In his review of two of Robert Creeley’s last published books, Douglas Manson urges us to read these late poems as sending ideas outward, toward an “outside,” so that we begin gathering in tomes, searching for quotes.
An Inside and an Outside
An Inside and an Outside
Creeley was never an operatic or gymnastic composer of lines. He was a minimalist, cutting through extraneous materials to show us that a poem, at most, could do one or two things excellently, but not all things. While reading Life & Death and If I Were Writing This, one is always finishing a poem and then looking for something related to it in other books. These late poems send ideas outward, toward an “outside,” so that the careful reader begins gathering in tomes, searching for quotes. Certainly these two books stand sufficiently on their own terms and are possessed of a stylistic consistency; the sequence of poems over both works presents a variety of thematic modes, cadences, and rhythmic textures. Even so, Creeley’s approach to language is one of the most straightforward in the past fifty years of American poetry. There is also an insistent, driving, and restless attention that causes some readers to pass him by for the more richly textured lines, complex metaphors, and the rewarding explications of obscurities that more cryptic poets weigh into their meters. Creeley simply gathers in his company those he loves the most, and these poems are addressed by and large to specific individuals. This mode of address makes for less uncertainty of reference and more engagement with the tenor and sensitivity of the work.
Creeley’s meter and indices are beguilingly precise: “You’re there / still behind / the mirror / brother face.” These are the first lines of the book Life & Death (3) which, as a whole, is an acknowledgement of the poet’s advancing age. The opening poem, “Histoire de Florida,” suggests token acceptance of art’s inability to carry across the intact reality (and the shy reluctance) of the life it mirrors. One is lured by the seeming intimacy of the address: we know that it isn’t a literal “brother” being spoken to or a physical “face.” It is the poem that is a mirror, and the face is the composed reflection of the writer’s mind and intention; this invocation is essentially directed to the poet’s own art and artistry, to a self that is composed as artifice, well after any such realization is made while staring at oneself in the mirror. Thus the opening poem introduces us to a primary concern in Creeley’s work: understanding the singularity of the person, and the interpenetration that the poet sees as the demands of the work to know, make music, and to accept human limitations and desires. The reference to mirrors is also the opening of the longest, most intricately composed poem of the book, moving as it does from these first glances into age and mortality to the world that is Florida, both in reality, as a “brushy conclave thick with / hidden birds, nimble, small lizards” (4), and as a fantastic land of mythic proportions: “Perhaps the whole place is one giant pier out / into nothing, or into all that is other, all else” (19). Filled with memories of famous friends such as Timothy Leary or peppered with quotes by predecessors Wallace Stevens, William Wordsworth, D.H. Lawrence, “Histoire de Florida” is remarkable in its formal extensions from section to section, the range of experiences it gathers in the focused theme about dying, a loss of memory, the annihilation of the self, and also the deliciousness of relation, love, and perception during one’s venerable years. For whatever conclusive proof we have of one another’s tangible reality, or the certainty of our relations with objects, the place, and the time in which we move, there is still this unending sense of arbitrariness; still a questioning of purpose, of meaning, about the origins of mind, life and love in the very genre of writing that is so often the lyric and romantic vehicle of such questions. A boat of words with questions filling the sails.
Louis Zukofsky, always a consistent reference for Creeley, writes that “poems like all things have the possibilities of elements whose isotopes are yet to be found” (Prepositions 136). This dictum is as true for the poem unwritten (any potential poem) as it is for the poem we read in a book. In Life & Death, Creeley’s use of quotation searches for these isotopes and in his deployment of references, a time and place (far beyond the reference the poem may have originally indicated) is brought to bear on the verse. Take, for example, the isotopes in his use of Wallace Stevens:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
In Florida I placed a jar
And round it was, upon a hill …
And all around it grew important air (19)
The book is clearly compiled within the bounds and extension of other, famous and recognizable poems, other poetries that it incorporates and makes into the substrate of its own articulation by the way of the symbolic capital that can at last be exchanged, in the way that the poems are related to the poet’s own understanding of how they signify. To write the poem is to accept this possible distortion later on, or to fall prey to any trivial reading and welcome it. Acceptance seems central to the book If I Were Writing This, as the title poem expresses:
If I were writing this
with prospect of encouragement…
I had no longer thought to wait,
…to keep up
with the trembling impulse,
the connivance the words contrived
I wrote them, thought they were me.
No award or prize is compelling the poet to continue on in his “given” vocation, and this continuous faith expressed toward the demand of the poem is what grounds his practice. As Peter Gizzi remarks, “the body was at the core of public understanding, a common experience that linked us all, far beyond the dividing lines of ideological, psychological, or aesthetic affinities” (Gizzi ¶12). What the foregoing means, in broadest context, is a familiarity, a readability, and, even amidst a difficult prosody, a relatively simple and insisting content; the expression of the individual in a language of surprise or discovery, even to know the empty interior of the metaphysical universe, that “palm at the end of the mind” which cannot be either expressed or seen but which insists with its questions from just outside the horizon of being.
