Robert Creeley Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3491

Robert Creeley focused on the difficult turning points of relationships, on the role language has to play in such moments, given that expectations are governed by one’s vocabulary and that one thinks as one’s language allows. Although his work is far from therapeutic, it has found an audience that to...

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Robert Creeley focused on the difficult turning points of relationships, on the role language has to play in such moments, given that expectations are governed by one’s vocabulary and that one thinks as one’s language allows. Although his work is far from therapeutic, it has found an audience that to some extent had been readied by the increasing experience of psychotherapy among Americans of the late twentieth century and a growing awareness of the individual as instance of a system. However, this is to view the work’s appeal from the base of the pyramid, as it were; its great strength is its vertical appeal, that it has something in it for readers who know little of modern poetry but also yields much when subjected to critical scrutiny. In his writing, Creeley took up where Samuel Beckett left off: Creeley addressed his readers from a world in which the worst has already happened, yet one in which there is still life and the need to act.

Creeley’s greatest strength was to write a poetry of immediacy while “saving the appearances” by preserving traditional forms. Although he departed from these formal conventions for a period, he was to return to them. In any case, it was his ability to combine the radical content and approach of his early work with the use of conventional form that won for him fame and a wide readership. Colleagues such as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Edward Dorn did more, arguably, to align their vision with its mode of expression; yet it may be that Creeley, in giving voice to his vision within the more recognizable confines of traditional verse, rendered a clearer picture of the gulf that separated the second half of the twentieth century from the first. He appears to be saying, “This is how the quatrain or the couplet must be used, given our new content.” In this way, Creeley became one of the new sensibility’s foremost translators into forms apprehensible to those still imbued with the old. No doubt part of his success derived from the fact that both sensibilities existed—and sometimes battled each other—within him; in several passages, he alluded to the nineteenth century expectations with which he was reared.

What was the essence of this other, radically new sensibility? It was an awareness of the atomic bomb, the Nazi death camps, a Europe that had been left “like a broken anthill” (as Ezra Pound said) with twenty million dead, gigantic catastrophe brought about by long-range human design, unimaginable chaos created by careful planning. This was a world in which lamp shades were made out of human skin, in which human beings were persuaded to surrender in the service of abstract causes. Readers today have heard of these horrors so often and for so long that perhaps only a poem or an anecdote can break through the scar tissue that shields their feelings and revive something of the shock and despair so widely, and so deeply, felt when Creeley began his writing career. Creeley taught by the anecdote, and perhaps the two that follow will give some sense of that time, and of the approach this poet and others took toward the grim events of the 1940’s: to face them down and survive, to attempt to lead their generation out of the shadows toward some possible faith in life on which action might be based.

Asked about his empty socket, and whether he had ever thought of wearing a glass eye, Creeley said that he had used one at one time. One evening in barracks in India, however, he had taken out the glass eye for the night and set it on the bedside table. As he reclined on his bed, he watched an Indian janitor sweeping the floor, coming closer and closer to the bedside table, and then bumping against it, so that the glass eye fell to the floor, where it broke. Because of wartime conditions, it would, he knew, take at least four months to get a replacement shipped to India. By that time, he might have been moved on to the theater of war, and in any case, his socket would have shrunk so that the new eye would not fit. Therefore, he took to wearing an eyepatch over the empty socket. In the early 1950’s, when Creeley was living in a village in France, there were around him so many who had been maimed in the war—who were minus an arm or a leg, fingers or toes—that he saw no point in covering up his own loss. Protecting others from the shock of his empty socket and pretending to himself that the facts were otherwise struck him as equally futile in a world so substantially damaged.

The second illustrative incident took place during Creeley’s time in Burma. His ambulance team had been assured by the local military unit that a certain village had been taken by the U.S. Army and that the enemy had been driven out. However, when Creeley and his crew arrived at the village, the first thing they spotted was a Japanese tank driving down the main street. Fortunately, they were able to back into the forest without being spotted. As the poet himself remarked of this incident, if they had taken the official word for it and not trusted the evidence of their senses, they would have been dead.

