Living Poetically According to Kierkegaard

The Romantics believed in the ideal of “living poetically.” Today many people believe in the notion of the self-made person. Kierkegaard is suspicious of these kinds of ideas. What are his objections and concerns?

The expression “living poetically” connotes a libertine, a person who marches to his own drummer, follows rules of their own whimsical invention, or answers only to his/her own inner voice, like the famous daimonion (δαιμόνιον[1]) of Socrates, albeit heedless of convention and societal norms. Modern pop culture is awash in libertines of this ilk, the noisy, public lives of musicians and actors come to mind.

A self-made person connotes a person of fierce independence, who relies on nobody other than him/herself for guidance, direction, and precedence in manner and conduct. A self-made person is utterly self-motivated and directed. The self-made person detests influence from parents, siblings, teachers, colleagues, and friends.

The idea of a self-made person itself smacks of a flimsy fiction unless perhaps it pertains to the Christian belief in being “born again”. Then, in that case, a self-made person might have a scriptural fig leaf as it is sanctioned by scripture and the example of Christ, might sufficiently appease Søren Kierkegaard. The only justifiable making of a self is to be spiritually reborn in a religious sense as when John the Baptist or Christ go out in the desert or Mohammed enters his cave.

Kierkegaard, as a classical scholar, would also have been alive to the meaning of the word of poet as a maker. Adam of Old Testament fame is considered the first poet, an appointed office inasmuch as God only accorded this gift to Adam, the first man, and to no other creature. Considering the metaphor quite literally, in its raw truth, the poet is a maker of words, phrases, stories, myths, narrations, epics, and verse but does not make himself or obsess with stories or fables about himself to advance a “persona”.

Kierkegaard’s position is that “living poetically” is a sham unless it is truly poetic, by which he means religious. He is contemptuous of any shallower idea of what a poetic life might entail.

Kierkegaard’s idea of living poetically puts in mind the staggering transformation of the 17th century British poet, John Donne, from the randy, young swain he mockingly dubbed “Jack” for his fixation on hedonistic, erotic poems to the religious poet of his later years when he earned back the right to call himself “John”[2].

Meditation XVII – Wikisource, the free online library

Kierkegaard makes his position on living poetically utterly clear on P. 297 of The Concept of Irony:

Therefore, let it be said, as it will also be demonstrated, that these books are not only immoral but also unpoetic, for they are irreligious; let it above all be said that anyone can live poetically who truly wants to do so. If we ask what poetry is, we may say in general that it is victory over the world; it is through a negation of the imperfect actuality that poetry opens up a higher actuality, expands and transfigures the imperfect into the perfect and thereby assuages the deep pain that wants to make everything dark.

The Concept of Irony P. 297


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *