The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975
Born in 1926 and reared in the Great Depression, Robert Creeley published his first poem in 1945 in Wake, an upstart Harvard University literary magazine created as an alternative to the established forums. The poem “Return” tells tersely of a son come home to proper people and subdued streets. “Enough for now to be here, and/ To know my door is one of these.” Since 1945, Creeley has wandered widely—Mallorca, New Mexico, London, California, New York City—always at home in the world but never quite finding home itself: Ulysses without followers, engaged in the quiet heroism of daily life. Quite consciously, he rejected the allusive poetic model that so dominated the American scene in his youth. Instead, Creeley drew on native American rebels—William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson—in his search for a cultural home. In The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, that search—in technique, subject matter and attitude—reads like a history of postmodernist American poetry. Taken as a single work, this volume stands as an updated version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855, first publication).
From the dust jacket of his collected first thirty years, Creeley stares intently with his one good eye—the left eye, lost very young, is shut, sunken, almost asleep: a face divided as his poetry. Coming of age as he did in the midst of the last good war, Creeley began early to reject the tenets of T. S. Eliot and to embrace the newly forming American postmodernist poetry. He attended Harvard, but with few ill effects; he was never graduated. His Massachusetts roots do not betray themselves. Born to a physician-father and nurse-mother, New England to the core, Creeley seldom writes about his early years directly, seldom is concerned with the past or the future. What matters most is now and here, for he is existential, a son of the contemporary disorder which he takes to be the norm. When he was four, his father died; supported by his working mother, Creeley was reared by a semiretarded motherly housekeeper—almost an orphan and, like Huck Finn, able to create himself in his own image.
In 1944, Creeley took a leave of absence from Harvard to volunteer for the American Field Service in Burma, the only way a one-eyed man could get to the war. When he returned in 1945, he reentered Harvard, married, and moved to the artist community in Provincetown, a long commute to the Harvard campus. He soon dropped out, never to return. Determined to become a poet, he and his wife and the children that quickly followed lived precariously on his wife’s small income from her trust fund. By 1950, Creeley had discovered the beginnings of his American root system. He corresponded with Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and William Carlos Williams; and Olson and Williams in turn led him back to their prototype: Walt Whitman. (In 1973, Creeley edited Whitman for Penguin Books.)
Olson, who dedicated The Maximus Poems (1983) to Creeley, wrote him in 1950, saying: “creeley says, he’s a boll weevil, olson, just a lookin’ for a lang[uage], just a lookin’ nuts, and i says, creeley, you’re off yer trolley: a man god damn well has to come up with his own lang[uage], syntax and song both, but also each poem under hand has its own language, which is variant of same.” This is the same advice that Walt Whitman read in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay, “The Poet,” a hundred years earlier: The poet must generate his own voice, his own form; no two poems must or should look the same. Creeley learned the lesson early and practiced it late. By 1952, he was living cheaply on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, running his own Divers Press and finding his poetic voice and form. From Olson, Williams, Pound, and Whitman, he learned that line length should not be dictated by outworn poetic measures. In 1913, Pound had argued for a natural, musically driven line. Olson, with his Projectivist theories, said that line length should be no longer than the stress that formed it: a subjective length felt by the poet. Williams had long been conducting his own experiments with a native American line length.
All of these forces came together in Creeley to produce a poem such as “Le Fou” written for Olson:
who plots, then, the linestalking, taking, always the beat fromthe breath(moving slowly at firstthe breathwhich is slow—I mean, graces come slowly,it is that way....
(The entire section is 1936 words.)