The Poet's Freedom is an ambitious book that ranges widely through Western philosophy and literature, making liberal mention of Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Kant, Coleridge, Marx and Hegel, and quoting poetry by Dante, Keats, Shelley, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Anna Akhmatova - to name but a few of Susan Stewart's points of reference - in order to pursue the argument that freedom and making are each necessary conditions of the other, and that both are fundamental constituents of our humanity.
Stewart sees "art making", and poetry in particular, as having palliative, or even redemptive power, and as part of a solution for the contemporary environmental "emergency regarding the future of the Earth". This sense of poetry's possibility gives the book a keen sense of urgency, which is attractive at a rhetorical level, but not as persuasive in the working out of its details. One senses that Stewart would like to rebut W.H. Auden's dictum of despair "poetry makes nothing happen", and advocate the practical point of art-making in (and against) an age of thoughtless consumption. Yet somehow, despite the great wealth of material brought to testify, Stewart's thesis remains one in which we either share belief or don't, rather than something proven by force of reason.
"The freedom of the artist", we read towards the end of the book, "is not a privilege of occupation but rather something that anyone can exercise under certain conditions." It is hard not to want this democratising emphasis on creativity as an important aspect of the human to be true. However, more detailed probing of the economic conditions of artistic making over the long course of history might have prompted argument as rigorous as it is passionate. It is an awkward irony that the freedom that allowed some of the writers quoted in this book to make literature at all was largely dependent on the fact that such freedoms were not extended equally to all members of their communities. What, too, do we think of art produced with contempt for the freedom and humanity of others? At times Stewart's belief in the importance of making to our sense of self comes very close to John Ruskin and William Morris' arguments that there was a "golden age" of medieval craftsmanship in which work and creativity were not dissociated from each other, and which should inspire a return to those pre-industrialised values of making. Yet, surprisingly, the visionary prose of those prophets of creativity is not called to bear witness here.
Regardless of how persuasive one finds the book's thesis, Stewart's facility as an attentive and extraordinarily well-read critic makes her observations along the way a real joy. When she asks why it is that the Hebrew God of Genesis makes things happen sequentially, rather than all at once, or what the difference would be to a Hopkins sonnet to relineate it as prose, she manages to change dramatically the way one reads even very familiar texts in just a few sentences. Stewart has the gift of finding and framing those simple questions that are really the most complicated questions, and this makes her a delightful companion to read beside. It is clear from the book's envelope frame that Stewart reads the world with as much commitment as she reads words: the prefatory "A sand castle" is a journal-like account of a boy she watched painstakingly build a sandcastle on a beach over several hours, only to destroy his own creativity in a few violent seconds; the concluding "The sand castle" is a verse-lineated version of the same event. In the end, Stewart makes her argument best as a poet must: through making.
The Poet's Freedom: A Notebook on Making
By Susan Stewart. University of Chicago Press. 320pp, £48.50 and £14.50. ISBN 9780226773865 and 3872. Published 30 November 2011