The Cat Went Out for Good

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…

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