I loved Herrick, I loved the scale and deftness of his sounds. I loved, what little I knew of Campion…. I loved the so-called Jacobeans, I mean, really a kind of hip mournfulness I really thought was great.1
What is the explanation for the large number of volumes of collected poems appearing in the last few years? Publishers are bringing out books of breathtaking ambition, each one containing hundreds of poems by a single poet, as if there was a huge, untapped market for every poem ever written by every dead and living American poet. In place of pocket-sized volumes or lean collections of selected poems one can comfortably read to oneself on a park bench or to a lover in bed, one is confronted by a tome that requires for its perusal a sturdy table.
There’s also the challenge of sheer quantity. Unless one is an inmate serving a life sentence in a state penitentiary, a book of a thousand poems is nearly impossible to read, since the concentration and enthusiasm such an undertaking requires can only infrequently be summoned. More to the point, there are not many poets, even among our best ones, who are likely to have more than eighty pages worth reading. Of course, there are exceptions. Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens tend to be engrossing even when they are not at their best, though that claim is debatable. With all that in mind, the publication of any poet’s collected poems is bound to evoke both curiosity and dread, even a poet one has previously held in high regard.
There was a time when Robert Creeley was a cult figure, a poet nearly as famous as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell. His 1962 book For Love was much admired. The old master himself, William Carlos Williams, said that Creeley had the subtlest feeling for the measure that he had encountered anywhere except in the verses of Ezra Pound, whom he could not equal. His poems seemed both adventurous and old-fashioned. They had a colloquial ease and the fragmented look of modern poetry, but they also contained rhymes, archaic words, and a rhetoric that often had as much in common with Williams and Pound as with Herrick and Campion. They were almost all about love, a subject of considerable interest to a vast number of human beings that for some curious reason is absent from the work of many of our poets today, who, unlike poets in other cultures, generally stay away from any overt expression of erotic feelings, as if love and sex were of little concern to them.
Creeley not only wrote keenly about love, he was also a man with interesting ideas about literature. A member of the little-understood but already fabled circle of poets that included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, and Ed Dorn, he came across as both a poet and an intellectual. “He seemed to have his sights on and be in touch with every aspect of what was new and vital going on then,” Michael Rumaker remembered.2 A slight, stooped figure with an eye patch and shy manners, he read his poems in a low, barely audible voice with a seriousness and intensity that was both mystifying and attractive.
Of course, everyone who saw him read wondered what happened to the eye. In an unpublished autobiographical note written in 1966, he gives a brief mention of the accident:
I was raised in Massachusetts for the most part, having been born in Arlington, May 21, 1926, son of a physician who died when I was four. That and the loss of my left eye when I was a little younger mark for me two conditions I have unequivocally as content, but which I have neither much bitterness about nor other specific feeling. I did miss my father certainly. With him went not only the particular warmth he might have felt for me, but also the whole situation of our life as we had apparently known it.3
The father’s death impoverished the family. They moved to a small farm in West Acton and his mother got a job as a public health nurse to support Robert and his older sister. He said that kids like him in West Acton went hunting and did not go out for sports. “They shot deer during the winter to eat and they counted each bullet. Wasting a single bullet was a crime.”4 Creeley eventually received a scholarship and attended the Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire, where he later claimed he received the most relevant part of his education. His time at Harvard was shorter and much less happy. He made a few friends, met his first wife there, but ended up being suspended for stealing a door from Lowell House. He joined the American Field Service in 1944 and became an ambulance driver in Burma and India. After the war ended, Creeley returned to Cambridge, where his mother and sister were then living, and he was reinstated at Harvard. He became involved in literary activities at the university, had his first poem published, and married an old school friend in the spring of 1946. They relocated to Truro on Cape Cod, then he dropped out of Harvard in his final semester, wearied by the long commute and convinced that the courses he was taking were of no use to him.
Next, his wife bought a farm near Littleton, New Hampshire, where they bred pigeons and chickens which they showed in poultry exhibitions around New England. In August 1950, he began writing letters to Charles Olson, who was then living in Washington, D.C. Once their correspondence was collected, the one thousand letters covering the years from 1950 to 1952 ran into nine volumes. Without meeting face to face, they wrote to each other daily, Creeley often twice a day. He thought of himself at the time as a short story writer—he was already publishing stories in leading literary journals—and an aspiring man of letters who would model himself on Pound and Williams, with whom he was also corresponding.
