Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Part A: Bridges as metaphor and as physical reality

As for the title, note 1


When my daughter Maya was born 7.November 1988, I created a special card to announce her birth to relatives and friends. For it I wrote a small poem with the first lines expressing something which startled me because I could not understand it. What altered that was when my wife Anna gave birth to our child:



Often I wondered at the sight

of bridges

running along edges

of paintings

I did not understand.


Then came Anna, a smile

exists since then in my life: love

does asunder over open plains

assured through common hands

holding a simple expression

of human warmth.


And then came Maya.

Now I understand

Raphael's painting

of Madonna with child.


The poem poses one crucial question: why do bridges run along edges of paintings? A good way to answer that question is to look at bridges which have  been painted by someone like Monet.



              Monet, the Bridge

Monet captures a fleetng moment for which the Impressionists became famous for. He shows that the bridge is full of life and bathed above all in optimistic colours. This is not only due to the sun but how light illuminating that moment is perceived by the painter. Blue and green colours dominate. At the same time, the bridge seems to stretch into an arch as if a cat curving its back, so as to get ready to leap over to the other side. The bridge inclines upward from both sides. At the highest point of the arch, there is the middle of the bridge. That is another kind of determination. For here is located as well the breaking point. The contrast between the bridge above and the water below is no longer stark as everything blends into the natural surrounding. It poses the question whether a similar perception can be painted of the Olawski bridge in the form of a poem?

Then there is Vincent Van Gogh's draw bridge.


                         Vincent Van Gogh, Langloise Bridge in Arles

Interesting is that where the painter stands, Van Gogh lets the viewer look over his shoulder. The bridge seems to be the central piece, but then something at a distance unsettles the overall balance. The trees far behind the bridge mark a still further horizon. The water way has natural shorelines on either side of what seems to be more a canal than a natural river. While there are boats with some people in the foreground on the left shore, the other side appears devoid of any life. Also the eyes can follow the water until it flows underneath the bridge. Looking through distant shores appear. They are framed by the gap in the bridge and by the carriage which happens to be going over the bridge at that moment. Noticeable is that the water has already the whirlpool like sensation Van Gogh was drawn to as if looking too long into the sun and then after becoming dizzy, gave in completely to a crazy life. It indicates that life can be transformed into a whirlpool which threatens to pull anyone into its centrifugal force once one dare to come too close to that mysterious power.

Van Gogh did paint the bridge in several variations and from different angles. In the painting depicted above, a horse drawn carriage passes over the draw bridge; in another painting of the same bridge, but now seen from the other side, a woman with a dark umbrella walks over the bridge. Such a lone figure stands out. Her dark silhouette catches immediately the eye's attention, for who might that be? One knows that Van Gogh longed for love and tried to marry three times, but in vain. Life was too short for him to let him look back to see what he had created within a very limited time period, but his paintings have a long lasting effect till today.

Some further interpretation may be allowed, in order to come closer to the bridge topic. For Van Gogh was captured by this bridge called 'Le Pont de L'Anglois' located in Arles. In a letter to Emile Bernard he adds a sketch of the bridge. Most outstanding is that in the drawing there is depicted in the foreground a man and woman. The man has his arm around her waist, while she has thrown her arm over his left shoulder. They walk towards the bridge as if a dream shall come true. They have met just recently and now they have decided to cross over the bridge together, in order to reach the other side and therefore a new life. 2

Interestingly enough the Indian poet, Suresh Dalal has written a poem about Van Gogh's technique to paint. The poem reflects many things which characterize Van Gogh.



Suresh Dalal


Van Gogh, I admire you
You have, endured
the hearts’ many winters;
finding, true, from time to time
some little warmth
But how much, how long
this warmth
in the bitter cold?

I see your face now,
its colours and lines
Between those sculpted lips
is stuck a pipe:
smoke rises there
as from a freshly burning
body on a funeral pyre;
your torn ear re-assemble.

For you
One thought alone.
In your eyes not death,
not life’s defeat, but
a tired human face.
You paint no
rivers flowing through
the shameless light of day.

Rather, you make
nights’ black stream
go glittering by.
If roses bloom in the air
you turn them to scented paper stars.

