Asymmetry Essential to Form


Is there any value outside the poem which as ‘value’ resists nihilistic deconstruction? I adopt the concept of asymmetry to suggest a difference between my metaxological criticism and formalism.

Guillevic’s lyric, translated by Denise Levertov (Selected Poems, New Directions) suggests something about form in lyric large and small. The address of the other establishes a shared between, and betweens literally depend on shaping forces beyond our control. Time/Eternity; life/death; darkness/light. The movement of lyric from knowns and givens to unknowns and gift inscribes a narrative reaching beyond the between of the poem. Reaching as in not overtaking. The final embrace of a radical other exceeding our embrace is a ‘formal fact’ about the lyric. We know this from our efforts to pin down THE meaning. And since this ‘formal fact’ is an affective aspect of our readerly care for the poem, we might adopt a phrase from William Desmond, the ‘agapeic’ origin of the poem.

Bonnefoy’s Stone/Sign

Bonnefoy is one one of the great 20th century poets (Celan is another) whose witness is beyond nihilism. The very short poems he titled pierres are like signs on the horizon. The example below requires the reader to engage as addressed. It’s a process poem. The grammar is equivocal. ‘Fall but softly rain’: are fall and rain two verbs addressed to the Unknowable? Students of metaxical thought will recognize this strategy, the equivocity and the immanence of ‘this face.’ The second line contextualizes the first as in a Between. The third verb extends the narrative but slows it down. Is the stone a clay lamp this time? The passage of time — doubling the standing of stone — acts on the humble clay lamp: all things pass in a kind of dance. The ultimate unknown is the addressee, which is at minimum the creative consciousness of the reader.

The text is from Yves Bonnefoy I:Poems (Carcanet 2017)



Necessity, with a text by Geoffrey Hill

In the between, our bond with being is necessary, which is not to say that being is necessary, since it once was not. (God and the Between, p 284)

The metaxy or space of lived being is inseparable from its origin in nothingness. Everything finite shares this origin. Mindfulness of origin may produce short tempers and thin skin. Geoffrey Hill often illustrates the point by not suffering fools gladly. In the following text from The Triumph of Love (1998) he actually does suffer the fool!


Form of Forms, with a Poem by May Sarton

As I’ve demonstrated countless times here it is useful to say, form emerges from the process of the poem’s unfolding. The form depends on the poem.

That’s one way to put it. It’s also useful to see the ‘narrative’ of the lyric in terms of its unfolding from scenes linked by a logic of outer to inner, and from lowly particulars to universal. This is a logic of ‘selving,’ using the masks of lyric. What emerges as the form or ultimate significance is the self open to meaning beyond its finitude.

A poem by May Sarton shows the lyric narrative. AA3195D2-6095-40B5-A7B5-091A7BFAEB63

From American Poetry, vol II, Library of America, p. 895.

This narrative which accounts for the universality of the lyric in a modernity born in protest against ‘universals’ appears to be not confined to lyric, which makes sense because lyric is a specialization of language’s capacity for making sense between individuals belonging to a cultural group. What we call the lyric narrative shows up in fourth/century CE China, Ancient Greece, etc. It comes as no surprise that that consummate ‘hunter of forms’ St. Augustine gave it memorable expression in his Exposition on Psalm 145: ab exterioribus ad interiora, ab inferioribus ad superiora.

Notice the complication suggested by the parallel between interiora and inferioribus. But that ‘value judgement’ need not detain us. We have the Sarton poem to flesh out the Latin abstractions. As for ad superiora I’d say Sarton’s meditation on her own death lifts the poem far above conventional sentiment into the universe of finitude.

Milton’s Sonnet 22 on His Blindness: What is Metaxyturn?

In his Milton (The Poetry of John Milton, HUP 2015), Gordon Teskey remarks on the final line of Milton’s sonnet ‘To Mr Cyriack Skinner’ that an ambiguity may be a happy accident. To take ‘blind’ in a ‘spiritual’ sense would resolve a serious flaw in the logic. Did Milton place his confidence in his ‘fate’ already achieved—- in the past? Did he MEAN that he would be guided by that henceforth? Or possibly that Heaven’s hand, which took his sight away, would supply him with another, perhaps greater task, irrespective or otherwise of his blindness.

Teskey speculates that this doubled meaning, with the second pregnant in the words of the first, would have surprised Milton himself. Pp 253f.

Metaxyturn refers to this action, intended it not, caused by the forces put in motion by the poet. It is ‘agapeic’ on the analogy of a willed effect within the scope of the selving process of the erotic sovereignty of the writer in contrast to an unwilled effect of verbal consequences of the deepest structural movements within the poem and the traditions of the language, considered as communication in the ontological sense.


The New Asceticism and a Poem by Levertov

Certain ‘minimalist’ poets have much to offer an age in which words are suspect. Levertov’s translations of Guillevic for example. Levertov herself wrestled with the problem of rhetoric. If in youth she absorbed some values from Williams, fair enough; her searching passionate nature plunged her into spiritual depths; sometimes the poems are ‘pure.’ The ambiguity of the term ‘pure poetry’ may have found a new context!

‘The Cat as Cat’ uses the basic narrative of lyric contemplation —- outside, inside, down/up (to riff on Augustine)—- to meditate the between world of her cat and herself (flesh/spirit). Themes—-metaphors, mirrors, I-Thou)—-appear briefly, suggestively. The poem concludes with a minimalist anthem lullaby.


The ‘Mystery’ of the Lyric with a Poem by Oswald

The ‘mystery’ of the lyric is twofold. There is the technical side: the ways the art engages with language as reference, as sound, as grammar (narrative). The look on the page or in the resounding air. The second aspect is more psychological. The lyric involves the poet’s use of a mask. What sounds ‘sincere’ is a metaphysical act to access certain energies by bypassing the self. Or say, the job of the technical side is to strip the ego of self-consciousness, leaving it open to a more original identity. This is an act of self-transcending, opening the poet to her nothingness in the fertile void. (I borrow this vocabulary from William Desmond.)

In Alice Oswald’s ‘A Drink from Cranmere Pool’ (Falling Awake, 2016), she narrates the mystery. It partakes of the ancient genre of pilgrimage, but the radical otherness sought and found by the poet is not named by a biblical narrative tradition but named in the ethos of the between. Having said that we can say that ‘Almost/not water exactly’ draws on the mystical apophatic tradition of the divine that defeats language.

We say we live in the between because where we come to be in our poetic space is charged with the equivocal nature of language. The mystery of the craft is how the poem speaks through its mask from a porosity between the unselfed self and the unnamable other. The metaphysics of lyric is frustratingly thorny compared to the experience it embodies. Oswald felicitous art illustrates the mystery at its most pellucid and refreshing.

The recognition of Oswald as a major poet suggests the reading public does not recognize the modernist alienation between religion and poetry. Between religion and poetry is a fertile space.