On a bad poem about Nietzsche
Here is a poem by Gerald Stern published in the recent New Yorker entitled” Nietzsche”:
You can say what you want but I love Nietzsche most
when he stood between the terrified horse and the coachman
and intervened though I have pity for his sudden
madness even if he hated pity for he was
human then nor could one word matter anyhow 5
and when he went insane, as I understand it,
he suffered from shame and sadness in different cities
for which the we have the very late letters his vicious
sister never burned, and though I know
it wasn’t Heine or Emile Zola I thought 10
it had to be either Gogol or Dostoyevsky
who threw his arms around the bleeding horse;
and there is so much to say about him I want to
live again so I have time to study him,
for intervening is the only mercy left now, 15
as Grace walked on the White House lawn, as Daniel
broke the nose cones and burned the draft cards as if
those were the poems, not making up tunes to go
with a noisy furnace – it was for Nietzsche. Before
anyone was born I walked through the Armstrong tunnel 20
connecting one language to another, holding
a book in front of me and crowded the wall,
especially when I came to the curve so I could
live the first time, more or less, which when I
think of the working horse it was the bag 25
of oats, the blinders, the snorting, and the complex of
leather straps, but what wouldn’t I give today,
June 11, 2009, to talk to
Stanley or, for that matter, Paul Goodman
or those who came before – could I be the one 30
who carries the smell of dead birds in his blood, and horses?
I don’t like this poem at all and, in fact, think it is questionable and inauthentic on a number of levels. Criticism should embrace not only works that we admire, but those writings that we deem ineffective and incompetent. Success needs to be known by its contrast with failure. Therefore, it seems prudent to me to explore why this poem fails and what its failure might teach us.
The poet, Gerald Stern is a well-known writer who has published many books. If Wikipedia can be trusted, Stern has many admirers, has garnered enthusiastic reviews from credible critics, and has won a number of prizes. Most importantly, many other poets praise his work. I have no idea whether “Nietzsche” is typical of his verse; I don’t recall any other poems by this writer that I have read.
Internet sources tell me that Stern was born in 1925 in Pittsburgh and didn’t publish any poetry until he was fifty. For many years, like just about every other famous writer in the USA, he taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at Iowa City (University of Iowa). He is Jewish. It is possible that the “one language” connected to another by the Armstrong tunnel means, in part, Yiddish spoken in his boyhood household and English spoken in Pittsburgh’s schools. This is pure surmise on my part, however, and can’t be supported by evidence from within the poem itself.
There are many things I don’t like about the poem. I can’t perceive any form to the verse at all. There is no discernible rhythm and the length of the lines varies greatly. The line-breaks seem almost entirely arbitrary. These deficiencies are all obviously intentional. Indeed, the poem dramatizes insistently it’s absence of rhetoric and its refusal to seem “poetic”. A great deal of skill and planning is required to write a first line as aggressively ugly and nondescript as the beginning of this poem – it’s not just conversational, but vapid and banal conversation at that. The poem’s sentences are limp and never seem to end where you expect them to conclude – they run on and on paratactically, that is based on the conjunction “and” to blandly couple everything together. Stern’s self-consciously non-literary and prosaic lines prosecute the poet’s strategy against Nietzsche – that is, ignoring his philosophical thought and the famous lucidity of his writing by addressing the famous Denker in the demotic, expressing “love” for him, and “pity,” in the language that a semi-literate shopgirl or filing clerk might use on a bus-ride home at the end of a hard day at work. The strategy is similar to expressing contempt for Hegel, for instance, or Kant, by reducing their theorems to baby-talk. Stern intends contempt for Nietzsche’s thought, preferring instead to “love” him for what is pitiable about his madness – that is, whipping the unfortunate German philosopher with the scourge of a meretricious compassion (“pity”) for which Nietzsche expressed disdain. The reason that I find Stern’s deployment of a primitive demotic style offensive is that this field has been well-plowed by just about anyone who has ever studied Nietzsche – it’s certainly commonplace to note the irony of a self-proclaimed Uebermensch succumbing to mawkish sympathy for a misused horse. And, in any event, Stern’s baby-talk diction precludes any gesture toward lapidary or epigrammatic expression of meaning. There is nothing quotable or, even, memorable in the verse. It would be exceedingly difficult to commit anything from this poem to memory. If there is something praiseworthy about this poem, it must reside, not in any formal attribute in the verse or its diction, and, rather, in the meanings that Stern has embodied in his text.
But in that aspect of the verse, I locate the poem’s worst offense: it doesn’t seem to make any sense. And it’s too self-consciously and perversely hermetic, too narcissistically self-referential to be decoded.