A peasant family
gathers to eat
by lamplight
at day’s end
Through you we taste their food.
On canvas fields
Your brush, unwearied,
brings to life
a harvest of human faces;
and blesses
a pubescent girl’s

You release on paper
little coloured boats
All quite empty …
Like yourself.

Your face is like a torn sweater.
Bending by night
Over an empty glass
On an old table in a lonely café,
Songs of experience
Come streaming in lines
as you cross times’ jungle
like some mad cyclone. 3

Already that description of Van Gogh can give a taste for poetry which follows the logic of intuition and trust in the words language makes available to describe the world we live in. The logic of writing a poem is very similar to taking up a dialogue with a painting by letting the imagination explore the canvas. It can and does make visible another reality.

I suppose everyone has made this experience: when standing in front of a painting and describing to a friend what you see, the more you touch with your eyes the various paint strokes, the more you notice things which had not seen when looking for first time at the painting. How is that possible? Our first impressions do not capture all details, and also the relation between parts and whole alters once more details are noticed. This revelation of not seeing certain things all at once but only after discussing the painting based on further going observations, can imply that language acts usually like blinders used for horses so that they see only certain things, and not everything.

By being open to a dialogue with the imagination when exploring further a painting, something else happens. For based on this other language and dialogue, by describing a painting, we enter the realm of our 'moral imagination'. For nothing is arbitrary only art and what our eyes can perceive and follow, that has its own inherent logic of unfolding. When that happens, it is already an act of creation of meanings which we give the painting due to its inherent qualities. The dialogue goes even further since there is a difference between what we see in reality and what we see with the help of the imagination. Out of this difference layers of experience can be articulated when referring to a specific painting as to what it depicts for us.

It should underlined that this dialogue follows another logic used by poets to express themselves. It differs from the linear one which has been applied in computer systems and which is known as the iterative process because it is based on 'no/yes' alternatives which have to be chosen in order to advance. Not so this dialogue.

By letting yourself become free to imagine what else can be seen, this kind of discourse comes close to being poetry. Based on listening to our moral imagination and trusting the words we use, something else comes into play: sense impressions. Like the Impressionists, what we describe will correspond to what we see, touch, smell, hear and taste. Due to trust in our senses, there is brought about a certainty despite all uncertainty. It is this what philosophers call 'sinnliche Gewißheit' – 'certainty of the senses.' It is a knowledge free of doubt and yet never absolute in conviction but gentle like a breeze of fresh air brushing over the weed standing out of the water and therefore making a lovely sound of rustle and hustle as if a swarm of birds was taking off.

It is when the imagination begins to bridge over the distance between the viewer of a painting and the painting, then it amounts to virtually running along the edges of a painting. In so doing, we realize that such a 'bridge' is a powerful metaphor to overcome the gap between what we understand and what we do not.

As a matter of fact, the 'bridge' is one of the most important things man can construct first in the imagination on how he will get across to the other side, and then in real life by finding the architects and engineers who can construct a bridge, so to enable anyone who wishes to cross over a deep abyss or valley can do so by taking this bridge.


Metaphorical use of the term 'bridge'

When Kids' Guernica celebrated its 15th anniversary in Tallahassee, Florida, Tom Anderson, the main organiser, made sure that the exhibition of peace murals would be accompanied by a Symposium on 'Art for Social Justice'. The publication for that contains a very interesting essay relevant to our discussion about the bridge as a metaphor.

“Metaphor as a reflective tool, critical lens, and metamorphosis of cultural negotiations helps bridge these superficial differences, provides an access to a deeper empathy, and humanizes the obscure notion of the other. In this ways, metaphor, I believe, may serve as a critical bedrock instrument toward establishing equity and social justice.” 4

The original Greek meaning of 'metaphor' is transport. Hence when reference is made to metaphor, it serves the purpose to transport meaning. At the same time, a metaphor gives a sense of proportion e.g. he is as tall as a giant or he walks so slow as if a snail. Sometimes these can be as well similes. They allow for a comparison and transport at the same time meaning from the one to the other just like a bridge does when someone walks over it to reach the other side of the river.

