The ‘mystery’ of the lyric is twofold. There is the technical side: the ways the art engages with language as reference, as sound, as grammar (narrative). The look on the page or in the resounding air. The second aspect is more psychological. The lyric involves the poet’s use of a mask. What sounds ‘sincere’ is a metaphysical act to access certain energies by bypassing the self. Or say, the job of the technical side is to strip the ego of self-consciousness, leaving it open to a more original identity. This is an act of self-transcending, opening the poet to her nothingness in the fertile void. (I borrow this vocabulary from William Desmond.)
In Alice Oswald’s ‘A Drink from Cranmere Pool’ (Falling Awake, 2016), she narrates the mystery. It partakes of the ancient genre of pilgrimage, but the radical otherness sought and found by the poet is not named by a biblical narrative tradition but named in the ethos of the between. Having said that we can say that ‘Almost/not water exactly’ draws on the mystical apophatic tradition of the divine that defeats language.
We say we live in the between because where we come to be in our poetic space is charged with the equivocal nature of language. The mystery of the craft is how the poem speaks through its mask from a porosity between the unselfed self and the unnamable other. The metaphysics of lyric is frustratingly thorny compared to the experience it embodies. Oswald felicitous art illustrates the mystery at its most pellucid and refreshing.
The recognition of Oswald as a major poet suggests the reading public does not recognize the modernist alienation between religion and poetry. Between religion and poetry is a fertile space.
GUILLEVIC, Selected Poems trans. Levertov (New Directions, 1968)
Form is double: first, the shapes of the words on the page, bearing the traces of the author and the many dimensions of her creative spirit. Second, the form that emerges in the time of the poem, emerges with the impersonality of the astonishing singularity of a butterfly.
Charles Wright Bye-and-Bye:
Selected Late Poems (2011)
In reading a poem we don a mask that reconfigures one’s sense of reality. We participate in our own forsaking. Which is a tall order. Wright reconfigures our immediate sense of our personal end at first in deeply unsatisfactory ways.
But how otherwise? The poem keeps going along in its maladroit way. The first sentence sort of cruises into a ditch of nonsense. Yet along the way he’s reconfigured this penultimate moment, teetering on embarrassed silence. Well, it’s a difficult topic!
Next he returns to the opening metaphor for another verse (it’s like a country song). This time there’s a kind of epiphany. The sentence limps along, coming to rest in a place full comfort and beauty. We’ve come to see our special moment shorn of sentiment, shorn of ego. The mimesis is perfect for there is no ego at this moment.
To read/write a poem is to don a mask that reconfigures reality. Some poems reflect on the reconfiguration process. In Jaccottet’s poem cited below, light from above causes perplexity, not because we know about the sun as source (so-called objective knowledge), but because the brightness is more than we bargain for. It is all-enveloping, reducing us to shadows. In the end, however, pity drowns everything. The movement from objective analysis to perplexity to humility-in-community is the arc of the creative process as we know it (in the between).
This poem is from Mahon’s Jaccottet Selected (Wake Forest).
From Assymetry: Poems, by Adam Zagajewski Trans. Clare Cavanagh (FSG 2018)
This lyric proceeds according to the logic of lyric: from the literal to the more subjective to the dialectical (as if seeking a new literal —- as if rust was hatred). That movement proves unsustainable in its metaphoricity. Only in the last line does the true subject emerge. Somehow yielding to the impulse to discover some wonder by the highway (now ironic ambiguities ramify) leads the youthful poet to a personal discovery, a discovery of the self’s lack of self-certainty.
Thus a small innocent looking poem exposes us to intolerable perplexities AND a new discovery. Rather than meekly accept our aesthetic paycheck for reading yet another fine poem, let’s see the implications.
First: The creative mind is indeterminate. It involves a space of nothingness. The form that emerges from a mindful reading is a different kind of knowledge than was assumed in the setting provided in the first lines. Second: Interpretations will depend on the intention of the mind of the reader. Desmond’s distinction between erotic and agapeic gets to the nub of the matter. In erotic mind, the search is for a determinate object. As we’ve seen, this kind is frustrated by the poem. For the agapeic mind, the search discovers an ‘other’ that is not determinate but involves a plenitude of being in excess of the erotic self.
