The Figure a Poem Makes, with something by Denise Riley

Once you start thinking in terms of the between, you can begin to see a poem’s archaeology or layers of being. It amounts to seeing the flow of the poem as a metaxological narrative.

First think it through without poetry as theme. People become who they are by a sequence of betweens. First there is the initial between, the aesthetic dimension of being in the flesh. A wordless infant. This is universal and intimate, it is mutely given to be.

Then the I appears to itself in the process of selving. Desire to be is articulated in the given flesh of being, a sort of redundancy or if you will mimetic gesture of Eros. The aesthetics of becoming are self-conscious, mimetic, and creative too. This is ongoing.

Being an artist adds a third between, that between your selved self with its cosmetic aspects (the Greeks saw the universe as Kosmos) and the other you, the presence of the work as it develops, finding its voice. This process can hit snags and brick walls in what Desmond calls the porosity, or fluid opening between self and radical other.

In my work as tutor I have seen this third between implode and block the creation of the artist’s voice. That’s a negative proof of the porosity. The old idea of mimesis helped artists reach their independent voice. O to write like Dante! Now that mimesis has no currency in our narcissistic art discourse, the emergence of the voice is without one of its most useful aids. Smart desperate artists do it anyway. Maybe nobody will notice you’ve been poring over Neruda.

Still, poets pull it off, all three betweens connected and flowing towards the open whole of the poem’s community. Denise Riley’s ‘Lines Starting with La Rochefoucauld’ very neatly narrates the betweens by glancing off a maxim that itself assumes an ‘intimate universal’ in friendship which makes its betrayal so unthinkable. Poems like friendships grow from a unity of spontaneous unconscious likeness and liking. Riley’s words about things reframes that connection. And how it nourishes hope is perhaps how a poem allows an interpretation to blossom rather than die. 2CF5C98C-C386-47C3-9F29-0108945E51D5

From ‘Say Something Back’ (Picador 2016)

The Asymmetry of Form with a Poem by Denise Levertov

A work of art shows signs of human perfectionism, to borrow a phrase. The artist starts with her singular being but in a process called mimesis of old fashions a new more beautiful — expressive — self. This second self shows an energy coming from beyond.

This energy we may call original as opposed to given. If you conceive of a work of art as an open process initiated by the acceptance of an aesthetic gambit, you will see in the final whole an asymmetry most easily grasped in terms of a plurality of voices that make up the unique sound of the work blending somewhere beyond any one performance of the text.

Where’d THAT come from?

As the saying goes, form emerges and keeps emerging in new cultural settings.

This is by Denise Levertov. It illustrates how a lyric may follow a ‘narrative’ of states of consciousness. It enacts the unfolding in consciousness of a vision that can only be approached at an angle. After the second matter-of-fact stanza which is anything but (being s return to some pristine order), she returns to a heightened version of the first landscape. But with a difference, and that’s where the asymmetry of the thing reveals itself. Some ‘other’ has emerged. This is no warmed-over nature poem. The crickets are very ‘other’ yet their ‘religion’ would seem to be embraced by the second self of the poet and potentially the reader.

The date of the poem reminds us of what else could have kept the poet, deeply involved in social protest, up at 3 AM. Is this pathetic ‘projection’ of the kind the naturalist critics deride, or is it a transcending form implicit in the lyric art?


Metaxological Note: Levertov and the Intimate Universal.

The doubleness of art suggests the ethos of the metaxy or Between. This ancient conception, rooted in Plato and developed in our time by Eric Voegelin and William Desmond, helps place the lyric genre in its proper context.

Desmond’s concept ‘the Intimate Universal’ is a reframing of propositional analysis. It helps us avoid the rigidities of systems based on univocal concepts (e.g. formalism).

This conception— why Intimate, why universal— is vividly illustrated by this poem. There are two stages of the process that results in the work of art. Desmond writes (The Intimate Universal, 268): ‘The aesthetic happening is the womb that nurtured our aesthetic selving and, with it, our possible art—but this art, in the doubleness, can turn the aesthetic happening into a field for its own endeavor.’

The flow or lyric narrative is from the aesthetic happening of selving to the second stage, which paradoxically allows for a reframing of the happening to illuminate the sacred threshold of the ‘fertile void’ wherein the selving finds expression. Desmond’s wording —‘for its own endeavor’ — employs the neuter pronoun as if the process were not the result of a human self’s endeavor. In fact artists often reflect on the companioning spirit of art.

(This is a return to the first selving in its original context via the void. All this needs a fuller treatment.)

Anyway, we’ve shown how this narrative is illustrated by Levertov’s poem. Lyric poems seem particularly hospitable to the Intimate Universal; and metaxological analysis is more useful than less differentiated analyses.

R S Thomas and the Between


From R S Thomas Collected Later Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2004).

This superb reframing of a old genre (Ben Jonson loaded it with recusant intensity) recalls Desmond’s ‘intimate universal, a concept crucial to his metaxological critique of nihilism. As the poet makes abundantly clear (‘a being …between’), the identity of the lady depends on the Between (metaxu) as it emerges in his contemplative lyric.

According to William Desmond’s most recent work, the Between involves the ‘porosity’ between the human and divine. His encyclopedic archaeological approach to philosophy provides the student with an enormous range of instances of his metaxological approach. This flexibility reframes again and again the spacial figure of the Platonic tradition. Voegelin used metaxu/the In-Between in his meditations on consciousness. The best explication of Eric Voegelin’s sense of metaxu is Glenn Hughes, Mystery and Myth in the Philosophy of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 1993).

Both Voegelin and Desmond trace the roots of the concept to Plato’s myth of Eros in the Phaedrus as parented by Plenty (poros) and Poverty (penia). Desmond has developed an interpretation of the myth in multiple ways, elevating the term ‘porosity’ to key roles in his ever expanding, ever deepening metaxu. In his most recent monograph, Desmond writes in The Intimate Universal (2016, 223): ‘The poverty of the porosity is its being resplendent with an overdeterminate good no one owns…’. Notice Desmond’s paradoxical phrasing.

Back to the poem. The Lady’s contempt for the indelicacy of rude death is part of the story for it allows us to see how we ourselves fail the porosity by scorning its ‘poverty’— as he says in closing that sentence, ‘and before we know it we hate the poverty and the splendor.’

Thomas’s use of ‘pert’ seems poised to trigger ontological resentment. Most readers will have to come to terms with their own feelings regarding Thomas’s intentions.

Thomas’s image of what is perter and prettier and wiser marks a threshold in the resistance to the nihilism which would deny the modern self its absolute autonomy in context of the human-divine metaxu. Lyric structures often open the reader to the between of the porosity.

Jaccottet’s ‘Hymn’


From Philippe Jaccottet Selected Poems trans Derek Mahon (Wake Forest University Press).

Implicit in lyric is a system of ‘persons’— auditors and speakers — and the activizing of these undermines the dualism of modern knowledge. The implied ‘you’ may become a central principle and its emergence in full immanence the drama of the poem. Jaccottet’s address to this ‘you’ fulfills the promise of lyric as a threshold between human and divine.
Yes this comment bristles with theories about lyric. We need a coherent demonstration of lyric’s role in contemporary cultural work against nihilism of modernity/capitalism.

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!