Olson, an ex–letter carrier, ex-fisherman, ex–Democratic Party official, and an employee of the Federal Office of War Information, had already written his book on Melville and some poems, and was working on his soon-to-be-famous essay “Projective Verse,” which was shortly to appear in the magazine Poetry New York. In it, he argued for “open form poetry” in which traditional ideas of form would be replaced by poems in which form would depend on the content. In other words, the right form for a poem trying to describe a red wheelbarrow next to a couple of white chickens, or one about staring into a bathroom mirror at midnight, is to be found in the experience itself and is not to be imposed mechanically from outside. So understood, form is not what Shakespeare and Keats thought it was, but the property of the content and the language of every experience.
Creeley and Olson discussed these matters in their letters, exchanged poems, recommended books to each other, complained about the ignorance and stupidity of magazine editors, and raised each other’s spirits. Not that they had much in common. Like Pound, Olson saw the role of a poet as a teacher, someone who makes new ideas available to his readers. Creeley thought that what defines our poetry is the prototypical American proclivity since Whitman and Dickinson for speaking in the name of an extraordinary single self, which nevertheless feels itself to be representative.
Olson became the rector of Black Mountain College, a small experimental college in North Carolina founded in 1933 that had attracted, both as teachers and students, a great many artists, writers, and musicians, such as Franz Kline, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, and Paul Goodman. He soon invited Creeley to edit a magazine that he hoped would attract attention to the college, which had at that point barely two dozen students left. Creeley accepted. The magazine was called The Black Mountain Review and was almost impossible to get hold of except in a few little bookstores around the country. Still, it circulated among poets and was exciting to read since it had poems and essays by Olson, Duncan, Levertov, and Creeley, whose ideas and work were far more intriguing than what one usually encountered in university quarterlies. Not until 1962, when Scribner brought out Creeley’s For Love: Poems 1950–1960, was it possible to have some sense of what his poetry was like unless one happened to come across one of his small-press books published in Spain or in North Carolina. Among the 135 mostly very short poems in that volume, this one is his most famous and most anthologized:
I KNOW A MAN
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
For such a little poem, “I Know a Man” has had a vast number of interpretations, some of them downright peculiar. My favorite one contends that the speaker of the poem is Jesus Christ and the “John” is John the Baptist. Creeley allowed that there’s something Puritan about the poem, in a sense of “Cool it!” “You’re becoming excessive….”5 His letters to Olson often mention his desire to get away from Littleton where he felt himself to be, as he said in his story “The Island,” “the writer on perpetual vacation on his wife’s money.”6 In one of the letters he describes two young men stopping to ask for directions. After they leave, he fantasizes how nice it would be to have a Lincoln Continental and to go cruising at sixty or seventy miles per hour down some long stretch of highway with a cool bottle of wine and just yourself for company. As in a number of other Creeley poems, the conflict here is between two sides of the self, one of which wants to escape some routine by imagining another kind of life and the practical other who reminds the dreamer that there are dire consequences for not paying attention to matters at hand.
The poem sounds like a bit of overheard conversation carefully transcribed. Each line break and the slight pause it necessitates indicate the speed at which the poem is to be read. The function of such a line is to weight the various things we are being told and to convey the tone of voice. Prosody for Creeley was the method of controlling the reader’s temporal and auditory experience of the poem. Form was not an abstract concept. It was up to the poet to recognize that some bit of speech is already a poem that requires as little tampering as possible. In his literary essays, one of his main interests is the study of poetic consciousness and the scrutiny of the ways in which language is used. Writing for him was as much about that process as it was about any given subject.
Creeley’s love poems from this period have the same quality of extreme self-consciousness and introspection. Their speaker seeks to understand love, because, he claims, all that he knows comes from what it has taught him. Creeley is not an erotic poet. His women are rarely physically present in the poems. He has more in common with poets of courtly love than with Ovid or Catullus, who wrote explicitly about the naked body. “The glorious lady of my mind,” as Dante calls Beatrice in La Vita Nuova, is also Creeley’s worry. And yet that ethereal vision is in daily conflict with the demands of sharing the same bed and living under the same roof with a real woman, who may or may not care for him, a relationship that requires constant corroboration with all the accompanying risks:
To be in love is like going out-
side to see what kind of day
it is. Do not
mistake me. If you love
her how prove she
loves also, except that it
occurs, a remote chance on
which you stake
yourself? But barter for
the Indian was a means of sustenance.
There are records.
