Robert Creeley Essay - Creeley, Robert (Vol. 8)

Creeley, Robert (Vol. 8)

Creeley, Robert 1926–

American poet, novelist, short story writer, and editor, Creeley was one of the founders of the "Black Mountain movement" in poetry. His verse, in method, is a concise development of communication, while, in subject matter, it often deals with the lack of it. He has had an important effect on contemporary American poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[For Love: Poems 1950–1960 shows] Creeley moving toward the gradual definition of his own original style, his own range of emotion, his own pattern of imagining. Creeley has a subtle, almost feminine sensibility, and the best of his poems are those dealing with the intricacies that exist between men and women. The poems move back and forth between the mood of loneliness on the one hand and on the other the repeated exhortation, "Be natural." The poems fulfill this plea in their plaintiveness, their refusal to over-simplify, in their aloneness, even in their mannerisms. They evade the bold statement, luxuriate in the inconclusive, and often strike perfectly the note of the dying fall.

Creeley's poems are as delicately patterned as a butterfly's wing, particularly in his later work. Since he prefers moods of perplexity, of quiet currents below the surface, of bittersweet lack, his poetic techniques are curiously suitable and often highly effective. Again and again you will come across one of his poems containing a subtle rhythm which winds back on itself, involute as a seashell, and in which the rhythm itself casts the illumination. For instance, in "The Rain," the poem begins in shadow and ends in light, all controlled by rhythm, moving from evasion to certainty…. His occasional pure lyrics also depend on [his] simplicity, not to say naïveté, of language.

I doubt, however, whether it is pedantic to suggest that Creeley's grammar and punctuation are often very uncertain indeed, to the extent of confusing the meaning of his poems, and sometimes of making them downright ridiculous…. He is very foolish … not to use question marks in place of periods when they are needed. These may seem like small matters, but in elusive poems like Creeley's, it takes only a very slight shift of weight to upset the balance. (pp. 85-6)

Peter Davison, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1962.

Creeley has not always proposed pleasure for his immediate poetic object. For Love, even Words (a really notable book for all its faults), raise too many questions about ideas and sincerity. Pieces is another matter altogether, the perfection of what Creeley aimed at in Words. Gone are those seductive angels. Creeley does not test himself against his poetry, he masters it…. Pieces is a very wise and very beautiful book of verse. It enacts the piecemeal achievement of a vision to scrupulous and catholic that what by method is merely muscular and aesthetic becomes in the end profoundly moral. (pp. 200-01)

Jerome McGann, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1970.

Love, relationship, and the attendant emotions are more than recurring concerns for Robert Creeley; they are almost trademarks of his work. Even when he is writing about the difficulties of language (a common theme), he is ultimately concerned with the loss of communication between people—a roadblock to relationship. Similarly, his verse rhythms potentially express emotion even when the subject is neutral; a tight-throated, short line is especially evident at readings. Why, then, does Creeley's poetry and fiction represent sexual love as the epitome of human fulfillment, yet love constantly fails? Unlike the poems, his short stories, The Gold Diggers (1965), and novel, The Island (1963), constrain him to dramatize his themes in specific contexts, so we may more easily look to Creeley's fiction for the answer. The failure of love seems to be rooted in the delusive sexual imagination of his protagonists, particularly the men. Their inability to cope with social reality leads them to create their own world—usually an expression of sexual fears which foredoom any genuine sexual involvement. While such solipsism is preferable for some of Creeley's characters, for most it becomes a trap that is difficult to escape. Their conflicting subjective experience is the focus of Creeley's often surreal narratives.

The sexual imagination of Creeley's characters is often indistinguishable from their outer circumstances; a person or situation may be an objective correlative or psychological "projection" of the protagonist's subjective feelings. (p. 59)

Although Creeley writes about the subject of love, the point of view is almost always that of the unloved speaker in his solitude. That the psychology of the would-be lover rather than the image of his love is the subject of Creeley's love lyrics might explain why women so often have multiple, interchangeable identities in the poems; the poet's idea or imagined possibility of woman takes the place of any particular woman. (p. 61)

The force of the masculine imagination is, then, very powerful in Creeley's writing. The failure of love, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, is primarily spun out of that imagination; the protagonist creates impossible situations for the survival of love (the helpless jealousy in "Mr. Blue," and the dream in "The Seance")…. When a relationship fails, solipsism appears to be the only alternative. The highly developed private world amounts to a compensation for an abandoned public one—yet the private world is clearly unacceptable. (p. 62)

One senses an incompleteness in [his] stories, perhaps because Creeley directs his energies to the articulation of his characters' disturbed sexual imaginations, showing little interest in exploring just what has gone wrong in their public world. Creeley seems to draw on the interiorized consciousness as his greatest creative resource. It is his vantage point as well as his subject. Creeley is concerned with the horror of the isolated self, the dehumanization of life without community. In his poetry, isolation is often traced to weak bridges between people that our minds and language provide, part a problem of perception and expression too rooted in the self…. Creeley suggests in his poems that the way out of solipsism, the extreme condition of isolation, is love. Experience must be shared to be enriched, a seeming impossibility.

