Music and Selving

At A Music

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.

Sappho Ur-poet

Sappho’s ‘Fragments’  are showcases of lyric structure. They compactly reveal poetry not as anything in itself but as an enabling intermedium between gods and humanity. Poetry is metaxu: the possibilizing between — see now William Desmond, The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being (Cascade 2018).

Sappho’s position on Mt Helicon may be an accident of history —Plato, known for his ambiguity as both friend and foe of poetry, called Sappho, we’re told, the Tenth Muse. Of the ‘nine books’ containing her complete works in Alexandria before fire destroyed the library, only a pitiful few fragments remain. The erotic, aesthetic, and philosophical energies they communicate continue to inspire poets. One of her gifts which translates well was for metaphor, which later commentators would elevate to the first rank of poetic forms.

Here’s Fragment 105a, from one of her many marriage songs. This is from Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation by Andrew Miller (Hackett 1996)



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.