Robert Creeley American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4683

Among the poets who took it as an obligation to explain the poetics of the evolving modernist continuation of the tradition in American literature which began with Walt Whitman and was developed by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Creeley may have been the most lucidly articulate as well as...

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Among the poets who took it as an obligation to explain the poetics of the evolving modernist continuation of the tradition in American literature which began with Walt Whitman and was developed by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Creeley may have been the most lucidly articulate as well as the most challengingly imaginative. With his friend and poetic brother Charles Olson, whose own theoretical suggestions (especially his “Projective Verse” essay of 1950) led to what Gilbert Sorrentino called “an encouragement for all young writers who felt themselves to be disenfranchised,” Creeley accepted the task of demonstrating that his differences from the established strictures of the New Critics (such as John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks) were not failures of form but a different approach to the entire question of what form might be.

In his essays and interviews, Creeley responded to the need for “the dignity of their own statement” felt by writers who shared his concerns, and although he rarely used his own poetry as an example of his theories in argument, preferring to cite the work of many colleagues he admired, his poems may be most clearly understood in the context of his own observations about the nature of writing.

Creeley’s work has adhered to the nature of form and writing so fully that many poets commit his famous comment about form to memory. As quoted by Olson, Creeley once remarked that “form is never more than an extension of content,” a direct refutation of the idea common to academic criticism in the first half of the twentieth century that a poem should be a container of a specific design into which the poet arranged his words and images. Creeley has stressed the idea that, as Olson put it, “there’s an appropriate way of saying something inherent in the thing to be said.” That is, each specific occasion from which a poem emerges requires the suitable form and language of its particulars. Organizing such a principle can be both tedious and second-nature, and Creeley was so intent on this mode of poetic practice that he once said of the poet’s subject: “Try not to describe it. But if one can, somehow, enter it.”

Creeley claimed to feel “a rhythmic periodicity in the weight and duration of words to occur in the first few words, or first line, or lines, of what I am writing.” Therefore, the crucial choice in the poem’s opening established a measure—a much wider and subtler determinant than meter—to which the poet was compelled to respond as the poem continued. Put in another way, Creeley drew a parallel between a farmer plowing a field and a poet composing a poem. The first line, or furrow, determines direction; the second line solidifies it. Creeley saw the literal root of the word “verse” as a furrow, or a turning, just as the line turned in accordance with the requirements of emphasis, stress, breath units, and other elements inherent in the language as it was employed.

While it is clear from Creeley’s work that he was very much aware of the entire history of poetry in the English language (and that he regarded it as “rather regrettable and a little dumb not to make use of the full context of what’s been done”), he was also interested in the “possibilities of coherence . . . other than what was previously the case.” Or, as he explained in his essay expressing his basic credo, “I’m given to write poems,” he believed that it requires all of his intelligence to “follow the possibilities that the poem ’under hand’ as Olson would say, is declaring.”

Another crucial component of Creeley’s poetic style is his use, in the spirit of Williams’s arch claim that his poetic language came from “the mouths of Polish mothers,” of the colloquial, with which he feels “very at home.” Following the pioneering example of Williams’s work, Creeley attempted to engage language at a level he regarded as both familiar and active, so that the poem is an “intensely emotional perception,” no matter how evident the poet’s intelligence and education may be. This insistence on emotion recalls Walt Whitman’s dictum, “Who touches this book touches a man,” and is a part of Creeley’s determination to resist the academic theorists who emphasized an ironic distance that was part of a habit of diction that excluded many modes of speech as inappropriate for poetry.

The use of a “commonly situated vernacular,” however, does not mean that Creeley neglected craft in the shaping of the language into a poem. One of the most distinctive aspects of his style is his precise arrangement of words so that a minimum of material is concentrated to produce an often complex series of meanings; a compact, even sparse poem—unadorned with rhetorical touches that mainly call attention to themselves—that answers Pound’s insistence on condensation and compression.

Because Creeley’s poetry has removed some of the accumulated verbiage of previous conceptions of the “poetic,” it has been described as “thin,” whereas it is more accurately lean or trim, with implication replacing unnecessary explanation. As Creeley pointed out, it is not that Williams restricted himself to a colloquial language which never uses words that are less frequently spoken. “What is common is the mode of address,” Creeley observed, while the “sense of source in common speech” leads to an authenticity that supports Creeley’s ideas that “the local is universal” and that language is the most basic instrument in permitting a poem to “exist through itself,” as Olson insists.

