Poetic Investigations

Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)

Metaxy (Heaney)

Seamus Heaney on Unexpected Supply

In an article published in the Dublin Review (Issue 8, Autumn 2002; see dublinreview.com), Seamus Heaney writes:

I’m interested in what happens when a poem manages to get up on its own legs, so to speak – how it develops its own capacity to move itself along and what then are its means of movement. In the happiest writing experiences, a state occurs in the writer and the material when, to quote the words of Robert Frost, ‘the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing’. Which is to say a sixth sense of possibility grows into a gleeful seventh heaven of reward.

Heaney uses figures of speech from idiomatic English he shares with Frost: sixth sense, seventh heaven. His description captures the dynamics of the moment, which is one of movement. Notice “the poem” does the moving. It “develops its own capacity to move itself” toward a “state” (of mind, if we can so understand “mind”) where wonder grows, a sense of possibility grows “into a gleeful seventh heaven of reward.”

Metaphysically, what happens in the “happiest writing experience” involves Being approached apophatically — with due respect for its transcendence as other. The self experiences “love” for something beyond it. This attitude opens the self to the search for being, truth. But the self can’t name this “being” because it is not “a being” but being itself — unknown to us. But it can appeal to it, and does in a “negative” or “apophatic” way.

Compositions climb the ladder of surprise, moved by the lure of understanding, undergoing an ascetic process of seeing beyond the certainties maintained by the self, a process which eventually ends — not really — in mid-air.

As the reserves of the self empty, there is a crucial turning point in the process of composition which I call “metaxyturn”: the self yields to a pressure from outside to turn toward the unknown source of its goodness. This unknown source cannot be known but it can be entertained, as it were, in “the between.” In his metaphysics, William Desmond names the “between” arrived at after the resources of the self are exhausted, the metaxy (following Plato), and the arrival of the self in the between, the metaxy, is a release and a “wooing” from the beyond. After eros, then, agape. That is, if the initial stage of composition is erotic — the self feeling its lack and wanting satisfaction — the final stage requites the final emptiness of eros from “agape” — the good.



Seamus Heaney’s “Pitchfork” is a wonderful poem in many respects. For one thing, it’s a textbook poem showing the step-by-step process by which a poem moves the reader into a new relationship, a new connectivity. It starts with the “unnamed” overlooked thing and gradually probes it, discovering it is not only a source of perplexity (pitchfork flying through the star-lit night) but a re-source that opens for us the paradox of the farthest goal. That is, “it” becomes a name for how we release our desire to know something from our will to KNOW it. Or something like that: the metaxic world, like the Tao, when named, dissolves into its native namelessness.


Of all implements, the pitchfork was the one
That came near to an imagined perfection:
When he tightened his raised hand and aimed with it,
It felt like a javelin, accurate and light.

So whether he played the warrior or the athlete
Or worked in earnest in the chaff and sweat,
He loved its grain of tapering, dark-flecked ash
Grown satiny from its own natural polish.

Riveted steel, turned timber, burnish, grain,
Smoothness, straightness, roundness, length and sheen.
Sweat-cured, sharpened, balanced, tested, fitted.
The springiness, the clip and dart of it.

And then when he thought of probes that reached the farthest,
He would see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past
Evenly, imperturbably through space,
Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless —

But has learned at last to follow that simple lead
Past its own aim, out to an other side
Where perfection – or nearness to it – is imagined
Not in the aiming but the opening hand.

I recall that dyadic figure of the fist or the open palm from my student days: I asked myself, do I want to be a fist scholar — bent on establishing THE MEANING of a text, definitively (I remember a professor who held my future in his hand mentioned one day that he’d just written “the definitive article” on a poem by Andrew Marvell) — or a scholar of the open palm.


Voegelin’s Vision of the Metaxy and “At Toomebridge” by Seamus Heaney

At his death, Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013) was universally mourned. There are many reasons for this. In brief, he bore witness to his times with honesty and grace. Born in Derry in Northern Ireland, Heaney could not avoid the Troubles and his poetry reflected his sense of the order of history in disordered times.