Many years ago, writing about Creeley’s early poems, Cid Corman observed that they are never quite lighthearted, that they are mostly about taking oneself to task for some highly charged and invariably screwed-up relationship. They are addressed to a particular woman, often in a form of apology, and deal with his attempt to explain himself and hopefully be forgiven. This is love poetry of constant self-doubt, of guilty feelings, both real and imaginary, that, at least in this one poem, make for a nice bit of domestic comedy as the husband snoring away next to his wife dreams of another woman:
I spent a night turning in bed,
my love was a feather, a flat
sleeping thing. She was
and quiet, and above us on
the roof, there was another woman I
also loved, had
addressed myself to in
a fit she
encompasses it. But now I was
lonely, I yelled,
but what is that? Ugh,
she said, beside me, she put
her hand on
my back, for which act
I think to say this
No one frets more about the proper use of words than poets and lovers. Their intention is to eroticize language, make each word have the effect of a glance or a touch. They speak in hope that an overworked phrase like “I love you,” which countless millions have said millions of times and continue to say every day, each one in his or her tone of voice, and never twice in the same way, will ring true for this particular person, in this particular moment, and will convey all of its overt and latent meanings and be reciprocated in some fashion:
love you some-
take care not
to hurt, you
I heard words
and words full
is a mouth.
Words are holes waiting to be filled by our need. They bring into being something out of nothing. The lover and the poet have that in common. They know that no words ever do justice to what they are feeling—even as they continue to use them. The mind awake to its inability to say what it is—this is the subject of many of Creeley’s poems. “I see no progress in time or any other such situation. So it is that what I feel, in the world, is the one thing I know myself to be, for that instant. I will never know myself otherwise,” he writes. What he ends up espousing is a form of solipsism which holds that the primary reality for the self is the mind and its sole truth is the immediate and unshared experience that occurs there. Even when he writes of love, he says less of the object of his affection and far more of his own perceptions and emotions. His philosophical problem may be described this way: If my mind is all I can be sure of, how will I ever be able to get to know you, my love?
By broad agreement, For Love is Creeley’s best book. There are at least two dozen first-rate poems and the rest are almost all of very high quality. Words (1967), from which the poem about language I just quoted comes, is an uneven book, although it has several powerful poems like the one (called “Something”) about a man watching a woman in a rented room take a pee in a sink after they have made love. Such specifics are rare in his work. Ordinarily, his lovers, friends, and the places he travels to are not shown in any detail. Poetry denies its end in any descriptive act, Creeley has insisted, since it leaves the attention outside the poem. That is why one finds very few metaphors and almost no similes in his poetry. The search for what this or that is “like” necessitates that one divide one’s attention, absent oneself for a moment in the imagination, and that won’t do:
Poetry seems to be written momently—that is, it occupies a moment of time…. I seem to be given to work in some intense moment of whatever possibility, and if I manage to gain the articulation necessary in that moment, then happily there is the poem.7
If this is true—and it is not true for most poets—all we can expect from Creeley’s poetry will be jottings, words and phrases about his state of mind which will rely on his knack for colloquial speech to conceal the paucity of content. Creeley’s next book, Pieces (1969), is all about such poetry. Having convinced himself that the only authentic act for a poet is to report what is in his mind at the time of writing, Creeley eschews even the beginnings and endings of poems, since they now seem to him an arbitrary bracketing of what Jack Kerouac called “an undisturbed flow of the mind.” This is what that looks like:
come and go.
what do I think
to say now.
comes and goes
in a moment.
The way into the form,
the way out of the room—
The door, the hat,
the chair, the fact…
The sequence has seven more parts, but even this much ought to be enough to show the slightness of such poetry. More promising are the poems Creeley wrote about numbers zero to nine for the painter Robert Indiana. Here’s a section about the number “Seven”:
I was born at seven in
the morning and my
father had a monument
of stone, a pillar, put
at the entrance of the
hospital, of which he was head.
There are a few good poems in his earlier manner in Pieces, but the rest of the book doesn’t amount to much. Creeley confused ideas about poetry with poetry itself. Some reviewers tried their best to indulge him. His old friend Denise Levertov said that Pieces is a romantic book, by a poet whose previous work had often been impressively classic. Because of its energy, candor, mystery, and try-anything courage, she found the new poems exciting. Others were less generous. In The New Republic, Reed Whittemore found the whole project didactic. Creeley had ceased to be a lyric poet and become a teacher-preacher type giving us classroom demonstrations of how poetry, written according to a particular theory of poetry, works.
In the introduction to a volume of his earliest and previously uncollected poems, The Charm (1967), Creeley offers his own explanation of what he was up to. I quote next to the last paragraph:
One time in conversation with Allen Ginsberg late at night, when we were both in Vancouver in 1963, he very generously said to me, you don’t have to worry so much about writing a “bad” poem. You can afford to now. I don’t know that my nature will ever allow me that understanding, which has not finally to do with some pompous self-regard—but rather with the fact that we are human beings and do live in the variability of that order. We don’t know all we think we do, nor would it even be very interesting if we did. Another friend, Robert Duncan, has always insisted, with high intelligence, I think, that poetry is not some ultimate preserve for the most rarified and articulate of human utterances, but has a place for all speech and all occasions thereof.