While Creeley’s poetics remained relatively consistent during the course of their development, the poems he wrote over four decades evolved in terms of their perception of his personal experiences. His first significant book, For Love: Poems 1950-1960, contains lyrics, many patterned after classical antecedents, which concentrate on the nature of love, but on a “strained, difficult love relationship” (as John Wilson remarks) in which Creeley, contrary to more recent social developments, attests a kind of primitive maleness endemic in American life.

The conditions that drew the poems, often in pain, from the poet’s life are captured in language that seethes with erotic intensity while maintaining a decorum that elevates the work beyond mere confession. The poems are rife with wit, directed at the poet himself as frequently as at the world, but beyond the dark comedy of a man who called an earlier collection a “snarling garland,” there is a gentleness, a poignancy that is very affecting.

Poems such as “Ballad of the Despairing Husband” or “The Ball Game” use a comic mood to keep chaos at bay, while “I Know a Man” is “the poem of the decade . . . on a world gone out of control,” according to Robert Hass, but beyond these, poems such as “The Name” (addressed to his daughters) or the extraordinary “The Rain” have a depth of feeling produced by words absolutely appropriate for the occasion.

Creeley’s next collection, Words, moved further from the demands of formal concerns, employing a method Creeley called “scribbling” or “writing for the immediacy of the pleasure.” Some of the most severe critical reactions Creeley suffered were directed at poems such as “A Piece,” which reads in its entirety:

One andone, two,three.

Creeley’s concern here was to focus on the process of his thinking and to use both the rhythms of jazz and the techniques of a painter such as Jackson Pollock, whose paintings reflect the artist’s actual placement of paint (words) on the canvas (the page) independent of specific representation. In addition to the poems which emphasize the singular effect of each word, there are longer, more intricate arrangements which move beyond the play of individual units of meaning to the human dimension.

Pieces moves even further in the direction of abstraction but from the position that the poet is interested in establishing a harmony with the natural world. The structural openness that is declared in this collection and which marks Creeley’s writing for the next ten years (through the collection Hello: A Journal, February 29-May 3, 1976, published in 1978) tends to break the “boundaries of individual poems (as John Wilson observes) so as to emulate what Louis Zukovsky called “continuing song.” Creeley, in quoting Robert Lowell, mentioned that he moved back to a “more deliberate organization” at the point where he sensed he was at the “edges of incoherence.”

In Pieces and in other poetry written during the 1970’s, Creeley depended on the pacing and rhythms to provide scraps of information; at times, a kind of minimalist reduction became so pervasive that Creeley was, as Louis Martz put it, “at the taut edge of poetic existence.”

The poems that appear in his next significant collection, Later, do not contradict Creeley’s original intentions but give him a wider field for operation. The poetry of the first part of the 1970’s used a method Creeley called “a continuity rather than a series of single instances,” while Later and then Mirrors move again toward the strengths of the single poem, although always in the context of the other poems surrounding it. The major change in Later is a turn toward the reflective, as Creeley’s characteristic expression of immediate thought and feeling in a very specific present is tempered by the reflection of a man who can see his own life as history combining occasion into pattern.

Creeley remarked that he felt Later was “a really solid book,” and he stopped writing for nearly two years after its publication to take a “breathing space.” Realizing in 1981 that he still had “a lot that I wanted to get out,” he wrote the poems that were published in Mirrors in 1983. In this book, the poetry has a reflective range that does not lessen the impact of Creeley’s “luminous austerity” but merges or mingles it with a new feeling of quiet acceptance. There is a troubled awareness of fatigue, failure, and aging in the poems, but the frustration and confusion expressed in “Age,” in which the poet says

He thinks he’ll hate itand when he does dieat last, he supposedhe still won’t know it,

is balanced, even countered, with the sentiments in “Oh Love”: “Oh love/ like nothing else on earth!”

The strain of philosophical consideration, often presented with Creeley’s dry humor, continues in Memory Gardens. The book has four sections, the first two containing many terse statements such as “I’ll Win,” in which the poet reviews his strategy of “being gone/ when they come” and summarizes its effect by saying mordantly, “Being dead, then/ I’ll have won completely.”