Bridge agreement

Lately, due to the crisis in Greece, there has been made repeatedly an appeal to find some 'bridge agreement', in order to unlock the negotiators from their preconditions and which seem to block any realistic outcome for both sides. It would mean something can be accommodated while something else is being done to ensure in the long run an agreement acceptable to both sides can be attained:

“Although crunch talks are under way between Greece and its creditors, investors are septical that any type of agreement can be reached and believe that the country may have to default. Their debt is at about 180 percent of the gross domestic product, and is completely unsustainable in the long term. While Greece’s creditors want the country to apply for an extension, Greece wants a “bridge agreement” instead. The “troika” that they owe money to (consisting on the ECB, European Commission, and International Monetary Fund) keep bailing them out, allowing them to borrow far past the original February 28 deadline.” 5

Naturally such bridging of time, i.e. to give Greece some credits to ensure the state does not default, while making everything conditional on a mutual understanding as to what reforms are needed to put the Greek state back on track, that is in terms of financial accountability as far as the state budget is concerned, requires a fine tuning before the negotiating partners can reach such an agreement.


Bridges as practical utopia

Since bridges cross at times something which cannot be overcome so easily otherwise, and may it be a steep canyon, they are in reality a 'practical utopia' as well. As the term suggests, they are wishes which have been concretised over time into a real edifice often bordering themselves on a kind of miracle. But Anna Arvanitaki remarks while bridges in the past were novelties, this is not the case so with modern technology making it possible to construct bridges even for decorative purposes, and then end up being insignificant constructs in the landscape.

Yet to return to the term 'practical utopia', a bridge achieves above everything else connections where before it was deemed to be impossible to reach with such great ease the other side. Moreover they tend to connect not only two sides but political entities which were separate ones until then. Especially if rivers are both a natural and a political border, a bridge poses a new case in international and local relationships. One needs only to think of the Oder/Neisse border between Poland and Germany. It was until the European Union took shape one of the sharpest borders in Europe. Hence any bridge which crosses such a river and at the same time political border entails elements of a 'practical utopia.' Literally speaking, such a bridge signifies that a human dream has become reality.

As this prompts further reflections about the significance of a bridge both in peace and war time, one can be reminded of the saying 'don't burn all your bridges!” The destruction of a bridge during war meant usually a wish to slow down at least the enemy's army if in pursuit of one's own. At other times, it could act as a symbol for wish to cut off all ties to the other side. Whatever, taking down a bridge is not a practical act, but an effective way of demonstrating man's capacity to terminate practical linkages.

An element of a bridge being a practical utopia is expressed in the following poem by Azam Abidov with utopia being linked to a wish to overcome the impossible, in this case the need for a dialogue with a dictator in order to convince him a better way forward for all would be democracy.


Madiba 6

Did you see the moon trembled?

A leaf fell down the tree.

I believed you could become a bridge

Between me and the universe.

I’m not colourful

And I know

I have bright rights written on the leaf.

But let me ask:

What would you discuss

Under the moonlight

On the bridge

On a peaceful day

With a dictator,



Azam Abidov



To stand on a bridge and to reflect why dictatorship prevails so often in history, and this to the detriment of mankind, such a meditative dialogue can say already a lot. It underlines the fact that a bridge is a special location, or in philosophical terms a 'topos' where thoughts can open up and the external world can be experienced once again. It means that the senses have been activated and thereby brings about an unforgetable experience.  the sense of being present there, now and here, at this very spot on the bridge.

Such a contemplative and an active openness can bring about conversations going deep into the night. When working as a host for the Canadian Pavilion at EXPO '67 in Montreal, Canada, one assignment I loved very much was to keep an eye on visitor as they would go around the platform of a pyramid standing on its head. The upside down pyramid was called 'Katimavik', the Inuit's name for the house of the meeting place. Up there, one had a good overview of the two islands in the St. Lawrence which were created to host the Expo site. People ended up staying for hours on that elevated platform, as they felt free from any daily pressure of time. Hence they would open up and begin to philosophize about all aspects of life. Likewise standing on a bridge can be a place where people open up and begin to contemplate unusual reflections and deeper thoughts. By just standing at the balustrade of the bridge and looking down at the water which continues to flow underneath the bridge, people come closer to what philosophers would call 'the metaphysics of life'. It entails many things no one can understand but which does exist. Like the many forms the flowing water forms when going over a rock or a root of a tree, these forms come and go but they indicate as well what exists in terms of our language and ability to perceive thing is but a limited way to see the world.