Since Creeley's themes are isolation and loneliness, many of his stories involve people who try to break out of such condition and, in this sense, are about quests, journeys of the mind and body which eventually fail. (pp. 63-4)

Ultimately, Creeley seems to disbelieve in the love his characters can never quite obtain. His more positive stories suggest that loneliness is man's natural condition and that one must accept the fact before one can accept oneself. (p. 64)

The themes of isolation, the destructive sexual imagination, and the need to escape the self are more extensively and satisfyingly developed in Creeley's novel, The Island. The principal theme of the novel, the stories, and much of the poetry is the necessity of human relationship, however difficult to maintain. One of the strengths of the novel is that Creeley portrays destructive isolation in various forms and is careful to avoid slick solutions or alternatives; he does not oversimplify human experience. (p. 66)

His short stories suggest that the failure of love is due to a fear of sexuality and a preference for the self-created reality over the unacceptable real world. The Island extends the possibilities of isolation by rendering a marriage as lonely as an individual. The fear of sexuality is also a fear of any vital communication with the world. (pp. 68-9)

Perhaps Creeley has fashioned in his characters models of the artist as a reluctant solipsist who tries to compensate in his imagination for an unattainable contact with reality. The failure to communicate is a social as well as an artistic poverty, yet Creeley's expression of his characters' private worlds is rich in understanding and feeling. (p. 69)

John G. Hammond, "Solipsism and the Sexual Imagination in Robert Creeley's Fiction," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVI, No. 3, pp. 59-69.

No one has more successfully practiced the hard, dry, antipoetic style that represents a significant strain in modern writing than Robert Creeley. It is the kind of verse that illiterates claim not to be literature, since it lacks the sentimental effusiveness that is popularly associated with poetry. What is one to make of a poet who is prepared to expose his most trivial domestic complaints?

              Let me say (in anger) that since
                      the day we married
              we have never had a towel
              where anyone could find it,
              the fact.

I recognize, though my own system of documentation is different from his, that "the fact" is terribly important to Creeley, as it is to me, and that he is relentless in his determination to record it as strictly, as sparely as he can. He is chary even of metaphor, as though it were a form of decoration. This purism breeds a cold and narrow strength. His aesthetic is related to that of several painters of his generation—Jasper Johns is the most familiar name—who insisted on presenting, in explicit detail, the American flag as American flag (a composition of stripes and stars) or a slice of blueberry pie as a slice of blueberry pie, stripped of all background, connotation, or symbolic aura, as if to say, "Here is the thing-in-itself: take it for what it is, and take it now." One could argue that the reality of "the fact," given the findings of modern physics, is a supreme fiction, but this objection has not inhibited a strong tendency in the modern arts that can be called actualism. Creeley, it seems to me, is the most persuasive of the actualist poets, all of whom derive in varying degrees from W. C. Williams. In the best of his collections, For Love, Creeley is emotionally freer than he has been before, without rejecting his minimalist technique…. (pp. 259-60)

More recently Creeley's work, which has always shown a predilection for word-play, has moved in the direction of conceptual art. The increasing dryness, impersonality, and abstraction of his new poems would seem to betoken a temporary exhaustion or numbness of feeling rather than the hardening of an aesthetic credo. (p. 260)

Stanley Kunitz, in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (© 1935, 1937, 1938, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kunitz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975.

From the very first, with the publication of For Love: Poems 1950–1960, Robert Creeley declared himself an experimenter: his interest has not been primarily in either ideas or in things, but in allowing what is there to be expressed in words, in sounds and rhythms that communicate states of mind that are not quite emotions, and not quite concepts. For Creeley, rhythmic modality is the very essence of poetry; he has never been interested in subordinating his art to statements of a social or political nature, nor has he been interested in developing form per se. He follows William Carlos Williams: "The poet thinks with his poem. In that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity." Had Creeley not gone on to become a quite substantial poet he would have achieved a sort of minor celebrity in poetry circles by having stated a truth there to be expressed, so far as contemporary poets are concerned: "Form is never more than an extension of content." (p. 26)

He has been called a Minimalist, and while the term is ambiguous enough it can perhaps be justified, if by Minimalist we mean an artist who rather ascetically eliminates a great deal from his imagined landscape in order to focus upon the essential (which must always be a state of mind, a response, rather than an attempt to present the stimulus). The poems as we have them sometimes seem the after-effects of poetic moments, emotion not recollected—or reconstructed—but transformed into its equivalent in terms of consciousness. The event, the experience, is completed; the emotion has run its course; what remains is the description of the emotion's passage, for whatever it is worth….