Such “cryptic epigrams” (as Dudley Fitts called Creeley’s earliest poems) alternate with poems specifically written for various friends and several translations/adaptations (or as Creeley put it, “free play on sounds and occasionally understood words”) of poems by Richard Anders, whom he met in Berlin. The third section is Creeley’s most comprehensive examination of his family background to this point in his life. This group includes meditations about his early life and poems about his parents, such as the deeply affecting “The Doctor,” in which images, like fragments of memory, recall the father he hardly knew. The poem closes with the poet’s memory still charged with desire to uncover more information.

After the psychic exhilaration and strain of the mental excursion into the realm of his past, Creeley again shifts to a more contemplative mood in section 4, in which a philosophic calendar with a poem for each month matches the spirit of the season to a specific kind of insight. This twelve-part sequence, with some variants on poets such as Thomas Wyatt and Ralph Waldo Emerson, leads toward Creeley’s next book, Windows (1990), which is a display of virtuosity offering many of the most successful examples of Creeley’s voice from previous collections in fresh and vital new poems.

There is a lyric intensity in “Broad Bay,” structural compactness in “Tree,” explications of language in “Sight,” considerations of relationships in “You,” terse and penetrating philosophical discourse in “Age,” more cryptic epigrams in “Improvisations,” linguistic density in “Here,” and the familiar sense of the poet working toward versions of his life as occasions of place. This collection seemed to suggest that Creeley’s future work would maintain the vigor and clarity of what Charles Molesworth calls “the hard-won specificity of his voice, its timbre, its tremors,” which is “like nothing else on earth.”

“The Rain”

First published: 1962 (collected in For Love: Poems, 1950-1960)

Type of work: Poem

The poet, in a contemplative mood at night while listening to rain falling, wishes his love were content in his company.

Among his lyrics that use an image from the natural world as an occasion for an emotional revelation, “The Rain” is one of Creeley’s most poignant and successful efforts. It opens with the direct, lean language that is Creeley’s special signature:

All night the sound hadcome back again,and again fallsthis quiet, persistent rain.

It then proceeds to a psychological correlative, where the poet asks “What am I to myself” and considers whether “hardness” is permanent, whether he is to “be locked in this/ final uneasiness” that even “rain falling” cannot alleviate.

Then the poem moves beyond observation (of the self in the context of the phenomena of nature) to a fervent declaration of necessity:

Love, if you love me,lie next to me.Be for me, like rain,the getting outof the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference.

The plague of human frailty, which he condemns in three multisyllabic constructions that stand in stark contrast to the poem’s other diction, is a part of the common affliction that dismembers relationships. As a remedy, Creeley then instructs his “love” to “Be wet/ with a decent happiness.” The joining of rain, its properties of liquidity and fluidity, with a desirable human attribute unifies everything, and the mixture of the modestly hopeful and the idealistic in the last line perfectly captures the reserved or cautious optimism that is one of Creeley’s most appealing features.

“I Keep to Myself Such Measures . . .”

First published: 1967 (collected in The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975, 1982)

Type of work: Poem

Concerned about the nebulous nature of language, the poet seeks tangible coordinates with which to measure his perceptions.

The nature of language and its relationship to the physical world and the individual self (“speech is a mouth,” Creeley exclaims with audacity in “The Language”) is the subject of the poem “I Keep to Myself Such Measures.” The title, which is completed in the second line by the very personal “ . . . as I care for,” is an expression of the poet’s interest in dimensions both in his art and in his daily life.

The completing line of the first stanza, “daily the rocks/ accumulate position,” uses a concrete object to stand for the accretion of experience, but then, in a dramatic reversal, Creeley qualifies the particularity of the rocks by observing, “There is nothing/ but what thinking makes/ it less tangible,” expressing one of his most basic principles: the concern that language is nebulous and that the thought it renders can never be precise or final. Nevertheless, a position is established through the direction ordered by experience, even though that position is never so solid that it cannot be shaken.

The consequence of Creeley’s perception that “thinking makes/ it less tangible” compromises sanity itself, leading to uncertainty as a principle of existence:

  The mindfast as it goes, losespace, puts in place of itlike rocks simple markers,for a way only tohopefully come back towhere it cannot.

