Robert Creeley Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Creeley American Literature Analysis

Among the poets who took it as an obligation to explain the poetics of the evolving modernist continuation of the tradition in American literature which began with Walt Whitman and was developed by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Creeley may have been the most lucidly articulate as well as the most challengingly imaginative. With his friend and poetic brother Charles Olson, whose own theoretical suggestions (especially his “Projective Verse” essay of 1950) led to what Gilbert Sorrentino called “an encouragement for all young writers who felt themselves to be disenfranchised,” Creeley accepted the task of demonstrating that his differences from the established strictures of the New Critics (such as John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks) were not failures of form but a different approach to the entire question of what form might be.

In his essays and interviews, Creeley responded to the need for “the dignity of their own statement” felt by writers who shared his concerns, and although he rarely used his own poetry as an example of his theories in argument, preferring to cite the work of many colleagues he admired, his poems may be most clearly understood in the context of his own observations about the nature of writing.

Creeley’s work has adhered to the nature of form and writing so fully that many poets commit his famous comment about form to memory. As quoted by Olson, Creeley once remarked that “form is never more than an extension of content,” a direct refutation of the idea common to academic criticism in the first half of the twentieth century that a poem should be a container of a specific design into which the poet arranged his words and images. Creeley has stressed the idea that, as Olson put it, “there’s an appropriate way of saying something inherent in the thing to be said.” That is, each specific occasion from which a poem emerges requires the suitable form and language of its particulars. Organizing such a principle can be both tedious and second-nature, and Creeley was so intent on this mode of poetic practice that he once said of the poet’s subject: “Try not to describe it. But if one can, somehow, enter it.”

Creeley claimed to feel “a rhythmic periodicity in the weight and duration of words to occur in the first few words, or first line, or lines, of what I am writing.” Therefore, the crucial choice in the poem’s opening established a measure—a much wider and subtler determinant than meter—to which the poet was compelled to respond as the poem continued. Put in another way, Creeley drew a parallel between a farmer plowing a field and a poet composing a poem. The first line, or furrow, determines direction; the second line solidifies it. Creeley saw the literal root of the word “verse” as a furrow, or a turning, just as the line turned in accordance with the requirements of emphasis, stress, breath units, and other elements inherent in the language as it was employed.

While it is clear from Creeley’s work that he was very much aware of the entire history of poetry in the English language (and that he regarded it as “rather regrettable and a little dumb not to make use of the full context of what’s been done”), he was also interested in the “possibilities of coherence . . . other than what was previously the case.” Or, as he explained in his essay expressing his basic credo, “I’m given to write poems,” he believed that it requires all of his intelligence to “follow the possibilities that the poem ’under hand’ as Olson would say, is declaring.”

Another crucial component of Creeley’s poetic style is his use, in the spirit of Williams’s arch claim that his poetic language came from “the mouths of Polish mothers,” of the colloquial, with which he feels “very at home.” Following the pioneering example of Williams’s work, Creeley attempted to engage language at a level he regarded as both familiar and active, so that the poem is an “intensely emotional perception,” no matter how evident the poet’s intelligence and education may be. This insistence on emotion recalls Walt Whitman’s dictum, “Who touches this book touches a man,” and is a part of Creeley’s determination to resist the academic theorists who emphasized an ironic distance that was part of a habit of diction that excluded many modes of speech as inappropriate for poetry.

The use of a “commonly situated vernacular,” however, does not mean that Creeley neglected craft in the shaping of the language into a poem. One of the most distinctive aspects of his style is his precise arrangement of words so that a minimum of material is concentrated to produce an often complex series of meanings; a compact, even sparse poem—unadorned with rhetorical touches that mainly call attention to themselves—that answers Pound’s insistence on condensation and compression.

Because Creeley’s poetry has removed some of the accumulated verbiage of previous conceptions of the “poetic,” it has been described as “thin,” whereas it is more accurately lean or trim, with implication replacing unnecessary explanation. As Creeley pointed out, it is not that Williams restricted himself to a colloquial language which never uses words that are less frequently spoken. “What is common is the mode of address,” Creeley observed, while the “sense of source in common speech” leads to an authenticity that supports Creeley’s ideas that “the local is universal” and that language is the most basic instrument in permitting a poem to “exist through itself,” as Olson insists.

