Creeley, Robert (Vol. 2)
Creeley, Robert 1926–
A colloquial American poet, novelist, and short story writer, Creeley is a literary descendant of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson. His works include For Love, Words, Pieces, and, most recently, The Day Book. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Of all the poets associated with Charles Olson in the projective-verse movement, Robert Creeley is the most laconic, bare, and tangential in phrasing, the least interested in rendering, dramatizing, and persuading. He has no opulence or bravura, no interest in magic. He is, in fact, parsimonious; words leave his pocket one by one, like hard-earned pennies. In theory he is committed to "open form" composition; like Olson, he speaks of "lines/ talking, taking, always the beat from/ the breath." But in practice he produces tight, short, carefully controlled poems that seem "closed" except for the absence of rhyme and meter….
His major subject is love, or, rather, the transformations of love that occur as a man moves from courtship to marriage, responsibility, habit, and fatherhood. His poems describe the transports, disenchantments, crises of trust, hopes, and despairs of the love relationship, which is often made to bear a greater weight than it is capable of bearing….
In all [of his] poems Creeley's purpose is not so much to render an experience as to define it for himself and for a hypothetical audience as alert to incongruity as he is…. In defining the areas of experience that trouble him, Creeley relies heavily on cognition and neglects the senses. He seems to dislike description….
His first novel, The Island (1963), is like a gloss on his poems, for it elaborates on his favorite theme, love in marriage…. Creeley's chief virtue as a novelist is his ability to tell a terrible story of marital misunderstanding without melodrama or contrived incident: he allows his characters and events to develop naturally, slowly, with due regard for the accidental and imponderable. And what he has to say is true enough: that even the closest human relationships are soaked in guilt from which one must recover as well as one can, with or without dignity.
Stephen Stepanchev, "Robert Creeley," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 151-57.
Despite [Creeley's] mask of humble, confused comedian, loving and lovable, he therefore stands in his own work's way, too seldom letting his poems free themselves of his blocking presence. Thus, he describes them as 'places … stumbled into: warmth for a night perhaps, the misdirected intention come right; and too, a sudden instance of love, and the being loved, wherewith a man also contrives a world (of his own mind).' The result is not so much that we do not get real poems; we do get real poems, some of them lovely or touching or at least alive with wit. But the theater of their occurrence is such a minimal one that they are like brief mutterings often, or the few shuffling steps of an actor pretending to dance….
The attraction of the minimal can be considerable, however. Its essential rhythm is of self-ironic reverie, momentarily self-forgetting and then catching itself up short….
Creeley's humor, especially in his complaints about married life, seems to me too often obvious and easy….
This impression of work demanding too little from its author, though the author demands a good deal of attentive sympathy and faith from the reader, is equally true of his more serious writing. Yet he can be hilarious or strangely moving, when he has things right….
The 'field' approach in his poetry has something to do, at times at any rate, with Creeley's best effects. That is, his best poems characteristically establish certain phrases of intenser life than the language around them projects. These phrases float within an otherwise rather flat or undirected context, but by their strategic placement they seem to accumulate an emphasis fraught with suggestiveness. Thus they induce in the reader an empathy with the speaker's subjective state of inward pain and alert awareness protected by an apparently confused and nonintellectual disorientation. If a last stand were necessary (it does not seem to be), one could say that this sort of poetry, like René Char's work in France during the Occupation and like some of the post-World War II poetry of England that makes a point of restraint and cool control, is the last stand of genuine sensibility against the violence and ruthlessness of twentieth-century civilization. But genuine sensibility cannot give up its passion quite so tamely; it all seems a little too confined to settle for just yet.—Perhaps after World War III? If so, Creeley is indeed ahead of his time.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 148-59.
One of the qualities which stamped [Creeley] as an original and which, as it turned out, also stamped him as a leader of the generation, was this incessant personal voice, unmistakable, stingy at times, stuttering, often perverse, the budding lyricism clipped. At first, I inclined to think his poems were whittled from too dry a stick: they wanted blood; later, I came to see that Creeley's insistence on ignoring the basics—metaphor, imagery, descriptions of landscape or surroundings, analogies of sensibility discovered by observing animals—came from a courage to follow the mind as it observes with caustic, lucid comments the behavior and moods of the irrational heart.
Above all, Creeley is a poet of love, talking and stuttering half aloud, half to himself, of those few essentials which matter to a lover: "Who is this woman? Who am I when I say I love her? What do we share?"
Paul Carroll, in his The Poem in Its Skin, Follett-Big Table, 1968, pp. 209-10.