The “simple markers” to which Creeley refers are the mental coordinates that prove unsatisfactory as permanent guidelines because of the motion—external and internal—that is the source of change in every form of life. The realization that the mind “cannot” come back to a previous position is the burden and fascination of the entire process of perception.

Creeley’s attempts to deal with this transitory universe are the focus of his measuring; his creation of the measures in his poems is a figure for a method of seeing that requires a measuring of everything in the personal realm. The “rocks” or “simple markers” cause him to say “My mind sinks” because measure is both a restriction and a point of reference, but because there is no alternative (if the mind is to be maintained at all as a functioning entity), Creeley concludes that “I hold in both hands such weight/ it is my only description.” The word “such” retains the ambiguity of the shifting process of measuring, but the tangibility of “both hands” reinforces the importance of the process itself for the man and the poet.

“Theresa’s Friends”

First published: 1979 (collected in Later, 1979)

Type of work: Poem

The poet’s recollections of his youth are informed by the Boston Irish cultural community that is his heritage.

Creeley was raised by several women after his father died, including his mother, his grandmother, and a slightly retarded woman named Theresa whom his father had brought home to work as a maid. Creeley came to think of her as an “emotional ally” who was not as severe as his family and who needed his friendship in her alien condition. Among the poems Creeley wrote about his family, “Theresa’s Friends” is a reminiscence that excludes some of the complex emotional intensity that sometimes almost overwhelms the poet so that here he can enjoy his reflections without feeling forced to wring nuance from every particle of memory.

“From the outset,” he recalls, he was “charmed” by the soft, quick speech of Theresa’s friends. Typically, it is their use of language that captivates him, the “endlessly present talking” that gave him his first sense of being Irish, which included the cultural mix of “the lore, the magic/ the violence, the comfortable/ or uncomfortable drunkenness.” Each of these features is a source of recollective pleasure, not an element to be worried over, and as the poem narrows in focus, an ironmonger is depicted patiently telling the young man “sad, emotional stories/ with the quiet air of an elder.” This is a feature of the oral tradition that informs Creeley’s work as a poet of sound and speech, and the relaxed, conversational pace of the poem—more like a narrative than most of Creeley’s works—sets the structure for a concluding insight that is especially dramatic because of its sudden increase in emotional pitch.

After the gradual preparation he has received from Theresa’s friends concerning his cultural heritage, Creeley’s mother tells him “at last when I was twenty-one” that “indeed the name Creeley was Irish,” including him officially in the community of tale and mood toward which he has been drawn. The information comes with the effect of revelation, certifying all that Creeley had instinctively sensed about his origins, his destiny, and his gifts. In an unusually traditional concluding stanza, Creeley raises the level of language to inform and convince the reader/listener fully of the depth of his feeling:

and the heavens opened, birds sang,and the trees and the ladies spokewith wondrous voices. The power of the gloryof poetry—was at last mine.

“The Edge”

First published: 1983 (collected in Mirrors, 1983)

Type of work: Poem

Uncertainty about everything plagues the poet, who continues to explore the world in language that is itself tentative and uncertain.

The insistent inspection and dissection of linguistic possibility for which Creeley was known reaches a kind of peak in “The Edge.” The very short, elliptic word-unit common to Creeley’s style throughout his writing life is fused into compact three-line stanzas, which are linked by a continuing focus on edges or boundaries in thought and action, poetry and life. Each stanza has a tentative hold, and then a release into the next one; a hesitancy that occurs after almost every unit of meaning.

Creeley suggests that the poem itself is unclear in its way or course, “this long way comes with no purpose,” just as the life it expresses seems unsure of its direction as the poet continues seeking, experimenting, testing, trying, and measuring language and form. Uncertainty does not preclude action, however; the poem’s tentativeness is not an indication of paralysis but of an effort to discover a true course after many missteps. The poem itself expresses the poet’s desire to construct or discover meaning through the repetition of small actions:

I take the world and lose it,miss it, misplace it,put it back or try to, can’tfind it, fool it, even feel it.

