Robert Creeley Creeley, Robert (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Creeley, Robert 1926–

Creeley is an American poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, and editor. A founder of the Black Mountain movement and a close associate of Charles Olson, he has exerted an important influence on contemporary poetry. His style is spare but intense, with an affinity for the rhythms of natural speech. Like others of his school, he believes that form must reflect content, and often employs a short, breath-determined line. William Carlos Williams found in Creeley's poetry "the subtlest feeling for the measure that I encounter anywhere except in the verses of Ezra Pound." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Warren Tallman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like Henry James' early but decisive 'The Madonna of the Future', [Creeley's 'Three Fate Tales'] are explanatory, illustrative, cautionary, an attempt to reach down to the basis for his stance, with nothing more primary,

nothing more strange, taken or not, than just that, the self, which is single. And I make it such, so call it, because it is so. I only call it what it is.

The self is single, separate, apart, keeping its own time in its own spaces. Creeley's attempts to explore the implications of this fact dominate his writings in much the same way that Hemingway's work is dominated by the fact of violence or Faulkner's the fact of fear. But just as it isn't Faulkner's desire to murder us, so it isn't Creeley's to use his stories as launching pads to hoist readers out into some incomprehensible blue, leaving us hung up out there, one star to a sky. Beyond the singleness, because of it, is a more important need and desire causing each self to seek some way to become more. (pp. 93-4)

The little city mouse girl scampers forth into life and almost found death [in the first tales, but in the second,] the little country mouse lady totters forth towards death—which is also fate, fated, must be—but finds her life instead. Finds it with such intensity of vitality that even 'when it comes time to bury her, one would not be too surprised should the knotted old hands reach up and, pushing the shovels aside, pull the dirt over all by themselves.' She, whose sentences, whose speech, whose very words 'slide into one another,' carrying her life away, has gone forth from her life to a place where one sentence, 'carefully cut' into stone, will not break down. Able to count on nothing else in all her sliding days, she can count on that, and by counting can resume the underlying rhythms and walk the waters. (pp. 98-9)

The city mouse girl and the country mouse lady are replaced in tale three by an actual mouse who becomes caught in an interplay of shadows and substance. It's the moon's fault for coming out full, making the night 'very bright outside, almost like day but still very different.' Under the brightness 'each object in the field that was big enough to have a shadow had its own.' The shadows are easy to see, 'black and distinct,' but easy to mistake, because 'there were no sharp details such as are to be seen when a bright sun is shining.' The show begins with the shadow of a cat 'black and irregular on the snow.' A pause as Creeley goes over to pick her up, then sees she has a mouse, 'no pleasant sight to watch.' Still, it is for this he has her so he starts to walk away but is caught:

by the strange sight of their shadows, the mouse's, though smaller very distinct and the cat's like some horrible shadow trying to erase it.

Unpleasant enough to acquiesce as the cat finishes off the mouse, but unpleasant exceedingly to become caught 'absorbed, completely caught' in the horrible shadow of a cat finishing off the smaller, distinct shadow of a mouse. Particularly when the mouse shadow then disappears and reappears:

coming towards me uncertainly, jerkily until I saw that what it wanted was to hide in my own shadow, which I now saw to be there, just as their own, long and black on the snow.

Here, the transition is from the chill of having become so absorbed in a shadow show that the shadows have become more real than the substances to the deeper, even more unsettling chill of discovering that your own shadow has become part of the show. (p. 99)

[Chances] are that this tragedy of one blinded mouse, far from being a culmination of the unpleasantness, is instead the very incident that helps to 'lessen that first impact of horror.' For chances are that the 'horror' the teller feels has less to do with the end of the mouse under the cat's paw—which is also fate, fated, must be—more to do with that moment when distinct intensities of black shadows on the white snow so caught him up, so absorbed him, that the shadows threatened to become more real than their substances. When the mouse seeks safety in the shadows and blunders into the man it's goodbye mouse. But what a relief for the man to become substance again in the field of shadows.

