The “Perfection” of Eleanor Hooker’s “A Tug of Blue” — and a 9th-century Irish lyric


I tweeted today that Eleanor Hooker’s new book “A Tug of Blue” had arrived and that the poems had a certain kind of “perfection” that involved the simultaneity of formal and moral aspects. This must have sounded strange! We don’t use the word “perfection” these days outside hyperbolic praise; nor do we use “moral” and “formal” very often in discussions of poems. Probably most people read it as a “blurb” and took no offense. But I think I can figure out why my tweet had those discomfiting words in it.

There’s a language of praise to which “perfect” belongs. The word etymologically means
“made through and through”; and this significance would point to the other problem with that I said, the idea of a poem being simultaneously both formally and morally perfect.

First, “perfect,” aside from its etymological roots, involves terms like “good.” They function in various circumstances: a good meal, a good lover, a good parent. A second aspect of perfection terms is that they are “achievement” terms. They measure the degree to which the individual FAILS to live up to the standard implicit in the contextual meaning. The food at the new restaurant is pretty good: we judge the meal by a standard. This openness involves the ongoing judgement: the degree of goodness is always on a sliding scale. (I’ve learned a lot about perfection terms from Stephen Mulhall’s THE GREAT RIDDLE.)

In the case of Eleanor’s new poems, the category includes, for example, in my experience anyway, the “anthology of Early Irish lyrics titled “The Finest Music” (ed. Maurice Riordan). The title obviously uses the rhetoric of “praise” and praise often engages the idea of perfectibility (or perfection). This 9th century lyric translated by Thomas A. Clark comes to mind:

cold mountain rough feral black

wolves and winds howl in its glens

howl about its high places

the stag bellows in autumn

in bewilderment of gold

herons sit by its waters

The poem opens with a rather uncomplicated description of “cold mountain.” At the same time “uncomplicated” doesn’t quite cover the rhetoric of the sequence of “rough feral black” — this is just outside the norm and so expressive of something uncommon. The whole poem works this way into a sense of rare experience. The process of arriving at such a rare state of perception we experience in light of accepted modes of “perfection” — perfection is the extreme of a range of experiences.

The poem goes on to “fill in” the space created by the description. Intensity is created by specifying the source of the wonder: the blended sounds of wolves and winds; the repetition of “howl” and the distancing of the sound “in its high places” — all this combines in a sound image that is solidified in a common image of the bellowing stag. There’s an elegant telescoping of sound in the first five lines of the poem.

The final two lines, astonishingly, quiet every thing down. The feel of this “couplet” would almost create a sensory gap just when we expected a climax. The word “bewilderment” however captures the subjectivity of the intensification of the imagery. Who is bewildered? “In bewilderment of gold” is “difficult” in the sense that unlike the previous language of the poem it is not strictly clear; an “equivocation” is involved. That equivocation is somehow “perfected” or given a local habitation and a name in the final image of herons “sitting” by its waters. Are they “bewildered” as they “sit’ between the sounds of wind, and wolves and stags and their own waters?

I’d say then that this 9th century Irish poem involves us in a moral ecology. Not “moral” in terms of “morality” but moral in terms of our appreciation of the “perfectibility” of the image TOWARDS the ontological state conveyed by “bewilderment of gold” as fleshed out by the iconic image of “herons sit by its waters” — an almost “sacred” image; and again, the “almost’ is part of the “perfect” language of the poem.

Regardless of the original, Clark has employed a rich language of “perfection” that moves the contemporary reader in ways befitting the expectations we have of the lyric.

One can’t help think, “anachronistically, of Yeats. Poetry involves our sense of perfectibility in our aesthetic memories, so maybe we don’t have to apologize for the “anachronism” of our appreciation. The ancient poem moves from a seasonal image of “cold” to a more universal image of “bewilderment of gold.”

This gold standard, so to speak, was “behind” my blurb. In the Tweet I photographed the poem “Skipping Stones.”

The poem involves a little story about the poet removing to her special place — where she experiences the delicious partnership with the place in solitude — being interrupted — syntactically unannounced — by a “She.” There’s some wonderful footwork executed by Hooker at this point.

