LYRIC COMPANIONS Susan Stewart “First Idyll”


A long strand of ivy wound round and round the lip

of a cup, a wooden cup carved from boxwood

that grew for a thousand years.

My cousin has a little goat, black

and white, with a delicate

hoof that looks like

onyx from a distance,

and like coal when

you come close

enough to touch it.

from CINDER: New and Selected Poems by Susan Stewart (Graywolf Press, 2017)

CONTEXT There is something prior to the determinate but not a mere indeterminacy. It has an excess more than all determinations, as well as more than we can subject to self-determination. There is a “too muchness” that has a primordial givenness that enables determinacy, that companions self-determination, yet also exceeds or outlives these. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal. P. 423

The paranoia of our “transhifting” times further isolates contemplative pursuits and to read poems for enjoyment requires apology. Guilty pleasures indeed spring from the pandora’s box of the perplexity of form and meaning. The disciplines required by this “spiritual exercise” (Hadot) once deemed irrelevant atrophy; poetry, especially the lyric, is considered antisocial.

Lyric was born contested and contesting grander genres like Epic, as we recall reading Susan Stewart’s “First Idyll.” As referring to ‘a description in verse or prose of picturesque scene or incident, esp. in rustic life’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 1967), “Idyll” is both vague in reference and energized by difference, a situation deepened by its etymology, diminuative for Ancient Greek for “form.” Compare sonnet’s root in ‘little sound.’

This contextualization of poetic form was common in the early days of modernism, and drew on the vast antiquarian learning of the Renaissance. Pound, for all his iconoclastic bull-in-a-china shop behavior, was a ‘hunter of form.’ Susan Stewart, whose life-work engages the breadth of the human sciences, has a way of breathing new life into long neglected forms of life. The seemingly one-off casual quality of “First Idyll” repays close reading.

As communicated by this poem, theres a too muchness to Idyll. The opening sounds conventional enough, a description of ivy vines carved into the wooden (boxwood) handle of a drinking cup. Drink is essential to idyllic song. There’s a too-muchness in the winding, in the drinking, in the survival of the artifact. There’s an ontological shock delivered by the mere existence of this cup— that it is at all. Moving from the opening description, which has become deeply saturated with the equivocity of its very thereness, the poem seems to leap to a new subject. Thinking about it, the “little goat” may jump out of the carved illustration on the cup.

As CONTEXT I’ve cited Desmond from the Glossary of “ The Intimate Universal, “ one of his more difficult and crucial coinages. It is relevant to the study of form as referring to the enabling givenness of a primordial energy, well characterized as “too much.” The overdeterminate upsets the modernist applecart of clear and simple truths.

Lyric narrative form teaches us patience in transitions. The poet’s cousin’s “little goat” is carefully (“objectively”) described. Care is taken with perspective. We approach the goat with aesthetic appreciation based on norms from beyond the life of the farm; “onyx” echoes “boxwood” in more ways than one. Realism has a way of surprising Idyll as any student of pastoral can attest. Here up close the onyx (we note onyx is etymologically linked to Ancient Greek for “fingernail”) hooves turn visually to coal.

Coal: the substratum of organic matter. Without missing a beat the poem, by getting closer and closer to the little goat, gains in reference to a degree of “overdeterminacy” befitting the topic of “First Idyll.” So this very small lyric has the thrust of a charged “essay” into the foundations of our thinking about thinking about form. But the poem itself escapes the self-limitations of thought with the companionable excesses of lyric. A lyric’s whole is always more than any concept of itself, which “concept as whole or principle of unity” is the tradition of academic form that lyric perpetually protests.

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 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 and other sites.

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