The Scholar’s Art: On Susan Stewart

By Ange MlinkoJanuary 19, 2012

The Scholar’s Art: On Susan Stewart

The Poet’s Freedom by Susan Stewart

GIVEN THE MANY USES and abuses of the word "freedom," it stands to reason that our poetic history has produced a little epitome of its vexations. The concept of a "free" poetry is all but an oxymoron: Poetry is concerned, above all, with the question of its own accounting; in the eighteenth century it was even referred to as "numbers." Yet what major language has been untouched by the revolution of "free verse"? Almost a hundred years after Ezra Pound trumpeted Imagism, venerable traditions have succumbed to the ametrical: Arabic, Russian, Hindi. But even Pound and Eliot didn't believe vers could be truly libre, Frost ridiculed it, neoformalists rallied against it, and internet curmudgeons still wax irate on the subject.

No, there is something about poetry — about language use itself — that sits uneasily with "freedom." Maybe it's the terror of babble (the verbal mode of insanity, dementia, and catastrophe). Maybe it's that for tens of centuries, scribes and grammarians have been mainstays against the cultural losses — and dysphasias — incurred by history: losses of manuscripts, of entire languages. They have also been the ones to sniff at an improperly used meter, a "shapeless" ode, or a qasida that seemed just "a string of pearls," all rhyme and no reason. Grammar is hard to master. Meaning is easily lost. To mess with it, to mess with language, to play with it (much less play with it without a net) drives pious types bonkers. And on the other side are the ones who have played with language relentlessly, also for thousands of years, the rhymers, punners, riddlers, and innuendo-peddlers who have simultaneously performed the shamanistic duties of the bard: keeper of the culture's stories, its knowledge, its word-hoard. Frivolous and serious, mischievous and magisterial, poets play both sides of the coin of freedom — heads they study ("the scholar's art," Wallace Stevens called poetry), tails they frisk. If freedom and poetry seem paradoxical, freedom and poets are all but identical.

Here is a telling story about freedom and poetry. In the early 1770s (the same time, not coincidentally, that revolutions were brewing in America and France), European poets conceived a passion for Pindar, the great choral poet of Greece's golden age. Diderot's encyclopedia referred to Pindar's style as one of beau désordre; the German philosopher and poet Johann Herder called his meter gesetzlos, "lawless" (he said this approvingly). Herder's friend Goethe, following Horace, praised Pindar as "borne on free rhythms" ("numerisque fertur/lege solutis") like a mountain river, and adopted an idea of the rhythmic dithyramb for his own purposes. Thus was the romantic ode first born. It was only in 1811 that a new edition of Pindar, based on different lineation, revealed how unfree those "disordered" dithyrambs actually were. According to these classicists, Pindar had in fact cleaved to a rigid metrical scheme repeated in corresponding strophes.

The same mistake, in fact, had been made a century earlier in England. Abraham Cowley had been taken with a similar enthusiasm for Pindar and his liberties. He published some imitations in 1656 called Pindarique Odes, which created a fashion for nonce "pindarics" in English society. They were correspondingly unveiled as a kind of fraud in 1706, when the real secrets of Pindar's metrics were revealed, and the form fell into disrepute. Cowley's efforts were described by the playwright William Congreve as "a Bundle of rambling incoherent Thoughts, expressed in a like Parcel of irregular Stanzas, which also consist of another Complication of disproportioned, uncertain, and perplexed Verses and Rhymes." The scorn persists in the entry for "pindaric" in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: "a blunder founded upon a misconception ... [a] vicious tradition." (You'd think that poets were poetry's worst enemy.)

Thus did one notable poetic experiment in freedom — born in an era of revolutions — end in ignominy. Or did it? Pindar's metrics were strict after all, but their strange elaborateness rebukes the conservative critic. Other stylistic features of Pindar's also err on the side of excess and freedom: his neologisms, his sesquipedalian adjectives, his abrupt transitions, his overloading of narrative on narrative (the poet Korinna, whom he lost a contest to, told him "one sows with the hand, not the whole sack"). Had it not been for Pindarmania, we would have had a different Goethe, and thus a different German Romanticism; likewise, English Romanticism needed Cowley. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica sniffs, "even in the odes of Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge the broken versification of Cowley's pindarics occasionally survives." Would we have had a "Kubla Khan" without that erroneous Pindar? Can you imagine English poetry without "Kubla Khan"?


