The Feel of Not to Feel It (Classics of Literary Criticism Revisited III)

On April 9, 2018 by admin

poet's freedom


Susan Stewart, The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011]


“to compose is the verb applied to the making of poem”


Along some seashore, sometime, we detect a young boy who, after working on a sand-castle for a whole day, goes on to destroy the same structure by the evening. Once gone, the sandy walls and turrets and moats of the castle are then barely distinguishable from the sand surrounding them. This routine, the idea of erring voluntarily, for Susan Stewart, shows “…a certain relation we have to making. Without the freedom of reversibility enacted in unmaking, or at least always present as the potential for unmaking, we cannot give value to our making.” By annihilating the mere thing, the boy seems to be restituting the power of the form back to his own self, as if what he had been practicing all along was a mode of memorization or learning. Once the artistry used in making the castle in its entirety was internalized, the same set of skills was set to be used again: “Unwilling or unable to be the curator of his creation, the boy swiftly returned it to its elements, that is, to its pure potential.”

How free is the artist in making? How far can human action, circumscribed by divinity, nature and history, be free in order to fashion itself, so that it can choose to make? Freedom, for Stewart is an act of affirmation. Humans are living, willing intelligences, and hence, their freedom to make and act arises out of their interaction with the wider world.  For example, Schelling bequeaths us with a notion of a consciousness that emerged in nature; prior to existence proper.And a felt sense of peril is part of a certain kind of freedom. So, Schelling describes the free person as a dizzy man poised on a precipice who has a desire to jump into the abyss. In order to make, one must be “…mortified in all his ownhood, for which reason he must almost necessarily attempt to step out of it and into the periphery, in order to seek rest there for his selfhood.” This relay race between unmaking and making is what makes art a process of continual beginnings.’

Susan Stewart’s works (I am also thinking of The Fate of the Senses and On Longing) are testaments to a powerful definition of the act of poetic making, a definition that she builds up painstakingly in this classic work too. The relay between making and breaking and a gradual building up and reaching to our readers and interlocutors about our apprehension of the world through metaphors are recurring openings for her: “… art as a summons to apprehension—to call, to speak, to hear, to touch—reveal the etymology of aesthetics in sense experiences. Whether we are reflecting on our own artistic practice or the works of others, our freedom in aesthetic activity is exercised as well in the interpretive task of receiving finite forms, imputing intention and purposiveness to them and then our jarred and anxious apprehensions are transferred along the lines of face-to-face encounters with other persons.” Absorption is a release. Only through art therefore are free associations of an open future formed.


Thanksgiving/praise is the oldest mode that keeps the relay going. The most fundamental act of artistic making is the act of creating value by praising. Praise is the poet’s obligation of naming, judging, withholding, and giving. Indeed, human praise cannot approach the scale of the gods, but humans can praise with things they have made—things that are an accomplishment of generations who have practiced and refined their mastery over materials. We are thunderstruck by the ancient crafts of the rope-maker and the potter. The devices of yoking, binding, and containing—devices that run through all weaving, printing, painting, molding, and sculpting foremost leave us awed. These objects thereby hold the forces of heart, tongue, hand, and eye that were involved in their own making. Hence praise. And praise is judgment. Praise travels from praising specific objects in their respective milieus to praising creation itself by means of forms and modes of praise that will praise the praiser—the one who has mastered these epideictic forms. A certain relation between making and being follows this reflexive turn from the qualities of objects to the qualities of expression. In praise judgment is not linked to deliberative thought or appetite or other desires to possess and consume. One purely judges the integrity of the form, an appreciation that follows contemplation. Praise is not wrested from the world but drawn from within. Since it is given, it also may be withheld. The oldest public forms of praise are sung. As we know from the Hebrew psalms, what is surrendered in praise is sound—praise is sounded by speech and singing, by the “joyful noises” of lyres, timbals, and drums, and by the human drums of clapping and rhythmic shouting. Such sounding emphasizes all the more that there are no restrictions on praise’s production and no restrictions on its distribution. What is sent out returns not only concretely but also in multiple form: like the psalmist declares in Psalm 34, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.”The volitional nature of praise lies in its being freely, liberally, and continually offered and drawn from the energies of the person who praises.

