Robert Creeley in Retrospective

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When Robert Creeley came to teach in the renowned Literary Arts Program at Brown University in 2003, he was 77. As his new colleague, C.D. Wright, commented, he got to be the New Guy on the Block and The Legend at the same time. An icon since the publication in 1962 of his collection For Love, Creeley was variously associated with The Beats, The Black Mountain School, and more recent movements in innovative poetry. Charles Olson called him his best friend. Ezra Pound called him, fondly, “The Creel.” Japanese performance poet Gozo Yoshimasu said that Creeley re-charged Japanese poetry with his first reading in Japan in the sixties. And Allen Ginsberg noted that it was Creeley who typed up “Howl” for Ginsberg’s first, era-transforming reading of that poem in San Francisco. As he aged, Creeley determinedly kept abreast of the work of younger writers, reading their books, writing endless recommendations, and maintaining a mammoth international correspondence. He was famous for his collaborations with jazz musicians like Steve Lacey and Steve Swallow and with artists like Marisol and Francesco Clemente. An editor, publisher, traveler, teacher, writer, and winner of the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry, Creeley really was, it has been remarked, a one-man civilization. Soon after his death, dozens of memorial readings were organized around the country, articles appeared in every major newspaper, and literary magazines and websites were flooded with personal reminiscences of his generosity and appraisals of the enormous influence of his work.

What of that work? After William Carlos Williams, Creeley has the most famous line-breaks of the 20th century. They are so canny, so inimical, so pronounced in his unforgettable public readings that they affect the writing of virtually every living North American poet, from Michael Ondaatje to the so-called Elliptical Poets. I remember reading an autobiographical poem by Ron Padgett in which Padgett describes his teenage frustration when, trying to make-out with a girlfriend and remove her sweater, his concentration is sidetracked by certain Creeley line breaks that he can’t get out of his head. For many of us, those line breaks, and the thinking process that they limned, became one of the vital soundtracks of our lives.

In a poem from For Love, “Out of Sight,” we can get a glimpse of Creeley’s line break as it juggles groupings of words and clusters of sound that promote associations that have more to do with psychological and emotional processes than with narrative conventions.

                     Out of Sight

            He thinks
           always things
           will be simpler,
           with face
             of a clown
          so that the mouth
          rolls down, then
          the eye shuts
             as a fist
          to hold patience,
          patience,
          in the locked mind.
          
Like this one, many of Creeley’s poems concern thinking and they seem to enact in their movement the jumpy, compressed rhythms of a nervous moral consciousness. In “Out of Sight,” for instance, it is as though Creeley’s thought bolted out of the starting gate without its saddle of a modifying clause. “He thinks/ always things/will be simpler” the poem begins. Then Creeley doubles back to add the clause that modifies not “things” but the earlier noun “He”. He (with the face of a clown, his mouth rolling down) always thinks things will be simpler. But nothing about Creeley’s expression is simple.

For instance, the unusual placement of the word “always” between thinks and things suggests two simultaneous meanings: He is always thinking and he always thinks things will be simpler. The word patience, which the writer repeats as though to convince himself to be patient, comprises a line by itself, slowing down the poem so that patience performs its own meaning.

As we come to appreciate the general shape of the poem, we can see that it begins with “He thinks” and ends “in the locked mind” as if its entire world were circumscribed and interior, as if the character it describes were trapped in his own cyclical thinking. The tension of an eye shut like a fist—an image we might associate with Creeley who lost one eye in a childhood accident—contributes to our feeling of uneasiness with the subsequent image of patience held within a locked mind. There seems to some enigmatic larval violence under the surface of the poem, gnawing its way out.