The title poem of the later collection, though not as stylistically important on the level of its other poems, such as “Conversion to Her,” “Drawn and Quartered,” and “Clemente’s Images,” holds out the strongest equation of relationship, as a statement of initiating conditions for the work already accumulated, to the work proposed and written in the past. This poem makes signal identifications to poems we find in his earliest books - such as this poem from For Love (1962) where writing in the hopes of a very specific kind of encouragement meets up with a vitiating, humorous response:
I once wrote a letter as follows:
dear Jim, I would like to borrow
200 dollars from you
to see me through.
I also wrote another: dearest M/
There is no one
here at all.
I got word today,
sport, how are you making it?
and, why don’t you get with it.
(Collected Poems 1945-1975, 183)
The later text, If I Were Writing This, focuses on similar components of writing’s conditions: why write with any assumption that you are making some critical extension outwards from your own person, some glorious annex to your personality? Words are conditioned by and toward their own occasions. Why write thinking you will be rewarded for it, encouraged to continue, given money, sex, and fame?
“If I Were Writing This…” has the immediate effect of showing that “The Invoice” was indeed a direct appeal for encouragement of an immediate sort. Both poems affirm that communication cannot easily effect what is desired (money and sex), though one chafes at the feeling of impotence that follows. In “If I Were Writing This,” immediacy of intention (the two hundred dollars, the loneliness) is broadened into a more general response in “encouragement,” and the lines compound this generality with a sudden rush of pronominal distance in the second stanza:
or even then and there it was what
had been started, even now
I no longer thought to wait,
had begun had found
(If I Were Writing This, 85)
Alongside this wisdom, there are many poems of heart-wrenching finality in both Life & Death and If I Were Writing This. The topic of death, as the title of the earlier volume indicates, pivots on the sense of distance and travel in every seemingly stable location - which is some of the allergic, propulsive material that makes up his verse, this impulse to be off again and away, to be miles from something unpleasant, or something that remains unsaid no matter what is being depicted. This is the nature of my reading him also: to be driving toward something past the page, to some tangible or other substantive indication, to read something in another book, some other designation of a similar or related feeling. Unlike Whitman’s rosy and sweet sentimentalism bound into his solitary thoughts, his individual pleasures, and pride, here is Creeley, perhaps less philosophical than Stevens in his last poems, but still possessed of what Gizzi calls his “Yankee economy.”
It is simple enough to indicate the continuum of writers in whose company Creeley wrote and argued - Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, and Robert Duncan. Each of these poets has typically had a slogan affixed to his name, though Creeley never built one for himself. He was called “the figure of outward” by Olson; and one poem in the later collection, “For Anya,” seems to be a response to this nickname: “I think and therefore I am self-conscious,” he writes, and concludes the poem suggesting that “The ‘outside’ is empty but vast, I think. / It’s everywhere around me and still there.” (57) Perhaps it was in this thought he found the best means of getting beyond himself and to the point of getting the poem written. If he were to characterize the art of poetry in America (which he had many, many times), it was the isolation the poet is bound to experience that qualified his every approach to the propositional logic of his criticism. In these poems from his eighth decade, there is a growing certainty to his questions that almost seems answer enough: “What happens when / the house is at last / quiet and the lights / lowered, go finally out?” (“Scholar’s Rocks (5)” 75) We admire the clarity of such questions because our answers are not as important as the image we are given. In each poem we are bound to find evidence of his compact vocabulary and sense. That many suggestions happen all at once (at a snap) is remarkable, and is as strong an argument for poetry as I could ever make.
What should be recognized as the truly distinct aspect in these poems is the wide-ranging and intensive collaboration with painters and artists that are alluded to, as so many of these poems are a response to their works or their companionship with him, the emphasis being that someone other than himself had initiated the poem. These collaborations, however, are marked out for the reader only in the dedications to specific poems or in the many quotations and references he has integrated into his lines. A certain familiarity is expected in these references. It isn’t readily apparent how many of the poems in these collections, if not all of them, were published in light of other occasions. What we have in these works is in fact the culmination of a long process and a diverse set of circumstances through which the poems were written. I think these books reflect his own assessment, given in the first volume of collected works (1945-1975), that reading provides a “sense of increment, of accumulation.” (ix) It is the patient building up of particulars, words, lines, the single image-craft of a quatrain or verse, compiled into layers, partially designed to cohere alongside each other, and partially to settle as wind-drift. There is a sense that these books are gathered together in that lack of “coherence or determining purpose” that was proclaimed for the book Echoes.
