeavor, which is one of transcendence, of attaining the sublime. The nature of their work, which is alchemical. The goal of the poet is to take the base ores of everyday experience and transmute them into gold. Into the giddy exhilaration of autonomous innovation.

Poets are receivers. Transducers. Antennae. The cosmological energies that comprise the universe find a human voice among poets. Some of these energies are benign and some of these energies have a more destructive impulse. Violence and beauty do not uncommonly repulse one another. Au contraire.

When Christ tore through the temple of the moneychangers he was behaving like a poet.

What’s a “moneychanger?” They’re like hedge fund investors. Bankers. Assholes who think strictly in terms of money and how rich they can make themselves no matter how many lives are capsized and made miserable in the process.

The Bible got it right: you cannot both serve God and Mammon.

Poets tend, as a rule, to be a little averse to the whole business of making money, though not entirely as a matter of principle. They’re not very good at it for one thing: the market for books of poetry is less than robust. Writing poetry does very little to twist the combinatorial lock on the bank vault. It’s a dubious investment. The wealth poets are after is speculative, but not in the sense of finance. More in the sense of divinatory, conjectural, phantasmagoric.

Poets don’t make money at poetry because poetry isn’t merchandise. There’s no demand for poetry. There’s plenty of it to go around, but few—and I do mean few—people want it. They can do without it, thank you very much.

So why does anyone bother to write it? Good question. Everyone will have their own reason. My addiction began with Arthur Rimbaud. “The Drunken Boat.” I like being drunk. I especially like being drunk on language, because there’s essentially no hangover, and the side effects are relatively minor: a tendency to buy more books than you need, a tendency to chatter, a tendency to use polysyllabic words.

Worin des Lebens Wein. “Wherein the wine of life.” The “wine of life” suggests a heady brew of euphoria, intensity, elation, and intellectual exultation. Pretty much the same phenomena as I was discussing above, with one important exception: all experience, even bad experience, serves the inventive mind of the poet.

Much of life is shit. Let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a whole lot of pain in life. Loss, rejection, grief, frustration, fear, anxiety, despair, confusion, meaningless toil. But if, like a poet, you can take these experiences and torque and twist the language until something different emerges—a transcendent glory, a sense of grace, a liberating fumarole of blistering invective—you’re doing good, my friend.

Poets have a great knack for getting drunk. The way they feel about life is cosmic. It’s very large and dizzying. Open-ended. Infinite. “Energy,” said Blake, “is eternal delight.”3

Geist. This is important. Geist, in German, means both mind and spirit, as in the word zeitgeist, or “time spirit.” English makes a distinction between mind and spirit. This is where a translation of the German into English might trip up a bit. Geist also means ghost. Ghost, mind, and spirit are fused into the one word: geist. Important to keep that in mind.

Der Helden, sich aufbewahrt. This is where things get really tricky. Der helden means “the hero.” The poet, as has already been suggested, cuts a heroic figure. The poet is also a bit of a tragic figure, a bit like the fool of the Tarot cards. Sich is a reflexive pronoun meaning “themselves.”

Aufbewahrt means “kept,” and is from the present tense aufbewahren, which means to store, or keep in a safe place. The poet conserves the sacred. This is what makes the poet extraordinary and heroic. This is particularly true of our current historical period. Humankind are in dire straits. Four hundred years or so of intense industrial and technological commerce have permanently destroyed the ecologies that human beings and countless other species require to live on this planet. Because it’s just the one planet. We don’t have another planet to hop onto when this one goes berserk, as it has already begun doing.

Poets resist these general trends toward endless accumulation and technological answers for all of life’s complexities and needs. And they often do so in financial distress, working at humiliating jobs or (if they’re lucky) lucrative and prestigious teaching positions. Universities provide haven, but they’re still a few steps away from full membership in mainstream society.

I don’t blame science and technology. But it’s clear that a one-sided obsession with these things to the exclusion of the holy and non-commercial has put things way out of balance. If people become obsessed with these things, other more important things will be neglected. Things like real wealth. The vitality of language. Community.

I like money, but I have never understood what it is to have an exclusive obsession with money. Money is not real. Money is not real wealth. Real wealth is available resources: respirable air, drinkable water, food security.

Money is a form of language, but as a tool of capitalism, it does more to harm community and destroy real wealth. That’s the irony. Money can make you poor. Capital can be a disaster. And it has been. Just look around you. The floods, the droughts, the stressed and overpopulated infrastructures, the wars, the depletion of aquifers and lakes and rivers, the acidification of the oceans, the calamity of plastic choking those same stressed-out oceans.

Unchecked capitalism is toxic. It’s a hazard for everyone except sociopaths. But its lures aren’t easily dismissed. The thrill of a luxury sports car or all the time in the world to cruise the Adriatic in a private yacht with an unlimited supply of haute cuisine are temptations for the shallow. But enough money to never worry about adequate health care? That’s tough to avoid. A lot of people will be willing—to one degree or another—to compromise their values if it means they and their children will have access to health care and a good education. And who can blame them?

Resisting these forces is the task of the poet. It’s like a priesthood. The role of the poet is shamanistic. It’s also a role that most people in western culture look down upon as the province of silly bohemians or elitist academicians comfortably ensconced in ivory towers.

That’s what Hölderlin is getting at: the conservation of a sense of the sacred is a heroic task. The poet is up against some very powerful enemies, not the least of which is Wall Street. Another is indifference. And still another is literalism, the inability to see interrelationships, to get beyond the one-dimensional.

So what, then, might Hölderlin’s words look like in English? One translation might be: “Poets are holy vessels, / in which the wine of life, the spirit / of heroes is kept.” This gets the basic idea across. But it’s not the same. I’m in the shower, but I can’t seem to get that raincoat off.


—Reprinted with author’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles (14 August 2018)


Publisher’s Notes:

1. The three-line verse analyzed in Olson’s essay is from an ode, “Buonaparte,” by lyric poet and philosopher Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), who was a key figure of German Romanticism. Text of the ode appears in “Friedrich Hölderlin: Poems: Collection from the Gutenberg-DE project, Chapter 31” at the German media site, Spiegel Online; link retrieved on 15 August 2018:

2. Edward Sapir (1884–1939). From Chapter One of Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921.

3. William Blake. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (circa 1790-1793). Quotation is from “Plate 4: The voice of the Devil”; see the last line of Object 4 in Copy A (1790, Houghton Library); link retrieved on 15 August 2018:


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