Skipping Stones

A rare day and the lake is a tug of blue

and the haul of water is a tow of sky,

and I stop in my quiet place

to skip stones, mindful of change.

She doesn't pass by, she stops to say

they're having a bash to which

everyone we know is going and,

well, since its up to her ...

I retreat to my quiet place,

mindful of change, aware that

the multiple bounce of stones is

dependent on the angle at which

they're thrown, and the object

is to skip as many times

as possible, before sinking.

The ambiguity of the “She” and the equivocation of the pronouns — she, they, we, everyone — sketch out the dialogical moment as perhaps “subjective”: the “She” could well be an aspect of the poet’s self, tempting herself away from “my quiet place.” This is the mark of the “modern” — this severe self-consciousness mapped by the grammar of the language. The same grammar, I note, that governs our use of perfection terms. The “retreat” after the interruption goes more deeply into the private self before it returns to the “law” of possibility governing all events in this world. The “sinking” feeling is there BECAUSE of the perfectibility of the moment as one skips stones.

The poise of the poem between “mindfulness of change” and the perfecting of one’s ability to skip stones (towards infinity?) gives the poem an elegant moral compass. And so my sense of a fusion of moral and formal elegance in at least this poem was not too far off . . . .

I think if you look at that poem “objectively” you will see a kinship with the Ninth-Century poem. “A rare day” — a conventional opening BUT one that engages the “perfectible” use of “rare.” The balance of the first line and the second line moves into the equivocal language of poetry: “the lake is a tug of blue / and the haul of water is a tow of sky, / and I stop. . . .” While the ancient poet did not use metaphors to convey his sense of things, the intensification of the landscape is something they have in common. And so on and so on. They also share “mindfulness of change” — the poems are a response to a happening in the real world, the world of finite individuals, the world “between” the brute fact and the fulfillment of our desires. Hooker’s swerve in “I retreat to my quiet place, / mindful of change ….” sets up the final “metaphor.” The “object” when skipping stones “is to skip as many times / as possible, before sinking.”

The “moral” aspect of this poem reminds one of Frost’s stoic narratives. And yet the sense of “perfection” enlivens the language and the structure of the poem-as-poem.

Given the occasion of the poem — the interruption of a quiet day by someone inviting the poet to a “bash” — the word “skip” has ambiguity that provides insights into the state of mind of the poet, a state of mind in keeping with “my quiet place” but in the final image open to the inescapable fact that after however so many skips the stone always sinks — as if in defeat? exhaustion? relief? Or is it the poet who sinks?

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Spaces of the Imagination and Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is considered one of the greatest American poets, perhaps a third after Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. He had something of both: a sharp metaphysical wit and a broad generous embrace of the spectacle of humanity. The former is more often noticed than the latter, however; Stevens, especially in his later, longer poems, can be difficult, if not infuriating to read.

I believe Stevens’s difficulty has roots in his ultimate beliefs. Beliefs were few for Stevens, but his poetry sometimes seems haunted by an unconscious search for beliefs; “order” is a key word for Stevens. It took most of a lifetime to bring his “rage for order” (a phrase from his second,1936 book, Ideas of Order) into line with his aesthetic principles. The concept of order is of course inseparable from, but in no wise defined, by politics, and Paul Mariani’s recent biography The Whole Harmonium (2016) does a good job accounting for Stevens’s shifting political opinions; as to party, Stevens was a Republican, but one who responded to Truman’s victory over Dewey by acknowledging that the ultruism of the Truman party was probably the greatest force for good in the world at that time. In the academy today, with its prickly sensitivities to hierarchies of power, Stevens is a hot potato or a dead white male.

The controversy among the professors may neglect Stevens’s search for and ultimate belief in metaleptic experience. Take the issue of religion. As we learn from Mariani’s biography, for all his dandyish aestheticism and skepticism, Stevens’s journey from the Presbyterian faith of his fathers in Bucks County, PA, through alternatingly jocular and pained disbelief, to his deathbed in Hartford Connecticut, comes to an end with the visits of a priest to his hospital bed. The Catholic priest, who visited him out of kindness not because Stevens was of the faith (he wasn’t), was surprised to discover that Stevens had a “marvelous idea of what God was.” For Stevens, God was “this absolute idea. Everything had been created, except for this one original uncreated concept . . .” (Mariani, p. 396). (That this idea is a version of the perennial problem called the ontological difference will be of interest to the theologically-minded reader.) In their discussions, Stevens resisted the idea of Hell in favor of a merciful God. And yet he did receive communion before he died.