Many of these poems were written at the specific request of an artist. However, without the visual companion pieces, the author’s language appears in its most artistically/aesthetically restricted and isolated form and yet it is still the easiest to access and understand as an act of attention cast into patterned language. This divorce of the poem from its visual accompaniment allows us to understand an equally important development taking place here, one that stands in contrast to the ekphrastic and intertextual qualities of the two books. The expression of frustration, retrospect, and domestic tenderness is one that we haven’t yet seen in Creeley’s earlier volumes. The amount of personal address, personal reference, and expression of intimate feeling would have previously been marked by objective or third person pronouns in order to produce a more philosophical or technical effect, a more pointed projection of the idea or realization into a general frame of “man’s” experience. But it is nearly impossible to make of these last works any single and persistent emphasis, or some limited engagement with concepts. Any description of the work must deal with that historical necessity of fitting Creeley’s works into the continuum of his life as a writer, father, teacher and all the other engagements that involved him right up to the end of his life. It helps to focus on them as they are - discrete poetic moments: continuities of written perception, extensions by way of art toward interior sense, and the expression of that time in life when memory waxes full while the body becomes more frail.
In fact, his work shows that any art foregrounds materiality in a way that arrests us. And yet there is no simple description of why any single artistic discipline arrests us in this way, why it in addition provides us with an understanding of our internal composition and conditions and the forces beyond our personal power. Creeley’s poems emphasize body, relation, and that communication is made by way of a materiality as bodily in nature as it is divorced from us in an impersonal milieu, namely: in language. The interior of the body, the site of world, pleasure, pain, is articulated by consistent application of basic terms and familiar speech to push us to an interior of language which folds and stretches over the message we entrust to it: “…I have still the sense / I’ve got this body to take care of, a thing someone left me in mind // as it were. Don’t forget it.” (Life & Death 50) These phrases, such as “as it were” and the many others he used to refer to idioms, are the only exception Creeley made to conditionals and qualifiers, but in his use they take us from the interiority of his perception to the interiority of a people, and more often than not, to the motivations and characteristics of men.
By placing ‘men’ in italics I speak of the challenge to arrive at a psychological insight into the typical male cultural roles that came under various challenges throughout the nineteen-fifties and undeniably so in the nineteen-sixties. The poets were there to articulate these disruptions to the implicit democratic assumptions in U.S. masculinity. As Michael Kimmel describes in his book Manhood in America (1996), the prevailing social model and ideal of the self-made man in the 1950s and 60s as breadwinner and competitive organizational man was being challenged by the Civil Rights movement, the rise of feminism and gay liberation, as well as counter-cultural models of more fluid and ecologically-aware identities. As a poet, Creeley examined what his role was in its most direct relation to lovers, spouse, child, friend, and others - discovering there, as did many feminists and other participants in rights movements, a converging interest in the form, freedoms and dimensions of the human body. Creeley’s lifetime concern was to know what it has meant to be male and creatively perceptive from the nineteen-fifties into the twenty-first century, to find some continued interest and resource in knowing that one’s place and role are constantly in question, and constantly in a growing relation to life, family, and artistic metamorphosis:
When I was a kid I remember lifting my foot up carefully, so as to step over
the castle we’d built with blocks. The world here is similar. The sky so vast,
so endless the surrounding ocean. No one could swim it.
It’s a basic company we’ve come to. (Life & Death 51)
As mind, desire, and interest are provoked by the obstacles and inherent limits to the body, the family, community and culture, there is a simplicity and lyricism to the ways Creeley is able to define this understanding, this perhaps welcomed limitation to a modern imaginary for the Western Male who fought to be the first on the moon:
Adumbrate nature. Walk a given path.
You are as much its fact as any other.
You stand for a scale far smaller than a tree’s.
A mountain makes you literal as a pebble.
Look hard for what it is you want to see. (If I Were Writing This 54)
In “Conversion to Her,” manhood is still a driving question of identity for him, which begins in speaking of his birth: “Who was I then? / What man had entered? / Was my own person / Passing pleasure?” And then casting a look ahead at his mortality:
One cannot say, Be as women,
be peaceful, then. The hole from which we came
The one to which we go is real.
Surrounding a vast space
seems boundless appetite
in which a man still lives
till he become a woman.
Like Clemente’s images, for which this poem was written, Creeley has kept his frank, explicit sense of desire and need consistently before him. Other poems in this volume seem to have the qualities of a remembrance-album - poems directly addressed to his son Will, daughter Hannah, wife Penelope. There is, in hindsight, a growing stance of leave taking, of bidding farewell with the deepest gratitude and love that can be mustered. To recently deceased poets such as Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Kenneth Koch, he provides eulogy and camaraderie, and to the contemporary age he allows us access to our grief and exasperation in light of tragedy in “Ground Zero” and “The American Dream.”
