“To communicate a state, an inward tension of pathos, by means of signs, including the tempo of these signs—that is the meaning of every style; and considering that the multiplicity of inward states is exceptionally large in my case, I have many stylistic possibilities—the most multifarious art of style that has ever been at the disposal of one man.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I Write Such Good Books,” 4.
Not only for the incandescent jolt of his thought, a way of shaking up a lot of dust and sending the shadows for cover, but for the style of his writing, a way of making words dance and jeer and sing and flout every sort of constraint. For Nietzsche, everything he meant seriously came under the heading of the Dionysian. This isn’t a hedonism because one of its staples is, as he just said, “an inward tension of pathos,” where pathos is nothing less than suffering from the conditions of existence, from the given that we all must deal with. Did Nietzsche have a remedy for such suffering? No, except to exhort anyone who would keep company with him to stop whining about it! To become “multifarious” in order to avoid being restricted to one order of “being.”
It should be said that what Nietzsche chose to see as “decadent”—as not serving life or the spirit or anything of much use—is a long list of things that most intellectuals pay lip service to, at one level or another. As he says in Ecce Homo, his amazing self-evaluation, his “seeing morality itself as a symptom of decadence is an innovation and a singularity of the first rank in the history of knowledge.” Or: “becoming, along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being—all this is clearly more closely related to me than anything else thought to date.” Or: “I consider dialectic as a symptom of decadence; for example in the most famous case, the case of Socrates.” And, having named his nemesis from the ancient world, there’s only left his nemesis from the Christian world: the God of St. Paul: “God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers—at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us: thou shall not think!”
All this is typical Nietzschean rhetoric, and the fact that he uses terms such as “decadent” and “indelicate” shows that, to a large extent, what he is talking about is a matter of taste. There is always an aesthetic of the spirit at work in Nietzsche, and that’s what attracted me to him early on. Repudiating the Christian viewpoint of my first teachers had its part in the initial glee, but that was soon superseded by the fact that, if an artist should need a philosophy in order to make art (blessed is she who doesn’t), Nietzsche was one of the foremost for that, if only because the “becoming” he speaks of is what one engages in the making of art for—maybe also (I would have it) the reason one interacts with art at all. In other words, if art isn’t adding something to one’s becoming, it’s wasting your time, and if the art you’re making isn’t moving beyond what you already did, then … why bother?
The parts about morality and dialectic and God all to some extent speak a 19th-century language one would like to think we could do away with. The sad fact that that’s not so is what makes me still think about Nietzsche from time to time. In America, “God talk” is at its worst in my lifetime, and the bolstering of self-aggrandizing arguments by means of “moral” claims—while I’ve never known that not to be standard procedure—seems even more nakedly the struggle of one will to power against another that Nietzsche always insisted it was. He was fond of the imagery of emasculation, the sense that Christianity and pious moralism were, inevitably, a way of cutting off a man’s balls (though he never said it that way), and there’s always some degree of truth to that. He saw Christian morality as “old woman’s morality” for that reason, pointing at the demographic which truly had no use for virile masculine members. But the same kind of irony I’m treating his terms with is very much of the essence of his irony as well. He was no worshipper of the phallus as the staff of power, after all. But he often used its claim to a kind of visceral essentialism as basic to how the systems of power that men have developed for themselves and for women have been understood.
Art was about power of a different kind. And the place where I was always a bit skeptical about Nietzsche’s claims came in there. Much of what he would call “decadent” might in fact play its part in a work of art, might in fact contribute—for the beholder—that pathos that, if not Dionysian, was at least akin to its release from convention. Which might just be a way of saying that Nietzsche never had to confront modernism, or cinema, or rock music.
But when I read today those lines about style, I heard Nietzsche opening a door for Metro Lace to walk through. I won’t say that I am “multifarious” or that “the multiplicity of inward states is exceptionally large in my case,” but that, if that poem does anything, it makes manifest many inward states in a tension of tempo and signs. Which is to say that pathos is the rhythm, the feeling, while the signs—the words themselves—are the melody and the lyrics, or more properly, the voice. What interests me in that formulation is that such a poem is not about a topic nor a reaction to what has been said or done elsewhere. It’s an extension of an inner state. Which is why it’s not something I can do “at will,” but only when seized by that particular pathos that speaks, that needs a voice.
