As noted already, one of Creeley’s greatest talents as a poet was his ability to reshape language and writing. Whereas many early twentieth century poets prided themselves in clear, sharp images and poignantly articulated rhetoric, Creeley diverged from them in his creative lack of punctuation and syntactical ambiguity. “Fathers” is a prime example of these artistic differences as such, and it can be a difficult poem to understand because of this. Moreover, the form of the poem, its look on the page, its lack of stanza breaks, and its length are somewhat uncharacteristic of Creeley’s earlier works. What must be remembered is that the voice of this poem is an interior voice; speaking in to the self rather than out the world, per se.
All of these formalistic nuances, however, are at best a testament to the speaker’s need to engage a personal rhetoric in his attempt to rediscover paternal lineage and family history. The first line,“Scattered, aslant”—as in many of Creeley’s works—should immediately key us in to the awkward nature of lineages as the poem addresses them. One begins to read on, and by the end of the poem, what little we know of the poet’s familial past, let alone his ability to conclude anything concrete about it, becomes the penultimate concern for us. It is a poem of images, of “place[s] more tangible” and of “graves” that never give up their most valuable secrets.
The ambiguity of personal definition via a historical reckoning is more finely the point of the poem, and this too can be difficult for readers to grasp. What can clue us in to this notion in the poem itself, however, are the last four lines: “his emptiness, his acerbic/ edge cuts the hands to/ hold him, hold on, wants/ the ground, wants this frozen ground.” In short, “this resonance” of past lives (from line 20) finds itself, much like the speaker, at a loss for anything other than the “acerbic edge” that refutes and cuts off any satisfactory knowledge of the self in relation to the progenitors that came before us.