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” . . . .

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.

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.