Heaney was born Catholic, and while he did not write from within the contemporary church he continued to draw on religious ideas and experiences. And critics in their turn often draw on Christian contexts; for example, John F. Desmond’s Gravity and Grace: Seamus Heaney and the Force of Light (Baylor University Press, 2009), in situating Heaney in a triangle made up of Simone Weil and Czeslaw Milosz, argues the relevance of the concept of Weil’s version of “metaxu.”

A closer look at Eric Voegelin’s theory of consciousness may provide a finer grained approach to Heaney’s admirably concrete, undoctrinaire language. Voegelin writes that man as creature, while conceived as perched between time and eternity, remains

in the “in-between,” in a temporal flow of experience in which eternity is nevertheless present. The flow cannot be dissected into a past, a present, and a future of world-time, for at every point of the flow there persists the tension toward eternal being transcending time. The concept most suitable to express the presence of eternal being in the temporal flow is flowing presence.

—-Eric Voegelin, Collected Works, Volume 6, Anamnesis, p 329.

This passage admirably suggests the theory behind the paradox of “immanent transcendence,” which is the axle-tree of metaxic understanding.

As “flowing presence” is indeed a beautiful phrase it suggests one of the stylistic features of Heaney’s poetry. As he grew older, Heaney’s touch became lighter and could be mistaken as impressionistic or sketchy. With an eye to historical pasts becoming present in a tension “toward eternal being transcending time,” Heaney wrote about big things and small, public and private aspects of his world as interpenetrating in a vision of continuity towards a whole beyond the whole of the work of art. Increasingly for Heaney, the poem itself was always open to “immanent transcendence.”

A minor poem from a late volume (Electric Light, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001) gains in value when read as witnessing flowing presence.

At Toomebridge
           Where the flat water
Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh
As if it had reached an edge of the flat earth
And fallen shining to the continuous
Present of the Bann.
           Where the checkpoint used to be.
Where the rebel boy was hanged in ’98.
Where negative ions in the open air
Are poetry to me. As once before
The slime and silver of the fattened eel.

The River Bann has been navigated since the Stone Age. Heaney’s references to Medieval belief helps us contextualize the river itself. During the 1798 Rebellion the rebels bombed the bridge over the Bann to prevent the arrival British reinforcements from the West. The Presbyterian radical Roddy McCorley was executed there on Good Friday, 1800. And yet, the phrase “the continuous/ Present of the Bann” — note the capitalization of “Present” — points both to time and to an experience of immanent transcendence.

The Present however is interrupted, as it were, by history: the Troubles: the checkpoint, the hanging of the rebel boy. These two are reflected in the continuous flow of the Bann.

Then the poem takes an inward, personal turn. In an image of almost paradoxical concision, the “negative ions” of the river environment are “poetry”! The juxtaposition of the plainspoken though accurate noun phrase “negative ion” and the exclamation “poetry to me” suggests something of the poet’s in-between existence: science of particulars and the deeper indexes of his spiritual nature. And this chastened moment of overcoming “negative” history is followed by a memory of catching eel there as a boy. (Heaney has written several poems about the eels of the Bann.) The “slime and silver” of the eel once again embraces opposites in one longish concrete reality. Even the word “fattened” implicates the eel in the larger life of the river and of the hierarchy of being.

Eric Voegelin’s writings on the “in-between” offer the reader and critic powerful resources for understanding poetry. Poetry is inseparable from Time in all its Augustinian complexities, and Voegelin’s profound meditations on time and consciousness and history provide essential contexts for a mindful poetics. Understanding a poem in terms of the rich and complex concept “flowing presence” does not reduce the poem to an “example” of some distinct process or mechanism, but reveals in the details of the poem sources of man’s awareness of his place in the in-between.





The core of Desmond’s metaxy is the four senses of being. These are: univocal, equivocal, dialectical, and metaxological. These are “aspects” but not aspects of things but perspectives, or relations to the “knowing self”: the univocal is how we grasp things “out there” as if in some pure space, and is accompanied by wonder; the equivocal is how as we get to know them we begin to confuse them with other things and with concepts, a “state” of perplexity regarding the identity of the ‘thing’; dialectical is how we begin to sort out this thing in relation to other things, how we fit it into a system that constitutes our own conceptual life. The dialectical aspect involves the knower in “self-mediation” and it can become solipsistic, the end of the line for the project of knowledge. BUT if the self regains something of the sense of otherness to the thing, and the wonder of the gift of being, and comes (back) into relation with that sense, we are on the threshold of the metaxological sense. From this sense flows the sense of the origin of the otherness, the too muchness of things, the “greater than which we cannot think”– and this aspect creates the energy of “metaxyturn” by which the relating self becomes open to energies from beyond its own senses of knowing. Desmond calls this agapeic in relation to the erotic drive of the dialectic. The metaxy is the open, the space of agapeic relations.