Although Creeley’s poetry and prose of the 1950’s contain little in the way of content that refers explicitly to wartime conditions or to the great horrors alluded to above, they are nevertheless permeated with the kind of wry awareness these two anecdotes suggest. For Creeley, as for other American poets of his generation, linear logic is less to the point than immediate perception, a plan is probably inferior to a hunch, and now always packs the possibility of transcending history. Still, any such attitude toward experience must allow for self-contradiction and ambivalence: What was a sensible line of conduct a moment ago can suddenly become not so.

“The Immoral Proposition”

Creeley developed a very sure way of presenting such knowledge in his poetry—for example, in “The Immoral Proposition”:

  If you never do anything for anyone else  you are spared the tragedy of human relation-    ships. If quietly and like another time  there is the passage of an unexpected thing:    to look at it is more  than it was. God knows    nothing is competent nothing is  all there is. The unsure    egoist is not  good for himself.

To turn this poem into a prose precis—“If you never do anything for anyone else, you are spared the tragedy of human relationships. If quietly and like another time there is the passage of an unexpected thing: to look at it is more than it was. God knows nothing is competent, nothing is all there is. The unsure egoist is not good for himself”—is no doubt to obtain part of the information being transmitted. What is lost in this alteration, however, reveals the essence of Creeley’s poetry. In the first place, much happens around the line breaks. A Creeley line, being a breath line—speech-based, that is, with the line being the cluster of speech between two pauses—is always end-stopped: to hear the poet read aloud from his own work, a thing he made a frequent practice of doing, is to be assured of this fact. That brief but telling pause makes all the difference in the world between the last two lines. One reading thus yielded is “The unsure egoist is not”—period; another is “The unsure egoist is not [all there is]” or “is not [competent].” To add these to the first probable reading, “is not good for himself,” enriches the mix. When one realizes that one has the alternative of hearing the final line as a kind of postscript, “[and therefore] good for himself,” either ironic or not, one begins to appreciate the full complexity of both the poem and the general type of situation the poem addresses. Creeley made himself master of the pivotal word or phrase that, set at the end of a line, could be read both ahead and back—as with “egoist is not”—to embody more fully the kind of charged situation to which the poet found himself drawn. “To look at it is more/ than it was. God knows” is another cluster that stands on its own, as well as leading on to become part of a further statement. Remarkable also is the line break between lines 2 and 3, isolating the fourth syllable of “relationships” so that it takes on a peculiar autonomy and tangibility, as if to become those well-known “ships that pass in the night.”

“The Immoral Proposition” is free verse, but it does not look much like the kind of poem that rubric brings to mind; it is too even, too balanced, too symmetrical. In fact, lines 1 and 2 consist of thirteen syllables each, while there is only a syllable’s difference between lines 3 and 4, lines 5 and 6, and lines 9 and 10. Although they lack end rhyme, then, these have close similarity in length and thus have the feel of true couplets. Creeley showed great adroitness with his management of line length, as he did with his line breaks; the poem “The Warning” is a shining example of this:

     For love—I would     split, open your head and put     a candle in     behind the eyes.          Love is dead in us     if we forget     the virtues of an amulet     and quick surprise.

Lines 1, 3, and 4 of the first stanza are four syllables long; line 2—the line that speaks of splitting something open to insert something extra—has seven syllables, or three extra. In this poem one finds end rhyme also, though in no regular pattern, and to some extent dependent on the reader’s ear for half rhyme.

“Ballad of the Despairing Husband”

Perhaps Creeley’s most hilarious use of rhyme is in a poem called “Ballad of the Despairing Husband,” where the measure used, that of the old song “Little Brown Jug,” is played with and against to good effect:

    My wife and I lived all alone,    contention was our only bone.    I fought with her, she fought with me,    and things went on right merrily.

As this and the following two quatrains disclose, Creeley was an accomplished humorist, with a sure grasp of the use of exaggeration for comic effect. Humor is not often as open in Creeley’s work as it is here, but it occurs frequently enough that the practiced reader has learned to listen for the comic twist in any Creeley piece.