Nevertheless the political contemplation of life and society should not be reduced to a wrong understanding of politics. As stated by the Greek poet Ritsos in his poem about the pottery man, politics has to do with freedom, and this can be re-interpreted, poetically speaking, as a man who is free to live out his own craziness. The pottery man ends up not going home any more to his constantly nagging wife, but stops doing vases and other ceramic pieces, but is wears only a loin clothe and starts making naked women out of clay. He goes happily to bed in his wooden shack once all these women have bitten breasts.

Ritsos has written as well a beautiful poem about 'bread' which was sent recently to me by the Situationist poet Giulio Stocchi in Milano. The poem itself goes something like this (a lose translation):




Whenever I return, it is a joy for me to know that
your dear patience, depth
of your trust awaits me. Now let me
repeat the articles of faith with the simple
solemnity of the catechumen
and with fresh enthusiasm of the neophyte who recites
Articles of life written in red letters
for the title of the story and in the face on the horizon:
I believe that justice is about the equitable sharing of the bread,
I think our first progress is the increased production of bread for all,
I believe that our first duty is peace,
I think our first freedom is not loneliness
but sociability. For all the rest
There will be time, but here we go.
I wanted to talk about this bridge.


- Ritsos


That last line cannot be repeated enough. There is a need to talk about this and not about another bridge, for otherwise we miss linking the production of bread to the need of society to show solidarity with the poor and vulnerable.

Right now the creditors are negotiating with the newly elected Greek government that a flat VAT tax of 23% should be imposed. Such an indirect tax is not proportionate to who can afford what. For the rich a more expensive bread does not matter as long as there is sufficient bread being produced. For a poor man or woman a more expensive bread makes all the difference in the everyday life. Once that sense of equity is deeply disturbed, there is no longer a bridge to cross over, in order to connect the two sides of society, the rich and the poor.

Something similar said Pablo Neruda who called Ritsos his brother. In a speech held in Santiago 1953, Neruda stated that "we write for simple people. The darker and lighter side of poetry is for people, who make often no demands because they cannot read. But poetry was on this earth before one could read and print. Therefore we know that poetry is like bread which is and which has to be shared by all, including the academics and the farmers, and by all people making up this unmeasurable, wonderfull and extraordinary family."

However, this notion of bread springs out of a romantic notion that Marxism could alter the conditions of the poor and especially breadless people. Breadless means more precisely to be without money. Enzensberger points out that Neruda failed to resolve this dilemma as shown in his poems dedicated to Stalin as if he was a bard of East Germany to celebrate the achievements of the leader. This has to be said in order not to be naive about such poetic mistakes.

( see Enzensberger's discussion about Pablo Neruda's Great Song, http://www.planetlyrik.de/pablo-neruda-der-grosse-gesang/2012/09/)


Bridges to cross, bridges not to cross

There is another reason for standing on the bridge. When my father told me when German soldiers marched during Second World War, whenever they crossed a bridge, they had to break their rhythm of disciplined feet, for that would bring the bridge into such a dangerous swing, that it might collapse. So the soldiers had to break rank and file in order to cross over a bridge. Immediately I realized the bridge is the best location where a German mind, locked too often into this tight discipline, might be a bit more open and could be addressed by some questions as to why they marched in full obedience to Hitler into war? Why did they not doubt that command to go to war, and thereby would not follow strictly orders so as to ensure that others survive as well. Juan Gutierrez from San Sebastian does collect such kind of stories about crucial turning points do to someone becoming disobedient.

Breaking rank was a key motivation by Günter Grass in 'Tin Drums'. He placed Oscar underneath the tribune on which all the high ranking officers were standing as the foot soldiers marched past in strict order to demonstrate discipline. The military parade was done to satisfy those higher up. It was a strictly hierarchical matter. Thus once Oskar begins to play on his tin drum underneath the tribune, his rhythm breaks up the music being played by the military brass band. Günter Grass describes the transformation of the scene as if the soldiers stop marching and instead begin a folk dance. Yet it can be doubted if such recourse to tradition and popular culture was really resistance a Günter Grass likes to make believe. Rather the link between 'Volk'- or popular music and Hitler is not at all a contradiction, but that is another story. Günter Grass himself became a controversial figure in the end as he only admitted very late in his life, or nearly fifty years after the end of World War II that he had joined in his youth the SS. Still, he would admonish anyone who would create heroes of resistance which did not exist in real life under Hitler. There were only few who had such courage, the Geschwister Schöll perhaps an outstanding example of civic courage.