Allen Ginsberg in Kaddish writes: “Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing—to praise Thee—But Death.” And Stewart reads these lines by relating it to the freedom of making: “Ginsberg brilliantly weaves the querying, death-obsessed thoughts of the mourner into the dignified unfolding lines of the prayer until the prayer seems to speak as the voiceover that the lyric “I” once was. The incongruity of the mourner’s kaddish, like the punctuation of experience and suffering exemplified in the progress of the Psalms, returns us to the sheer inutility of praise—its freedom from the very realities from which it arises. Those who offer up praise, even such a hymn to loss and Nothingness, are increased by their own donation.”

Praise is giving up that replenishes itself. In poetic making, the rhythm of forming, losing, and reforming creates such patterns of value. Traditions of praising a Creator thereby intensify and multiply the gifts of creation.Throughout the classical tradition, the poetic speaker of hymns and odes expends praise as a gift or implicit sacrifice offered by an individual out of positions ranging from designated authority to abject supplication. Although the god’s benefaction can be gained through sacrificial offerings, song, often itself represented as an offering, has a special status as a means of securing favor.The sacred hymn brings reverence for the god into the common light; it not only congregates but also yokes the human and divine realms.

In contrast to the hymn the classical ode sings the grace of a harmony between the body and the mind’s intentions—that of the body electric, the athlete self. Stewart reminds us that the ancient Greek kudos—the acknowledgment of fame or renown that will spread across the land and sea— begins in the odist’s acts of praise: the odist’s praise involves dance motions of turning, counter-turning, and standing.

But praise evolves and circulates, it ebbs and flows. Hence Stewart’s brilliant insight:  “Praise, the child of wonder, is thereby the parent of exaltation, but all praise results in a kind of evaporation. Language that goes out into the world as fame or reputation does not necessarily maintain its initial form, as anyone who has ever played “Whisper Down the Lane” knows well.” You praise and utterly destroy the object of praise only to rebuild the form through poetic creation. The speaker of praise, in awe of the referent, longs for the creation of new forms, and a fluidity—expanding, contracting, expanding.  After annihilation, the hymns and the odes provide us with such continuous forms of re-creations.

This brings us into the question of the poetic mood and its role in the process of making art” “We fall into, awaken from, or “snap out of” moods: if we can write about a mood, we are out of the mood. A mood’s will is not at work in the light.” If the abstraction of wonder leads to praise, other kinds of poetry—nocturnes, meditations, laments, complaints and so on are rooted in the obscurity that is their subject. Stewart works through a conundrum: the making of poetry is the unmaking of the mood. The musicality that characterizes poetic moods is the entreaty of a structure that is the very obverse of disquiet’s abysmal emptiness. One who yields to a musical mood will follow its internal rhythms; one who combats such a mood will regardless be subject to it by negation.  In this sense is art a feeble shadow of the maker’s original mood, as Shelley had argued in Defense of Poetry? Stewart acknowledges Shelley’s pre-conceptual premium on inspiration and yet argues against anthropomorphizing inspiration. How can words emerge from muses and goddesses and the whole production process of the syntax be kept at abeyance? Of course we are caught up and carried away in wonder, anxiety or pain. And yet, the poet creator is rather absorbed in and distracted by rhythms; all sense of wonder must at some point be transcribed into forms of created wonder.


Are not surroundings and interlocutors part of the lyric mood?

In this context Arthur Schopenhauer had described that a lyrical state of mind often arose from its environment. Are we not in contact with earth and water? For him such a state of mind is “a pure knowing.” He goes on to contend that “in the lyric and the lyrical mood, desire (the personal interest of the ends), and pure perception of the surrounding presented, are wonderfully mingled with each other; connections between them are sought for and imagined; the subjective disposition, the affection, the affection of the will, imparts its own hue to the perceived surrounding and, conversely, the surroundings communicate the reflex of their colour to the will.”