The most charitable interpretation of these two awful pieces of advice is that Ginsberg was pulling his leg and Duncan meant something else. American poetry is full of daybooks, poets who report everything they see and think and who keep doing the same thing for years, but they usually pay better attention to what goes on around them than he does, filling their poems with nicely observed details and memorable stories. Not Creeley. He doesn’t gossip, doesn’t confess secrets, doesn’t have a rich imaginative life, doesn’t write about nature or cities, and has nothing to say about history. His kind of poem, he informs us in his Paris Review interview, is done in one sitting, literally in the time it takes to type it or otherwise write it, usually without any process of revision. The aesthetic theory—and there is always a theory behind such reductive views—may sound persuasive, but it was foolish on Creeley’s part to believe that it could ever validate a poem. If poetics were like cooking and one could write down a recipe for all of one’s future poems, that would be true. However, great cooks rarely bother to consult cookbooks.
This may sound harsh, but reading the hundreds of poems that Creeley wrote after Pieces, I could not come to any other conclusion. The second volume, The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1975–2005, which has poems written just before he died in 2005, is especially hard going. The better poems are rare and come after many pages of banal musings on aging, decline of his faculties, and death, in a language that is flat and thoroughly predictable. This surprised me. I knew Creeley for over forty years and enjoyed his talk, which was always full of interesting stories and ideas, and now reading his interviews feel the same way, but there is little evidence of that quality of mind in his work after 1975, with poem after poem consisting either of superficial remarks or descriptions so general that they are instantly forgettable:
Sitting at table—
with good people.
On rare occasions, when he comes out of himself and remembers William Carlos Williams’s injunction “no ideas but in things,” to actually look closely at the world around him, he is a far better poet:
These retroactive small
instances of feeling
reach out for a common
ground in the wet
first rain of a faded
winter. Along the grey
iced sidewalk revealed
piles of dogshit, papers,
bits of old clothing, are
the human pledges,
call them, “We are here and
have been all the time.” I
walk quickly. The wind
drives the rain, drenching
my coat, pants, blurs
my glasses, as I pass.
Steady, the evening fades
up the street into sunset
over the lake. Winter sits
quiet here, snow piled
by the road, the walks stamped
down or shoveled. The kids
in the time before dinner are
playing, sliding on the old ice.
The dogs are out, walking,
and it’s soon inside again,
with the light gone. Time
to eat, to think of it all.
Then, just as it seems that “the cat went out for good,” in the last years of his life Creeley recovers some of his old touch. Among the many so-so poems about travel, family, deaths of friends, remorse of conscience, homages to other poets, and diary-like entries about miscellaneous items, one finds memorable fragments and a few truly fine poems, like the delightful eight-part sequence called “The Dogs of Auckland,” written in long lines and full of comic touches and sharply observed details. Undoubtedly, there is a conflict in Creeley’s later work. He continued to believe that some bit of language that came out of the blue could be a poem, while in fact the more conventional lyrics and longer narrative poems that required additional tinkering served him better. It’s a pity that he felt the need to remain faithful to ideas about composition long after it became clear that they not only were limiting him but were a dead end. Given the circumstances, a small volume of his selected (and mostly early) poems would have been preferable to the first volumes of collected poems. It would recall to us what a wild, pure, and original voice he once had and continues to have for his devoted readers:
The church is a business, and the rich
are the business men.
When they pull on the bells, the
poor come piling in and when a poor man dies, he has a
cross, and they rush through the ceremony.
But when a rich man dies, they
drag out the Sacrament
and a golden Cross, and go doucement, doucement
to the cemetery.
And the poor love it
and think it’s crazy.
October 25, 2007
Robert Creeley in conversation with Alan Riach, recorded at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, July 26, 1995, available at wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/creeley/interview.html. ↩
Robert Creeley’s Life and Work: A Sense of Increment, edited by John Wilson (University of Michigan Press, 1987), p. 54. ↩
Quoted in Cynthia Dubin Edelberg, “Creeley’s Early Life and Career,” Modern American Poetry, available at www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/creeley/life.htm. ↩
Mark Jay Mirsky, Creeley (Pressed Wafer, 2007), p. 23. ↩
Robert Creeley in conversation with Alan Riach, p. 2. ↩
The Collected Prose of Robert Creeley (University of California Press, 1988), p. 107. ↩
Interview with Linda Wagner in Poetics of the New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (Grove, 1973), p. 281. ↩