JUXTAPOSITIONS Susan Stewart “1936”

Susan Stewart, Cinder: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 2017, p 156

“The true mimic is the one who is nothing and who can become everything. Creativity is inseparable from this plastic nothingness, this porosity out of which creation emerges. This porosity is itself a created openness—-for it does not create itself. It is given. It is an openness not an emptiness simply. If one could say it, it is a “full openness.” In other language, it is an agapeic openness, not just as erotic one, if we were to describe Eros as a lack seeking fulfillment. An agapeic porosity: too much and almost nothing; making all ways possible, but making a way for all things to be possible, and taking itself out of the way in order that the ways of becoming may be possibilized. Human creativity participates in this creative porosity.”
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 75.

Stewart’s great and greatly overlooked poem is both moving in the emotional sense—-a portrait of a factory worker who has no other life and does not want one—- and a righteous attack on the false aesthetic that has made many lesser poets au courant. This false aesthetic is false in both senses: mimetically false, self-servingly and in bad faith inaccurate while posing as realism; and false in the larger sense, false to reality itself, raising once again the thrust of Plato’s attack on the poets.

In our current confusion about progress, a reflection on 1936, would appear timely.

Regardless of application, Desmond’s revival of mimetic theory is astonishing on the page. His philosophic portrait of the true mimic engages his most salient phenomenological theme of the porosity, the ontological flow that resonates culturally and intimately with the Dao. Trumping the seeking of Eros with the profound original thereness of agape, this almost nothing full openness enables creative activity and So recalls Chuang Tzu’s name for the Dao: the Creative. (In a more dialectical sense porosity challenges Heidegger’s Dasein.)Fidelity to the real is the sign of universal creativity.

Stewart’s poem is all the more moving for the “savage indignation” welling up in the last section. Now the voice of the poem erupts from its mimetic attention to its subject by addressing, in a tragic polyphonic moment (her “one thought”) and resolutely foregrounding the Marxist humanist insights today exposed as capitalism’s depend3ncy on “essential workers.”

We have noted in our analysis of lyric narrative the penultimate stage of the exhaustion of idealism’s capacity for saving the self that has been exercised in the dialectical middle of the poem (here lines 2 through 14). The thick impenetrable shroud is aesthetic reserve, the unspeakable truth. Swiftly the poetic mimesis, now in the equivocal sense given it by Plato’s doxic attack, rushes in to create “beauty” where there “is,” truly, none. The truth to the universal impermanence expressed by the flesh of “her mother” is betrayed by the poetic fiction of “endurance” (to echo and extend Hill).

In a startling move drawing on what Desmond calls the ‘agapeics’ of creativity the voice of the poem intervenes in the habits of the reader, closing the experience to the poetic fiction that would idealize the otherness of the final image. This is the authentic sign of the lyric poem. THIS incarnation of the finite, this real real. This sign of the flesh of true creativity.

So the lyric “genre” is, culturally, a source, by virtue of mimesis, of the true. But mimesis is profoundly at odds with the ethos of idealism. Enter our defense of lyric in the classroom. By virtue of its brevity, lyric seems accessible. Reframing it contrary to the late modern constructions of idealism—-the resistance to idealism is essential to the doubleness of Romanticism (see Milnes, The Truth about Romanticism)—- is one of the chief ways we can rewire our minds and embrace mimeticism in the sense so magnificently illustrated by Susan Stewart’s “1936.”

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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