For Stevens, in his resistance to contemporary Christianity, the imagination and God were not opposed; he often played with the idea that they were the same ‘thing.” But for Stevens, the word “thing” was always in play. The thing-world could become charged with a heart-breaking beauty. This mystery is his central preoccupation, and he connected it with “imagination.” Just whose imagination becomes less and less clear as time goes on.

The experience of reading Stevens can be mind-numbing; he had no intention to produce language that was a paraphrase of concepts independently believed. More than most poets, Stevens made poems that conveyed the experience of thinking. For Stevens, thinking was inseparable from feeling, from perceiving, from, you might say, being. So in trying to understand the structure of Stevens’s poems, I have found that Eric Voegelin’s idea of imagination has proved crucial. Here is a key text from In Search of Order (2000, p. 52):

“Imagination, as a structure in the process of a reality that moves toward its truth, belongs both to human consciousness in its bodily location and to the reality that comprehends bodily located man as a partner in the community of being. There is no truth symbolized without man’s imaginative power to find the symbol that will express his response to the appeal of reality; but there is no truth to be symbolized without the comprehending It-reality in which such structures as man with his participatory consciousness , experiences of appeal and response, language and imagination occur. Through the imaginative power of man the It-reality moves imaginatively toward its truth.”

This meaty paragraph is part of Voegelin’s discussion of the metaxy. Voegelin’s refusal to reduce the imagination to a “thing” – indeed, to understand it in terms of both the perceiving body and reality as a whole – would satisfy Stevens’s need to convey in imagery his experience of order. In his later poems, Stevens expansively communicates the metaleptic experience of partnership in the ongoing search.

Stevens’s meditative journey towards metaleptic clarity occupied him as his career allowed. From 1916 until his death, Stevens worked at The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, assigned to handle surety claims; when he wasn’t traveling, he liked to spend his evenings upstairs in his private suite, where he insisted on keeping the windows open regardless of the cold, acknowledging to a correspondence that the sitting Buddha, sent to him by a friend in Ceylon, probably suffered more than he from the cold. (The house became insufferably hot in summer.) His poetry increasingly reflected his meditative habits of mind. Stevens would have appreciated Voegelin’s chiastic phrasing when he writes: “There is no truth symbolized without man’s imaginative power to find the symbol that will express his response to the appeal of reality; but there is no truth to be symbolized without the comprehending It-reality . . .”

As for the It-reality, Voegelin introduces that neologism as the key actor in what we call the metaxological narrative. For Voegelin, the metaxy is a structure informed by the paradox of consciousness. That is, the movement or narrative in/of consciousness was between univocal objectivity—thinghood out there — to an equivocal all-encompassing “space” animated by the search for truth, the space which included the partnership of God and man. The theology of the metaxy is complicated and embedded in rich figural language.

The It-reality points to something impersonal or rather trans-personal. In In Search for Order, Voegelin explains his coinage of the phrase “It-reality.” The word It, he notices, was often resorted to in philosophical texts about the search for truth; it is also found idiomatic phrases like “It’s raining.” As it happens, we find it in a comment on Wallace Stevens in a popular text, Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets (1999, p. 663):

“In Adagia, his aphorisms, he goes so far as to say that poetry is ‘life’s redemption,’ after belief in God is no longer possible. It is a redemption that knows itself to be the Supreme Fiction and that nonetheless elicits belief. Like Blake he is an enemy of reason, which destroys; unlike Blake he has no metaphysic but a physic in both senses, a medicine and a material world made over, made real, taken back to what it is before habits of work and rest, of play and passion, have dulled or misshapen it. To take it back to it, the poet must first be aware of what has happened to it. Through the distorted world of dailiness he finds the real, and that is poetry, even when he does not write the poem. ‘The humble are they that move more about the world with the lure of the real in their heart.’ ”

“The lure of the real” is perhaps the kind of phrase that goes without explanation; but Voegelin’s idea of reality is central to the narrative of the metaxy as Stevens’s experienced it. For Voegelin, the search is for “symbols” of metaleptic experience. In Stevens, “reality” is always already in dialectical relation to “imagination.” In Voegelin vision of the metaxy, reality is the transformative term common to both poles: “ . . . reality moves from the position of the intended object to that of subject, while the consciousness of the human subject intending objects moves to the position of a predicative event in the subject ‘reality’ as it becomes luminous for its truth” (In Search of Order, 30). Reality moves, its passage gives shape and direction to the metaxy. In this sense, as Plato, Voegelin was a poet of the metaxy.