Sometimes I wonder if such articulation is in itself a betrayal. I mean a) my talking about the poem in that way betrays its intentions, but more to the point, b) the poem itself is a betrayal of something best left unsaid. I believe at some level I’ve always taken that to be the case. The poem comes from an effort to take “someone” into “someone else’s” confidence. I might like to think that it “speaks for” someone other than me, but, if it does, it only does so to the extent that the speaker isn’t me. I often don’t know who it is, only that it’s a voice that wants to interact with that inward tension, to supply signs that might suffice.
The over-riding contribution that comes from me, from my own intelligence and preferences, is a skepticism about the entire procedure. And so there is a further tension I would call the tension of ethos, which is to say, a struggle about the “value”—as truth, as judgment, as precision and accuracy—of the “testimony” of the signs. Do they say what should be said? Can they provide images that do what they should do? And a further tension is that of eros. All lyric poetry, for me, is love poetry. Traditionally, one speaks of “a muse,” saying that this figure for one’s desires and unfulfilled longings dictates what one must say to woo her, to make her lend ear, to bring her to the table or bed or wherever one hopes to meet her halfway. In Metro Lace there are a lot of figures for such encounters, and the terms by which eros enters into the discourse concern beauty and pleasure. Who wouldn’t want to show his lover a good time?
These tensions—pathos, ethos, eros—have a further fellow traveler in the search for signs that will suffice. It’s the dimension that Nietzsche liked to call “the timely.” Bear in mind that Nietzsche was one who saw “the ‘historical sense’” as a “typical symptom of decay,” “a disease.” And yet. There is a strange process by which one’s context, one’s temporal and spatial surroundings, become grist for the mill. They not only furnish signs—the way people speak in one’s own time and place and the things they speak of—but they furnish an attitude that one is always at pains to engage with, if only to ignore it. One’s audience, in other words, is an attitude toward speech—whether in poems or other texts—and this “timely” sense is never out of earshot, so to speak. If I had to be candid about it, I would probably say that a deliberate stretching of such context—by means of diction and the detritus of speech and reading—is what drives the mechanism that makes the poem.
Or rather: a state of pathos—suffering from time itself—sets up a rhythm and what “completes” or “answers” that rhythm is a string of signs that, with whatever blend of ethos (truth value) and eros (desire for beauty), try to trip the light fantastic out on the edge of intelligibility, to prove (“the finding of a satisfaction,” as Stevens says) that language, no matter how debased or disused or derivative, can find resources to make its presence felt … for the moment.
And it’s that momentary aspect of the whole thing that makes me look askance at its ultimate worth. If I “feel better” for having said “that” on “that occasion,” what merit does reading that statement have at some other moment, or in some other mind—even if only my own mind at another time?
On three to four occasions, Metro Lace has endured my doubts: the original writing of it in 2010, the typing of it into a document, the revisiting/revising of it in 2011, and the revising and posting of it in 2013. In changing any of its signs, the decision usually goes in the direction of “timeliness”—finding a way of putting into words something that concerns me at that time. The more obscure aspects of the poem were shaped by a conversion factor—inner state to articulation—that eludes my conscious choice. Which is to say that the “rightness” of a sequence or phrase has to be left to some factor of pleasure that is peculiar to me and my ear and my tongue when I read the words.
All-in-all, I suppose, poetry for me is simply a manner of speaking, with such “tensions” and “constraints” as one faces whenever one writes, but made more acute by the lack of a definite topic, theme, or purpose. That makes a poem like Metro Lace utterly spurious and utterly serious, for it has no measure for success or failure other than some nebulous sense of pleasure and necessity—the need “to communicate a state,” to find “a style” acceptable to the pressures of the occasion.