by Gerald Stern
I suspect that I was introduced to the concept of the poetic turn in high school, when I probably saw the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet displayed via overhead projector along with some vocabulary words: octet, sestet, volta. I can’t be positive because if a teacher offered me useful and interesting information in high school, I ignored it. Anything from a teacher was outdated and square; to be a real poet, you transcribed e. e. cummings poems onto your forearm.
That immediately changed in college. By dumb luck I landed at UT Chattanooga, which still has a vibrant undergraduate writing program that doesn’t indulge such high school notions. The program also brings in at least a dozen visiting writers every year to interact with the students. One of the visiting poets when I was there was Gerald Stern, and the poem of his I read first and most often was “The Dancing.” I loved how the poem speeds up as the people dancing in the poem speed up, and how the poem accumulates imagery the way the “rotten shops” acquire old radios and ties and other junk. One thinks of Stevens’ “The Man On The Dump,” which also is “full/ Of images,” full of the cast-off detritus of commerce and modern life. Stern’s
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
are evocative of Stevens’
… wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
And, like a character in Stevens’ dump, the characters in Stern’s “The Dancing” make manic music amid all of this. Except they do not beat “an old tin can, lard pail”; they beat their own skin, which becomes “half drum,/ half fart.” And here’s an essential difference between these poems: this is not the man on the dump; these are the people in the dump. They are in the middle of the mania, and their experience is largely a corporeal one.
Yet, even this corporeal experience triggers an intellectual connection. The dance, taking place among Jews in Pittsburgh in 1945 becomes “whirling” and out of control and thereby reminds the speaker of the “other dancing” simultaneously taking place in “Poland and Germany” in 1945.
A central question arises here: does this “other dancing” refer to Nazi ideology, which also wanted to see “the world at last a meadow” before spinning out of control? Or is it a more concrete reference to the writhing, convulsing bodies of those the Nazis murdered? I tend to think the latter, since so much of the poem is about bodily experience.
But this question wouldn’t appear to me for many months because for most of that freshman year, I was confused by the closing lines of the poem:
…5,000 miles away
from the other dancing – in Poland and Germany –
of God of mercy, oh wild God.
The “other dancing” in my reading was that of God. The poem said as much: “the other dancing… of God of mercy.” Why was God dancing? Is the God here a truly sadistic one, finding satanic glee in the worst actions of the people he created? Or was the dancing hysterical – God so torn with grief that he falls into some kind of full-body paroxysm?
I received my answer in March of 1991, a semester and a half after I began reading this poem and thinking about this question, when Stern read at Chattanooga. Actually, he did more than read: he met with numerous students for individual conferences. He ran a master class. He hung out. He seemed both grandfatherly and hip. We dug him.
When he read, two chalkboards were behind him. Some freshmen had written on them in big, arcing letters “GERALD STERN” and, beneath that, in flat print, “Part Man. Part Machine.” That phrase referred to nothing specific; as is often the case with freshmen, we thought we were being cute when we were just being stupid.
But Stern wasn’t at all perturbed. In fact, he seemed to feed off of the undergraduate energy. Anyone who has seen Stern read won’t be surprised by this; his readings alternate between incantation and discussion and rant. And music: this poet who writes so much about singing will, at various points in his reading break into song himself, with a voice that is somewhere between a boom and a croon.
His reading of “The Dancing” was the most anticipated. It began with a lilt, then sped up, and became more impassioned, and that academic line that we’re taught to draw between the poet and the speaker of the poem seemed to dissolve as he got louder and more caught up in the dance and then remembered the other dancing in Poland and Germany. Revelation and sorrow spread across his face as he looked out at the audience and intoned the poem’s final line:
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.
Here is where one letter makes a massive difference – in the meaning of the poem, but also in a young poet’s embryonic sense of what poems do. The book in which I read “The Dancing” was the first edition of Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems, published in 1990. And in that book there is a typo on page 121: “of God of mercy” is supposed to be “oh God of mercy.”
The difference between “of” and “oh” is massive. The last line doesn’t indicate that God is dancing; instead, it is the speaker’s utterance of horror, the cry of somebody who was, for a moment, lost in joy before it morphed into anguish. One thinks of the appearance in a dream of a seemingly happy image, but an image whose unexpected resemblance to some sublimated monstrosity suddenly turns the dream into a nightmare. “Oh God of mercy” is an epiphanic volta; it is the speaker’s sudden realization that one group’s happiness occurs at the same time that others are being slaughtered, and that the visual and cultural similarity between the two only emphasizes the grotesque dissimilarity in circumstances. So much of our concept of the volta is of an intellectual turn on the preceding argument, and while the initial connection between Pittsburgh and Poland and Germany is an intellectual one, the volta here isn’t intellectual. It is deeply visceral.
I owe a great debt to the proofreader for this mistake. This was the first time I truly felt what the volta is, and the impression was made stronger by the fact that I had been reading the wrong word for so many months. To finally hear what the poet means – especially from a reader like Stern – was staggering. This wasn’t an introduction to the volta on an overhead projector. It was more like I had built a house on cardboard stilts and was standing underneath it when the first tide came in. And like a person who realizes a house is about to crash onto him a split second before it does, I thought: Oh, fuck. Which is the sort of epiphany every poet needs.
Bradley Paul is the author of two books of poems: The Obvious, published in 2004 by New Issues Press, and The Animals All Are Gathering, which won AWP’s Donald Hall Prize in Poetry and was published in 2010 by University of Pittsburgh Press. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Smartish Pace, B O D Y, Iowa Review, and other journals. He lives in Los Angeles.