As was Stevens in his last poems. Many could be cited. From The Rock, see “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” his poem about his Harvard mentor George Santayana as he lay dying in Rome attended by nuns. There are longer poems exploring the metaxy, for example the monumental “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” where his anti-Apocalypticism takes shape in Professor Eucalyptus, who says, “The search / For reality is as momentous as / The search for god.” But perhaps perfect for this occasion is this poem in which the metaleptic partnership transforms the language of romance into a philosophical confession.

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room

In which we rest and, for small reason, think

The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.

It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,

Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl

Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,

A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.

We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,

A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.

We say God and the imagination are one…

How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,

We make a dwelling in the evening air,

In which being there together is enough.

Reading this with the above discussion in mind allows us to experience the poem as a “spiritual exercise” (the phrase is Pierre Hadot’s), and more specifically, a metaxological meditation.

The opening of the poem is suitably objective sounding; I say “suitably” because poems, and metaxical thinking, always start with the given (see Voegelin’s meditation on the beginning at the beginning of In Search of Order). The reader is asked to light “the first light of evening . . . “ We can see a man retiring to his room, turning on the lamps one by one. The “we” seems casual, rhetorical, we talk to ourselves. And: to think in a “room in which we rest,” to think – experimentally, “for small reason” – this strange hypothesis: “The world imagined is the ultimate good.” Not a transcendent being, not “Being,” but the “world imagined.” Voegelin’s search for symbols of metaleptic partnership in the search for truth.

The student of Voegelin’s metaxy will notice the effort to categorize beings within beings, the “structural” theme. Structures within structures. The univocal language of “things” becomes the equivocal language of plurivocal “things.” An extreme idea – “the intensest rendezvous.” The plural “we” begins to become, ”out of all the indifferences, one thing”: and within that thing is another thing . . . the miraculous influence.” As Voegelin says, the structures of the metaxy are paradoxical. As we will see in later essays, there are many metaxies, many betweens, the structural paradox is what they have in common.

Something pours into the room where we rest and reflect, where we forget ourselves and feel “the obscurity” – not the clarity or certitude, the “obscurity” – of the composing Other, ‘that which arranged the rendezvous.” “We” – the dialogical reflective self and also the metaleptic relationship – has become the “object” of a grander subject “in the mind.” We are now deep within a “vital boundary”: and the spatial metaphor of the “metaxy” emerges as a seeming necessity emerges at the end of thinking. Space as symbolic paradox of tensions –structures and movement. In a kind of ecstasis of insight “we say”: “God and the imagination are one.”

“We say” and light the “highest candle.” It’s not as if we have discovered a new thing in the universe. The “dark” is boundless, but within the dark is a room of light, a space we call metaxy, between dark and dark, where we experience the partnership of the erotic search for truth, where we “float ideas” as in a grand conversation, where we watch the It-reality move through the between towards the beyond.

We follow as far as we can. The consolation of being in the between – which is not a final state of resolved tensions, an apocalypse, but a satisfaction nonetheless. It is still evening. “We make a dwelling in the evening air” – the verb “make” returns us to the “poesis” of being here; and in this dwelling, “being there together is enough.” The narrative of the metaxy claims no end in gnosis, but in “being there together.” Being-there-together, a Trinitarian structure-of-structures, if you will.


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Sacred Realism and Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz once told an interviewer that during his long life he had experienced two conditions of terror: the first in Poland under the Nazi and Communist regimes, the second in the U.S. under economic terrorism.