Zagajewski’s ultimate concern is a state of soul that did not appear before now, a concern for a ‘self-transcending self’ that is part of the agapeic ethos. The search for historical mementos concludes by discovering an agapeic consciousness that we call metaxu: between the things of ‘history’ and the experience of sacred fear.
This almost anonymous poem by Edward Thomas illustrates the logic of lyric. It opens with an observable fact, then gradually qualifies it (gives it specificity and equivocity) in the ‘mind.’
The poem hovers there, noting aspects discovered by dialectical expansion — ‘with their sweethearts.’ The imagery is now teetering on mystery. How bring the dead and living together?
The poem achieves this with subjunctive grammar, and suddenly the observed facts that prompted the poem are reconfigured into a counter-factual unity, but a unity nonetheless.
This final step in the logic is the metaxical. Metaxu referring in Plato’s Greek to the ‘space’ between the immanent and the transcendent. In Desmond’s version of the myth of the metaxy it engages, after exhausting the objective, equivocal, and dialectical senses of understanding, the agapeic. This poem’s engagement of the agapeic awareness beyond the concrete mental whole is complex, focusing on a state between ‘should’ and ‘will not ever.’
So the logic of lyric as embodied in this epigrammatic lyric brings the reader to a state of mindfulness that can be identified with poetry itself as a dynamic pattern in human culture.
The concept ‘metaxu’ or ‘between’ is not a geometrical figure. We say ‘between finitude and the infinite,’ for example, as if they are to be classed together. There’s an asymmetry to be dealt with however beyond us such dealing may be.
Heaney’s poetry is full of such evanescent betweens, especially the late poetry. ‘A birch tree planted twenty years ago / Comes between the Irish Sea and me’ (‘In the Attic,’ from HUMAN CHAIN.)
That is, thinking the between requires finesse.
Heaney’s poems often celebrate ‘equipment’ (to use Heidegger’s word) in ‘thing poems’ that have a certain elusive luminous quality that some critics categorize as ‘sacred.’ This critical move changes the discussion and charges it with religious significance. Nothing wrong with that procedurally but in practice it often loses the experience of the poem. A poem always has a temporal structure and it can be a challenge to remain faithful to that.
‘Had I Not Been Awake’ (Human Chain 2010)
is scrupulously attentive to the temporal conditions of the subject. A wind hits the house and drives the poet from his bed where he was NOT sleeping. It’s as if the energy that tore the leaves from the sycamore also affected him. Indeed, ‘the whole of me a-patter’ borrows the language of the initial event. The poet’s ‘Wholeness’ seems to be at issue. The balance of the poem further specifies the nature of this wind-event. It’s like an animal, also a ‘courier.’
The looseness of the unfolding description seems intentionally casual, even slap-dash, but the point is made. The wind-event both was and was not ‘out of the ordinary.’ The moment of impact ‘lapsed ordinary.’ The awkwardness of the phrase stands out in the poem’s idiomatic, indeed ordinary conversational style.
The event which so ‘electrified’ the poet passed without further consequence. As a point in time it justifies no further reflection. There’s an energy in the negatives of the final stanza that point to an apophatic framing of the event. The physical effect on the poet is clearly caused by the event, but what caused the event? Despite the fact that its happening almost seemed dangerous, the poet is not inspired to further reflection.
Is Heaney reframing a Romantic moment in ‘post-modern’ terms. Is he self-consciously denying the relevance of religious categories with which to deepen our hermeneutics beyond fact?