Admittedly there are dangers in so laconic and spare an art, for if one does not grant Creeley the premises of his poetry, if one objects to the stumbling, stuttering, ostensibly accidental nature of the finished product, it cannot be argued that there are peripheral matters of closely observed detail, rich and provocative language, wit, or wisdom, or even venom, to compensate for the deliberate modesty of revelation. Yet Creeley has stated that he doesn't want to write "what is only an idea, particularly my own"; if the world can't be evoked, "flooding all the terms of my thought and experience, then it's not enough, either for me or, equally, for anyone else." The difficulty with Creeley's poetry, particularly with assessing it, is that the idea of the poem often seems somewhat more interesting than the poem itself. (p. 27)

Selected Poems consists of work from For Love, The Charm, Pieces, A Day Book, and Words, as well as 16 more recent poems. A Day Book contains a kind of poetic journal, a record of Creeley's experiences in London and elsewhere, addressed at times to certain friends (Bly, Jim Dine, Marisol), at other times meant to be a dialogue with himself, an unsystematic collection of brief notes. "Wish I were home at this precise moment—the sun coming in those windows. The sounds of the house, birds too." And again: "Wish Joan Baez was here/singing "Tears of Rage" in my ear./Wish I was Bob Dylan—/he's got a subtle mind.")

It was fashionable for a while in the '60s to refuse to revise, so that one retained the spontaneous flow of the mind, its blunders as well as its successes, but after the passage of even a brief space of time such experimentation appears to have been merely self-indulgent—as when Creeley wonders aloud how to spell "MacCluhan" (sic) or wishes that a book on Tolstoi were reprinted when in fact it has been in paperback for some years (as he later notes, parenthetically). Such formless, directionless work undercuts the effect of the more disciplined poetry that surrounds it. Too often the reader is an unwilling and unimpressed witness to the poet's interior life, and to his insistence upon his own ordinariness. Since Williams, the elevation of the presumably trivial into art has become fairly commonplace, and there is the danger that a once-revolutionary concept can become, in a generation or less, another poetic convention.

But A Day Book is not representative of Creeley's art at its best. For that we must go to such powerful, succinct poems as "The Innocence," "Wait For Me," "The Door," "The Rhythm," and "Kore"; and to the long, groping, painful elegy "For My Mother"…. At such times Creeley is absolutely mesmerizing in his ability to suspend and to define the passage of thought, the process of experience in all its ironic, inexorable sadness. No poetic theories are required to support such art: it achieves its own permanence by relating at once to our own groping, semi-articulate wonder. (pp. 27-8)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 18, 1976.

[Among] all the poets who have followed the line of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olsen—Projectionists, Black Mountaineers—Creeley is most the romanticist; even, as he has unabashedly said, the sentimentalist. It isn't simply the romanticism of Shelley either, but on back through Lovelace and Herrick, the troubadours, Catullus, to the ancient Arcadians; and forward too into our own time. Odds are that when Creeley was young he read the poems of Elinor Wylie, not without appreciation.

He placed himself, at any rate, squarely in the Western tradition to which most of us who write poetry belong, the secular lovers. He eroticized thought and experience totally, and his religion (since all poets are religious) was joy in self and world. But then, like all romanticists, he fell prey to uncertainties. What is self, this bundle of unconscious, conscious self-consciousness? And what is world? If Eros is its pervading spirit, what happens when man is cast out of nature into solitariness, our so well-known modern condition of alienation?

Williams said: "No ideas but in things." Yet he said it, inevitably, in words, and if words are more than palpable sound, if they mean anything, then they are ideas, they are abstract. So Creeley fights his battle of self and not-self, his obsession, in language forever straining to escape abstraction, and forever failing. (p. 58)

Well, in the beginning he wrote what we expected, love poems, wrote them beautifully, using Williams's formal notions to realign the traditional stanzaic lyric, keeping his language hard, direct, unadorned. He was, and is, our finest verse technician. (pp. 58-9)

History, the outside, otherness, these torture him, more and more in recent poems. Momentary song is not satisfactory. It strikes me that his whole later work is a poetry of dissatisfaction, and that the irritation of it gets into his words and forms, making them snippy and acute. More and more he has turned to unplayful word games and wise conundrums.

                      by being not
                      is—is not
                      by being.

He has turned away, as real poets all must, from what his talent does most easily. Let rhyming go, what we need is truth, and he has pushed himself relentlessly toward harder formulations. What has it done to his poetry? It has changed it, but beyond that I cannot say, and I distrust anyone who thinks he can. Hardy and Hopkins were fools in their time. Seventy-five years from now we—someone—will know what Creeley has done.

Meanwhile the "Selected Poems" is a necessary book for anyone still unacquainted with his work. Creeley is one of our most interesting poets certainly, and I think perhaps our purest, however the word is taken. (p. 59)

Hayden Carruth, "A Secular Lover," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 1, 1977, pp. 58-9.