In his prose and poetry Milosz responds – perhaps “resists” is a better way to put it — to all kinds of ideology that reduce human life to conceptual models that are alien to human freedom. His output in prose and poetry, fiction and memoir, was prodigious and reflects his “search for truth” by means of what as a professor he would call “polyvocalism” (as embodied for example in the novels of Dostoevsky, which he taught in his classes at Berkeley). Readers of his many books experience a liberation from the need for a universal perspective from nowhere and learn to hear many voices from many times and traditions in the search for truth. In this sense, Milosz is an exemplary metaxological writer. In his intellectual agonies and religious scruples, many heretical, he is one-of-a-kind.


Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911 and in Warsaw during the war years worked for the resistance. He was raised as a Roman Catholic in a rural way of life which supplied him with images of paradise for the rest of his life. As a young rebellious poet he wrote about “catastrophe” and drew on apocalyptic forms of thought. In 1946 he enetered the diplomatic service of the new People’s Republic of Poland. After serving in Washington D. C. he returned to Warsaw and defected to the West – to Paris — in 1951. There he wrote his classic account of intellectual accommodation to the ideology of Stalinism, The Captive Mind. Some of his colleagues at the time saw this as a “defection” to the West; Milosz’s autobiographical writings – and like Montaigne, Milosz is always autobiographical—involve him in a deeply dialectical response to his own “trans-shifting” (Herrick) times. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1960, and became Professor of Slavic Languages at U.C.Berkeley. In Visions of San Francisco Bay (published in English in 1982) he writes with the radical simplicity that became Milsoz’s trademark as he matured; the ironies are thick and sometimes disarming. In the 1970s he began to translate various books of the Bible into Polish; he also published books of poetry in English and seemed to me at the time to have almost become a contemporary American poet. In 1980 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 2004.


Reading Milosz involves a freshening sense of going against the grain, of strategic reconfigurations of key narratives. In his useful book Theology and the Spaces of Apocalyptic (Marquette University Press 2009), Cyril O’Regan defines the metaxy as a space between two other apocalyptic spaces characterized by “fullness” and “emptiness”; the first indicates the space occupied by, say, Balthasar, the second by, say, Walter Benjamin.


Along with O’Regan’s other books on the gnostic return in modernity, this little book is proving very useful as I develop a metaxological poetics. For example, his description of metaxical “space” as a verb is a pungent formulation recalling Eric Voegelin’s meditations in In Search of Order. As we’ve seen in earlier essays, the idea of “narrative,” which helps O’Regan differentiate the key element of reconfiguration of the original Biblical narrative, can be applied with great discretion to poetic texts. And, as demonstrated in earlier essays on Heaney and Stevens, we can see the metaxy unfolding in the “narrative” movement within the space designated by a short poem.


Enter Milosz. His readings of the gnostic return confound the elegant taxonomies of the theologian. With all due confessions of betrayal, Milosz remains loyal to original Biblical values as he developed a literary technique of polyvocalism as a response to ideological terror and its social institutionalizations. In practice, Milosz was open to a diversity of voices, many considered heretical; while he remained loyal to the Catholic faith of his childhood, he drew on sources such as William Blake, Swedenborg, Gnosticism, and especially Manicheanism, on which he taught an undergraduate course. O’Regan’s meticulous attention to the full array of theological responses to apocalyptics gives the reader of Milosz plenty to think about; he himself notes Milosz’s strong rejections of the idea that Blake was a gnostic. But reading Milosz in this context throws light on his intentions in response to “Ulro” — he uses Blake’s term in The Land of Ulro (English edition 1984). “Ulro” refers in Milosz to Voegelin’s “scientism: to the regime of the anti-traditional forms of experience that emerged in modernity undergirded by reductive ideologies.


Milosz’s polyvocalism as a response to Ulro is part of a metaxological poetics. While his personal agon may be dramatized in terms of his loyalty to his native Catholic realm, Milosz resisted the central trends of modern philosophy. The metaxy has its roots in Greek philosophy and there are plural metaxies that come into play in modernity. In attending to the irreducible fullness of experience, the contemporary Irish philosopher William Desmond is, as O’Regan notes, both poetic and encyclopedic. O’Regan’s essay on Desmond in Between System and Poetics: William Desmond and Philosophy after Dialectic (Thomas A. F. Kelly, ed,, Ashgate, 1988) is perhaps the best essay yet written on Desmond. O’Regan points out that for Desmond philosophy is a response to experiences that are primitive (that of others, evil, or value) and modes of experience that are primal (wonder and perplexity). For Desmond, the emphasis is always on experience as conceptualized by the major philosophies of the Western canon. But the roots of Desmond’s analysis of consciousness are in a radical – “root” – way of primal experience that transcends all determinations, which in fact makes all determinations possible. This radical root itself is beyond determination. For Milosz, the “sacred” is both rooted narratively (e.g. Biblical myth) and experiential wonder and imagination.