Creeley [is] at the very top of his form. It is perhaps impolitic to say so, but there has been a great deal of muttering—much of it contented muttering—about the "bankruptcy" of Creeley's verse since the publication of his book Words. Such a poem as he writes has become suspect, perhaps, in this time of the longer and more loosely constructed poem. But I see Words as an interim book, a resting, if that can be the case for a poet, before the resumption of that glittering strength I have come to think of as Creeley's own particular gift to the American poem. Numbers is certainly no book on which to base a judgment of the poet's current productions, but there is enough here to show that Words was a collection of confrontations with those elements of the poem that fell, so it seemed, so simply to Creeley in his earlier work. What kind of continuance from The Whip, A Form of Women, and For Love? None—but a hard, a very hard coming to grips with the fundamentals of this art that seems never to yield simply. The poems in Words that were praised were those we had come to think of as the kind of poems that Creeley would write—those that were rejected or ignored were those that revealed this descent into the bases of the language given him—to see how, after all, it worked. Now, with Numbers, the poem has subtly changed its movement, it is less constricted stanzaically, it is more elliptical, it is that poem we admired in The Whip settled, dear God, more irrevocably into its own statement of the poet's intelligence. I love the man's work because of the honesty of its own darkness, my failing perhaps. That there is guilt, and a certain lost innocence, and that it is personal, in one's own life….
It becomes even clearer to me now that Creeley has been the bridge from Williams to us. How to say this? He has made that work accessible to us, he has made it usable. It is Creeley who has made the forms and structures of Williams's poems available to us in terms of our own necessities and desires. The problem, in those early days, was to carry the acute perceptions and linguistic inventions of Dr. Williams into a post-war America. The sensibility that informed those poems—faced with Charlie Parker. What to do? How to do it? There were the many imitations of Williams, a borrowing of that sensibility, nothing worked. Creeley's early poems took all the vitality of that work and translated it into a language that his contemporaries could read.
Gilbert Sorrentino, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1970, pp. 112-13.
Creeley has not always proposed pleasure for his immediate poetic object. For Love, even Words (a really notable book for all its faults), raise too many questions about ideas and sincerity. Pieces is another matter altogether, the perfection of what Creeley aimed at in Words. Gone are those seductive angels. Creeley does not test himself against his poetry, he masters it….
Pieces is a very wise and very beautiful book of verse. It enacts the piecemeal achievement of a vision so scrupulous and catholic that what by method is merely muscular and aesthetic becomes in the end profoundly moral.
Jerome McGann, "Poetry and Truth," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1970, pp. 195-203.
The pieces contained in Robert Creeley's book The Charm are made up of early and uncollected pieces, and are proof—as far as I am concerned—of how a promising and gifted poet can be carried off-course by an unfortunate but trendy system of poetics. Mr. Creeley is clearly a little embarrassed by the well-made nature of these earlier compositions before the open-end (and open-sides) poem, and other meretricious innovations, began to exert an influence upon him…. [There] are some dozen pieces in The Charm which please me by their ingeniousness, perceptiveness, reflectiveness, neatness and wit.
Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen, February, 1972, p. 79.
The Charm, early and uncollected poems, anthologizes a number of possibilities. Creeley from the start was stubbornly Creeleyesque; succinct, tattered. In the middle period the stubbornness was more pitched; Words and For Love are two hundred poems with the same short lines, brief stanzas, ironic rhymes. After reading the better known middle poems, a reader would be surprised to discover that death, despair and the void are frequently the subjects of the early poems…. Unlike the later poems, these are memorable and grandly stated assertions. Later, he has mastered death and despair; or simply lost interest. The second possibility is more likely, and more consistent with his step outside himself into the domestic life….
There's a fact, or "impression" if you will, very relevant to the difference between Pieces and Words/For Love and, again, The Charm. One (I) read Pieces straight through at one or two sittings. I had to turn away after each poem in Words, at least until I became very familiar with them. Those middle poems are highly discrete events, types, aspects of, if you will, Truth; and one could only see one aspect at a time. The Charm is more like ordinary poetry—you can read it, basically, how you like….
Michael André, "Two Weeks With Creeley in Texas," in Chicago Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1972, pp. 81-6.
At the center of Robert Creeley's experience, there lies the continual threat of the void…. Creeley's basic poetic doctrine, the opposition between a poetry of description which makes statements about the world and one of action which expresses the energies of life within the world …, suggests the reason why he continually finds himself in such circumstances: the opposition raises the recurrent threat that one will fall from a world of action where self and world are united to one of description where subject and object are disjoined and the person becomes conscious of his own alienation from his surroundings. When the union of subject and field of experience is broken, the subject finds himself spinning endless webs in order to reestablish the connection, but like those from Swift's spider, these webs mockingly retain the marks that they are product of the self's own limited being, tragically divorced from the objective world. Creeley summarizes this central problem by his frequent use of "want," a word embodying both the intense energies seeking their resolution or "rest" and the basic void which generates that quest….
The abruptness, the tortuous pausing demanded by the short line [in For Love], evokes the sense that one is dangling at the edge of an abyss. From this possible annihilation, the poet strives to restore the possibility that human language can gain control over the silences which threaten it. Even within the line, voids continually emerge as Creeley's irony and ambiguity undermine the secure world ordered by language and embody the difficulty of making connections….
