‘That’ and Its Double, with an Example from Old Irish Verse

A poem is first and last a response of wonder to the suchness of contingent things, to its appeal from the depths to our senses and awareness of its passing and our own in the between. That simple proposition conceals the doubleness of ‘that’: the pronoun and the subordinating conjunction.

The ultimacy of the primary awareness, because of its grip on our senses, preoccupies and makes us momentarily deaf and dumb to the doubleness of ‘that.’

That wonder is double: the primal wonder—that there is anything at all— is the ground of one’s own self-awareness. It also prepares the poet for her response to the specific ‘that.’

The ultimacy of the coming to be and passing away of ‘that’ is not experienced in a vacuum. It is experienced against the background of the wonder that there is anything at all. Cold comfort in the event, but the resonance of a poem depends on the fertile abyss of life in the between.

Here’s the opening of a 9th-century Old Irish lyric that powerfully addresses the doubleness of the human condition in the between. See Geoffrey Squires, translator and editor, My News for You: Irish Poetry 600-1200. Shearman Books.

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Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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