But it would be wrong to suggest that this way of talking about the four senses of being exhausts the problem. You may compare the metaxy to the process of coming to love a person. First, we notice the person, we are intrigued (univocal); second, we are confused by our feelings, we are no longer sure we know what we are getting into (equivocal); then we start a relationship, a conversation, and find ourselves in a process of learning about the other. Eventually this stage with exhaust itself or be transformed. The transformation is what I call “metaxyturn”: one begins to see oneself AND the beloved in light of something greater than both combined. The relationship takes on a “vertical” dimension (whether that vertical is imagined up or down is, well, relative to those involved).

So it could be that “friendship” is just another word for metaxy.

Here are some fragmentary writings related to “metaxyturn”


further reading:

Richard Kearney, Anatheism (2010) on kairos, Paul, and postmodernism and Kierkegaard ‘repeating forward’.

Kairophonic (epiphanic) indicates the sudden surplus of dimensions in the voice of the poem with the release from self-mediation into the metaxy

“The Goose Tree” poem by Moyra Donaldson at http://Poethead.wordpress.com/


The Between

The ancient Chinese concept of timeliness or fulfillment in time was inseparable from the image of heaven (Sarah Allan, The Way of Water, 22). My meditations on “writing the between” turn on the timeliness of the metaxy, both as a concept and as a reality. When something happens in the metaxy, it really happens.

How do we find ourselves in the between?

The “mythical” figure Kairos has many offsprings. (See the article on Kairos at Wikipedia.) To the ancient Greeks, Kairos was the moment of decision–a turning point which, if capitalized on, will prove one’s worth and then some; neglected or botched, it could be one’s ruin. In rhetoric, it is the moment when the audience will be presented with the clincher in an argument, the momentum that brings the whole weight of the foregoing to bear on the question–and somehow arranges for a resolution.

Kairos is a key moment in any composition. But how do we prepare it or for it? We know that in the flow of our composition, there will come a time when the narrative or the sequence of images must knot into something new and special; if not, the composition is “flat” and without denoument. Aside from the rational problem of setting up such a moment, how does the writer survive it?


The writer’s preparation holds the answer. The writer understands that writing is a craft. It takes practice. It requires assimilation of a rich array of topics appropriate to one’s subject matter. It requires study of successful compositions, and the internalization of the inner form of these compositions. Along with beginnings and middles, one internalizes, knowingly or not, the kairos– that moment when the mass and direction of the piece crest into a shape compact of possibility.

As in the fable of Cook Deng, the imperial butcher who no longer has to sharpen his cleaver, Zhuangzi recognized the role of such skill sets in participation in the Tao (see Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, edd Kjellberg and Invanhoe, SUNY 1996)

Kairos goes beyond craft. It requires an ability to release what one has so urgently held onto so that it may realize itself for others.


“Metaxy” as a concept is rooted in discourses that assume a meditative process starting with a via negativa, a stripping away of habits of mind, an attaining through kenosis of a zero state of mindfulness. Plato’s cave is the most famous of these scenes. The recovery of the concept of “metaxy” in the 20th century assumes a skepticism towards language echoed in such thinkers as Simone Weil, Eric Voegelin, and William Desmond. Poets have been particularly attuned to the timeliness of the metaxy: Paul Celan, Yves Bonnefoy, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, and many others.

It’s not hard to see why. Suspicion of language is characteristic of nihilism. Modernity sponsored many such kenotic scenes. Michael Hamburger writes that poetry like Celan’s is “poetry always close to the unutterable because it has passed through it and come out the other side” (Poems of Paul Celan, xxxiii). Yves Bonnefoy suggests a related aporia: ” . . . poetry is, precisely not a ‘use’ of the language. Perhaps, it is a madness in the language . . .” (The Act and the Place of Poetry, 1989, 119).

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