If Pindar isn't much on our minds these days, it may be because our minds turn to poetry in troubled times (witness the popularity of Auden's elegaic "September 1, 1939" after 9/11), while Pindar is a poet of triumph. But he does feature in Susan Stewart's The Poet's Freedom: A Notebook of Making. In her chapter called "Praising," she places him in the company of psalmists and hymnists and odists who made "joyful noises" in a divine economy of giving and receiving,thanking and thinking. (Both words, she reminds us, come from the same root.) "Scarcity is the counterpoint to praise's bounty," she observes. That Pindar is chiefly known for his victory odes, celebrating the winners of chariot races and other games, is bound up with his excessive style. Poets who address loss are elegists; loss creates scarcity, scarcity creates value, and elegy serves a purpose when it shores up value against loss. Praise poets are useless in the best sense, since they celebrate good fortune, which is redundant. This is poetry as an expense of spirit: wasteful, free, and of inestimable worth.

Susan Stewart may be our best contemporary thinker on poetry. Though not usually mentioned in the same breath as Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, or Marjorie Perloff, this former MacArthur fellow and current Princeton professor holds the distinction of being a prize-winning poet (the National Book Critics Circle Award, for Columbarium) as well as a celebrated scholar — Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002), her magnum opus, won two major awards for literary criticism. All of her writing is informed by her work in folklore and cultural criticism early in her career, and lately by aesthetics and visual culture. (Her last book, The Open Studio, was a collection of art essays.) She writes criticism with the grace of a poet, and poetry with a strong logos underlying its lyrical surface. Both are haunted by a feel for our unknowable, primordial being, and this is no doubt what gives her work its abyssal power.

The Poet's Freedom: A Notebook on Making can be read as a companion volume to Stewart's majesticPoetry and the Fate of the Senses. That it is a slimmer book, and one conceived as a "notebook," may lull a reader into thinking that it is lighter, more assimilable; or that it elucidates the "practice" where Poetry and the Fate of the Senses elucidated the "theory." Not quite. The Poet's Freedom reads like the summation of a lifetime's thinking about poetry, but in a more essayistic — freer — format. The endnotes attest to the breadth of Stewart's erudition, yet the "entries" as she calls them (per the trope of the notebook) are errant; they perform the mind, making themselves vulnerable to the kind of happy "error" that results in a new thought. Like "Praising," where Pindar appears, many entries are titled after ambiguous participles: "Beginning," "Forming," "Rhyming," "Meeting." These conflate expectations of the "how to" manual with ontological categories. Making a poem is fraught with choices as to how to begin; how to end; how to rhyme or not rhyme; but these aren't merely questions of craft — they are nothing less than an engagement with the riddle of Creation.

But what does this have to do with freedom? The Poet's Freedom relies, as the earlier book did, on a grounding in Kant's Critique of Pure Judgement: For Kant, as for Stewart, poems (and works of art in general) cannot be made in good faith with a predetermined outcome. Like persons, they set their own agendas. Like persons, they must be singular. Like persons, they must resist the intentions and goals even of their own makers. At the core of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses was the belief that "the face-to-face encounter we have with an artwork is deeply embedded in the meanings and conventions we bring to face-to-face encounters with persons." Poems are literally stand-ins for individuals in all their complexity, but complexity is only something that can be expressed in the exercise of freedom. This is what "useless" art is for.

Once upon a time this was interpreted as "art for art's sake" (still wielded as a great insult by functional-minded Americans). But the most important objective of art's paradoxical uselessness can't be stated often enough: If we already know what we're going to say before we say it, we will never achieve self-knowledge. Artworks show us who we are. By allowing poems to be created freely, to grant them autonomy through frolic and errancy, is precisely to open ourselves to new thoughts about ourselves we would not achieve otherwise. Stewart's sublime entry on rhyming — that most arbitrary and pleasurable device — provides concrete examples; for instance, in John Skelton's "The Garland of Laurel" whose praise of the women of the court is driven by rhyme (some of it as random as it is ambiguous) as if by a perpetual motion machine:

Merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower
With solace and gladness,
Much mirth and no madness,
All good and no badness;
So joyously,
So maidenly,
So womanly
Her demeaning
In every thing,
Far, far passing
That I can indite,
Or suffice to write
Of Merry Margaret
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower.
As patient and still
And as full of good will
As fair Isaphill,
Sweet pomander,
Good Cassander ...

