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The Poet’s Freedom

A Notebook on Making

Why do we need new art? How free is the artist in making? And why is the artist, and particularly the poet, a figure of freedom in Western culture? The MacArthur Award–winning poet and critic Susan Stewart ponders these questions in The Poet’s Freedom. Through a series of evocative essays, she not only argues that freedom is necessary to making and is itself something made, but also shows how artists give rules to their practices and model a self-determination that might serve in other spheres of work.

Stewart traces the ideas of freedom and making through insightful readings of an array of Western philosophers and poets—Plato, Homer, Marx, Heidegger, Arendt, Dante, and Coleridge are among her key sources. She begins by considering the theme of making in the Hebrew Scriptures, examining their accountof a god who creates the world and leaves humans free to rearrange and reform the materials of nature. She goes on to follow the force of moods, sounds, rhythms, images, metrical rules, rhetorical traditions, the traps of the passions, and the nature of language in the cycle of making and remaking. Throughout the book she weaves the insight that the freedom to reverse any act of artistic making is as essential as the freedom to create.
A book about the pleasures of making and thinking as means of life, The Poet’s Freedom explores and celebrates the freedom of artists who, working under finite conditions, make considered choices and shape surprising consequences. This engaging and beautifully written notebook on making will attract anyone interested in the creation of art and literature.

320 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


“Scholarly yet maverick, patiently constructed yet risk-taking, her work constantly surprises.”

John Kinsella | Guardian

“Susan Stewart may be our best contemporary thinker on poetry. . . . 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.”

Ange Mlinko | Los Angeles Review of Books

“Readers interested primarily in the philosophy of art will especially enjoy the first half of the book; those looking for more practical criticism will enjoy Stewart’s inspired readings of specific poems by Wallace Stevens, John Skelton, and Emily Dickinson.”


Table of Contents

On the Method of This “Notebook”
A Sand Castle

1  Beginning 
I The Freedom of the Maker 
II The Creator in Genesis 

2  Praising 
I The Thought of Thankfulness 
II The Birth of a New Song 

3  Freedom from Mood 
I A Sympathetic Nature 
II Metaphor and Music 

4 Freedom from Imagination 
 I Composing Anxiety 
 II The Free Work of Symbols 

5 Forming 
 I Ovid’s Contests of Making 
 II Forming as Knowing 
 III Gathering toward Abstraction 

6 Rhyming 
 I Rhyme’s Opening 
 II How Rhymes Rhyme 

7 Meeting 
 I A Freedom of Association 
 II The Visitors 

8 Persons as Makers
 I Conditions of Making
 II Production and Reproduction 
III The Self’s Materials and the Person’s Reception 

The Sand Castle 

Works Cited

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