We can best understand many of Creeley's typical poetic strategies as attempts to wrench the formulas of "idle talk" into authentic speech. Creeley's use of a very limited vocabulary and set of images is an attempt to create a personal speech. He wants to break through the merely phenomenal images provided in language by restating his essential experiences in a variety of closely related ways. Eventually the range of perspectives will allow the reader himself to penetrate the sense of the words as merely signs and allow some intuition into the essential reality of the man and his energies behind them. A complementary effect is created by Creeley's persistent ambiguity, especially by his habit of allowing many possible modifiers or referents for crucial words in his poems. The ambiguity in effect calls into question the formulas of ordinary language; it asserts that this order is too static and conventional to allow reality to emerge….
The central task of Words is to elaborate the ideal of ground or place so that it can be reconciled with the flux. We can in fact best appreciate the theme of "place" in Words by seeing how Creeley further adapts to his own secular purposes the metaphor of Ground of Being. First of all, Creeley's ground must be a dynamic relationship which allows a perpetual change and reformulation, while nonetheless providing a sense of security, a sense that he belongs in a world from which he has become more and more alienated….
By accepting the gap between desire and fulfillment, Creeley makes it possible to see … voids as essential and even productive elements in the dialectic of experience. The silence or absence now exists within a form or rhythm and becomes an "interval."… Analogously, silence becomes a vital aspect of poetry's communicative power….
Creeley's quest for a secure place, however, has yet to be satisfied. In Words, he learned to accept and find value in the flux and saw that "place" can never be an island but must be found within a series of shifting accommodations to the other and to one's environment; in other words he learned to say "Here." There remains as the task for Pieces the problem of locating that "here"—not only in momentary reconciliations but in some larger system or locality which defines it and its possibilities. As Creeley reconciled himself in Words with one form of nothingness, in Pieces he must admit another kind of void or absence—one not so much in the rhythm of one's life as in the actual condition or absent system which defines the terms of that rhythm. In the most simple terms, "here" requires a whole system of language for its meaning, especially its opposite term "there," just as the person needs to reconcile himself to the social and psychological forms which define his own particular apprehension of place….
Creeley, like most important contemporary American poets, is trying to resolve the dualisms of man and nature, subject and object, and embody their harmonious interrelationships in his poems. But he also shares with these poets a solution that tends to be solipsistic; it accounts only for the interactions of a single consciousness with its immediate environment and does not take into account either the rest of the traffic or the codes by which harmony is achieved….
Charles Altieri, "The Unsure Egoist: Robert Creeley and the Theme of Nothingness," in Contemporary Literature (© 1972 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 162-85.
Creeley says some good things, but they're more like points made during a debate than thought that came from a man who came from life that came from man's passion, as real as rock. I mean, he's more an impersonal logician or statistician of maps than he is the surveyor. He makes maps from other maps. His poems tell us that geography is paper, cities are ink words, thoughts are blue wiggly lines—life is two dimentional. I always see Creeley set back from activity barely aware that his body was an equally good part, if not better, as his mind. He struggles with love, time or reality (the poets' principal hang-ups) in terms of precise, near-formal, sober metallic components that fit together almost without a seam. To me this "distance" comes close to existential indifference. Almost the difference between light from a glowing sun & the glare from a polished steel reflector. Light should illuminate not disturb due to its austerity.
We can all learn from his succinctness, his reducing things down to their essence but I think it's a shame that so many poets have been influenced by Creeley to the extent that they have adopted his sterile distance, his wearisome insipid language, his dry cerebral quality, his overbearing reliance upon style.
As you can probably deduct from this, I'm not fanatically fond of Creeley although I've fereted out "useful" poems from his several volumes. In this book [St. Martin's] there are a few more such "useful" poems ("The Act of Love," "The Wall …") & one really marvelous, astoundingly fine & beautiful poem, the best Creeley I've ever read: "Do You Think …" Maybe the involvement & unconvoluted thinking of this poem is too intense to maintain, but if Creeley could "get into it" with the power of this poem more often, well, I'd be right there in his rooting section, yes I would.
Douglas Blazek, in Minnesota Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 153-54.
Creeley is at the mercy of his own notions. He would seem to be a professional quietist and libertarian, but these vast freedoms of his (nothing linear; no chronology; half prose, half poetry; any instant which takes place) always soon establish their own severe conventions. Creeley's accusation against the old authoritarian ideas of form is that they were insistent—but "insistent" is a word he uses very often, in the poems and in the prose, that it becomes itself an insistence. We are to be against "point" and "purpose"—and then this too becomes very doctrinaire and purpose-pinioned….
But the objection to Creeley's elaborate self-conscious freedom of form is precisely that its conventions turn out to be more cramping than those of a minuet. See how "goes" far too much has to rhyme there with itself (no shortage of "point" there); and how Creeley's need to show that he is free compels him to break the line at "the," for the umpteenth time, just because that is the word with which you can very much make your libertarian point about not being hung up on line-breaks. And all the coercive italics in "A Day Book," doctrinairely flaunting their disregard for any critic who thinks that the advantage of "arbitrary" shape is that then the line's shape can intimate how a word is to be said. Poets like Creeley insist upon carte blanche, and then write on its whiteness merely an insistent manifesto for carte blanche.
Christopher Ricks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 7, 1973, pp. 5, 22.