The general thrust of the poem is that Nietzsche is to be “loved” – at least by the poet – not for his thought and his sane, supremely rational and lucid philosophical prose, but for his madness. This is a generally detestable notion and one that induces sloppy, mush-headed thought. Nietzsche’s madness is not all that interesting – it resembles the madness of any number of people, a tedious, obsessive, repetitive, self-dramatizing complaint about life. The poet recognizes that praising Nietzsche for his madness is really a form of pity. And Nietzsche, as we have noted, was famously opposed to pity and compassion – he felt that these emotions were inauthentic and masturbatory. Pity doesn’t change the world. Compassion is a way of persuading yourself that your good intents with respect to others can be translated, via magical thought, into some species of good works. If you want to help people, act to help them. Don’t waste time with maudlin emotion. Since Stern is a Jewish, he gratuitousl denounces Nietzsche’s virulently anti-semitic sister and caregiver, the detestable Elisabeth Foerster-Nietzsche who returned from Paraguay and the “pure Aryan” settlement of Nueva Germania to serve as the benighted philosopher’s ward and custodian in his final years. Does Stern think it would have been better for the world if Nietzsche’s sister had burned his Wahnbriefe – that is, the letters of the philosopher’s madness? Should she have destroyed those letters? It may be stipulated that Foerster-Nietzsche was “vicious” – although I’m not sure that name-calling his useful in poetry – but, perhaps, it’s arguably that this woman’s archiving of Nietzsche’s Wahnbriefe provides an interesting element to the philosopher’s thought and may, in fact, cast a dubious light on the “Will to Power” that seems argued in the writer’s Nachlasse.
I don’t know why Stern invokes Gogol or Dostoyevsky when describing Nietzsche throwing his arms around the abused Turin horse. And I don’t know why it wasn’t “Heine or Emile Zola” claimed to “who threw his (sic) arms around the horse – two figures that don’t seem to me to be related in any way at all and that have nothing to do with the episode in Piazzo Carlo in Turin in 1890. The one who threw his arms around the Turin horse (as it is called by Bela Tarr in his recent film of that name) was Nietzsche and no other – certainly, not the quartet pretentiously named by Stern. (Zola, I think, is said to have composed Germinal on the basis of anecdotes about horses in French coal mines that were born, lived, and died underground – but this seems remote to the Piazzo Carlo. I don’t even have a hypothesis as to why the other names are mentioned. I presume that Stern knows, but he “ain’t telling.”)
Stern’s point baldly put at line 15, the center of the poem and its pivot point is that “intervening is the only mercy left now” – that is, Nietzsche redeems himself from his allegedly cruel philosophical points (the “the will to Power,” his critique of Christian “nihilism” and compassion) by “intervening” with the horse. But the word “mercy” doesn’t fit here. I have trouble construing Nietzsche embrace of the horse as arising from mercy. Mercy is a faculty of those in power who have an ability to forgive or be kind to those who are subordinate to them. Nietzsche at the Piazzo Carlo wasn’t in power and had no ability to decree “mercy” for the horse or anyone else. Accordingly, the word seems misplaced, intentionally wrong, another aspect of Stern’s use of diction that is self-consciously tone-deaf.
Stern, then, goes on to provide examples of “mercy” or, more precisely, “merciful intervening,” presumably, against cruel power. He mentions someone named “Grace;” again the casual first-name diction of file clerk on the bus home precludes us from understanding what he is meaning. Stern is apparently on a first name basis with Grace and, someone else – but who are they folks so simpatico with our poet that he doesn’t bother to tell us there last name.. Who is meant by “Daniel,” the fellow “breaking “nose cones” – on what? Nose cones on missiles? Daniel also “burns draft cards” which suggests protests against the Vietnam war and, perhaps, the insurgent priest, Daniel Berrigan, although, without recourse to Wikipedia we have no way of knowing.. To my knowledge, Berrigan didn’t “break” any “nose cones.” As it happens, the internet is reliably helpful here – far more helpful than Stern. Daniel Berrigan, Wikipedia reports, burned 640 draft cards with home-made napalm and did, in fact, damage some nuclear war head nose cones when he broke into a military-industrial plant; he was sentenced to 6 years in jail for these acts of civil disobedience (actually, I suppose, criminal vandalism). The surmise that “Daniel” means Daniel Berrigan leads to the conclusion that “Grace” must be Grace Slick, the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane, an awful surmise but one that turns out to be correct. Again Wikipedia comes to the rescue: apparently Grace Slick was invited by Tricia Nixon to a tea party at the White House, an invitation extended to fellow alumni of Finch College. Slick availed herself of the naive invitation from Tricky Dick Nixon’s daughter, showed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the famous hippie anarchiast Abbie Hoffman and rather ungraciously attempted to spike the presidential tea with LSD. The scheme failed and Grace Slick, with Hoffman, were tossed out of the party by the Secret Service. Stern’s reference to Daniel and Grace, using given names, is loathsome – it’s a form of name-dropping. Stern wants us to know that he once partied with Grace Slick and broke bread with Daniel – at least, I assume that this is the reason for dramatizing that he is on first-name basis with these late sixties luminaries.