But that larval violence is Creeley’s mind gnawing its way past self-consciousness into the world of others where real human contact and love is possible. And Creeley’s composition method honors the struggle by not smoothing it out with serial revisions and drafts. He wrote his poems mostly in single sittings and rarely worked on them afterwards. There are stories of him in his thirties madly typing poems, yanking them from the typewriter and letting them fall onto the floor behind him while he started a new one. Good luck, poets of lesser genius, trying to imitate him. What he wanted was the freshness of thought and emotion bursting like improvisatory jazz into language, not some finished and polished idea of something. While our culture is always trying to sell us new and “improved” products and experiences, there is a willfully nascent and unimproved quality to Creeley’s poems. They are more like the unfinished Rondanini Pieta than the gleaming refined and more famous Roman Pieta of Michelangelo’s youth. Creeley said once that nothing could follow from a perfect work. His own long life in letters might be seen as a continuous wrestling match, in language, with his own thought. “I look to language and language alone,” he once wrote, “for my redemption.” What his poems score is the unpredictable Charlie-Parker-like flashing brilliance and the intervallic leaps of his endlessly churning, endlessly interesting mind.

At Brown University, we had to find new classrooms for Creeley’s classes. There were too many students sitting in the aisles or standing crowded in the back of the usual classroom to hear him. Several students spoke at his memorial of learning to learn in new ways from his lectures. I remember two undergraduates in particular who said that what they learned had to do with how to live their lives even more than it concerned the ostensible topics of his talks. At 77, he continued to teach three semesters out of four, he showed up at meetings, took on voluntary theses, introduced visiting writers, and started a new reading series in downtown Providence. If his lungs hadn’t finally given out on him, any of you reading this might have found the chance to sit around the table with him and his wife Penelope, drinking a glass of wine and listening to his charged conversation, one of the great pleasures in a life, because Creeley wasn’t ready to call it quits. In “Supper,” one of the poems in his 2004 book
If I Were Writing This, he put it bluntly:

          I can no longer think of heaven
          as any place I want to go,
          not even dying. I want
          to shovel it in.


          I want to keep on eating
          drinking, thinking.
          I am ahead. I am not dead.
          Shovel it in.
          
Creeley’s posthumous book
On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay includes one of the most powerful and poignant poems of late age that I have ever read, “When I Think.” The title is perfect for Creeley, the poet-thinker who as a young man was obsessed with “Monsieur Teste,” that fabulous talking-head created by another poet-thinker, Paul Valery. Creeley’s poem, printed below takes place as a series of restless clauses that, like Creeley’s mind, leap forward in new directions before the syntax or sense stops, shifting through decades and emotional states, gathering up a life in painful and celebratory honesty, acknowledging, resisting and finally, with articulate passion, accepting an imminent end. The loveliness of the poem’s quicksilver architecture befits the poet who coined what is now the artistic dictum: “Form is never more than an extension of content.”


          When I think

           When I think of where I’ve come from
          or even try to measure as any kind of
          distance those places, all the various
          people, and all the ways in which I re-
          member them, so that even the skin I
          touched or was myself fact of, inside,
          could see through like a hole in the wall
          or listen to, it must have been, to what
          was going on in there, even if I was still
          too dumb to know anything—When I think
          of the miles and miles of roads, of meals,
          of telephone wires even, or even of water
          poured out in endless streams down streaks
          of black sky or the dirt roads washed clean,
          or myriad, salty tears and suddenly it’s spring
          again, or it was—Even when I think again of
          all those I treated so poorly, names, places,
          their waiting uselessly for me in the rain and
          I never came, was never really there at all,
          was moving so confusedly, so fast, so driven
          like a car along some empty highway passing,
          passing other cars—When I try to think of
          things, of what's happened, of what a life is
          and was, my life, when I wonder what it meant,
          the sad days passing, the continuing, echoing deaths,
          all the painful, belligerent news, and the dog still
          waiting to be fed, the closeness of you sleeping, voices,
          presences, of children, of our own grown children,
          the shining, bright sun, the smell of the air just now,
          each physical moment, passing, passing, it's what
          it always is or ever was, just then, just there.