Robert Creeley’s poem “Fading Light,” originally published in a 1988 collection of poems titled Windows, was republished in 2001 in Just in Time, which contains the entire contents of three of Creeley’s earlier collections. These poems illustrate the themes and styles with which the poet engaged himself as he approached the age of seventy. Thus it represents a mature effort of a poet who has been writing since his late twenties. The poem is short, only twelve lines long, and its line length is somewhat more extended than in most of his poems. Many of Creeley’s poems are short, sometimes so short that they achieve comprehensibility only as part of a longer cluster of poems. The typical Creeley poem tends to be a sinewy stream of words on a mostly white page. Indeed, for a poet who often places a single word, sometimes a word as simple as “the” to stand alone as a line, his lines in this poem mark a minor stylistic shift. “Fading Light” is a poem that begins with a very simple image— an image of dusk seen through an open window— a commonplace, almost impersonal image that is transformed from perception into reflection on time and memory, all in an austere, remote style, one in which the diction is kept spare and deliberately simple. Belying the simplicity of the diction, however, the poet uses a number of techniques to cause the work to be somewhat difficult to interpret in a first reading or hearing. The poem is punctuated as one sentence, but it is composed of fragments that are so deliberately, ambiguously constructed that the reader has to interpret where and how the different parts interact to create a meaningful whole. It is the difficulty in understanding what exactly is being said that causes a careful reader to attend to the diction, syntax, imagery, and sound of the poem.
The very first line of “Fading Light” introduces several key aspects of the poem. The poem begins with an immediate, emphatic “Now,” followed by an impersonal “one” who could be the poet himself or, indeed, anyone, a pronoun that is followed by “might catch” in which the possibility of seizing a moment is at once asserted and then immediately questioned. Terry R. Bacon has remarked that “Creeley’s poetry is expressed in the perpetual NOW. It is a ‘real time’ rendering, in a very solipsistic sense, of the universe he perceives.” The title of poem has helped to establish that the poem is about dusk, and it is this moment of dusk to which the poet directs attention, as though perception could freeze the moment into something palpable. Creeley repeats verbs, as he will do throughout the poem—“catch it see it.” His refusal to punctuate conventionally or to add connective words such as “and” begins a pattern of disjointed phrases marked by verbs that are connected elusively to their grammatical subject. The reader, indeed, must supply the subjects and make sense of the phrasing in order to make this poem meaningful.
The transition from the first line to the second line demonstrates that Creeley will use the poetic technique of enjambment in this poem. Enjambment occurs when a line’s sense continues into the next line, with no pause. Commonly, lines that are not enjambed, which are called end-stopped lines, have some kind of punctuation, such as a comma, period, or dash, to show the reader that a pause is necessary. Enjambed lines, on the other hand, rush onward, usually to find a pause in the middle or end of a subsequent line. All the lines except the last one in this poem are enjambed. Interestingly, Creeley says in the interview included in Just in Time, “I read the breaks.” Thus, in his own reading, the poet would pause at the end of lines, whereas the meaning of the lines clearly demands that one go on into the next line. While there may be other interpretations, there seems to be a pause after the first “it,” in the first line, with a second pause after the word “shift.” Thus, the natural reading of the first line seems to go over into the second, and would be punctuated thus: “Now one might catch it, see it shift . . .” That the poet does not write it as it would be spoken is a clue that his intent is to frustrate the reader’s uncritical expectations.
The second line repeats the uncertainty of the first. The “it,” which we infer to be the fading light of the title, is “almost substantial blue,” teetering just outside the poet’s certain grasp. The light is indeterminate, being “blue / white yellow light.” The jumble of adjectives will be paralleled later in the poem by a heaping of verbs and adverbs. All of this is deliberately confusing, but the confusion in syntax is related to the confusion in perception. The light is fading, indeterminate, of changing color and quality, and the concepts and recollections about to occur in the poem are similar in their elusiveness.
The reader has to supply the connections between the subject and the various verbs of the poem. While one might fairly easily interpret that one might “see it shift . . . become intense...
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