Stern’s poem now takes a turn toward rank idiocy. The poet implies that Daniel Berrigan and Grace Slick engaged in their acts of civil disobedience “for Nietzsche”. This is nonsense on several levels. First, Stern casually equates Berrigan’s violation of laws that he thought unjust, with real and actual consequences for that protester – he went to jail – with Grace Slick’s “merry prankster” antics at the White House. This is unfair to both “Dan” and “Gracie” – an anarchist doesn’t want to be accused of principled political action; conversely, a solemn Catholic protester shouldn’t be equated with a trivial gesture of puerile scorn committed by a pop singer and her opportunistic buddy. Second, Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s thought, let alone Nietzsche’s madness, have nothing to do with these occasions for protest named by Stern at the heart of his poem. Berrigan was a Catholic priest and acted on the basis of his interpretation of the Bible, particularly the New Testament’s injunction to love your enemies – he certainly wasn’t trying to emulate Nietzsche when he burned the draft cards or vandalized the rockets. Grace Slick was a rock and roll acid-freak. Her stunt involving the “electric tea” can’t be connected to Nietzsche in any meaningful way. Anyone who thinks the debacle at the White House was some kind of hommage to a dead German philosopher has probably been smoking too much dope themselves.
We can make a summary of our poem to this point, paraphrasing in the following terms:
– The poet admires Nietzsche for “intervening” between the coachman and his suffering horse;
– Intervening is “the only mercy now”;
– Intervening is defined as madness since this is what befell Nietzsche;
– Grace Slick and Daniel Berrigan “intervened” against Vietnam for Nietzsche.
Except for the poet’s admiration, expressed in terms essentially derisive to Nietzsce, these propositions all seem questionable to me. Nietzsche identified with Dionysus and other figures in Greek mythology – he was fatally in love with Wagner’s wife, Cosima, whom he called Ariadne in one of his last despairing letters. Nietzsche’s madness, if abstracted from its organic symptoms (it may have resulted from tertiary syphilis), is not readily construed as anything other than a wild and hysterical identification with a beaten animal. We know that Neitzsche was capable of such identification. There is a famous picture of him with Paul Ree yoked to a dog cart on which Lou Andreas-Salome flirtatiously wielding a whip in the direction of their backsides. Nietzsche’s intervention with the horse was probably some kind of demented masochistic gesture and, certainly, not political. I am unsure what the vague phrase about “intervening is the only mercy now” really means and I think the dictim is questionable in any event. Grace Slick and Daniel Berrigan had no thought of Nietzsche at all when they took action against the Vietnam war – and, I assume, they would be surprised that their actions are being equated to some form of mental illness. (Further confusing things is the reference at lines 18-19 to “burning” draft cards as if they were “tunes” to accompany “a noisy furnace” – this may be an obscure biographical allusion decipherable to those who know a lot about Daniel Berrigan – and I don’t -- but the allusion is confounded by the fact that the most famous furnace in literature is also associated with a Daniel, the prophet Daniel in whose book Shadrach, Meshach, and Abnego survive immersion in an exceedingly hot furnace. The notion of dissidents being cast into flame may well connect the two Daniels but the entire image is exceptionally unclear and seems digressive.)