Indeed rhythms are everywhere and they create moods. We get attunedto our surroundings.Therefore Stewart: “Our moods are shaped by the ultradian rhythms of ninety minutes or so duration that affect our senses of vigilance, sleepiness, and capacity to daydream and also by the infradian rhythms of more than twenty-four hours that are associated with menstruation and other bodily cycles, including our responses to changing seasons of the year. We are thus bound as natural beings to natural rhythms, including those of our own bodies. Solar pulses and the ebb and flow of tides are part of this larger set of forces. Rhythm indeed may be a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of human life, for the embryonic heart begins to beat eighteen to twenty-one days after conception; at that point there is no blood to pump and no function for the heart to serve, but if the beat stops, the embryo dies. Circadian rhythms, which rule our sleeping and waking as heliotropic creatures, the waxing and waning responses of biological processes of many kinds to the twenty-four-hour cycle of light and darkness, are not only responsive to environmental cues but also persist for many organisms, from fruit flies to human beings, in the absence of such cues, indicating that the organism either has incorporated the pattern or already was embedded within it.”If we return to the Hebrew psalms, we find a recurring exposition of the emotions we associate with the circadian cycle. “Thine is the day, thine also the night; thou has established the luminaries and the sun. / Thou hast fixed all the bounds of the earth; thou hast made summer and winter” (Psalm 74:16–17).

In a way, in us the pure sense of life springs from that basic rhythm of passionate desires, and varies from the composed well-being of sleep to the intensity of spasm, rage, or ecstasy. But as humans we also mediate through language, through memory and through imagination. These mediations are part of the process of creation, not an aftermath of absorption. Making and the freedom that making allows is a basic drive toward symbolization that releases such rhythms from their contextual limits. Grieving and remembering and communicating give us a vital freedom to restructure experience and imagination through abstractions and images. The crucial question for Stewart is how to reconcile embodiment experience with the idea of poetic composition, which involves an immersion in contextual feeling? As an established poet she knows that as a maker sets to work, one action compels the next and immediacy somehow leads to anticipation. Does the process of making art traverse via what psychologists call selective attention, the first step between being in an environment and responding to it? Actually, the poet experiences a simple mode of cognitive freedom in the processual, one that keeps thought open to rhythm, motion, and anticipation, releasing the poet into the sphere of the form itself.

Indeed the poet works through associations of experience and symbols and Stewart goes back to Hegel time and again to tell us that at one level the infinite, pure inner feeling does indeed come into possession of its object; but this does not make its appearance in conceptual form, not as something [speculatively] comprehended, and appears therefore as something alien; “…racing minds do not merely spin their wheels; they enable subjects to create unusual associations among words and groups of words.” As with manic depressives, good moods in artists seem to increase the availability of remote and unusual associations. Sensory associations take us to the realm of the metaphor. The freedom that the making of poetry allows us is the feeling of not being able to feel, a feeling that rhyme has never ever said. We are simultaneously awake and asleep as we make, John Keats tells us at the end of his ode to a nightingale. The musical mood/spell jump -starts a motion and the metaphor completes it. Being swept away and volition are not two distinct ways. Every poem moves by the propulsion and rhythm of a speaker’s intake and outtake of breath. Invocation leads to repetition, repetition leads to rhythm, and rhythm leads to an order of words. The process is maddening and frenzied and yet is conscious: “a quickening is felt in the womb,” Stewarts says. In this manner the abstracted and the immanent form coalesce in the process of making.

Stewart turns to imagination next, which she feels can be both a source and an impediment to artistic freedom.In this context one may like to consider the many meanings of compose—a bringing together of disparate parts to produce calm and tranquility, as in composing one’s thoughts or feelings; a making up or combining of elements to produce an integrated form; an arranging or setting down, as in composing type in printing or composing music on paper.

How can one compose emotions?

