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October 28, 2010. The Skirball Center for Performing Arts, NYU. New York, NY. From the Academy Audio Archive.

About this poet

Poet and critic Susan Stewart was born on March 15, 1952. She received a BA in English and anthropology from Dickinson College, an MA in poetics from Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania.

She is the author of several collections of poetry, including Columbarium (University of Chicago Press, 2003) which received the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Forest (1995), which received the Literary Award of the Philadelphia Atheneum; The Hive (1987); and Yellow Stars and Ice (1981).

Her collected essays on art, The Open Studio: Essays in Art and Aesthetics, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004. Her other books of criticism include The Poet's Freedom: A Notebook on Making (University Of Chicago Press, 2011); Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002), which received both the 2002 Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism from Phi Beta Kappa and the 2004 Truman Capote Award in Literary Criticism; as well as Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation (1991); Nonsense (1989); and On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1984).

She also co-translated Euripides' Andromache with Wesley Smith, and the poetry and selected prose of the Scuola Romana painter Scipione with Brunella Antomarini, and collaborated with composer James Primosch on a song cycle commissioned by the Chicago Symphony.

About her work, the poet and critic Allen Grossman has written, "Stewart has built a poetic syntax capable of conveying an utterly singular account of consciousness, by the light of which it is possible to see the structure of the human world with a new clarity and an unforseen precision, possible only in her presence and by means of her art."

Her honors include a Lila Wallace Individual Writer's Award, two grants in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pew Fellowship for the Arts, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2005.

Stewart taught at Temple University in Philadelphia from 1978 to 1997. She is currently Professor of English at Princeton University where she teaches the history of poetry and aesthetics. 

A Language

I had heard the story before
about the two prisoners, alone
in the same cell, and one
gives the other lessons in a language.
Day after day, the pupil studies hard—
what else does he have to do?—and year
after year they practice,
waiting for the hour of release.
They tackle the nouns, the cases, and genders,
the rules for imperatives and conjugations,
but near the end of his sentence, the teacher
suddenly dies and only the pupil
goes back through the gate and into the open
world. He travels to the country of his new
language, fluent, and full of hope.
Yet when he arrives he finds
that the language he speaks is not
the language that is spoken. He has learned
a language one other person knew—its inventor,
his cell-mate and teacher.
                          And then the other
evening, I heard the story again.
This time the teacher was Gombrowicz, the pupil
was his wife. She had dreamed of learning
Polish and, hour after hour, for years
on end, Gombrowicz had been willing to teach
her a Polish that does not and never
did exist. The man who told
the story would like to marry his girlfriend.
They love to read in bed and between
them speak three languages.
They laughed—at the wife, at Gombrowicz, it wasn’t
clear, and I wasn’t sure that they
themselves knew what was funny.
I wondered why the man had told
the story, and thought of the tricks
enclosure can play. A nod, or silence,
another nod, consent—or not, as a cloud
drifts beyond the scene and the two
stand pointing in different directions
at the very same empty sky.
                           Even so, there was something
else about the story, like teaching
a stunt to an animal—a four-legged
creature might prance on two legs
or a two-legged creature might
fall onto four.
                           I remembered,
then, the miscarriage, and before that
the months of waiting: like baskets filled
with bright shapes, the imagination
run wild. And then what arrived:
the event that was nothing, a mistaken idea,
a scrap of charred cloth, the enormous
present folding over the future,
like a wave overtaking
a grain of sand.
                           There was a myth
I once knew about twins who spoke
a private language, though one
spoke only the truth and the other
only lies. The savior gets mixed
up with the traitor, but the traitor
stays as true to himself as a god.

All night the rain falls here, falls there,
and the creatures dream, or drown, in the lair.
 
 

Copyright © 2011 by Susan Stewart. Originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Poetry magazine. Used with permission by the author.

Copyright © 2011 by Susan Stewart. Originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Poetry magazine. Used with permission by the author.

Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart

Poet and critic Susan Stewart was born in 1952. She is the author of several poetry ollections, including Columbarium (University of Chicago Press, 2003) which received the National Book Critics Circle Award.

by this poet

poem

Your eye moving

left to right across

the plowed lines

looking to touch down

on the first

shoots coming up

like a frieze

from the dark where

pale roots

and wood-lice gorge

on mold.

Red haze atop

the far trees.

A two dot, then

a ten

poem
Alack Alas

Hammer to a copper bowl,
someone left the light on.
Touch against the thin wrist
skin, and back again, and back 
again. Can't find the vein.


Alack A Day

Stiffing a filigree leaf, ribs 
align in alternity. Drop 
me a line, I am leaving—
the har-dee-har men come soon.
And once they are
poem

 

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