Because of the lucidity and richness of his analysis of experience, Desmond helps us read Milosz. Milosz’s experience of evil made him a pessimist and a student of Manicheanism; and his experience of primal wonder made him an exponent of apokatastasis, the ancient belief that all things shall be restored in the end to their identities in time. As a Catholic, Milosz was agonizingly aware that his beliefs put him at odds with the canonical teachings of the Church. As a self-consciously modern poet, he had no brief for canons. The tensions remained. Adapting a saying of his cousin Oscar Milosz, Czeslaw would often say that what matters is the search for truth.


The tensions informing Milosz’s sense of human consciousness are evident everywhere in his work. Also evident is what O’Regan describes, in his essay on Desmond, as a whole “open rather than closed, fissured by transcendence rather than articulating immanence, and completely mediated rather than dialectically self-mediated” (92). “Completely mediated” refers I think to the primal ethos as always in play: that is, in another vocabulary, the sacred is always there in the between. For Desmond, the metaxy reconnects each mode of experience with the primal ethos of being. This ethos is always already in play; the other ways (univocal, equivocal, dialectical), which have their truths, yet reduce it to one or the other dimension of experience. There is no final synthesis: the metaxy happens in consciousness when consciousness opens up to the source of experience beyond consciousness as shaped by the univocal, equivocal, and dialectical ways. This is not “apocalyptic” in the common sense of the term because it does not destroy or overcome the more limited ways to God; they remain important to finite consciousness. For Desmond, this final opening of the metaxy is especially relevant to how we understand our experience of great art.


In a word, philosophy needs great art. Of the metaxy Desmond writes, “It lives between peril and crux. As a figuring of the primal ethos, it divines the nature of the togetherness, the absolved relativity, with heed to the difference, and without forgetting the transcendence of the divine and its reserves. We need a finessed, transdialectical logos of the metaxu” (God and the Between, 117).


At a more granular level, Desmond’s analysis of experience into four “ways of being” – the univocal, the equivocal, the dialectical, and the metaxological – is useful for our understanding of Milosz’s polyvocalism. As I showed in earlier essays, lyric poems take shape under the sign of the metaxy: the movement within the poem is between various types of reductive consciousness and towards metaxological or full, porous consciousness. We’ve seen how a poet like Stevens explores reality in terms of the imagination. And, as we saw in the commentary on a poem by Heaney, the dimensions of the space may be thought of as “archaeological,” a figure which combines space and time.


In Milosz’s late lyric, “Realism,” the metaxical movement is sponsored by a meditation on works of art. As meditation, the whole poem becomes metaxological space.


We are not so badly off, if we can

Admire Dutch painting. For that means

We shrug off what we have been told

For a hundred, two hundred years. Though we lost

Much of our previous confidence. Now we agree

That those trees outside the window, which probably exist,

Only pretend to greenness and treeness

And that language loses when it tries to cope

With clusters of molecules. And yet, this here:

A jar, a tin plate, a half-peeled lemon,

Walnuts, a loaf of bread, last –- and so strongly

It is hard not to believe in their lastingness.

And thus abstract art is brought to shame,

Even if we do not deserve any other.

Therefore I enter those landscapes

Under a cloudy sky from which a ray

Shoots out, and in the middle of dark plains

A spot of brightness glows. Or the shore

With huts, boats, and on yellowish ice

Tiny figures skating. All this

Is here eternally, just because, once, it was.

Splendor (certainly incomprehensible)

Touches a cracked wall, a refuse heap,

The floor of an inn, jerkins of the rustics,

A broom, and two fish bleeding on a board.

