When Creeley published “Fading Light” in 1988, he was entering a phase of his career as a distinguished elder statesman of American poetry. Having gone to India during the 1940s, he had been associated with important creative writers at Black Mountain College, and later with the Beat poets. By the time he published this poem he, along with other formerly radical members of his generation, had become converted into fixtures of the poetic establishment. It is a familiar progression, from radical to tenured and respected professor, but by the late 1980s he, along with such luminaries as his old friends Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, had found themselves embraced by an establishment they had once opposed.
During the early days of Creeley’s career, modernist formalism, epitomized by the work of W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot, was at the center of American academic poetry. Things started changing rapidly during the late 1950s with the rise of confessional poets such as Robert Lowell, as well as the emergence of Creeley’s Beat friends. The 1960s were anarchic in many ways. Frequently poets felt obliged to take political stances, but Creeley, though he sympathized with the anti–Vietnam War activists, did not employ his poetry as a political tool. By the 1980s, as this poem was written, the American poetry scene had fragmented into multiple segments, each with its own audience, purposes, publications, and venues.
One of the trends in American poetry when Creeley wrote this poem was the rise of a new type of academic poetry. It is true in some sense that much poetry has been academic, in that poets often are drawn to teaching, and good poets are sometimes rewarded with teaching positions at colleges, though William Carlos Williams was a practicing physician and Wallace Stevens had been a corporate attorney. But by the 1980s, the proliferation of creative writing programs in universities around the country had...
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At first the diction of the poem seems unremarkable. There are no odd, unusual, or difficult words. A careless reader might not even think of noticing the diction, but that would be a mistake. Creeley has very consciously picked out words that do not call attention to themselves. There has long been a struggle in American writing between stylists who utilize uncommon diction and unusual imagery and those, like Creeley, who try to use common speech. This struggle goes back centuries, hearkening back to the English Civil War and the elaborate and erudite poetry of the cavaliers on the one hand, and the sturdy and direct Puritan texts on the other. Creeley has enlisted the banner of plain speech and straightforward expression.
The poet makes extensive use of the device of enjambment in this poem. Enjambment is the technique of continuing the sense of a line forward into the next one. It is to be contrasted with the endstopped lines that are characteristic of much metered and formal poetry. In this poem the last word of every line, except for the last, leads the reader on into the subsequent line. There is no reason to pause at the end of each line, at least no reason that would lead to a comprehensible and natural reading of the poem. It is very apparent that Creeley deliberately enjambs each line in order to produce poetic effects. The first effect is that of a breathless tumbling into the images of the following...
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Topics for Further Study
In the 1950s a group of young poets became known as the Beat poets, the harbingers of the Beat Generation. Do research on this group, identify four key participants, and locate at least one characteristic poem from each writer. What do all these poets have in common, and how are their poetic voices distinctive?
Two influential creative movements of the period from 1950 to 1965 were abstract expressionism and jazz. Locate an art print of an abstract expressionist such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko and find a recording of jazz that you think complements the work of art. Then choose a poem by Creeley or Kerouac or Snyder, or another poet who was writing in that time, and perform the poem in front of the art, with jazz playing in the background.
Poetry festivals are a relatively recent phenomenon. Using the Internet, try to locate as many poetry festivals as you can. Do not limit yourself to the United States; other festivals occur in Britain and Australia, for instance. Do these festivals identify featured poets? Who are the poets who are identified as special guests? Try to locate poems by these poets.
Music and poetry have an ancient connection. The word “lyric,” for example, is derived from the early musical instrument called the lyre. Make a personal compilation of songs whose words can stand alone as poetry. Write up the words and try to analyze them as poetry. What literary techniques can you find?
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Poetry in Motion, directed by Ron Mann in 1982, was released on DVD by Public Media in 2002. It features performances by a number of the Beat poets, including Robert Creeley, in front of live audiences.
A CD of Creeley reading poetry titled Robert Creeley (2001) was released on the Jagjaguwar label.
Creeley reads his poetry with a jazz trio on a CD titled The Way out Is Via the Door (2002).
The Electronic Poetry Center maintains a website on Robert Creeley at www.wings.buffalo .edu, which includes links and selected poems.
The Academy of American Poets maintains a website on Creeley at www.poets.org, which includes numerous links.
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What Do I Read Next?
Robert Creeley’s book Just in Time (2001) consists of three shorter poetry collections written by Creeley between 1984 and 1994. It contains the poem “Fading Light,” among others, as well as informative interviews with Charles Bernstein.
Arthur Ford’s Robert Creeley, though published in 1978 and therefore not including the poet’s later work, is nevertheless a quite readable introduction to Creeley’s life and the first half of his career.
Robert Creeley’s Life and Work (1987) contains a large number of short reviews and essays on Creeley’s work. It also includes some of his early letters to other poets who were influential in his developing style.
A. Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry (1980, 3d ed.) has a good selection of Creeley’s poems along with many others by his contemporaries.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bacon, Terry R., “Closure in Robert Creeley’s Poetry,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Winter 1977, pp. 227–47.
Bernstein, Charles, Interview in Just in Time, New Directions, 2001.
Byrd, Don, “Creeley, Robert,” in Contemporary Poets, 6th ed., edited by Thomas Riggs, St. James Press, 1996.
Clark, Tom, Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place, New Directions, 1993, p. 82.
Creeley, Robert, Just in Time: Poems, 1984–1994, New Directions, 2001, pp. 7, 8, 30, 201.
Dukes, Carol Muske, “Straight from the Hearth,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 23, 1991, p. 8.
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