At this juncture, the poem takes another puzzling twist into autobiography. I’m sure very few readers of the New Yorker know what Stern means by his reference to “the Armstrong tunnel” at line 20:
anyone was born, I walked through the Armstrong tunnel
connecting one language to another, holding
a book in front of me, and crowded the wall,
especially when I came to the curve so I could
live the first time, more or less, which when I
think of the working horse, it was the bag
of oats, the blinders, the snorting and the complex of
Again, Wikipedia comes to the rescue and this reference can be looked-up: Stern is referring to a well-known landmark in Pittsburgh where he was raised. The Armstrong tunnel cuts through one of the huge bluffs isolating the valleys in this mountainous river city. Midway through the cut in the bluff, the double-bored tunnel takes a sudden turn – local legend conjectures that the tunnel’s designer was mad and there was a rumor in Pittsburgh that, because of the error in the tunnel’s design necessitating the 45 degree bend, the architect killed himself. (The story is false; the 1260 foot tunnel bends to accomodate surface roads. The double bores run under an elevation where Duquesne University is located). The tunnel is contemporaneous to Stern – it was cut in 1926 and 1927, when our poet was two or three years old. In the verse, we see young Stern walking through the tunnel, which curves and there “coming to life” for the “first time.” In the tunnel, it seems that his “coming to life” may be caused by an encounter with a working horse that is trudging through the darkness. More likely, the curve in the tunnel reveals something unexpected to the young poet, something equivalent to the “swerve” in Lucretius, a radical change by which one state of affairs metamorphoses into something very different: childhood fear becomes exaltation at the birth of the poetic mind; similarly, Nietzsche’s will to power suddenly converts itself into abject masochistic madness. The tunnel’s darkness is radiant with the possibility of change and rebirth: a Catholic priest becomes a war protester vandalizing missiles, LSD spikes tea at the White House. In the sanctuary of the tunnel, the poet encounters the “working horse,” the insignia of the conversion that makes the formidable Nietzsche “lovable.” The darkness of the tunnel and its contortion suggests Nietzsche’s madness, a fearful thing – horses won’t enter the tunnel unless their eyes are blinded. Apparently, the tunnel represents both the birth of the poet’s consciousness and his imminent death as well – the poem is written by an old man who fears that he will soon die and that he has no one “to talk to.” This theme is first advanced at line 13, when Stern announces that he “wants to live again” so that he will have more time “to study” Nietzsche – the poet is 86 and, presumably, doesn’t have much time left. The heros and villains of Stern’s generation are now mostly dead; they can not be “talked to” – hence, the very incommunicative, almost autistic, nature of the allusions in the poem; people that would know about the adventures of Grace Slick and Daniel Berrigan are rapidly dying-out, being extinguished by the passage of time. The poet names the date on which he wrote the poem, June 11, 2009 and ends with another set of highly enigmatic allusions – Stanley and Paul Goodman. Stanley is impossible for me to decipher – there are too many Stanley’s and I don’t know if it is a first or last name. (I assume a first name on the evidence of the allusions to Daniel and Grace). Paul Goodman is an anarchist who wrote the famous book Growing up Absurd and is a spiritual father to the anti-war movement – he is, in fact, someone that Abbie Hoffman, Daniel Berrigan, and Grace Slick might have thought about when committing their acts of Civil Disobedience. But he has nothing to do as far as I can tell with N – or N – ‘s madness. Paul Goodman died in the mid-seventies.
Stern ends with the notion that the arcane references in the poem are probably intelligible only to the “one”, the “last leaf” – that is the isolated and elderly poet “who carries the smell of dead birds in his blood, and horses?” Poetry is an agitation in the blood that carries the “smell of dead birds” – possibly a reference to the poets that “came before” mentioned at line 30. But what is that smell? And if it’s dissolved in the blood, how is the odor to be detected? The smell of the “horse” represents the animal that Nietzsche attempted to save, that is, the occasion of poetry in a work of “mercy.” The poet bears witness to works of mercy (the deeds of Nietzsche, Grace Slick, and Daniel Berrigan) that will soon be forgotten; he is a vessel for a liberating, humane memory. In other words, Stern is like the messengers in Job – only he has escaped alive to tell of the radicals of the sixties who are now rapidly being forgotten. But, as I have shown, relating to Nietzsche and the attempted succor of the Turin horse to sixties radicals is unclear, poorly motivated, and intellectually disingenuous. From the subject of Nietzsche, the poem has gone “underground” and taken a strange curve. The verse’s place of revelation, it’s guiding metaphor is the Armstrong tunnel. In this context, “underground” refers to the Weather Underground of which people like Grace Slick and Abbie Hoffman and Daniel Berrigan were, at least, fellow travelers and sympathizers. (But keep in mind I used the descriptive word “underground” for the tunnel, not Stern. Hence, it must be conceded that I am clarifying by surmise what is intentionally left unclear by Stern’s verse.) I suppose you might argue that Nietzche’ss madness was a turning for the poet away from will to power to pity, just as the turning in the tunnel opened Stern’s eyes to life for the first time – an eye-opening that he equates to the arousal of the youth protest against the Vietnam debacle.
How many readers of The New Yorker are going to do the work that I have just done – and which isn’t possible without writing out your thoughts? The answer is none at all. And, even with my intense labor, there are big parts of the poem that can’t be deciphered at all. The poem exhibits a narcissistic tendency toward obscurity and self-indulgence – Stern doesn’t bother to make anything sufficiently clear and his verse is not sufficiently evocative or beautiful to make the poem interesting as a verbal artifact. And, even, more frustrating, the meanings embodied in Stern’s poem, to the extent that they can be teased out of his frustratingly banal and limp prosody, are not worth the effort necessary to excavate them.
What do you think?