"Rhyme," Stewart avers, "is in the end the main reason Skelton can make such bold observations about Margaret Hussey and other ladies-in-waiting." Only in embracing new — and potentially strange — thoughts, expressed as if by accident through the expense of spirit, can we truly know who we are; and who we are is always changing.

There is a dark side to the freedom of making. Two entries in The Poet's Freedom are concerned with freedom from the negative forms of mood and imagination, respectively. They serve as caveats to the Romantics among us — those who would pursue these states of mind to the point of alienation from body and environment. Stewart points to the contrast between Coleridge, whose fear of the void was expressed in his opium habit and his rejection of fancy, and Shelley, who learned to "fear himself and love others." It is Shelley who realizes we are "thrown back on the task of forming our freedom," and Coleridge who stands as a warning that "liberated from time and space, the imagination is nowhere." Thinking needs its sibling, thanking.


Perhaps the darkest truth about the freedom of making is illustrated in a story that serves, in two different forms, as bookends to Stewart's volume. It takes form, in the beginning, as prose. There she recounts the day she saw an 8- or 9-year-old boy on the beach destroy an elaborate sand castle she had watched him build all afternoon. While the sight of him lustily obliterating his own creation shook her momentarily, she could interpret it through an ancient lens: "Without the freedom of reversibility ... we cannot give value to our making." Further, if it is true that all art-making is practice, there is no ethical requirement that we keep what we make; indeed, "the boy seemed to be returning the power of the form back into himself, as if what he had been practicing all along was a mode of memorization, or, better, learning." A rejection of mastery and artifact is crystallized here, in all its ambivalence, as we confront the ultimate choice: unmaking. Our nostalgia for the made thing — which can harden into antiquarianism — is difficult to eradicate, even for those of us dedicated to making as discovery. This anecdote is told again at the end of the book, in free verse, and the sequence is reversed. This is a kind of Pindaric counter-turn, and most importantly, the marker of a ring structure, the kind he used to write his odes. If Stewart must acknowledge the darker side of art-making and its freedoms, including the (ecologically sound) freedom to unmake what we do, she boldly couches it in implicit praise.

I, too, have another Pindar story to serve as bookend. Just as Stewart would lead us to expect, the widespread misreading of metrical Pindar was no error at all, or it was only the most fruitful kind of error: It led to new beginnings, new forms, new thoughts. (Poets are not poetry's worst enemy!) Stewart notes that even Aristotle argued that the artist sometimes "errs voluntarily," and this leads me to a second story about Pindar and modern poetry. In Goethe's wake, Friedrich Hölderlin took up the banner of Pindar translation with idiosyncratic, word-for-word versions that aimed to translate German into Greek every bit as much as Greek into German. Hölderlin's Pindar translations are considered a milestone of poetic modernism; his method influenced Pound's method of translation. Hölderlin also eventually wrote two pendant poems that read brilliantly beside Stewart's The Poet's Freedom. One is titled "The Poet's Courage" and the other "Timidness." As Walter Benjamin wrote about these poems:

The highest sacrilege is understood as hubris, which, attainable only by a god, transforms him into a dead form. To give oneself form — that is the definition of 'hubris.' The god ceases to determine the cosmos of the poem, whose essence — with art — freely elects for itself that which is objective: it brings the god ...

For much of history, to conceive of ourselves as being our own makers — as gods ourselves — has been hubris, the greatest sin. That history is over, and we are nothing if not responsible for making ourselves and the future. To do so will require the poet's courage, including the courage to say farewell to the past and its forms. That's why the history of modern poetics, with its farcical battles over tradition and meter and rhyme and so on, serves as an instructive lens with which to view the emerging freedom of citizens. After the poet's freedom, and the poet's courage, we may arrive at the poet's timidness:

Someone, some way, we too serve, are of use, are sent
When we come, with our art, and of the heavenly powers
Bring one with us. But fitting,
Skilful hands we ourselves provide.

LARB Contributor

Ange Mlinko’s most recent book of poetry is Shoulder Season (Coffee House, 2010). She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Houston.


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