Lyric Itinerary: Mysticism and Metaxy—Some Basics

I take the word “itinerary” from Augustine as a version of “the lyric narrative used on this blog hitherto.

In writing about Geraldine Clarkson book @ninearchespress Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh I’ve settled on the Augustinian figure from his Exposition on Psalm 145 “ab extoribus ad interiora, ab inferioribus ad superiora,” as more adequate to the figure these poems make/reflect. This phrase has been garbled in the process of application over the centuries but applying it to the dialectics of the metaxological lyric should show its adequacy to this key issue.

Frost’s celebrated and oftreprinted essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939) is very worth reading if only to see the glorious noise made by thinking that can’t get outside itself. The phrasing is all.

From outside to inside, from lower to higher: a chiasmus-type figure. Lyric investigations are beholden to this intricate but neat formula. Many self-professed artists plead purity when it comes to ‘formula,’ or little forms.

As to mysticism, I follow Desmond: “mysticism … has nothing to do with a leap into some other world but is merely the proper mindfulness of an otherness that is right now present to one,proper mindfulness of what is and what one is” (Philosophy and its Others, 237). I was pleased to hear Geraldine Clarkson approve this quote. Her lyric chops are phenomenal and even justify as praise the greatest sounding idealism —- transcendent immanence —- but in practice this polysyllabic mouthful makes mush out of idealism. See her poems in Monica’s Coat of Flesh.

In a Nutshell: a Poem by Milosz

The organic dynamic between philosophy and lyric has many facets, historical (starting with Plato’s abuse and practice of poetry) and analytical. The latter may be put thus: meditate/mediate. In the given between of composition, we mediate the ‘that it is at all,’ the wonder that compels meditation.

The poem below elucidates the process of meditation / mediation. It embodies the narrative peculiar to lyric. The narrator starts with the givens of common experience. Maps of determinate experience, memory of ‘the feast of motion’—-the Eros driving the self beyond itself. Time passes. But now he wants things without desire, things as they are in themselves—-the vision bare of personal attachment—- the ‘this only,’ the ‘that it is at all.’

So I suggest that ‘This Only’ is a poem by Milosz in which he considers the wonder of being at all through the various senses of his being. For the reader, reading the poem is an act of philosophy in Hadot’s sense, ‘a spiritual exercise.’ Like a musical composition, one must practice it lovingly.


The Poem as Metaxu with a poem by Mary Oliver.

As Sir Philip Sidney wrote (1580), summing up the tradition which was then new, the poet nothing affirmeth. This negative defense of poetry has proved worthy in the modern crisis of logical positivism, where conceptual clarity, more geometrico, served as the only model of truth. But with the rediscovery of metaxological thinking, at its most refined in the work of William Desmond, we can now say that we have a new model of reality that not only supports poetic experience but reflects the structure of poems.

You may recall Simone Weil’s essay ‘Metaxu,’ in ‘Gravity and Grace’: ‘The essence of created things is to be intermediaries. They are intermediaries leading from one thing to the other, and there is no end to this. They are intermediaries leading to God. We have to experience them as such.’

In the definition provided in the Glossary of ‘The Intimate Universal’ (2016)— see below— Desmond provides a useful short definition of Metaxology. Based on his fourfold sense of being—-univocal, equivocal, dialectical, and metaxological—-he argues that all is in relation. The four senses don’t cancel each other out. In poems, the narrative moves from univocal to metaxological, from determined clarity to the full relativity of the between. In this definition Desmond indicates the narrative as moving through the senses to a truer account. The between, he says, is ‘open to the poetics of the trans-systematic.’ But the goal of the poetic narrative is not a dialectical whole. Though the narrative moves through the senses of being dialectically, it concludes on the threshold of an open whole. The poet nothing affirmeth, but the poem reveals the form of metaxological being.

