NB Exemplary Text 2: beauty, the open whole, and Paul Celan

This series of pages — NB Exemplary Texts— are like post-its for later development.

From The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being by William Desmond, 117.

This text helps us recover the concept of beauty from the two-headed monster of modern idealism and nihilism. The happening of beauty creates a ‘between space’ traditionally named metaxu (Plato, Weil, Voegelin, Desmond and now thriving schools of Desmond exegetes.)

For my purposes this space is the poem. In this typically rich passage, one may find many insights into how and why poems structure human experience toward a transcendent other. Paul Celan’s revelatory practice has established this dynamic as central to our rethinking of poetry.


NB: An Exemplary Text: The Artist as Lover of Surfaces


From William Desmond The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being (2018), 66

Desmond’s style is oceanic on the surface, in the depths drawing on ancient sources. He’s also a ludic writer like Joyce and his wit, like Joyce’s, reconfigures sanctified phrases like ‘thing in itself’ and ‘real presence.’ In a word—one he has made his own—Desmond is a master of festivities.



Music and Selving

At A Music http://tdevelyn.com

Writing poetry endangers the stability of the self. It opens it to the metaxological process of selving. Others — possible selves— appear on a circular stairway down and up. (This figure is borrowed from Julian of Norwich.) The poetic process of selving is apophatic in the sense that it undermines the poet’s daily selves by submitting them to the others of musical composition. The goal — the poem— is an agapeic space where the erotic drives to maintain sovereign identity break down and ‘friendships’ emerge as dimensions of a larger non-egoistic self. In their final realizations, poems are festive. But the process can be traumatic and the truly complete poem is rare. My daily tweets about poems are thumbnails of this art of poetry.

Auden Nods Among Noise Makers

Poems contain many voices because words convey the circumstances of their many uses through time; words are rooted in the collective memory of those who use them but their references are other to our memories.

So in a given poem which voice is that of the poet?


The point being ‘words’ are spoken in circumstances and TO circumstances that provide them their urgency, their timeliness. We must allow Auden his ironies. This very poem has successfully transcended whatever urgency that made him write it. In the end he wanted to write a poem and had to use language—-inherently equivocal—-to do so.

The ‘we’ that emerges from the process of the poem —- the lonely betters of those noise-makers —- are not poets as such but Auden’s own shapen sense of the human being. For all his irony he’s an honest maker and the end of the poem shows strain rather than aesthetic grace. The self-indulgence of ‘we too’ glares back at us. Vegetables and birds indeed. The cat’s out of the bag.

Peace and Process

The process of writing poems brings peace.

Aphorisms are open to misunderstanding. Perhaps a text will help. This is from The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin (1973).


Note the ‘narrative’ or movement of the poem from contingency to the abyss to agapeic being. This movement allows me to include it in my Anthology of Metaxyturn. The way it opens on the mysterious beyond — the sign of metaxu—- is the key to the form.

Poetics Part of a Larger Conversation: the Fertility of Myth and the Equivocity of the Between

Poetry is a myth, or crucial story, which is why Aristotle contrasted it to history. It inhabits the space between story and science, the matrix of the equivocal.

Myths —- or versions of them —- are sometimes written down. The written form of the myth of poetry makes it easier to talk about poetry in the abstract; we may call that ‘poetics.’ But poetics in this sense show up in the earliest Greek poems, in Homer and Hesiod.

The origins of Ancient Greek poetry did not include writing. The formal substance was myth—-story. See Gregory Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics (1990).

For us today mastering poetics is one of the jobs of the poet; and it involves making a lot of poems, so it’s easy to confuse the chicken and the egg.

Perhaps an analogy with popular music will help. A contemporary jazz musician studies music theory —- concepts about music— and learns a lot of tunes —- inside and out—- so even when he improvises he makes sense for those who know some of the tunes and how they work. The analogy with poetry is pretty close.

The Greek etymology of ‘poiesis’ means making and some people use that fact to claim that ‘making’ in the material sense is absolutely essential to poetry. Poetry is a made thing, they insist. From oral poetics we know that isn’t definitively true. If we need such a definition, perhaps we should say: Poetry is performance. Writing poems down isn’t essential. Poetics and poems share a lot of ground but remain distinct. To sum up: poetics is not restricted to poems or texts about poems. It is part of a larger conversation. So we say myth.

Myth is rooted in the sacred, the stories of gods and men. This dimension has been neglected if not denied in modern poetics. In the name of conceptual — categorical — clarity, the religious dimension may seem irrelevant. But in our contemporary awareness of the primacy of difference and otherness, a new caution has arisen. The value of ambiguity, double meanings, equivocity, polyvocalism and so on point to poetics. William Desmond speaks of the fertility of the equivocal as primary, original. Poetics has a new lease on life.

Questioning Poetics

Poetics is based on the ‘double that.’ 1 thatness, the mind’s wonder that there is anything at all (wonder being nonverbal, mysterious), and by implication, the wonder begat by beholding THAT man, THAT tree, just THAT ONE; and, 2, the ‘that’ introducing a statement about such suchness: ‘I believe that…’.

(Perhaps, rereading the above, we should be talking about a doubled double!)

Poems beget endless conversation. They are rooted in the silence of the mystery of incarnate being, the instrumention of words by lungs, tongues, brains.

Poems frustrate explanation because their roots penetrate below the surface of statements (THAT2), into the mysteries of incarnate being (THAT1). And so we arrive back at the beginning: why is there anything at all?

As Aristotle said, poetry is more philosophical than history.