There is no end to this, and the poem does not have an ending, only another thrust further into being, as the poet proclaims “This must be the edge/ of being before the thought of it! blurs it.” As Charles Molesworth aptly observes, poems such as this one are “a dramatization of the limits of Creeley’s existential, improvisatory stance,” statements where language and thought shift perception even as it occurs.


First published: 1986 (collected in Just in Time: Poems, 1984-1994, 2001)

Type of work: Poem

The poet is drawn into the difficulties of paternal lineage and the uncertainties that infuse many family histories.

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.


First published: 1990 (collected in Just in Time: Poems, 1984-1994, 2001)

Type of work: Poem

The poet sees the isolation of patients at a leper hospital as a symbol of human loneliness and reaches for the consolation of human decency to avoid despair.

Although doubt and uncertainty are the climate of much of Creeley’s poetry, there is a hard-won hope based on the trials of experience that resists despair or cynicism. In “Plague,” a poem written in terse two-line units which are like semidiscrete couplets that lean into each other, the world is described in those times when it has become “a pestilence! a sullen, inexplicable contagion” for the poet. Creeley reaches back toward the medical imagery of his father’s life to form a figure for mental disorder, a figure which conveys the feeling of “a painful rush inward, isolate”—akin to a time in his own childhood when he saw “lonely lepers” he knew to be social pariahs “just down the street,/ back of shades drawn, closed doors.”

The closeness of the afflicted, the people damned by disease, reminds Creeley of how near to disaster all people are. In times of mental pressure or pain, the poet realizes, anyone may be similarly ravaged, forced to submit to a kind of universal aloneness in which the individual is transformed into an alien “them.” “No one talked to them, no one/ held them anymore,” he laments soberly. For a poet who was a master of the considered relationship, this complete absence of even the possibility of love is chilling to contemplate. However, as in an earlier poem in which Creeley called on the rain to inspire “decent happiness,” here he reaffirms the reaching, sympathizing impulse in the human spirit in a symbolic evocation of “the faint sun”:

again, we look for the faint sun,as they are still there, we hope,and we are coming.

A poem such as “Plague” shows how the pared-down, lean lines and the open interconnected images produce “movingly rich emotional testaments” that are impressive explorations of language and self-consciousness—the kind of poetry that Creeley made his own.


First published: 1990 (collected in Just in Time: Poems, 1984-1994, 2001)

Type of work: Poem

The poet contemplates old age, its effects on the physical body, on experiences in the past and present, and the self’s inevitable journey toward death.

As one can see in much of Creeley’s later poetry, age and, more specifically, death take center stage. Of course, there is no fear in the poet’s voice. Rather, there is a conscious attempt to define and question the sorts of estrangement one comes to in old age. The first line, “Most explicit,” alone makes readers aware of the speaker’s devotion to adequately exploring his aged condition. The following nine or ten lines make up the metaphorical significance of that condition “as a narrowing/ cone one’s got/ stuck into,” and “any movement/ forward simply/ wedges once more.” In other words, time and age only move forward, and humankind must move with them despite any reticence to do so.

This realization naturally leads to further questions and eventually, in lines 20-34, the speaker meets a sort of communicative hopelessness; that is, how can the young, who are on the “other side all/ others live on,” ever be made aware of the harsh realities and health struggles they too will have to face in life? There is no way to exactingly address such communication or answer such a question, as signified in the ellipsis at the end of line 34. Lines 35 through 45 move readers away from such personal experience into a wider, albeit more difficult realm of thinking: the solitary nature of knowing one’s own mortality. Oddly enough, these lines usher Creeley’s audience into the more hopeful aspects of the poem’s subject matter, the companionships one is graced with in life: “you, you, you/ are crucial,” the poet professes to his “love.” What matters more than “fears when I may/ cease to be me,” however, regards how one comes to any conclusion on such morbid matters through “talks and talks” in the last line.

“Age” is, at length, much less cryptic than many of Creeley’s later poems. Some critics argue that “Age” is narrative based rather than language based, as most of his poetry is. Regardless of such arguments, however, it is a poem that is at once frightening and drastically realistic. Creeley was noted as saying, “The world is our physical lifetime.” There are few other quotes that can accurately describe the attitude of Creeley’s later works and of this poem in particular.

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Robert Creeley Poetry: American Poets Analysis