But what does the man in the moonlight mean when he adds that this interplay of shadow and substance 'has the point of all I believe'? What he means has to do with the 'horror' he feels when he and his shadow become part of the show and he realizes that there is nothing in among the shadows that he can count on. This is method to the moon's madness. By transforming substances into the shadows that are so distinct and 'powerful in themselves' that they cannot be ignored and yet so indefinite that Creeley cannot tell, the moon reminds him that nothing can be counted on unless it can be singled out. The mouse proved it when it disappeared into the shadow and blundered into the man. The little girl proved it when her sound disappeared into a blur of noises. And the old lady proved it when her memory disappeared into a blur of words. Which is where the belief enters in. Because the self is single there is only individual knowledge, and because there is only individual knowledge the artist must count on, count with, count by his own eye and ear and memory, disguisedly the subjects of these tales. These become the means by which he measures the things of this world, nothing so general as Shakespeare's imagination, bodying forth what his eye in fact sees his ear in fact hears his memory in fact retains, moment by moment….

Creeley doesn't believe that he can give...

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Terry R. Bacon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"I begin where I can and end when I see the whole thing returning." These words, from Robert Creeley's preface to The Gold Diggers …, express his early sense of writing, a sense predicated on the notion of evolving form. Implicit in his statement is the concept of poetic form as a function of an organic condition of structure—framed by an indeterminate point of departure and a somewhat more determinate point of termination, the latter somehow dependent upon the perception of some condition of the evolving process (i.e., "the whole thing returning"). The manner in which Creeley's poems end is an aspect of poetic structure, and when the ending is perceived as intrinsically whole or complete, his poems exhibit what Barbara Herrnstein Smith has termed "poetic closure."

In any consideration of structure in an art form which has language as its mode of expression, there are the inherent restrictions of grammar. Creeley accepts language as a limitation and integrates that medium through which he must express himself with whatever thought or emotion he wishes to express….

Creeley's poetry is expressed in the perpetual NOW. It is a "real time" rendering, in a very solipsistic sense, of the universe he perceives. The poetry is process; he shapes it "momently" as he writes. (p. 227)

Critical … to an understanding of Creeley's poetic structure (and, hence, his poetic closure) is what is implied: the "what's to be said" is an integral and complete statement containing all of the semantic elements necessary for the communication of sense. It is an ordered thought process because it is composed of perceptions which are transferred from poet to reader in what Charles Olson called an "energy-discharge," and the perceptions take the form of a statement which, by its very nature and purpose, is meant to communicate.

But Creeley's impulse to stop in the act of writing is not meant to imply that he seeks to render statements developed or explored to their fullest. The questions and not the answers intrigue him. (p. 228)

Closure is a particularly useful critical tool in the examination of projective verse because a poetry of evolving form seems to preclude the predetermination of a principle of structural development which will lead the poem inexorably to a termination point that appears not only appropriate but integrally essential. (p. 230)

[Most of Creeley's] early poems exhibit some degree of closure. Most frequently, he uses an associative, sequential, or dialectical thematic structure in which closure is reinforced by one or more formal devices. Closural allusions are occasionally used, but more often the last stanza or the final lines of a poem exhibit what might be called a change of address, tone, or perspective. These changes constitute a shift in point of view, a shift which is clearly a deviation from the poem's thematic structure, and this strengthens closure. These changes are often accompanied by formal deviation (normally a change in the number of lines in the last stanza from the number of lines in earlier stanzas).

One of the most frequent formal devices Creeley uses to insure continuation within the poem and to allow for closure at its termination is "syntactic suspension." This device operates by creating, by the end of each of the internal stanzas, a force for continuation through the omission of punctuation (e.g., a period) which would normally allow for the syntactic termination of the poem at those points. Hence, the poems are syntactically suspended at the end of each internal stanza, and this compels the reader to continue until he reaches the period at the end of the poem.

Syntactic suspension is accomplished by enjambment and by the use of non-terminating punctuation marks (i.e., dashes, commas, semi-colons, and colons) where punctuation at the end of an internal stanza is used…. Syntactic suspension, like all closural devices, is not in itself sufficient to attain closure, but it is effective when used in conjunction with others. "And," in For Love …, demonstrates the operation of most of the formal closural devices Creeley uses:

A pretty party for people
to become engaged in, she was

twentythree, he
was a hundred and twentyseven times

all the times, over and over
and under and under she went

down stairs, through doorways,
glass, alabaster, an iron shovel

stood waiting and
she lifted it to dig

and back to mother,

father and brother,

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