But to come back to the bridge as a practical utopia, it is clear that when people open up and are more approachable, then other things which matter can be discussed. It is like lighting a candle for those who are nearly forgotten since they drowned in the wake of history without having left a single trace of themselves.

Thus poems can show what matters. It makes a difference if mankind is challenged in this deeply philosophical and therefore reflective way, so as not to go-ahead unchallenged with plans which do not respect the human connections. Instead of 'Axion Esti' (be praised) by Elytis, it may mean waiting till someone writes an epic poem about 'praise of disobedience'. For life is not merely a matter of what has come into existence, but living consciously despite all the ups and downs, including conflicts and wars, that requires a human consciousness to be attained only through consistency over time.

Human aspirations should never be taken for granted or be denied, but they do need to be handled properly. For someone can aspire to become a hero and thereby misunderstand in reality what human aspiration is really about. To give an example, the wish to become a hero is linked to a dangerous myth since based on the illusion to be remembered in history one has to die for a noble cause. That can also be a fault line of poetry. Take for example the poem 'Fatherland' by Hölderlin and which was used by Hitler to animate the youth to fight for the 'fatherland', that is to sacrifice themselves without asking the reason for such a war. Hölderlin simply says in the poem that he does not wish to die an ordinary death, but if he dies while fighting for the freedom of the fatherland, then he would gladly die for such a cause.

All that romantic heroism is not only nonsense, but an expression of loneliness since the poet has lost the concept of love for ordinary people and thereby has isolated himself from society. Rather poetry should be based on a love for small, insignificant things and transcribe such meanings as expressions of life.

Moreover a simple life can entail just as much complexity and deeper affinities to life as any superficial heroic gesture. For instance, farmers can cross over the bridge to bring their products into the city and thereby uphold life in the city, while the city folk can venture out into the open by crossing the bridge to experience nature. In that way, this two way traffic conjoins activity and passivity just as Marx would say we to address ourselves in a language which contains categories of both creativity and of productivity, if we are to attain 'human self consciousness'.

Adorno and Horkheimer in 'Dialectic of Enlightenment' have shown ever since Odysseys went past those sires by being tied to the mast, while his crew had wax in their ears so that they could not hear either the sirens or the command of their master to untie him, work and pleasure have been separated. Since then those categories of productivity and creativity have been separated. No woner when that language needed to address our human self consciousness is missing. Instead everything is ordered according to the needs of a economy which singularly defines what has value, what not. The valorization is done independently from the very culture and language by which people do communicate to each other values, attitudes and opinions. Hence it matters what thoughts come to one while standing on a bridge and while wishing to talk 'about this bridge'.


Some famous bridges and stories surrounding them

The Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock wrote to me to say that „The Bridge on the Drina 7 is one of the finest novels I've ever read. Maybe we need a Pan-European book club with texts such as The Bridge on the Drina chosen each month, giving each country and each language (if only in translation) a time in the limelight, novels which highlight conflict and the reasons behind it.“ 8


1Miwon Choe, Walls and Bridges: Metaphor as a Tool and Lens for Cross-Cultural Art Education. in. Tom Anderson and all, Art for Social Justice, 2010


2Frank Elgar, Van Gogh – Leben und Werk, München: Droemersche Verlagsanstalt Th. Knaur, 1958, p. 81 - 82

3TCollection of Indian Poetry. Translated from Gujarati by Suguna Ramanathan and Rita Kothari

4 Miwon Choe, Walls and Bridges: Metaphor as a Tool and Lens for Cross-Cultural Art Education. in. Tom Anderson and all, Art for Social Justice, 2010

5Chris MarkowskiAvoiding a Greek Tragedy at Home. Friday, 01 May 2015 05:11 PM


6Madiba is the tribe to which Nelson Mandela belongs to; it is an ancestoral tribe. The poet means really a wish to talk with Nelson Mandela about the dictatorship in his country and how democracy can be brought about.


8op. cit., Gabriel Rosenstock 28.3.2015

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