K____, I do not recall if I sent you one or more of these poems. They followed each other closely in time, and I consider them a unit. Strangely, all three men were alive between 1875-1900: Rilke, Saint-Saëns, Nietzsche. I do not even know why I wrote them, except I wanted to. The poem to Rilke is a reflection on a short poem of his, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” and particularly the last words, which really provoked wonder in me. The poem to Saint-Saëns reflects on a 10-minute section of the 1st movement of his 3rd symphony, a passage which has spoken strongly to me since I discovered it by chance during my undergraduate years. To Nietzsche: You know my fascination with him. It is not just one thought, or one work, that I reflect on, but his life, his spirituality, if you will--his descent. I can never read Nietzsche without being mindful of what happened to him. Unlike his well-known atheistic biographer, Walter Kaufman, I do not think that Nietzsche’s mental breakdown was really caused primarily by physical illness. One can see it coming fairly early in his writing career. He came to live what he expressed. That is how I see him. Also, you may know that I love Nietzsche as a brother human being, and even as a friend. I feel close to him—when I read Nietzsche, he is speaking directly to me. So I do not try to write from a hostile position.
That is more introduction to these poems than I have ventured on perhaps any poems I have written. And I will add: no rhyme used. Free verse, as one finds in my favorite 20th-century poem: Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” (Or in Shakespeare’s plays; or in the rhymeless, rhythmical poems by Whitman). The subjects did not lend themselves to rhyme, in my view. They lend themselves to thought briefly expressed, which poetry engenders and demands.
Early this month, I wrote the 5 “Biblical Poems” and then these 3, which belong together, and perhaps with the biblical poems that were written immediately before them. Who knows—I do not--another one may be waiting to be written.
“You must change your life.”
Yes, my friend, your words leap from the page
of your glorious, sensuous poem--
but I do not understand why that question arises
from gazing at the archaic-luminous torso,
or why you wrote those words as you did--
as if erupting from Apollo’s powerful chest.
Urgently and naggingly, I must wonder:
Can anyone really change one’s life?
If so, to what possible extent? And how?
Can these blind eyes even see themselves?
“I was empowered in a world of strife,
before I had the power to change my life.”
Those words ring true to our tortoise-condition.
And yet, dear friend, your words still burn--
a red-hot sword thrust into my inner soul,
with so much force did you thrust forth
from Apollo’s bust to your unsuspecting reader.
Your words have assumed your god’s authority,
ripping off all pretense, cutting off all escape,
as you painfully penetrate your reader’s heart.
“You must change your life.”
In the light of such translucent beauty
and because of this tremendous lover
I, even I, must change my life--
a life perhaps more formless than Apollo’s remains,
still alive for eyes and mind bewitched by beauty.
And the change of life must begin in the same stillness
and concentrated spirit in which you so lovingly gazed.
To Camille Saint-Saëns
Buried within your “organ symphony,”
beginning half way through the first movement,
you unfold and develop an exquisite melody
far more than a sweet-nostalgic song--
a transformation of the somber Dies Irae,
drawing your attentive listener into bliss.
Not damnation’s threat, nor fear of Judgment Day,
but the most gentle Diotima leading one upward,
past the storms of life and of passion’s unrest
to the edge of eternal happiness reached
only through the narrow gate called death--
from here to there, in sheer self-transcendence.
Death not of everything known and loved, but of striving,
wishing, desiring—a complete letting go
and surrender into the night of eternal love--
music drawing the attentive listener to embrace death.
You entice a soul to make a joyful surrender
allowing a transient being to depart now in peace.
Your music does not force but invites self-surrender
by filling the heart with what it most desires,
liberating from loss, promising sustained bliss.
Beauty draws the lover to forget himself and enter in-
to a world not whirled but stilled and stilling,
entranced in beauty’s eternal passing.
Who are you, Nietzsche, behind your masks?
Do you know? Or have you played your masking games
so long that you no longer know yourself?
Did not Freud declare that you know yourself
more truly than anyone who ever lived? I wonder.
You are indeed incisive, brilliant, most complex.
You have unmasked the darker side of humankind
by analysis and by embodying the darkness
more cunningly than anyone I know,
reducing our drives to the will to power,
the love of truth to the will to deceive,
all that is good to a human contrivance.
And still, you daemonic man, you word-magician,
your inner agony evokes from me
a wish to befriend you in your loneliness,
consoling you in your self-enclosèd-self--
but you would discern mere sentimental love;
and how could you receive another’s gift?
Profoundly you envoice the demons of this age,
articulating our unspeakable darknesses
lurking beneath mere bourgeois consciousness
more bitingly than anyone else had dared--
an all-consuming fire for one who draws near,
you scorch and torch your epigones.
The demons you unleashed unleashed on you
fleet-footed flaming Furies pursuing you to death
after burning every mask from off your face
incinerating your reasoning beyond all reason
leaving you entombed without thought or speech
a warning voice to all who dare: gnothi seauton.