Rejoice! Give thanks! I raised my voice

To join them in their choral singing,

Amid their ruffles, collets, and silk skirts,

Already one of them, who vanished long ago.

And our song soared up like smoke from a censer.


After the opening reference to Dutch painting, with its luminous realism, Milosz refers to the modern condition of dualism whereby what is univocally out there is also bracketed as clothed in mental draperies added by the intellect. As he argues in The Land of Ulro, this is the world of abstraction constructed by early modern philosophy.


The poem follows the narrative path of Desmond’s four senses of being. The univocal way leads in the narrative of consciousness to the equivocal; we doubt our senses. Greenness and treeness are essences that exist only in the mind. As we doubt, we follow a dialectic that can only undercut our very sense of self. What saves us is the painting, the art. Loyal to our experience of the art, somehow we finesse the differences and still believe. The poem becomes a metaxical space where within the narrative of the ways of being, space becomes liturgical, and the poet a priest.


If this is irony, this degree of irony can be disorienting to modern readers. Polyvocalism it is. It deserves another name.


To review the final stage of the metaxical journey: And yet this here: Nevertheless we “enter” the landscapes of realism. Though as exponents of abstraction – and Abstract art – we really don’t deserve it, we can participate in what we behold. Indeed, it is hard not to believe in its lastingness; after all, the paintings reach us over centuries of modernist deformation of consciousness. Milosz’s study of apokatastasis comes into play here as often in his works. And this, in O’Regan’s terms, is his “metalepsis” of canonical apocalyptic. His “swerve.” Swerve he does, and must, to make sense of his experience. He’s on sacred ground, guilty as sin.


Having once happened, these beings are. They draw on the original ethos of being. Milosz’s metaxological, ironic finesse of crippling mental habits of modernity restores a world of “luminous things” (the title of his best-selling anthology of world poetry). Following through to the metaxical space, he is “already one of them, who vanished long ago.” The poem, which began with an account of his modern alienatioin, plagued by the disfiguring figurations of univocal, equivocal, and dialectical modes, finally breaks into the metaxical space of praise.

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W. S. Merwin Questions THE ARTISAN WORLD

The Artisan World

 It turns but does not try to remember
 it does not precede or follow
 obey or disobey
 it is not answering a question
 it arrives knowing without knowledge
 it makes the pieces one by one in the dark
 there is always enough dark
 before time comes with the locusts
 the insects of comparison the improvers
 with their many legs in the dazzling air
 makers of multiplication and series
 they never touch what is awake here
 and is not waiting nor asking nor fashioned
 but is one with the uneven currents of breathing
 with the silence untouched by the rush of noise

from The Moon before Morning (2015)



The idea behind reading the between is that the world of essential human consciousness — the world we know without the reductivism of various sciences and ideologies, the  world “between” the extremes of void and apocalypse — has somehow become a lost art, at least for many of us. Social media reframes all communications in quotes. More particularly, the popular apocalyptic narrative — including the dystopian narrative — has become default. No choice between nihilism and apocalyptic? Communication outside the specializations has become shrill and not only noisy but noisome, even toxic.

But there are poets who seem to write from outside the ideologies and issue-driven points of view. I said “seem” because the issue here is not a “point of view” from Nowhere. Yet this poem by W. S. Merwin is seemingly about a “world” — “the artisan world.” Not that that phrase denotes anything determinate: “the artisan world” must be contrasted to some other world for us to get a feel for it.

The abruptness of the opening is easy to skim: it seems abstract, as if translated from an ancient text. We will return to that. As we read, we perceive a distinction between a beginning — the world of the artisans? — and an after: the world of the “multiplication and series” (the world of units, very much the monetized world but maybe even more than that). Or is THAT the “world of the artisans”?  The poem seems to be about both, before and after — and the “space” between. Twilight.

The metaphor for one of these worlds is “insect” —  beings that come in parts, “sect” referring to “cutting” in Latin, and perhaps the “sects” of orthodoxies; they are improvers but do not “touch what is awake here / and is not waiting nor asking nor fashioned.” That’s the other world as introduced in the opening.

If you have followed the imagery to this point (notice how Merwin’s syntax, and his lack of punctuation, makes following an intense act of attention), you can take in the final two lines that return to the opening, as day returns to night.This ending  places the between world of the poem in a perspective that communicates values — breathing and silence — belonging to what may be called the contemplative life.