While Creeley’s poetics remained relatively consistent during the course of their development, the poems he wrote over four decades evolved in terms of their perception of his personal experiences. His first significant book, For Love: Poems 1950-1960, contains lyrics, many patterned after classical antecedents, which concentrate on the nature of love, but on a “strained, difficult love relationship” (as John Wilson remarks) in which Creeley, contrary to more recent social developments, attests a kind of primitive maleness endemic in American life.

The conditions that drew the poems, often in pain, from the poet’s life are captured in language that seethes with erotic intensity while maintaining a decorum that elevates the work beyond mere confession. The poems are rife with wit, directed at the poet himself as frequently as at the world, but beyond the dark comedy of a man who called an earlier collection a “snarling garland,” there is a gentleness, a poignancy that is very affecting.

Poems such as “Ballad of the Despairing Husband” or “The Ball Game” use a comic mood to keep chaos at bay, while “I Know a Man” is “the poem of the decade . . . on a world gone out of control,” according to Robert Hass, but beyond these, poems such as “The Name” (addressed to his daughters) or the extraordinary “The Rain” have a depth of feeling produced by words absolutely appropriate for the occasion.

Creeley’s next collection, Words, moved further from the demands of formal concerns, employing a method Creeley called “scribbling” or “writing for the immediacy of the pleasure.” Some of the most severe critical reactions Creeley suffered were directed at poems such as “A Piece,” which reads in its entirety:

One andone, two,three.

Creeley’s concern here was to focus on the process of his thinking and to use both the rhythms of jazz and the techniques of a painter such as Jackson Pollock, whose paintings reflect the artist’s actual placement of paint (words) on the canvas (the page) independent of specific representation. In addition to the poems which emphasize the singular effect of each word, there are longer, more intricate arrangements which move beyond the play of individual units of meaning to the human dimension.

Pieces moves even further in the direction of abstraction but from the position that the poet is interested in establishing a harmony with the natural world. The structural openness that is declared in this collection and which marks Creeley’s writing for the next ten years (through the collection Hello: A Journal, February 29-May 3, 1976, published in 1978) tends to break the “boundaries of individual poems (as John Wilson observes) so as to emulate what Louis Zukovsky called “continuing song.” Creeley, in quoting Robert Lowell, mentioned that he moved back to a “more deliberate organization” at the point where he sensed he was at the “edges of incoherence.”

In Pieces and in other poetry written during the 1970’s, Creeley depended on the pacing and rhythms to provide scraps of information; at times, a kind of minimalist reduction became so pervasive that Creeley was, as Louis Martz put it, “at the taut edge of poetic existence.”

The poems that appear in his next significant collection, Later, do not contradict Creeley’s original intentions but give him a wider field for operation. The poetry of the first part of the 1970’s used a method Creeley called “a continuity rather than a series of single instances,” while Later and then Mirrors move again toward the strengths of the single poem, although always in the context of the other poems surrounding it. The major change in Later is a turn toward the reflective, as Creeley’s characteristic expression of immediate thought and feeling in a very specific present is tempered by the reflection of a man who can see his own life as history combining occasion into pattern.

Creeley remarked that he felt Later was “a really solid book,” and he stopped writing for nearly two years after its publication to take a “breathing space.” Realizing in 1981 that he still had “a lot that I wanted to get out,” he wrote the poems that were published in Mirrors in 1983. In this book, the poetry has a reflective range that does not lessen the impact of Creeley’s “luminous austerity” but merges or mingles it with a new feeling of quiet acceptance. There is a troubled awareness of fatigue, failure, and aging in the poems, but the frustration and confusion expressed in “Age,” in which the poet says

He thinks he’ll hate itand when he does dieat last, he supposedhe still won’t know it,

is balanced, even countered, with the sentiments in “Oh Love”: “Oh love/ like nothing else on earth!”

The strain of philosophical consideration, often presented with Creeley’s dry humor, continues in Memory Gardens. The book has four sections, the first two containing many terse statements such as “I’ll Win,” in which the poet reviews his strategy of “being gone/ when they come” and summarizes its effect by saying mordantly, “Being dead, then/ I’ll have won completely.”

Such “cryptic epigrams” (as Dudley Fitts called Creeley’s earliest poems) alternate with poems specifically written for various friends and several translations/adaptations (or...

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