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)

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 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 and other sites.

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