Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

Robert Hass has described “I Know a Man” as “the poem of the decade about a world gone out of control,” while Creeley has spoken of the “senses of confusion and muddiness and opaqueness that people obviously feel in their lives” and which he tried to express in the poem. These insights together represent the dual focus of the poem—it is a reaction to chaos surrounding the poet and a response to the uncertainty that he regards as a prime component of his own psychic makeup. As Charles Altieri has observed, one of Creeley’s goals is to construct “an aesthetic space for the multiple facets of the self,” and in “I Know a Man,” the conversational exchange is both a dialogue with another person and a reflective interior monologue in which alternative courses of action are debated. The friend called “John” is a representative of what Creeley sees as a fixture of friendship, a quality he values, and the phrase “I know a man” is used as a form of compliment that implies the friend’s usefulness for both support and caution. In other words, the poet is describing an intimate encounter in which he feels close enough to the “other”—whether an aspect of his mind or an actual person—to share some of his deepest concerns.

The poem approaches the problem of stasis, a condition of dread that requires a bold stroke summoning energy from any available source. The “goddamn big car” is both a literal means of escape and a figure for seizing and using whatever power is accessible. The admonition to “look/ out where yr going” is part of a recognition by the “friend” (or inner voice of conscience) that the impulse to act is very human and must be respected, but that this type of spasmodic action does not really accomplish much.

The uncertainty (as well as the necessity) of the proposed solution is also an aspect of one of Creeley’s most crucial aesthetic considerations: the relationship of the poet to his primary instrument, his language. It is through words that the poet attempts to reconcile the conflicting impulses of the self, but the words he uses carry their own inherent ambiguities, their implications of uncertainty. Therefore, just as it is sometimes necessary to “drive” without direction, it is also necessary to begin a poem without any assurance about its conclusion. The driver (or poet) may discover his destination (the poem) in the course of the act of driving (writing). The poet knows that merely getting into a “big car” is not sufficient; it is also crucial to watch “where yr going,” and the admonition from the useful “friend” is as much a part of the poet’s practice as the commitment to begin the poem to overcome the surrounding darkness. The parallel between writing and driving—an instant-by-instant awareness of where one is, a process requiring constant attention—is part of Creeley’s desire to exercise his craft as “an immediate relationship with the experience at hand,” as Robert Kern has put it.

The poet is aware that he is “always talking” to combat the darkness, whether his voice is inner or externally directed, but he also knows that he is committed to an ultimately inexact solution. Language itself, the words of the poem, may be a barrier as well as an entrance, and the compulsive speech, replete with self-reflection, may be a kind of overcompensation for this limitation. When the poet says that John “was not his/ name,” the poem shifts into a realm composed of words beyond direct connection to the outer world—a form of reality, but one with the potential for further abstraction. In this sense, the closing “look/ out where yr going” has implications for psychic stability that are almost as ominous as encouraging. This is why the friend prefaces it with “for/ christ’s sake” and why the entire vehicle seems dangerously close to the edge of disaster.

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