3 – Tempo

Nietzsche’s statements concerning tempo do initially appear to be designed primarily for prose. The problem is how to find a speaking-rhythm on the page, to lose none of the naturality or immediacy of a voice casting an acoustic image. His models are drawn from classical prose oratory, from private reading, which also drew from public speaking; decrying that among us moderns (in his case, the Germans) the ancient practice of reading aloud has been lost, and so therefore has the tempo of writing:

The German does not read aloud, not for the ear but only with the eye: meanwhile his ears are put away in a drawer. In antiquity men read — when they did read, which happened rarely enough — to themselves, aloud, with a resounding voice; one was surprised when anyone read quietly, and secretly asked oneself for the reasons. With a resounding voice: that means, with all the crescendoes, inflections, and reversals of tone and change in tempo in which the ancient public world took delight. 26

To read or to write is to speak and listen aloud, to the rise and fall, to the tonal steps and half-steps, to the roll of movement, to natural breath rests as punctuation, and therefore to retain the physical shape and contour of phrases composed by breath-lengths and rests. The pauses provide time for the meaning of what is spoken to collect, to breathe. Detachment from this public and embodied style severs the link between writing and speaking, and so between writing and tempo:

A period in the classical sense is above all a physiological unit, insofar as it is held together by a simple breath. Such periods as are found in Demosthenes and Cicero, swelling twice and coming down twice, all within a single breath …. ? who, from their own training, knew how to esteem their virtue and how rare and difficult was the delivery of such a period, we who are modern and in every sense short of breath. 27

But what are we, then, to understand about the tempo of the poem? Is it always an outcome of prose rhetoric? The dithyramb’s rhythmic content is necessarily more fleet, or lilting, as it is drawn also from dance and not merely implied by the tonal duplications accompanying rhyme or off-rhyme (assonance and dissonance). It derives rather from the strophic dance-step and the breath-stop at the end of a melodic phrase. The line-breath which punctuates the end of a prose phrase must also be a guide to the line-break of the poem. But the musical dance rhythm is necessarily stronger and follows the reach of a sung melodic tone (again) punctuated by a dance-step.
This explains in part why Nietzsche, when considering education, thinks of its speaking as a kind of dancing, and why he maintains writing is like a “dance with one’s feet, with concepts, with words” 28 The influence of poetry’s “refined ears and refined hands” rises from the dithyrambic punctuation of the dancer’s foot. What’s more, the metric step can infiltrate, discover a tempo, and punctuate conceptual thought.
It should be noted, however, that the first public recitations, or ex tempore improvisations, or readings, as the first written documents, were poems concieved and first spoken or sung aloud. The ancient practice of reading aloud and singing, from the feet, as it were, reveals the growth of prose from poetry. Indeed, the paradigm is not really speaking but singing; since all musical and metronomic swells and pulses derive originally from the lyric. The dominant begins to modulate, to lease out a longer phrasing as melody gives way to the cadence and intonation of oration (or, later, if one must sit, reading to oneself) and the physiological influence of rhythm without a full melody becomes embodied in a more flowing, a more extended roll of phrasing which echoes speech, discovering a tempo, every so often, defying gravity with a dancer’s leap, or ballet.
For Nietzsche, prose competes with poetry and plays “pranks” on its deliberate innocence, while still influenced by poetry’s “refined ears”. Prose tempo lifts from speech-rhythm which in turn derives from the original tempo of poetry.
The tempo of poetry, then, is the lyrical equivalent of the dance-step as a linguistic phrase. The tempo of prose emphasizes the longer oratoric breath which works with the melodic content still inherent in speech. The tempo of poetry emphasizes a breath which exposes the melodic richness of real song, sprung, as it were, from song. All three, however, require an “ear”, the ability to hear slight differentiations in pitch and to choose successfully between modulating tones or melodies in rhythmic composition very much like counterpoint; its invention and recognition, requiring both talent and taste.
Let us now quote the above passage from Twilight of the Idols in full:

… one cannot subtract dancing in every form from a noble education — to be able to dance with one’s feet, with concepts, with words: need I still add that one must learn to write? But at this point I should become completely enigmatic for my German readers. 29

Along with the art of reading-aloud and the art of writing with tempo, dance too died among Germans. However, in this comment, one may discern Nietzsche’s understanding of the connection between poetry and prose. The dance-dominant rhythm of poetry intones prose, and the tempo’d lightness of prose atrophies along with the root-phenomenon of poetry when both become disconnected from a fundamental rite of dance.
This physical presence of dance as rhythm incarnates the poetic phrase. It suggests and demarcates the style of the writer with a near-flight sense of ease, grace, and lightness, which contrasts with the harder, more realistic run of oratory or prose. Conversational rhythm also responds to some melodic content, and both respond to metrical dance. Both also retain the aural or acoustic origins (oratory, song) from which they each rise. It is the peculiarity of the musical rhythmic content of any language which makes it impossible to translate fully:

What is most difficult to render from one language into another is the tempo of its style, which has it basis in the character of the race, or to speak more physiologically, the average tempo of its metabolism. There are honestly meant translations that, as involuntary vulgarizations, are almost falsifications of the original, merely because its bold and merry tempo (which leaps over and obviates all dangers in things and words) could not be translated. 30

