Robert Creeley in Retrospective
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
will be simpler,
of a clown
so that the mouth
rolls down, then
the eye shuts
as a fist
to hold 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
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.