Stewart takes up Coleridge’s “Dejection Ode” in order to delve into the act of composing.  In Book 6 of The Prelude II, Wordsworth explicitly critiques Coleridge for: “The self-created sustenance of a mind/ Debarred from Nature’s living images, / Compelled to be a life unto herself.” But in the “Dejection Ode,” Coleridge turns this Wordsworthian dilemma back on itself, narrating how he suffers in the face of a nature he can apprehend only objectively and not by means of his imagination. Stewart is interested in the economy of borrowings and loans, not only between Coleridge’s earlier and later versions but also between Wordsworth and Coleridge, all of which comes into relief against a vast process of commensurable and incommensurable substitutions in created art. The obsessive process of revision and alteration in itself and for itself as evidence of motion and vitality— evidence of the living mind producing, as Kant called them, aesthetical ideas or symbols. In order to read Coleridge, Stewart takes recourse Kant again: “The schematizing function of the Kantian imagination is reproductive, organizing and giving sequence to sense intuition, helping us to form wholes. In contrast, the productive imagination has a role in that transcendental synthesis that gives us an impression of continuity in experience, forming the pure understanding.” Coleridge’s “esemplastic” or synthetic power of imaginative freedom she reads as part of a conscious act of a larger process. Hence, emotion must be recollected in tranquility. That is the process of making.In poetry, one limns the universal out of the particulars of experience.

lyrical b

Is imagination and its corollary, memory, necessarily threats to reason?

In Shelley’s “On Intellectual Beauty,” the artist looks to mental forms already present within himself as indications of the higher nature of his own soul as he travels from matter to the spiritual realm of the One. True intellect, is both inseparable and unseparating—the true order is the order of being and the “universe of things”—a phrase integral to Shelley’s companion poem of the same period of summer 1816, “Mont Blanc.”In this critical section, Shelley explores the paradox that whereas human systems can confuse us, our encounters with mutability can compose us. Because sages and poets, including, we assume, the speaker, have never heard any voices from a sublimer world than this one, where Intellectual Beauty makes its occasional and fleeting appearance, they turn to God, ghosts, and heaven as modes of signifying these unheard realms. Such terms evoke only frail spells and doubt; chance and mutability remain features of our hearing and seeing. Only the light of Intellectual Beauty can give grace and truth to the troubled surface of reality.

How will such a dream of Intellectual Beauty be sustained, if not realized? Not by claiming any material permanence but by traveling along the forms of matter to another state.If God, ghosts, and heavens are entities, Intellectual Beauty, or awful loveliness, is only fleetingly manifested in a range of phenomena and only fleetingly intuited by the prepared acolyte: “Its calm, to one who worships thee, /And every form containing thee, /Whom, spirit fair, thy spells did bind/ To fear himself, and love all human kind.” Yet the transience is also a feature of perception—whether intermittently seen and heard or intermittently felt and thought—as strings of abstract emotions and concepts come and go, go and come, at once parts of nature and reflections on nature. The poem echoes the issue of natura naturans—not nature as received, already created, but the active production of nature in nature.

Stewart wishes to impress upon us that when we say the imagination is a vehicle of freedom, we usually mean that the imagination frees us from the limits of the senses, or, on a different scale, that the imagination frees us from the bonds of necessity. This free power of forging is what imagination allows us—one that is mediated through our will. Stewart sums up: “The central feature of form’s boundedness is its reliance on repetition. To repeat is to bind, for the integrity of the phenomenon is assured by the promise of its repeatability. Form is an action considered by an action, a unity asserted in our ability to be conscious of it. Mood and the motion of the imagination cannot be controlled by the will, but their repetition can be.”

The stakes of making remain intense in a quite different way for the human makers Ovid describes: humans are making and unmaking themselves at once in those artifacts they produce and upon which they reflect. This process of intervening in nature is the outcome of a series of decisions that are dense with the possibilities of what was not chosen, what was not actualized: “Forming, as we have seen, thus resolves the flux posed by mood and the infinity posed by the imagination. Genesis reveals that the dynamic between hand and eye in the story of creation is vital; alone the eye cannot make, alone the hand cannot shape; only vision and action in concert result in intelligible forms.”To make art is to bring being out of nonbeing and nonbeing out of being and thereby manifest the potential for change inherent in all of nature; at the center of the human project, art making is also our primary means of self-transformation.