That ending — like the endings of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets — is both elegant, comprehensive, and slightly allusive, so,  we start over, and as we do we may see something we didn’t notice the first time we read the opening:  the little word “it.” It turns; it does not; it is not; it arrives; it makes  . . . And everything it does is done before time comes–before the insects, the improvers.

So, indeed, Merwin’s little poem depends on a distinction between a Beginning and and After. A distinction as big as myth. But as historians of the idea of the metaxy such as Eric Voegelin have shown, the “It” and the Beginning, before time, are part of the “metaxological” narrative; the narrative of the between. For Merwin, this impersonal Subject is a “maker” that recalls aspects of the Tao and of Genesis as well.

What then is “the artisan world”? The world of the It and the beginning? or the world of the insects? I think Merwin wanted us to ask that question. As a distinction, it’s crucial. In any event, reading this poem is MORE than reading a “poem” . . . .

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Language, reality, and the between

The scandal of poetry is that it supplies a model for the process of reality– nothing more (model) nothing less (reality).

The scandal arises in the context of Plato’s double contribution to poetics: the attack on poets in The Republic, and the foundation of thinking about “the between” in The Symposium. As we read in The Symposium, it’s from Diotima — a woman!– that Socrates learns that Eros is an intermediary (metaxu), between the beautiful and the ugly. As a “daimon,” Eros moves in the space between extremes. The analogy with true opinion, as between wisdom and ignorance, supplies the foundation of a poetics of the between (metaxy).

The metaxy is the reality we share with all finite beings. So the idea of “reading the between” embraces several senses of “reading”:  from the interpretation of reality as we know it as finite creatures to the interpretation we do as readers of our lives. Our lives as readable; as texts . . . .

In the between, language becomes an issue. It creates confusion as well as clarity, for in its clarity it seems to stand in for reality itself. In its ambiguity, it undermines our trust in our ability to determine reality.

The scandal is at once the scandal of tradition — that Plato could give birth to contrary cultural energies — and the scandal that what we take as reality is inseparable from language, from interpretation, “reading.”

Reading philosophy and theology is good mental exercise; it helps one chart the map of concepts that illuminate, however faintly, one’s journey through time. And sometimes arises a moment of truth in which the scandal of poetry is recognized, if only indirectly.

“If the processes going on in the poet’s work are manifestly more than decorative,” writes Rowan Williams in The Edge of Words (131) — and he should know since he’s been a poet longer than he’s been a theologian — “if they do constitute a way of enhancing truthful acquaintance with our environment, the philosopher is right to point out to the scientist some of the mechanisms involved and to ask how poetic ‘tactics’ can be transferred.”

This is the end of the first section of a chapter titled “Excessive Speech: Language in Extreme Situations,” which, depending on where you are coming from, may or may not sound promising. If you are coming from the argument as it has unfolded in the book, you will read it with that vivid curiosity that whets the appetite for something more than a hint of scandal.

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On the Limits of Language

The poet is liberated by the limits of language.

This aphorism answers a more commonly heard proposition that the poet struggles with the limits of language. (“All writers feel struck by the limits of language”–Margaret Atwood– perhaps a superior aphorism because ‘feel struck’ captures the ambiguity as it avoids the issue.) But it doesn’t just reverse it. It destabilizes it by raising the question, what do we mean by ‘the limits of language’? Is there anything beyond language?

Without being able to name this “beyond,” the poet/poem, in its freedom, turns toward it. I call this “metaxyturn.” The term of art “metaxy” comes from Plato’s Greek for “between” and designates the “space” between the imponderable limits of life and death, self and other. Existence seen from the viewpoint of the freedom of poetry is this “space” not cabined, cribbed, confined — think of Hamlet’s nightmare existence — but “permeated” by light from beyond. In her book Simone Weil: Thinking Poetically (SUNY 1999) Joan Dargan notes a passage in Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry where he writes about “the idea of counterweighing, of balancing out the forces, of redress — tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium” (94). I have issues with Dargan’s reading of Weil but her book speaks to important aspects of our topic.And Simone Weil is among the important voices in the conversation about the metaxy.


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