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.’

Everything Flows in the Arts of Description: with examples from Lao Tzu and Yeats

Poets struggle with the paradox of the present. Poetic language, as opposed to more simply univocal discourse, creates impressions of presence; poetry has an inclination to witness while it is describing. The status of a poem is always suspect with regards to what a given community of readers considers to be ‘the truth.’

Poetry is messy. To see why we can use Wittgenstein’s distinction between language that describes and language that develops means of description, the distinction between rules of description and descriptive propositions; and we should take note of his observation that the functions may ‘shade off’ in multiple directions — the language can change function in the text. You can’t tell one from the other by merely looking at them in isolation. What language does in context is what counts.

This dynamic helps ‘explain’ language that challenges belief, or paradoxes intended to create aporia. ‘Tao defined is not the constant Tao. / No name names its eternal name.’ Perhaps this works like a koan. The propositional form of the first sentence emphasizes the vanity of trying to name the ‘constant’ Tao. The second sentence adds insult to injury by applying the proposition to the situation created by attempts to name its eternal’ name (perhaps we can call it by temporary names. So the first sentence ‘describes’ Tao and the second develops means of description: we can go on by exploring the problem of naming and constancy.

My larger point is that even this rudimentary description produces in the reader s feel for the thing at hand, even though it is not a thing at hand. As we read the Tao Te Ching the Tao ‘thickens’ and expresses its unreal reality. Everything depends on Tao.

To take a more ‘poetic’ example. Yeats’s ‘Who Goes with Fergus’ opens with a question. ‘Who will go drive with Fergus now,/And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade…’ The distribution is clear: the first half-line suggests the proposition (the who who would entertain the myth of Fergus) and the rest describes the means of description. The poem tries to describe driving with Fergus by describing what it would be like (see below). The verb ‘drive’ introduces the resistance to accepting the proposition (the equivocity of the semantics is inescapable) Throughout the poem description and the means of description are subtly interwoven. The witness to the ‘eternal present’ of the myth draws on both functions.


Art and the Distinction Between Essence and Experience, with Some Lines by Edwin Muir

There’s a metaphysical ‘tradition’ that maintains the difference between essence and existence, or between God and finite beings. Neither is reducible to the other. Naturally we spend most of our time exploring finite beings like ourselves. But what would it mean to ‘explore’ essence? Usually we resort to a convenient skepticism—-except in art. Art somehow is given allowance to explore essence in light of what seems appropriate, the aesthetic aspects of the beautiful— color, shape, and so on.

But even in the analysis of art we come up against the distinction, a kind of line between what reflects existence in the modes of appearance and the sense of essence conveyed by the work of art. Art is irreducibly double. But we can think about art in the between. This doubleness that makes thinking about art possible also accounts for the wonder that is irreducible from the experience of art.

The experience of art may be said to involve a ‘breakthrough’ between the categories of existence and essence. In an essay on Edwin Muir Heaney quote an early poem ‘October at Hellbrunn’:

The silent afternoon draws in, and dark
The trees rise now, grown heavier is the ground,
And breaking through the silence of the park
Farther a hidden fountain flings its sound.

Metaxy and Form, with a poem by Charles Wright


Charles Wright Littlefoot (2007)

This looks like your basic lyric: the opening of a ripe moment, the equivocations of desire, the dialectics of the erotic ladder, all ending in the equivocity of the self.

But it fulfills an ‘other’ promise: the erotics of the ‘same’ or rather the flip side of the dialectic. He cites the ‘unloved.’ His list concludes with the least of these. Whence Eros?

If the erotic dialectic collapses under the paradoxical question, where does the energy come from? Instead of dialectical climax, we have the ‘other’ value system, the ‘with’ or other side of metaxy. Meta, as Desmond points out repeatedly, means both with and beyond, thus splitting the dialectical atom. ‘This chirper lost in the loose leaves’ of the mix of the between (metaxu).

As dialectic ends with the no-end of frustrated Eros, the metaxy ends in the original energy of community—-not erotic fulfillment but agapeic communication. ‘It’ -— the nameless chirper—- reminds us of … us.

See God and the Between, p 291

Flitting Across the Face

‘The inner image of the verse is inseparable from the numberless changes of expression which flit across the face of the teller as he talks excitedly.’ From ‘Conversations about Dante’ in ‘The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam,’ trans Brown and Merwin.

This dynamic helps us understand how the luminous individual’ emerges in/from the text. The analytical kit includes discourses on the face and Desmond on ‘the intimate universal’ with its recognition of tacit dimensions of meaning stored and nourished in the flesh.

Sappho, Fragments, and Melancholy

NB: Sorry: this reads like notes for a much longer essay. TK.

Hamlet wrestled with the meaning of his life, often speaking in mad phrases. He’s mimicking madness—-or ‘letting it out.’

Melancholy and fragments interlock in the reception of Sappho. Fragment 4: ‘I do not expect my fingers/to graze the sky.’
(Stanley Lombardo trans.). We reconstruct an erotic setting for this fragment and find it expressive of infinite melancholy—yearning against all chance of love’s return. The juxtaposition of fingers and sky create the impossible image expected after ‘I do not expect…’

The fragment fulfills the role of the text as we’ve come to know it. The text has integrity of a sign by witnessing the self. The self is itself a ‘problem.’ Scholars used to argue about whether the concept has any relevance to Ancient Greek interpretation; the self being invented in the modern period. We know more about the self now.

So that Sappho signature ‘mood’ connects with a larger issue. It’s fragmentary nature ‘makes sense’ anthropologically. We don’t need the rest of the poem for it to ‘make sense.’ Erotic love tethers us to the beyond. And in addition with the double of Eros (how could we yearn infinitely for love without having already tasted it?), there is pre-reflexive communication. We live in a between —- the mortal/immortal between—- where a range of conscious awareness is present before we intentionally see things and make statements about them. Conscious acknowledgement of this strata of deep being has grown brighter with new phenomenological approaches to being like William Desmond’s.

About being’s archaeology the philosopher Desmond writes: ‘The idiotic is an elemental field of communication, shimmering with the endowed promise of the good of the “to be.” ‘ (The Intimate Universal, 206: the ‘to be’ is the grammar that allows us to talk about particular finite beings.)

‘Idiotic’ because irreducible to determinate cause: this field of communication makes possible every single voice in the community of being. Fragments benefit from the idiotics of being. If we try to strong arm a fragment of Sappho (or a bird song) we miss the boat. Poets are nightingales… or bullfrogs. Or, reconfiguring the idiotic, men speaking to men not to say women.

Melancholy seems too narrow a name for what’s behind— what presupposes—communication. With ‘idiotics’ as a precondition of poetic selving, the sign of communication we call lyric expresses PRIMARILY not frustrated human consciousness but a primordial ecstatic voicing of finite being: the human hand reaching beyond itself. Sappho’s second degree inflection of that image —- ‘I do not expect…’—- is something else, and we always hope to have more Sappho.