The Grammar of Consciousness, with a text by Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens’ ‘An Old Man Asleep’ implies the between between ‘the self and the earth’ and ends with one of Stevens’ rapturous though apophatic images: ‘The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.’ The between space is one of passage between extremes, extremes like ‘the river R.’
You might call the between the poetics of myth, of story. Poets like Stevens, knowing that ‘these extremes are recessed in the domestication of everyday life’ (William Desmond, The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Bejng, p. 253), make poems by telling stories about ‘diverse extremes: birth and death, nothing and infinity, abysses if abjectness and superlatives of heights, inferiorities of secret intensity and exteriorities of vast extension’ (ibid.).
The between is the grammar of human consciousness.

NB Exemplary Text 2: beauty, the open whole, and Paul Celan

This series of pages — NB Exemplary Texts— are like post-its for later development.

From The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being by William Desmond, 117.

This text helps us recover the concept of beauty from the two-headed monster of modern idealism and nihilism. The happening of beauty creates a ‘between space’ traditionally named metaxu (Plato, Weil, Voegelin, Desmond and now thriving schools of Desmond exegetes.)

For my purposes this space is the poem. In this typically rich passage, one may find many insights into how and why poems structure human experience toward a transcendent other. Paul Celan’s revelatory practice has established this dynamic as central to our rethinking of poetry.


NB: An Exemplary Text: The Artist as Lover of Surfaces


From William Desmond The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being (2018), 66

Desmond’s style is oceanic on the surface, in the depths drawing on ancient sources. He’s also a ludic writer like Joyce and his wit, like Joyce’s, reconfigures sanctified phrases like ‘thing in itself’ and ‘real presence.’ In a word—one he has made his own—Desmond is a master of festivities.



Auden Nods Among Noise Makers

Poems contain many voices because words convey the circumstances of their many uses through time; words are rooted in the collective memory of those who use them but their references are other to our memories.

So in a given poem which voice is that of the poet?


The point being ‘words’ are spoken in circumstances and TO circumstances that provide them their urgency, their timeliness. We must allow Auden his ironies. This very poem has successfully transcended whatever urgency that made him write it. In the end he wanted to write a poem and had to use language—-inherently equivocal—-to do so.

The ‘we’ that emerges from the process of the poem —- the lonely betters of those noise-makers —- are not poets as such but Auden’s own shapen sense of the human being. For all his irony he’s an honest maker and the end of the poem shows strain rather than aesthetic grace. The self-indulgence of ‘we too’ glares back at us. Vegetables and birds indeed. The cat’s out of the bag.

Peace and Process

The process of writing poems brings peace.

Aphorisms are open to misunderstanding. Perhaps a text will help. This is from The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin (1973).


Note the ‘narrative’ or movement of the poem from contingency to the abyss to agapeic being. This movement allows me to include it in my Anthology of Metaxyturn. The way it opens on the mysterious beyond — the sign of metaxu—- is the key to the form.

‘That’ and Its Double, with an Example from Old Irish Verse

A poem is first and last a response of wonder to the suchness of contingent things, to its appeal from the depths to our senses and awareness of its passing and our own in the between. That simple proposition conceals the doubleness of ‘that’: the pronoun and the subordinating conjunction.

The ultimacy of the primary awareness, because of its grip on our senses, preoccupies and makes us momentarily deaf and dumb to the doubleness of ‘that.’

That wonder is double: the primal wonder—that there is anything at all— is the ground of one’s own self-awareness. It also prepares the poet for her response to the specific ‘that.’

The ultimacy of the coming to be and passing away of ‘that’ is not experienced in a vacuum. It is experienced against the background of the wonder that there is anything at all. Cold comfort in the event, but the resonance of a poem depends on the fertile abyss of life in the between.

Here’s the opening of a 9th-century Old Irish lyric that powerfully addresses the doubleness of the human condition in the between. See Geoffrey Squires, translator and editor, My News for You: Irish Poetry 600-1200. Shearman Books.


Desire’s Emergency

Form emerges as the poem takes shape in time. The energy of this emergency is desire. Jaccottet’s ‘nothing’—- (Nothing at all, a footfall on the road,/yet more mysterious than guide or god.) Mahon Trans. Nothing has become a symbol in our time susceptible to many interpretations. It takes a connoisseur. Jaccottet was devoted to the Earth (we will not have done with symbols!). In Char’s word, he was a ‘requalified man.’ (See Selected Poems, translated by Derek Mahon, Wake Forest University Press, 1988).

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.