Aesthetic versus actual

In Creeley’s work one finds a wide range of tones, with the sentimental occurring about as often as the comic. Sentimentality breaks in toward the end of “Ballad of the Despairing Husband,” when the poet abandons the quatrains in iambic tetrameter in favor of longer, looser lines. Despite some playful phrases—“Oh lovely lady, eating with or without a spoon” (rhymes with “afternoon”); “Oh most loveliest of ladies”—the speaker has in effect stepped outside the frame of the poem to implore a woman who is no longer an amusing caricature but a real person.

This tension between the aesthetic and the otherwise actual sometimes is a strength in Creeley’s work, but there are occasions, as here, where the reader might well judge Creeley’s decision to step outside the poem to have been mistaken. The poem had been a deliberately two-dimensional rendering of important affairs of the heart, telling its portion of the truth most winningly. It ought not to have been interrupted with this other implied truth—that poems are limited, while the heart overflows. However, this is a risk run by the poet who draws extensively on personal experience for his material—especially personal experience of love.

At times, Creeley appears to judge it honest and human to break the aesthetic frame and speak in his own person. He is right in one sense; as Marianne Moore wrote of poetry, “There are things important beyond all this fiddle.” Still, “this fiddle” is precisely what poetry is, and it is one thing to replace one set of conventions with another, but an entirely different enterprise to assume—perhaps unwittingly—that conventions can ever be dropped. Creeley’s least satisfactory prose work, A Day Book, suffers greatly because this distinction is overlooked. In all fairness, it must be acknowledged that there are readers who prize such works and passages above Creeley’s others and are thrilled to find the poet reduced to such vulnerability. However, these readers would probably not think very much of such raw confession emanating, word for word, from a less notable personage. They confuse gossip with art.

Words

By the mid-1960’s, Creeley’s reputation was secure. Two hugely popular poetry conferences, one at the University of British Columbia in Canada and the other at the University of California, Berkeley, had brought Creeley and his colleagues together with an audience of younger poets, professors, and counterculture enthusiasts, guaranteeing dissemination of their works and words. Creeley was being invited to read and speak in many distinguished venues in North America, Europe, and Asia; he had won Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants; his books were selling far beyond the usual for poetry. In 1967, Words, his first collection since For Love, appeared, earning for him further critical acclaim. Here the focus is less on domestic crises—at least explicitly—and more on the crisis in language. For a lyric poet who is attempting to close the gap between self and the person who utters the poem, to reduce authorial irony, and to abolish the fiction of the dramatic monologue, the contemporary disturbance in language, the growing unease concerning the gap between the word and the thing, must be a constant concern. In “The Pattern” in Words, Creeley writes:

      As soon as      I speak, I      speaks. It      wants to      be free but      impassive lies      in the direction      of its      words.

Such is the difficulty that these stanzas verge on nonsense verse, not least because the line breaks enforce many alternate readings beyond what syntax states. One thing is clear, though: The poet (and perhaps the poem itself) speaks of being trapped in an identity for which the habits of a vocabulary and the rules of a language, with their host of associations, are not flexible enough to allow entry or exit. This quandary becomes increasingly the burden of Creeley’s writing in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s.

Pieces and A Day Book

In the late 1960’s the twin courses of Creeley’s poetry and prose began to be combined, first in Pieces and next in A Day Book. The latter consists of entries for thirty days during the course of a year, together with poems written more or less during the same period. Pieces consists of much briefer notebook jottings, many too short to be classified unequivocally as either poetry or prose. Among these are both prose passages and distinct poems, including “The Finger,” one of the clearest embodiments of Creeley’s thought. This poem speaks of the act of attention as paramount, certainly taking precedence over any plan, and it exemplifies its conclusions throughout, shifting from instance to instance as the poet recalls these.

Elsewhere in Pieces are many short registrations of event and thought, “quick takes,” mental snapshots, the germs from which more conventional poems might have been built, had Creeley seen the point of such superstructure. At this time, however, he decided to avoid such conventions. The process of these pieces is as important as the product.

