Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2048
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, intimate, charged with complexly diverse emotion.” In Whitman’s words, Creeley would agree that “he who touches this book touches a man,” but he would stress that it is a man—or woman—who lives in language, and who is extremely sensitive to and exalted by all of its possibilities.
Creeley’s book is divided into five sections. The first is called “Heroes/Elders,” and it establishes the basics of Creeley’s curriculum, concentrating on Pound, Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), discussing each writer’s ideas, aptly quoting from the work, and celebrating within the poetry those qualities that Creeley particularly admires and wishes to make his own. Creeley here and throughout the book shows why so many writers (Allen Ginsberg, for example) were attracted to Pound’s most cogent ideas in spite of the pox of Fascist madness infecting his mind. Williams is much less forbidding, but he has rarely been more tellingly presented than in Creeley’s frequent citations of his words as he moves outward to advance his own positions.
The next section is called “The Company,” a reference to the vital community of supportive fellow artists who stood with Creeley when he lived (as the artist often must) “in an environment having apparently very little concern or interest in what seems so crucial to oneself” Numbering his close contemporaries as members of “a kind of leaderless Robin Hood band, which I dearly love,” Creeley writes perceptively about the work of Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Denise Levertov, and Paul Blackburn, and mentions others (Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen) briefly. He devotes most of this section, however; to Charles Olson, a man with whom he shared a wonderfully honest and provocative friendship. Olson has gradually been recognized as the pivotal figure that his students and friends from as far back as the late 1940’s saw him to be, although the quirky originality and syntactic difficulty of his writing and speaking, as well as the multireferential nature of his theories, caused many people not initially engaged by his work to dismiss it completely. Creeley examines, explicates, and illuminates Olson’s work, placing it in historical contexts when necessary. As Creeley covers Olson’s strongest poetry, the man whom Duncan described as a “great fire source” is drawn into position as a singular artist at an important juncture in literary history.
The third section, “The Writing Life,” is a collection of Creeley’s responses to writers he knows primarily from their work. Always scrupulous and honest in his enthusiasms, Creeley is no blurb writer; every essay is obviously the product of careful consideration, and he has both the energy and the integrity to look for what is distinct in each writer’s work, never resorting to formulaic response or habitual rhetoric. Each review is a brief of conviction. In this section, Creeley operates comfortably as a true man of letters, familiar with and interested in all the possibilities of written expression, a teacher of the literature of his times. Sadly, he is also a eulogist, his youthful spirit darkening as he writes about the death of his friend Ted Berrigan. He also writes about the death of a writer he liked, Richard Brautigan, about the death of Paul Blackburn, and finally, about the death of Olson.
The fourth section, “Artists,” marks a shift in perspective, as Creeley discusses the work of painters (mostly abstract expressionists) such as Franz Kline, Frank Stella, Willem de Kooning, and Jasper Johns, whose work parallels in style and attitude some of the primary concerns of the poets of his company. Creeley traces the postmodern transfer of attention in art from the pictorial (a preconceived figure in the mind) to the energetic (a continuous response to the energy inherent in the materials at hand), an idea akin to Olson’s philosophy of “composition by field” and Pound’s definition of a poem as a high-energy discharge. Just as painters went beyond the limits of the frame, Creeley says, poets went beyond the enclosure of the page. He emphasizes that many of the artists he examines are concerned with regaining “a focus not overlaid with the habits of taste and the conveniences of the past.” Creeley’s lucidity is a welcome contrast to the massive amount of empty verbiage frequently expended on paintings in contemporary art criticism.
The final section, “Autobiography and Poetics,” in addition to stating some of Creeley’s most basic beliefs about the process of writing, underlines, especially for the reader unfamiliar with Creeley’s work, the fact that he is one of the most interesting poets working in American English. Following a number of selections which show the young Creeley trying out some of the ideas he was developing in the 1950’s, two particularly important essays, his “Notes Apropos ‘Free Verse’” (1969) and his extraordinary “I’m given to write poems” (1967), offer the essential core of his wisdom as a writer. These pieces provide an excellent, accessible introduction to the poetics of postmodern thought, removing the topic from the realm of the professional literary theorist and presenting it for consideration by anyone who shares Creeley’s fascination with all the possibilities of language in action. What makes these essays so distinctive is their combination of a coherent critical vision, a sensitive eye and ear, a solid cultural and historical formation, an open and inquiring mind, and—perhaps most significant—an individual voice.
Creeley has often been admired for what Charles Molesworth calls his “spare and urgent lyricism,” a “hard- won specificity of voice” that gives a marvelous balance to the urgency of feeling that follows Pound’s dictum that “only emotion endures.” It would be deceptive, however, to categorize Creeley’s work solely with adjectives such as “elliptical, condensed and compacted,” as Creeley’s friend Michael Davidson does on the book jacket. Davidson is accurate enough, but it is evident from the entire body of Creeley’s writing that he can also handle sentences that are sinuous and extensive when that is appropriate, sentences with an equilibrium and rhythm that lend weight and duration to his thought. Moreover, Creeley’s remarks on the teaching of writing are deeper, fresher, and more sensible than almost any other pronouncement on the subject by a poet or a professional proponent of rhetorical theory.
The retrospect that this collection provides permits the observation that Creeley and Olson, while certainly not similar to them in sensibility, occupied a historical moment parallel to that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth two centuries ago. If one recalls that Wordsworth’s Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800) resonated throughout the literature of England for many decades, changing permanently the way poetry was written, the analogy becomes clear. Creeley often uses the word “occasion” to describe the totality of the creative moment—a physical, mental, and emotional conjunction of a person and an instance of perception. The publication of Creeley’s essays, the evidence of his “commitment to the art of poetry,” offers an entrance into a cosmos of language, where the art of writing has become an emblem of human possibility. Creeley describes Olson’s letters as a “practical ’college’ of stimulus and information,” and his own essays, for the reader alive to linguistic invention, function in a similar fashion. In an era fractured by competing literary ideologies, all densely cerebral, Creeley’s work is a testament to the Pound epigraph from Canto 81 that precedes the volume:
“What thou lovest well remains,! the rest is dross.”