To form is a summons,wherein individual mortals counter their finitude with the creation of artifacts that might survive them. In doing so, human beings take on at least the skills of the gods, and supernatural beings here have need of a talent that otherwise seems human. Such a summons to making, taken up by other animal species as well, is one we answer with our physical selves—subject to the tones, rhythms, colors, and light of experience. Michelangelo contended  that he was releasing the form from the imprisoning stone, and Friedrich Schiller described the artist’s command over materials in all the arts. To engage in form is to engage in a continuous and open transformation in time. This process Stewart calls “a practice of breaking from habit, of carving out and reframing perceptual experiences into discrete objects, of making choices and acting in accordance with an ever-becoming sense of the self, of moving, in our apprehension of phenomena, between intuitions and concepts.”

There is only one function for a water jug, to hold water, and only one function for a kayak, to move through water—you put pressure on matter to produce form, which already exists in nature. Objects are solipsistically aestheticized. The artist reframes those objects like Duchamp does with his ready-mades—the urinals and the bottle-holders. But as the maker reframes form, he also must reengage with that which he gradually might have excluded: the sensuous. The idea of this reversal, leading to manifested materiality, we often find sharply etched in still-life paintings, for instance. Thereis the energy of a torsion that lives within the free force of every material particle—the maker frees that force. And art turns open and alive.

Kant argued that the existence of such patterns gives evidence that nature is constantly offering forms of beauty for our aesthetic apprehension: snowflakes and crystals, the patterns of a seed cone and the petals of a daisy—all natural forms proper—are created by certain mathematical and spare rules. The artist must measure that balance and unleash his power: “The sensuous dimension of a work is not derived from a single impression but is rather emergent in a sequence of relations—to the boundary of the work and to the patterns arising in its apprehension….The gestures of earth drawn from earth in sculpture, ceramics, and jewelry making, fibers isolated and woven in weaving and basket making, the press of a mark on an existing surface, the building up of new surfaces in printmaking and painting—all continue through time, with artists revising their objects, dimensions, and outcomes.”The unity of form is given in appearance and grasped in synthetic acts of perception.

Thereafter, Stewart looks closely at two particular powers of poetic form—rhyming, which, by the utterly material means of sound, creates patterns abstracted from the unfolding meanings of experience; and encountering, which creates free associations and speculations independent of the limits of space and time.

“Rhyming is at once both intended and compulsive, an art practice that makes full use of sound’s potential for resonance and saturation… it is not only that stanzas can demand rhymes but also that rhymes can create stanza structures; lyric process is propelled by the sounded repetition of sameness and difference, of rhymes thrown forward as both moving line and anchor” avers Stewart.When words are grouped by “phonological neighborhood,” as in brat, rot, at, rat, adults have some difficulty recognizing individual words, but such density actually leads to better word recognition in infants and young children. In attending to rhyming our sense of individual words is renewed as we return to the childhood scene of distinguishing words from one another, hearing each word fully as both different from and similar to other words.Clapping, stamping, and clicking indeed emphasize the relation between our bodily symmetry and symmetrical sounds. Like nonsense phonemes, they can be considered a secondary level of rhythmic punctuation.

To hope to free rhythm from meter, as early proponents of free verse including Richard Aldington and Ezra Pound did, is to return to a real, rather than ideal, relation to nature. Yet it is hardly to create a condition of freedom, for natural rhythms are a contingent force everywhere in our existence, bearing down upon and transporting us as surely as we have breathing lungs and beating hearts.  In ancient hymns and medieval courtly songs, gestures of withholding and release, calculation and surprise, typify a poetics where the metaphorical and imaginative had as much power as the literally realized, and the deferred pleasures of the aesthetic held sway. Troubadour lyricists and poets of the dolce still novo rely on rhyme patterns as much as accent. Here is John Skelton’s Mistress Margaret Hussey:

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 everything,

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,

Steadfast of thought,

Well made, well wrought,

Far may be sought

Ere that ye can find

So courteous, so kind

Merry Margaret,

As midsummer flower,

Gentle as falcon

Or hawk of the tower.

potter 3

Things hum and we hum with them. Sound vibrations and color vibrations in fact do seem to have some correlation and rhyme can be a feature of visual experiences as much as an auditory one.In neoclassicism rhyming couplets return to become the dominant verse form. In rhyming, as Emerson had noted, we participate the invention of nature. In Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia, we see a frequent play between describing rhyme as an active “weaving” (texere) and a passive “echo” (eco)—he emphasizes the dynamic between the intended production and involuntary reception of sounds.Poets explore a balance between the will and contingency in rhyme.

