A Note on Poetry and Numbers, with an example from Levertov

Contemporary poets —-except for the ‘formalists’—- do not consider numbers as an aspect of form. If we learn meters at all we do so to betray them; deviation from strict counting is considered more honest, truer to feeling. But numbers are real and the metrical or measured dimension of poetry may feel less real if quantity —- as pattern of fulfillment and disruption —- is neglected.

As I argue on this blog, form emerges as the poem unfolds in time. The idea of time may help us think about numbers, even meters. To attend to, to be attentive to, the becoming of a poem may include attending to the measures, the syllable count, the meters; that way of measuring the poem in time could indeed ADD a dimension of reality to the form as it emerges. Not to mention a dimension of pleasure.

Finally, any discussion of meter that grapples with real poems shows how meter is a structure in tension with other structures of rhythm; idiom, for example, gains power when it ‘fits’ and is ‘sounded’ within multiple structures.

He with whom I ran hand in hand
kicking the leathery leaves …

Denise Levertov “A Woman Meets An Old Lover”

Why I write

When young I explored along with the Ancients the existentialists — Kierkegaard, Marcel, Sartre, Camus, Heidegger—- before I chose to study literature in graduate school. The war between say Marcel and Heidegger was not one in which I could fight; I didn’t know enough. I had a reaction to reading Heidegger that manifested itself in itching my arms—- a skin rash. On the other hand, I held Camus’ REBEL close.

But I knew enough to know that I felt more myself when reading poetry than contemporary philosophy. That ‘self’ revealed in the process of reading poetry mindfully is still something that fascinates me. It’s why I write.

This ‘self’ turned out to be post-Romantic. A ‘self’ other to the buffered self (Taylor), akin to the Unconscious self of Zen. Reading Shakespeare or Dickinson or Hopkins or Oswald can be harrowing, but from the perplexity form emerges, and this emergence, poem by poem, connects the reader with a creative fluidity that underwrites the plurivocity of creation. And the many distinct voices of creation is the truth, it seems to me, of poetry.

Going On and the Art of Following

The art of composition is the art of following. A work of art results from following one mark or phrase with another. The grammar is inherent in the following and inseparable from it — that’s what makes composition an art. Transitions are where the rubber hits the road. Wittgenstein and Beckett explicitly name the process ‘going on,’ (I can’t go on, I’ll go on).

As suggested in their compositions, going on becomes foregrounded when the always already established concepts are compromised by the between. It’s what’s between the series that now constitutes the rule! And at some point, going on becomes impossible as such because there is no determinative map to follow. That’s when metaxyturn goes outside the grammatical box of tools; the following self releases the composition from its will (gives UP) when the space of the composition replaces the linear autonomous steps of following with community of being. The fullness of the work is an over-fullness.

On the Metaxy and the Conceptual Mind

The ‘between,’ metaxy, foregrounds the way the conceptual mind charts experience in terms of extremes like life and death. Conceptual dependence on immanent wholes is dissolved by metaxical mindfulness. The extremes are conventions and the between is living space shaped around openness toward transcendent others. The whole is not the whole. The pantheistic immanentism of Romanticism breaks away from these counterfeit wholes in the between, where all is passage.

The Welling


Michael Longley, The Stairwell.

Naming the birds calling from the pages of “the huge sadness of the Iliad” is an essential act of poetry. Longley’s poems, however short, often funnel this wild energy from between his lifelong fidelity to Ancient Greek forms of the imagination and the contemporary occasion. The between flows in several directions here. The welling is between the emptiness of death and the deathless origins of his love. Characteristic of metaxical orientation toward what exceeds finite mind, this poem is overflowing with communication of purpose: “Honking, settling in front of one another,/ Proud of their feather-power”—-the last phrase expressing the paradoxical power of feathers, evocative of the double as in winged words.