It is almost a truism that this problem is peculiarly aggravated in poetry, given the pace, the swiftness and sense of delivery of the original is always lost in translation. Tempo inspired by a good (re: musical) ear, a dance-inspired rhythmic content nearly defines lyric poetry — which draws from the spring which makes musical tempo. It would seem then that this is truer of poetry than prose. But mere rhythm without nuance is an atavism, a simple “thump-thump”, as Nietzsche points out in The Gay Science. It is a holdover from the times when we hoped we could influence and even direct the behavior of the gods favorably with a heavy rhythm and rhyme. On the one hand, poetry is closer to the rhythmic source of tempo. The first poems were religious song-lyrics or near-songs determined by ritual dance-step. Yet a preponderance of rhythm can also offend our taste. Tempo is not better because it is more pronounced or louder, just as melody is not better if it has more notes. While poetry leads us to the source of tempo in language, it may be that its rhythms are not subtle enough, not as subtle as prose rhythms and so not eventually as musical. Prose which avoids percussive exaggeration, then, can just as much influence great poetry and so reveal the inverse, the exception, and no doubt this had occured in literary history. Ezra Pound writes:

… one morning Monsieur Stendhal, not thinking of Homer, or Villon, or Catallus, but having a very keen sense of actuality, noticed that ‘poetry’, la poesie, as the term was then understood, the stuff written by his French contemporaries, or sonorously rolled at him from the French stage, was a damn nuisance. And he remarked that poetry, with its bagwigs and its bobwigs, and its padded calves and its perwigs, its ‘fustian à la Louis IV’, was greatly inferior to prose for conveying a clear idea of the diverse states of our consciousness (‘les mouvements du coeur’)
And at that moment the serious art of writing ‘went over to prose’, and for some time the important developments of language as means of expression were the developments of prose. And a man cannot clearly understand or justly judge the value of verse, modern verse, any verse, unless he has grasped this. 31

Nietzsche’s ideas clearly correspond to the revolution in poetic form which we saw in the twentieth century. End rhyme and rhythmic conventions and even the subject matter dominated by identifiable sentiment have given way to a more complex approach to phrasing and a more subtle, rhythmic texture reminiscent yet essentially independant of contemporary prose. A glance at any of several twentieth (and perhaps twenty-first) century poets will prove that Nietzsche’s polemics and protests against the clichés of poetry anticipated, if not directly inspired, what is best in our poetry.
But the quote we briefly paraphrased above should be given here in full, for it provides both an analysis of the complexity, and a critque of heavy poetic rhythm:

When one lets rhythm permeate speech — the rhythmic force that reorders all the atoms of a sentence, bids one choose one’s words with care, and give one’s thoughts a new color, making them darker, stranger, and more remote — the utility in question was superstitious. Rhythm was meant to impress the gods more deeply with a human petition, for it was noticed that men remember verse much better than ordinary speech. It was also believed that a rhythmic tick tock was audible over greater distances; a rhythmical prayer was supposed to get closer to the ears of the gods. Above all, men desired the utility of the elemental and overpowering effect that we experience in ourselves as we listen to music: rhythm is a compulsion; it engenders an unconquerable urge to yield and join in; not only our feet follow the beat but the soul of the gods as well! Thus one tried to compel the gods by using rhythm and to force their hand: poetry was thrown at them like a magical snare.
Verse also had a function in oracles — the Greeks claimed that the hexameter was invented at Delphi — because here, too, rhythm was supposed to effect a compulsion. Asking for a prophecy meant originally (according to the etymology of the word that seems most probable to me) to get something determined: one thought that one could compel the future by gainsaying the favor of Apollo, who originally taken to be much more than a prescient god. As the formula is pronounced, with literal and rhythmical precision, it binds the future. But the formula is the invention of Apollo who, being the god of rhythm, can bind even the goddesses of fate.
In sum: What could have been more useful for the ancient, superstitious type of man than rhythm? it enabled one to do anything — to advance some work magically; to force a god to appear, to be near, and to listen; to mold the future in accordance with one’s will; to cleanse one’s own soul but also that of the most evil demon: without verse one was nothing; by means of verse one almost became a god. Such a fundamental feeling can never be erased entirely; for thousands of years, the wisest among us are still occasionally fooled by rhythms — if only insofar as we sometimes consider an idea truer simply because it has a metrical form and presents itself with a divine skip and jump. 32

The impulse to determine events through the “magic” of meter, through an obvious tempo, an overblown beat, is not essential as ritual to the linguistic spring of tempo. The modulations in tone-color and timbre, the composition of the rhythmic phrase should be freely related to breath stops and a dance-inspired tempo, rather than to a fixed march or thud or metronome which (atavistically) attempts to control, wreste hypnosis from a listener through metrical formula i.e. a meter infiltrated by a predetermined pathos.
If we refer ourselves to the above quote, which suggests a war or agon between poetry and prose, we can consider the mutuality of influence between prose and poetry. Nietzsche was the first to pursue this theme, then, and Ezra Pound, after the turn of the century, as we have read above, echoes the same disgust with mishandled rhythm. Poetic (metrical) clichés should be trimmed until the specific detail, an acoustic as well as visual image is exposed; which can delight the ear and eye without having also to embarrass us with specious emotional alarums or lugubrious thumps which slavishly (transcedentally) conform to the metrical “tick-tock”.
Thus, there should be no special vocabulary of preset rhythms, just as there should be no preset rehearsal of meanings especially designated as “poetry”. The violation of this “hard” approach to poetry involves one in the atavism of “lassooing the gods” and in the poetic lie as rhythmic entertainment. Rimbaud’s concept of the voyant or Williams’ “variable foot” or even Brecht’s, Benn’s, or Celan’s work in German with Pound’s work in English show the same “hard” intolerance toward traditional metrics and yet an embodied advocation of a concrete talent for tempo, a rhythmic integrity, which lifts poetry beyond versification, by which to redeem the earth.