The spaces where the poet encounters others in voluntary, free association include the space of the poem itself. Meeting with others, including the stranger, the dead, the dreamed, and the divine is a basic requirement for making: “These poetic speakers long for reunion—domestic, erotic, or platonic—and the poem itself is the first overture to such a meeting.”The major revolutions in poetry since the Enlightenment have been shaped as commitments to a more popular, and more expansive, diction—language as it was really spoken by men in Wordsworth’s Romanticism, for example, the speech of Polish immigrant mothers in William Carlos Williams’s American modernism. We begin to see the possibilities for free assembly that Dante had brought us originally. Things and persons have to be moving on different courses—like astronomical bodies—if they are going to meet. They cannot come from the same place, and a certain freedom of movement must be guaranteed.

The poetry of meeting involves a lived encounter or exchange and so includes an open possibility of transformation by means of language.Stewart takes us through the lyric encounter transposed topoems of meeting and witness in Akhmatova. Consider the famous opening to what is perhaps her best-known poem, her Requiem of 1935 to 1940, which recounts the experience of women who waited outside Stalin’s prisons with packages for their loved ones—including Akhmatova bringing packages to her imprisoned son Lev. In the prose paragraph, “instead of a Preface,” which she attached to the poem on April 1, 1957, she wrote: “In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there): “Can you describe this?” And I said: “I can.” Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face. Requiem was first published in 1963 in Munich. It did not appear in Russia until 1987. Akhmatova wrote these lines within the poem:

No foreign sky protected me,

No stranger’s wing shielded my face.

I stand as witness to the common lot,

Survivor of that time, that place.


This standing with the common lot, in personal as well as in public life, is the greatest form of encounter for each and every maker of art. For by standing with the quotidian we stand naked to ourselves and yet join our souls with the world and the cosmos.

The limited sphere of art making allows for erring as a kind of opening, and the successive attempts the artist makes all accrue toward further richness in the emerging form and further knowledge of nature. Stewart asserts finally that “The freedom of the artist is not a privilege of occupation but rather something that anyone can exercise under certain conditions. These are a bounded time and space not dedicated to prior ends, an openness to mood and a self-composed independence from it, a willingness to let the imagination play against the determinations of form, and a commitment to choosing and judging anew.”

Susan Stewart’s idea of making is joyous and optimistic. Her case for making is the freedom of the Hegelian spirit of historicism, of reaching out of the spirit.  It celebrates a movement of the maker from darkness towards light; from inchoate babbling to syntax and rhymes and myriad encounters with wonderment. The poet in her, doubling up as the scholar, takes us threadbare through the very process of making.

With Hannah Arendt (‘What is Freedom?’), Stewart seems to say: “It seems safe to say that man would know nothing of inner freedom if he had not first experienced a condition of being free as a worldly tangible reality. We first become aware of freedom or its opposite in our intercourse with others, not in the intercourse with ourselves. Before it became an attribute of thought or a quality of the will, freedom was understood to be the free man’s status, which enabled him to move, to get away from home, to go out into the world and meet other people in deed and word. This freedom clearly was preceded by liberation: in order to be free, man must have liberated himself from the necessities of life. But the status of freedom did not follow automatically upon the act of liberation. Freedom needed, in addition to mere liberation, the company of other men who were in the same state, and it needed a common public space to meet them.”

The value we assign to art epitomizes our distinction, as Arendt notes, between labor, which is erased and fades into time and nature, and work, which has some manifested consequence.








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