The Way of the Poem—7th-century BC Sparta

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Alkman was a professional poet in Seventh Century BC Sparta, specializing in big productions with music and dancing. Yet this fragment gives voice to Everyman in the between—-between his finite life and the transcendence that allows us to envisage the universals of space in light of human existential response. Davenport’s economic handling of the universals of way, pity, need, and walk without self conscious ‘poetry’ strike one as authentic not only to Alkman but to poetry itself then and now.

Breaking Off, with an example by Archilochus

The between space of poetics —- between the all-too-human and the mystery of creative being—- is broken off at both ends. Special attention is given by poets to beginnings (in the given particulars) and endings (the release of the subject into the agapeic space of art). The middle is composed of transitions, the so-called white spaces or gaps between syntactic units, stanzas, and other pieces of the dynamic whole which is ultimately an opening to the ‘more’ beyond the aesthetic whole, the ultimate source of its shimmering appearance.

Archilochus (mid-seventh century BC)

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from The Oxford Book of Classical Verse edd. Poole and Maule (1995)

Sappho’s Energy: Poem as Pure Potential

“Love shook
my mind like a wind falling on oak-trees on a mountain.” Sappho, Fr. 47 (Andrew M Miller)

Sappho’s energy — enargeia or vivid presence— awakens in me wonder at poetry and more specifically the things we call poems. How do they connect with our deepest desire to see and know the truth of things?

A poem is quite literally and essentially a space for wording the between, a sort of nothing, to use the terminology of William Desmond. Sappho’s fragments expose the flow of words into the defined empty space of the poem that pre-exists the act of communication. Meters and syntactic conventions are only two of the many structures whose interplay makes the poem real to us. Her metaphors may be traditional but they are often startling in their power to create strong feelings in readers by engaging them through analogy. All that glorious mental life is sponsored by the pregnant silence of her meters and stanzas as potential communication between subjects, both the axis of words and grammars and the axis of poet and audience.

Sappho’s Space: The Community of the Poem Between

The emergence of Greek lyric in the seventh century B.C. provides plenty of evidence for the origins of the lyric in ‘the between.’ Sappho says, ‘Some say a host of horsemen is the most beautiful thing …’ (Fr. 16). Sappho says, ‘He seems to me equal to the gods’ (Fr. 31).

This space between speaker and auditor bristles with energy. It strains under the pressure of disagreement. It’s choked with passion. It’s threatened and shaped by silences of various kinds. Its wholeness is only apparent, for it represents ongoing acts of attention that are rewired with each reading. Interruption is as essential to the life of poetry as to the life of conversation.

Forms emerge from those readings that preserve the space between even as the communicants change with time. While poetic form is sometimes reduced by commentators to repeatable ‘formal’ elements (the Sapphic stanza), the specific form of each poem emerges only from its self-consuming passage through the between; the surprise attending its appearance may be compared to the appearance of a butterfly on a warm spring day. But the individual poem lasts longer than the particular butterfly.

In short the poem between is the evidence and source of a community that endures. The Greek name, found in Plato’s dialogues, for this creative space is metaxu.

In Nuce Shestov

My poetics in a nutshell. “Whoever crosses the space offered to the senses reconnects with a sacred water that flows through each thing”—-Lev Shestov. This “space” is the between which is reached after one has worked through the ‘senses of being’ (Desmond) by exploring in sequence the objective world, the aesthetic happening that illuminates it for us, and our drive to reduce the mystery of this world to a definitive concept.

On the brink of despair — the drive of the will exhausted— it sometimes happens that by letting things be we become aware of a fluid music as the things of this world start to sing, constructing the space Shestov refers to here.

For the poet, that space is the poem. The poet leads his reader, like Virgil in Dante, step by perplexing step, but the paradox of time —- as movement towards a horizon AND as luminous immanence —- mixes the Christian consciousness and the pagan with remainder.

A Good Use of Time

We live ‘in’ a mystery, a space bounded by a beyond. We don’t know how to define this space except AS a between. An awareness of the between arose again (after its heyday in antiquity) in modern times because the conceptual mind kept getting lost in definitions drawing on skepticism,
on the one hand, and apocalyptic, on the other.

Between the unknown extremes lies a fluid porous space open to others as others and shaped by a movement toward the threshold of our (collective/individual) being. This dynamic space seems to be the tacit dimension of poetry. So applying the long rich tradition of metaxological research in the service of poetry in commentaries on poems seems a good use of time.