One of my favorite passages in the latter book, If I Were Writing This, come at the very end of “John’s Song” which pays tribute to poet John Taggart’s sense of repetition, which is itself a means of homage to both Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky as well as composer Steve Reich:
If ever there is
if ever, if ever
there is, if ever there is.
If ever there is
other than war, other
than where war was, if ever there is.
If ever there is
no war, no more war, no other than us
where war was, where it was.
No more war, dear brother,
no more, no more war
if ever there is.
This poem certainly stays within Creeley’s typical range of the demotic, but it returns to repetition as a standing wave of utterance, mirroring the continuous nature of the address and its hope - returning to the opening line to make the force of the question more emphatic (Creeley discusses this poem in an interview available at Jacket Magazine. An excellent interview with John Taggart is available here).
His use of syncopation shows up most clearly in the ninth line of the poem “where war was, where it was.” We would normally read the “it” without stress in a typical construction, but its unexpectedness is one that draws attention to it here - in this way we understand how substitution in the syntax forms a second amphibrach (an unstressed-stress-unstressed syllabic pattern) while the repeated line “if ever there is” is a pyrrhic foot. Creeley would have known these rhythms by heart and been able produce them spontaneously, in the way that certain patterns become intuitive with a great deal of practice. His deep sense of prosody is similar to the way we can say that one’s range of musical tastes extend from an intense, early encounter with the prosody of Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse or one of its many successors. If one knows the range of meters in these books, one will find some of them in Life & Death and If I Were Writing This. The subjunctive place in “John’s Song” results in much of the semantic weight of the poem resting on the word ‘us’ in the eighth line. Thus, in a seemingly simple poem with much repetition, there are provocative pivot points on which sense rests and meter is subtly shifted.
These last volumes attest that Robert Creeley wrought a life in poetry that, from 1944 to 2004, meant sixty years devoted to a singular and exacting art which insisted on fitting sense to the most efficacious structure, and this structure into a meaning that opened outward to a visible, audible audience. The many ekphrasitic collaborations show that his own work was a means to and a result of cooperation among poets and artists in a variety of media. In being generous with time, interest, and attention, this need to collaborate became the intimate modality of his aesthetic.
Robert Creeley wrote, and thus “saw,” through the transparency of the tough “guy” lines in his poems. What in one generation may have seemed a celebration of machismo, pride, and presumption, today reflects a growing concern for the gendered body and how it plays a role in our knowledge and ability to understand the complexities of thought, culture, and relation. He is honest enough to articulate the very compulsions to which men are often susceptible, as in the poem “Won’t It Be Fine?” (Life & Death 57). In this straightforward though somewhat didactic poem, possibly a self-reflection on his own past, he articulates the forms that selfishness takes and how it sometimes consumes individuals: narcissism, masturbation, the objectification of wife and children, all of these topics dealt with in as frank a manner as possible. These are themes we could perhaps expect from someone like Robert Lowell. He uses tough and plain words in a common vernacular, the major change from his previous work in these two volumes being the use of quoted lines from other sources. We see this use of quotation in his poem “Histoire de Florida.” It isn’t that the poet did not take phrases from other texts, rather it is probably that, sometime in the 1990s, the use of outside texts became acceptable and integral to the art in ways we are still trying to understand.
These late works are not easily comparable to Whitman’s Sands at Seventy or Wallace Stevens’ Auroras of Autumn, although his exquisite poem “Histoire de Florida” has those qualities one associates with age and the sea, the migratory American elder moving from cold winter climates to the tropics in order to see “Old persons swinging their canted metal detectors, / beach’s either end out of sight beyond the cement block highrises.” (Life & Death 12) Here are the fringe-dots of a poetic career, tender and intimate, in a way more declarative and identifying than the work that made up his writing through the sixties and seventies. Generosity of vision (blurred, ruinous and inviting) meets the departure. Exactitude and the baroque attempt to reunite the intelligence and sensitivity of the poet with the technological life-world and the contemporaneous moment of a society - an unsurpassed division within art and poetics with which the poet’s simplicity must attempt to cope.
Creeley, Robert. Collected Poems 1945-1975. Berkeley: U of Californa P, 1982.
—. If I Were Writing This. New York: New Directions, 2003.
—. Life & Death. New York: New Directions, 1998.
—, and Jim Dine. “Scholar’s Rocks.” Jacket Magazine 14. 2001. 10 March 2006.
Gizzi, Peter. “Robert Creeley, 1926-2005.” Electronic Poetry Center, U of Buffalo. August 2005. 10 March 2006.
Hamburger, Michael. The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the Nineteen-sixties. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.
Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. Boston: The Free Press, 1996.
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays. Berkeley, U of California P, 1981.