Michael Longley, The Stairwell.
Naming the birds calling from the pages of “the huge sadness of the Iliad” is an essential act of poetry. Longley’s poems, however short, often funnel this wild energy from between his lifelong fidelity to Ancient Greek forms of the imagination and the contemporary occasion. The between flows in several directions here. The welling is between the emptiness of death and the deathless origins of his love. Characteristic of metaxical orientation toward what exceeds finite mind, this poem is overflowing with communication of purpose: “Honking, settling in front of one another,/ Proud of their feather-power”—-the last phrase expressing the paradoxical power of feathers, evocative of the double as in winged words.
From Jane Clarke The River Bloodaxe 2015
Jane Clarke’s reserve is the pit of her power. From the comparison of The Shannon to a draughthorse in harness, the poem quietly, effortlessly, unfolds its mystery. The imagery reaches a climax with ‘drops fall in unison,’ and many a poet would end things there. But the image isn’t everything. And here we are blessed with a kind of revelation of form as disciplined sequence. The poetry of what happens has become a cliche. Here what happens is seen as a process experienced by those willing to follow the ‘master’ or so wonderfully here the heron into the day. We lean into experience, we ‘catch’ as the rhythm takes over, we pull back in yielding to the momentum and glide, we release.
Isn’t that what poets — what poems— do? Isn’t that the ‘inner form’ of the poetry that happens with and for us? Isn’t that fulfillment of the promise of flow in the best sense?
It’s a really good poem that makes new and vital some of mankind’s most intimate intuitions.
To reach Metaxyturn, where the participating consciousness becomes the site of agapeic otherness, the work of art goes through two stages. 1. Through dialectics reaching the abyss of the self on the edge of abyss/the divine passage (think Beckett). Here asymmetric relativity replaces the relativity of dialectic. Dialogue with otherness interrupts. 2. Witness. The overfullness of presence of the divine other’s passage in the between. Think Bonnefoy’s resolute fidelity beyond nihilism. Presence. Hope.
The powerful emotions expressed here may make us assume a lack of structure. Let’s say it has a chord progression, from objective reality through an increasingly complex intersubjective sequence. Passion becomes dialectical but no less erotic for that. And as if in a flash of lightning a kind of posthumous agapeic apocalypse establishes a new ground for the poem. I call this moment Metaxyturn: it establishes a luminous space that comprehends the poetry itself. It’s this chord progression that allows the final form of the poem to emerge.
We say, now THAT is beautiful!
What do we mean?
Well, we mean we are pointing at something that is beautiful. And we expect disagreement!
So, given ‘relativity,’ what is beauty? It’s obviously not some determinate thing.
Perhaps we should ask, what does ‘is’ mean here? As Desmond argues in The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being (Cascade, 2018), 118, there IS a ‘too muchness’ in beauty’s happening.
John Burnside is a canny maker. He knows how to move from a familiar “quote” to a fabric of known unknowns (“we pray a spring will come / to comprehend it, all this juice and joy // informing a world …”.). The finesse of Burnside’s technique is no sophistry but cleaves to a narrative ‘inscribed’ in the consciousness of time-out-of-time (in saecula saeculorum)
Is this ‘lyric’ personal or self-consciously liturgical? Or both? However we handle such questions, the poem is a fine example of how language — a snatch like “juice and joy” which has its own felicitous shapeliness —- reaches beyond itself.
The roots of poetry are in the language. ‘The language’?
Well, that multidimensional object-medium that allows us a sense of ourselves and our world.
Language can be known in terms of being. William Desmond exhaustively defines four aspects: the univocal (the out there, rationally necessary), the equivocal (sense changing with context), the dialectical (the sense yielded by questions and answers), and the metaxological (the sense, fundamental to poetry, of the special open whole that draws on all the other senses and limits them by its sense of transcendence, of ongoing expanding relevance to what it is to be awake, mindful, in and through language).
Poems are true to ‘the language’ in varying degrees; so are poets; so are readers.