During the first half of the twentieth century, one of the most important modes of the American poetic tradition was rendered almost invisible to the reading world by the ascendancy of a group of critics and scholars who effectively supported only their own conception of poetry. Men such as Robert Frost who wrote in the familiar forms and meters of British poetry were celebrated by the New Critics and their followers, who were committed to a certain historical perspective; meanwhile, writers such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore found it difficult to publish their poetry or find an audience much beyond their friends and one another. The influential, established journals and the university courses they shaped concentrated on a conception of poetic expression espoused by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in the landmark volume Understanding Poetry (1938), which totally excluded writers who did not follow the specific principles that the book outlined. Then, in 1950, Charles Olson’s publication of the groundbreaking “Projective Verse” essay provided for the first time a “call to order” (as Robert Creeley describes it) that made it possible for poets who were not committed to an “academically sanctioned formalism” to feel a certain legitimacy about their ideas and approaches. Drawing on Pound’s pioneering essays, Olson at midcentury reclaimed or reintroduced a neglected but historically central strain of American poetry begun by Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the previous century.
Now his close friend, partner in poetic thinking, and fellow poet Robert Creeley has published his own collected essays and, in a sense, completed the crucial chapter in American literature that Olson opened. These essays, which have appeared in many different little magazines since the early 1950’s, are an example of personal history which has become literary history and cultural record, and they are probably the best single source for understanding what has slowly come to be recognized (according to Donald Allen and George F Butterick) “by its vitality alone [as] the dominant form in the American poetic tradition” since World War II. The controversial nature of that statement is an indication both of the impact and importance of Creeley’s subject and of the usefulness of having in one place the accumulated material that demonstrates the full range of his thinking about post-modern poetic practices. Those writers who have always responded to Olson’s ideas will find the volume particularly welcome, but teachers, writers, and literary historians who have previously ignored or resisted the attitudes and approaches Creeley covers will also have a solid body of work available for serious consideration.
Creeley recalls that as a young man he was “moved by poetry, feeling its possibilities as inclusive,” and that he wanted “to participate in that wonder.” As a native son of New England, he attempted to pursue this goal at Harvard but stayed only briefly (although never regretting his experience there), leaving to embark on a lifelong program of self-education. He decided to begin a magazine to pursue this end and wrote to the most famous American poets who were also fugitives from the academy, Pound and Williams. This correspondence directed him in turn to Charles Olson, then the rector of the legendary Black Mountain College in its final days. A massive exchange of letters evolved from their initial contact, as did the four-volume run of the Black Mountain Review, which Creeley edited. In the introduction to his essays, Creeley describes himself at that time as “embattled,” fighting against the “enclosing orthodoxy with respect to either poetry or prose,” and considers his early essays as an attempt to “gather a company” of support among those who shared his thoughts and feelings.
The sense of combat projected by his first essays is evident in Creeley’s reference to Stanley Edgar Hyman’s influential book, The Armed Vision (1948), saying that “the guns were seemingly pointed at us,” and in his direct challenge to the ostensibly impersonal approach of the New Critics. Citing Whitman’s injunction to “speak for oneself,” Creeley affirms that “the common is personal” and insists on a recognition that “the human dimension becomes so dearly manifest” in any close study of the work of a poet. Creeley saw his task as combining the human dimension with an articulate, probing discussion of form and structure, rhyme and rhythm, image and sound as the crucial components of poetic art—but in terms that were radically different from those employed by academic scholars. He was seeking to open a discussion of poetry not limited by an adherence to “the rigid presumption of a standardized metrical system,” poetry not tied to a “literary vocabulary” but written in a manner of address “very open, familiar, at times very casual and yet able to be, on the instant, intensive,...
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