The between is plurivocal. The popular American poet Mary Oliver had mastered the four senses of being so that her poems could flow in the patterns of the between. We see this flow, which concludes with an image of the ‘intimate universsl’—- ‘the family of things.’ The univocals of cultural ‘goodness’ are treated first. Next she moves through the equivocity of animal being. Then the dialectic moves into the abyss of the self’s despair and the otherness of nature. The pattern takes on a shape with the metaxological between open to the imagination. Something calls from the beyond and this voice ‘calls’ to you announcing your place in the open whole. From the self’s despair to the agapeic family: this poem traces the fourfold senses of being with great finesse.


From the ‘Glossary’ (page 423) of ‘The Intimate Between’ (Columbia University Press, 2016).


The Porosity of the Between with a Poem by Michael Longley

The short poem or ‘lyric,’ unlike the the genres accounted for in the poetics of antiquity, seems to lack identity other than brevity. But paradoxically in Plato’s attack on the poets in The Republic, the cat is let out of the bag. Attacked for the transgression of mimesis, or representation of reality, poetry became enemy to idealism. But elsewhere in his dialogues Plato talks about ‘metaxu’ or the experience of the space between our bodily existence and the otherness of consciousness. And the idea of the between has provided our postmodern thinkers with the seeds of a new poetics.

In Eric Voegelin’s narrative of the search for the Beginning (In Search of Order, 2000), he uses the Platonic concept ‘metaxu’ to name the participatory mode of consciousness. He argues that concepts like ‘transcendence’ and ‘immanence’ do not refer to objects in space but structures of consciousness. The ‘language’ and ‘the truth of of reality becomes luminous’ (see Introduction).

Voegelin’s exposition leaned on paradoxes and complexes. In the late ‘80s the Irish philosopher William Desmond began publishing essays and books on metaxological metaphysics. Among his other books (his approach to philosophy has been dubbed ‘encyclopedic’), with ‘The Intimate Universal’ (2016) Desmond has produced a fully comprehensive essay on his metaxological metaphysics. His lifelong inquiry has produced a new range of language symbols for what Voegelin, following Plato and Aristotle, had called participation.

I have used metaxic thinking in reading and editing and commenting on poetry for decades. It is now my belief that metaxical structure is essential to poetry and becomes thematic in the narrative of the most popular form, the short lyric. Just another paradox in the long digressive story of the ‘between’; the term is now—2020– quite a la mode.

Let’s look at a text in order, as Voegelin says, ‘to calm things down.’


This poem from Michael Longley’s 2014 collection ‘The Stairwell’ is a wonderful example of poetic craft. An anecdotal base becomes the basis for exploring contingencies of our life in the metaxy or between. The flight of the arrow across the formal stanza break shows how the aesthetics, the descriptions, of events are not mere subject matter but the dynamics of life. The poet fulfills his purpose by presenting the fluid mix — the brotherly arrow—- where love and disaster mirror the fullness of time. All the details meld in the moment of time’s arrow stretching from zenith to end.

Poetic precision seems to model something absolute and primordial. Inside and outside are transparent and, in the vocabulary of metaxical being, ‘porous.’ In William Desmond’s metaxical analysis, the shape of the unity of happening opens dynamically. His word is ‘porosity.’ As we see on page 211 of ‘The Intimate Universal,’ the concept of ‘porosity’ banishes the imagery of the between as a neatly-bounded moment that fulfills itself in becoming an object, a poem. Poems, like betweens, are open wholes.


The popularity of the concept ‘the between’ makes it necessary to distinguish what we mean from all the popular usages. William Desmond offers a new way of talking about the between as ‘porosity.’ Desmond borrows the term ‘poros’ from Plato’s myth of the conception of Eros from poros — plenty— and penia — want (Symposium). Defining the concept in its Platonic sense as ‘metaxu,’ or the space wherein we grasp events both as ‘happening here’ and happening in light of ‘the beyond,’ Desmond emphasizes ‘passage’ —- as for example a passage of music—-as the theme of metaxological being. Everything flows from nothing toward eternity, the limit of our finite between. (Elsewhere, as for example in the third of his between trilogy, ‘God and the Between,’ Desmond presents extended analyses of key concepts like eternity.)