I don’t know. What I do know is that the poem manages to elaborate on the event as it literally struck the poet physically. Even ‘returning like an animal to the house’ suggests the return of its awake self to somatic conditions: the danger of the whole physical show collapsing, condensed into a supercharge of energy coursing through the body, seems worth commemorating. Heaney’s lifelong devotion to the sensuous inscape of things now opens on new thresholds in the body, in the senses, in what Desmond calls ‘the senses of being.’ The moment provides insights—-in the body as well as the mind— into the superplus dimension of life itself. Religious categories themselves point to extreme perspectives on our human lives, but those categories have become confused and confusing. This ‘windfall’ itself illustrates the excess that characterizes the human ordinary. The between does not depend on conceptual determinations of the extremes —- there are as many betweens as there are ‘states of mind/body’ (here Heaney prudently blocks the standby ‘dream’-Between as cause of the event). The seeking of meaning in the event of this event is quickly (in living flesh) terminated by reason. Those powerful negatives tell a bigger story that is of only philosophical interest.
Now return to the title. Had I NOT been awake. What? The apophatic logic of the ‘negative’ in the title is a stroke of genius.
Translated by Susan H. Gillespie. Corona: Selected Poems of Paul Celan (2013)
Celan hated to be called a ‘hermetic’ poet. This late poem leaves no doubt of the source of difficulty: world and word are not transparent to each other but doubled. Or rather: everything in the world is doubled, which makes it illegible.
To paraphrase not once but twice.
Even time is doubled. The word time is rooted in the concept of splitting or cutting. Then there’s AM and PM. Is there something jarring about the sounding of the hour, dividing or cutting the flow of time?
The human self resists, rooted in its very selfhood, yet shakes free or is shaken free of its own-ness, dividing from its oneness in breaking (free) of the moment to leave itself once for all.
This narrative is a narrative of betweenness. The desire to understand is frustrated first by the illegibility then by the doubleness. Even time, which we may imagine as a unifying element, is doubled in consciousness, the ‘moment’ being understood on second thought as movement.
Finally, even the self splits up. Up is the good news. Forever is a sign of difference as an ontological principle.
Rather than hermetic perhaps Celan is a poet of the between. Commenting on Joyce’s Ulysses, Desmond addresses the problem of ‘surplus immediacy.’ Thinking and immediacy are opposed like the banks of a river. Joyce’s art tries to render the surplus immediacy of one day in Dublin. Affirming the occasion AND the surplus. (Between System and Poetics, 26 f).
Joyce and Celan, improbable doubles in the surplus immediacy of the between.
From ‘This Great Unknowing: Last Poems’
Levertov’s finesse is such that her lyric may accommodate multiple images of primal value. ‘Noblesse Oblige’ refers effortlessly/spontaneously to several traditions: Chinese, Greek, Romantic, phenomenological (that laughter). Her vision is transreligious and personal,
the images of a ‘primal ethos’ (Desmond) serving the narrative so essential to lyric: selving.
She makes it look easy. Selving this open to transcendence always verges on the absurd, on the nothing-version of the self’s permeability.
We need a myth of selving that doesn’t stop short of the final act of humility Levertov builds her lyric around and through. Since the self energetically defines itself through its will and technique, the lyric self must follow its dialectic to the brink of loss. This up/down paradox opens on the radical other that transcends the self (Levertov’s mountain). It opens on Plato/ Diotima’s myth of Eros as offspring of want and plenty. In Eros, plenty overwhelms the want. It passes through the nothing of pure presence. As Desmond points out (Gift of Beauty, 290), this passage through nothingness is not nothing, it is a way, ‘a making way.’ The space so traversed is the ‘primal porosity,’ ‘the universal impermanence, the ‘fertile void’ —- in a word, the metaxu. (Desmond’s verbal imagination is indeed fertile!).
The selving of the poet in the act of creation is an act of unselving that foregrounds what is already always there. Every good lyric however modest (let us praise poetic modesty) is a gratuitous act of self sacrifice that draws on the patterns of practice found in the most stringently selfless mystical apophatic ways. The poem is a gift. The presence of the fully charged poetic image may ‘double’ the religious image and this may cause the self to question its independence, always an unresolved issue for the sovereign self in Modernity.
Levertov’s gently ironic title suggests something of the cost of having worked through the selving and unselving process which is essential to lyric as a human way.