Denying All-Encompassing Meaninglessness

Every day I try to maintain or reconfigure my poetic compass. Although I don’t necessarily write a poem once a day. I like the idea of writing poetry each and every day, like William Stafford did, but I think choosing not to write a poem at a given moment can do as much nurturing as writing one would. I went to a reading where Curtis Bauer mentioned this as an important question that the poet needs to ask, should I write this thought or experience as a poem? I find that if I internalize a subject, a poetic idea in particular, then all different perspectives of it brew in my mind, sometimes subconsciously, and so I’ll get to the point where the poem blooms out of me seemingly spontaneously. Yet how can this be true? Shouldn’t the poet be content with attempting to create something out of nothing at the moment the idea sprouts? That’s true, but there needs to be a reason for searching for reason.

For me, not writing a poem helps me think poetically. Much of my poetry has to do with observation, hence relating external reality to internal semi-reality. I used to think that there was no such thing as objective, external truth. Surprisingly enough poetry has changed that for me. I hear people say that poetry is the most subjective form of expression when it comes to literature, and I couldn’t disagree more. Good poetry should strive to be universal. And no, I don’t claim to believe now that poetry is in the business of telling the truth, not only because that’s cliché, but because it’s insincere when poets exclaim that, and also not humble. Apparently the mindset for many in contemporary poetry is that you’re in one of two camps: the self righteous truth-seekers, or the insincere, excessive irony users. I’m not explicitly in the business of irony because that’s all been said and done before. America’s popular culture and capitalist society are irony-laden enough already, there’s no reason to unnecessarily inject more into the mix.

What’s the point of irony if you’re only unveiling something that’s thinly veiled? I’ll be honest; my poems are often dotted with observations of the ironic. Take On a Corner of “the French Quarter” for example. It’s a poem that at first sight is simply observational, a street scene, one that is stated to be insignificant in the first line. But there’s more to it underneath. “A cameraman from Channel 6 Action News/films insignificance on/the corner of 18th and Walnut./A police car is parked in front/of TD Bank across the street./The trash can named/’Big Belly Solar Compactor’/overflows with debris and graffiti/has been sprayed on the side.”

These first three images belie irony because they allude to larger societal problems that can be seen in the dichotomy between the rich people strutting around and those who come up to me asking for a cigarette or spare change at the end of the poem. The cameraman is filming a supposedly innocuous street scene that in reality portrays the outward signs of income disparity in a section of the city that caters to the upper class. The police aren’t protecting people but banks. The supposedly high tech, “green” trash compactor doesn’t do its intended job and has been reclaimed by the streets with a graffiti tag. These are just two images that are at first only observational but then become ironic given societal implications.

And yet the irony in this poem is not overblown and not meant to be obfuscating. It’s even originally unintentional, as I set out to simply describe what was happening before me. Yet as I revised the poem I arrived at a point where I was able to extract meaning out of the seemingly mundane, the otherwise insignificant. I realized that the poem reflected a nurturing step on my poetic path. My goal is to reconcile truth and irony, and in order to do that I must nurture my writing at times by not writing, but thinking poetically. I try to analyze the world around me because there is meaning in the mundane. And doing so helps me fight against nihilism, which is the reason why I write poetry in the first place.

Kierkegaard wrote about overcoming what he called levelling, which is similar to nihilism. Sketch by Christian Olavius Zeuthen.
Kierkegaard wrote about overcoming what he called levelling, which is similar to nihilism. Sketch by Christian Olavius Zeuthen.

Protect by the Sword, Win by the Intellect

Friedrich Nietzsche held more relevance in the thoughts of German intellectuals than any other philosopher on the eve of the First World War, partly because he had laid a dialectical basis for justifying conquest and power, but also because he asserted that life inherently had no meaning, which drove the German desire to reason that war was purposeful for a nation. To be clear, when Nietzsche wrote about war his connotation of the word was fitted under the context of individualism, in that instead of adhering to any idealism, a man should struggle through reality in order to reach his highest form, or, “Ubermacht.” Conversely, the German politician and historian Heinrich von Treitschke propounded national solidarity in a way that was inconsistent with, but still influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas. Treitschke advocated patriotism as a means to achieve a higher form of power. Treitschke’s piece, “The Greatness of War” asserted that the pursuit of peace was in itself reactionary, given the supposed natural inclination for war that superior races inherently felt. Treitschke even borrowed phrases from Nietzsche, such as “the Will,” which he used in a more simple manner by arguing that “Those that preach the nonsense about everlasting peace do not understand the life of the Aryan race, the Aryans are before all brave. They have always been men enough to protect by the sword what they had won by the intellect.” Nietzsche on the other hand, was not writing about war in a literal sense, but in a figurative way when he wrote in The Will to Power about the struggle to achieve a higher form of being, whom many Germans thereafter concluded must be none other than members of the Teutonic race. However, Nietzsche did not focus on Germans as a race as much as his fellow countrymen believed, instead, he was ambiguous and even at times ambivalent about German intellectual supremacy, rather choosing to speak in broad terms on the constant vying for power by the races of Europe.

Yet it was not far-fetched for contemporary German intellectuals to apply Nietzsche’s work to the idea of the German man’s ascendancy over other Europeans, as seen through an excerpt from The Will to Power, in which the philosopher seemed to call for: “The annihilation of the decaying races… -The annihilation of slavish evaluations. -Dominion over the earth as a means of producing a higher type…” It could be said that Treitschke offered the same argument just in different words- that Germany had an intellectual right to conquer other nations as a way of extending a higher being’s (the Aryan’s) influence over the world in order to better humanity. The Prussian general and military historian Friedrich von Bernhardi agreed with Treitschke, and even took the idea to a whole new level when he exclaimed in his famous pre-World War One book Germany and the Next War that “war is a biological necessity” -a concept undoubtedly conceived from late 19th century Social Darwinist notions of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. And yet, militarism and nihilism were not interchangeable ideas, but rather, the advent of nihilism as focused on by Nietzsche gave birth to an uncanny modern form of militarism that was meant to intellectually justify war -in that Christian notions of humility and compassion taught by Jesus were crushed altogether. Although some would argue this as irrelevant because war had been justified as a necessity throughout the era of widespread Christian intellectual dominance and even post-Enlightenment (which Nietzsche despised as much as Christianity). Thus, a militaristic mindset had been prominent in German and European culture for millennia, but Nietzsche was the first to apply it in the modern sense through existential thought, and in turn influenced the likes of Treitschke and Bernhardi to evaluate war in a new conceptual manner, albeit from a nationalistic standpoint.

Treitschke, as a member of the National Liberal party in the Reichstag, was particularly concerned with the individual putting his country before all else, and in this way he justified war, while The Will to Power focused on the individual exerting his strength over others so much as there would be a select few who exhibited power over the herds of commoners that were more than a nuisance in that they threatened the well-being of mankind. Treitschke and Bernhardi applied this struggle specifically to Germany’s diplomatic crises before the war, as France had complained to her allies about the longstanding German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine (which was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war). The situation worsened during the Moroccan Crisis, which was a result of Kaiser Wilhelm II advocating independence for the North African country in order to aggravate France and test the resolve of her allies. Hence, in the years preceding the First World War Germans felt that the multitude of weak European states were ganging up on the fatherland- just as Nietszche argued that the weak masses had culturally supplanted (through democracy and socialism) those who deserved power for themselves alone.

Nietzsche’s concepts have been widely misunderstood and oversimplified.