One of the metaphysical problems with the concept of the metaxy has been our inclination to reify the metaphor of space. The boundaries of the between define it, but they do not determine it. A marriage does not determine the passion of the spouses. Their love flows from something deeper ( at least if the marriage is ‘authentic’).

As this passage from ‘The Intimate Universal’(2016) argues, what happens in the between is like a passage of music, and the metaxological analysis, informed by the asymmetrical here/beyond, pushes the analysis to the dimension of selfhood (Voegelin’s consciousness). In the Eros of our being we transcend ourselves. Rather than the Idealistic concept of transcendence, in which the self returns to the closed whole of Godself, we need a metaxological concept. That is: We are ourselves porosities. ‘We are a passing opening.’ The creative act familiar to poets bears witness to Desmond’s refiguration of the ancient idea of metaxu (see Plato, Symposium, 202b5.)

Longley’s poetry combines many discourses, including Homeric, and the transparency of his porosities are unique. But as I have shown elsewhere, short poems in many cultures exhibit the narrative of the between: moving from objective situations through metaxological dialectics to the limit of self-consciousness, at which time the imagery of the universal open whole emerges in the form perchance of Michael Longley’s arrow. One never knows.

Callimachus and the Modern Lyric


As W. R. Johnson argues in The Idea of Lyric, Callimachus (d. 240 BC), the great librarian of Alexandria who helped sort the annals of ancient poetry into a genre system, as a poet created a self-consciously ‘modern’ lyric. In the text above Johnson shows how the kingfisher, anciently a symbol of freedom, became a symbol of human inwardness.

The lyric structure we call metaxical— focusing on the life of mortals ‘between’ the absolute origin and death—- is amply foreseen here. The inwardness is not solipsistic. Metaxological doubles structure the narrative. (Notice how the Poet splits his consciousness between the corpse, Leontichos, and the gull.)

The value of compassion accompanies the ‘you’ of lyric address. The threat of nihilism that is inherent in the metaxological point of view is resisted both by the intention of the dialectic / narrative of the middle of the poem and by the concision and lucidity of the poem itself. The poem itself becomes an image of life in the between. It does not return to itself as pure ‘form’ but opens on the image of the sea.

The Truth of Lyric, with a poem by Mary Oliver

Lyric is attached by definition to the individual self (as opposed to epic or choral) and suffers from low self -esteem. And yet its growing popularity is evident on social media and the frequency of public readings. We used to argue whether or not Bob Dylan was a poet.

Yet the lyric poem is traditionally connected to the search for truth— personal truth. And THAT was a problem for Plato. Ancient criticism had no place for Lyric until Callimachus and the Roman ‘new’ poets (present in Ezra Pound’s Propertius). Still no ‘theory’ of lyric.

There is however a ‘narrative’ pattern that one can find in short poems that explains the endurance of the ‘personal’ poem or lyric. The pattern that holds it together is a sequence flowing from dialectical search, to mindfulness, and finally to self-transcendence in community.

Lyric is not used to such heavy critical armor. But its popularity today suggests its relevance. We live in a time of the breaking of nations, of the dissolving of norms — much of this dissolving and breaking consonant with the rise of ‘democratic’ fascism. Social media destroys our capacity to concentrate on fact, nonfiction prose— including journalism. We prefer sound bites.

Short poems do a specific job of work. And the pattern, discernible in the annals of ancient lyric, persists.

Poets master the pattern as they perfect their personal voice. Here is a poem by Mary Oliverfrom her 2012 book ‘A Thousand Mornings.’

On Selving 1

“Talent is a spring from which water is constantly flowing. But this spring loses its value if it is not used in the right way.“ Wittgenstein, Culture and Value 10e.

The water image. See it as the capacity of the absolute one to dissolve itself in the flow freeing the concrete, finite singular being to be itself. Humans share this self with the poem.

We are all already selving.