Range of prose work

Creeley’s innovative drive produced, in 1976, the work Presences, a series of prose texts written according to his preconceived system—permutations of 1, 2, 3, in a variety of sequences, a page to a number (for example, 2 = 2 pages). Within these restrictions, and rather obliquely addressing himself to the work of the sculptor Marisol, Creeley wrote an astonishing range of prose styles, from fairly conventional narrative to “cut-ups”—or pieces that read like cut-up material. The overall effect is to foreground the language—the means and the material of the writer’s craft—even while delivering many of the familiar aspects of fiction and autobiography. Later, in 1984, when Calder & Boyars published Creeley’s The Collected Prose, which included The Island, The Gold Diggers, and Presences, he included a newly written work, Mabel. Here too he writes according to permutations of 1, 2, 3. The range of style and tone is less than in Presences, and for much of the book, the narrative means are quite straightforward; yet the conception is innovative—to write an autobiography by focusing on the women in his life, a life not so much fictionalized in this work as at times exaggerated and seen in the light of gender.

So There

As his prose creations continued to be innovative, Creeley’s poetry in later years tended to settle for the same verse conventions as at the outset, but without the torque whereby the statement plays against the line breaks. The lines in the later work tend to be more pedestrian, and the poems more a recording of something noted than a drama of assertion and denial. The medium, poetry, is more taken for granted, without the challenging and questioning of Words and Pieces. Creeley’s world, too, changed profoundly during the course of his career.

In bringing together the works of three volumes of poetry from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (Hello: A Journal, February 29-May 3, 1976; Later; Mirrors), So There calls attention to important changes in the poet’s life: the end of one marriage, the beginning of another, the birth of a son, and the transition from middle age to life as, in Creeley’s words, “a young old man.” Readers can also discern changes in his poetry: a movement away from proto-language-writing and a movement toward the preoccupations that came to characterize his later work, themes centered on the past, bleak reflections on the future and death, and affirmations of the present, despite losses past and still to come: “But now—/ but now the wonder of life is/ that it is at all.”

Creeley called forth the American language as he heard it in its varied forms, from the cheerful repetitions of pop music (“Hello”), to the poignance of familiar phrases—be happy, be good—when sounded as a final good-bye to his friend, Max Fienstein (“Oh Max”). “Later” returns to locations from the poet’s boyhood, while “Hello” captures the reader’s interest for its unusual groupings of poems: The poems are organized by date and place yet offer few details of place. Instead, they tend to focus on the self in new and unfamiliar places—alone, apart, and occasionally confused. His experiences in travel bring to his mind a number of his present circumstances: decrepit houses in Singapore prompt him to muse on his own body’s impermanence; the whir of a hotel air conditioner reminds him of the American Southwest. As he notes, “Same clock ticks/ in these different places.”

Life and Death

Creeley’s poetry in the late 1990’s showed a growing difference when compared with his earlier work. In Life and Death, for example, short, abstract poems find a place in the volume, as in collections past, but here they are balanced by longer sequences: “Histoire de Florida,” “The Dogs of Auckland,” “There,” “Inside My Head,” and the title poem itself. Critics have noted that here his poems, dealing with old age and the closure of life itself, take up the problems of poetic closure and resistance to closure—a theme so central to Creeley’s poetics—in ways that appear more flexible and wise than the attitude of his earlier work. He seems no longer absolutely committed to a poetics of indeterminacy but attempts to reconcile the open-ended process of writing with the recognition that consciousness eventually comes to an end. Although death “will separate/ finally/ dancer from dance” and end what was a continuing process, it also is a form of absolute openness: It means the dissolution of boundaries and embodiment altogether.

It is apt, then, that the themes of this book center on this binary of life and death, and the chasms and similarities between them: old age, the death of friends, the persistence of love and memory even when the known object disappears from the world. The long poem that opens the volume, “Histoire of Florida,” uses a colorful palette in describing a Floridian landscape to render an image of old age as a sunny promontory from which to look back:

     Waking, think of sun through     compacted tree branches,     the dense     persistent light.          Think of heaven,     home,     a heart of gold,     old song of friend’s           dear love and all     the faint world it     reaches to,     it wants.

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