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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...

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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

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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 readers what he sees, hears and remembers any more than he can give us his eye to see with, his ears to hear with or his memory to remember with. But he believes in 'other wisdoms,' believes that we have corresponding objects, events and others, which we have been able to make our own so that as he singles out his we can understand in light of ours, reader tangent to writer. (p. 100)

[The] tales in The Gold Diggers suggest nothing so strongly as they do a photograph album kept through the years with figures of family, relatives and friends recurring in various combinations and places—at the seashore, on picnics, at home during the summer, on outings, vacations. What one looks and listens for among these pictures from Creeley'd hallways are the recurrences…. There are many chairs—those formal arrangements of men, frequently occupied by men: in a yard in New Zealand, or tilted against a tree looking out at an open plain that reaches 'for more miles than any man ever knows of,' or tilted against the wall of a room at a party, or stood on in a grove by a man picking olives, or jiggling about during a seance. In 'A Death' children play with sticks and throw stones and the sticks recur as twigs, trees, the chairs mentioned, as boats, as tables, and the stones recur as pebbles, as rocks, boulders, gravestones, chunks of gold.

In one real sense these sticks and stones and their variants are both elementary and elemental in Creeley's world, as elementary as the childhood nursery saw and as elemental to his spaces as rock and wood are to the material world. They stand about in his tales in much the way that Klee's arrows or Chagall's violins stand about in their paintings. Among persons who recur the foremost would seem to be a husband and father who haunts the scene as always missing, absent, elsewhere, yet always also somehow present. But there is so much more than a preliminary study of this kind can even mention that it will obviously want a good many readers to single out a full count of persons, objects and events.

And it will eventually be for each reader to make out from the furnishings mentioned—and many more—such human sense as corresponds to what sense he may have of his own house, spaces and furnishings, 'sticks and stones bottles and bones.' Here let me only suggest that the tales need to be read as a group and that the recurrences go on in part against the background of a childhood and adolescence being recounted from the perspective of 1951, Creeley's 25th year. And let me only suggest that as a group they convey some sense that the recounting is a summing up into a goodbye. The last, title-tale of the volume carries suggestions of finality as though old bones were being broken once for all in order to close some open other doors. For an artist with a marked capacity for directness and intensity of perception, 'The Gold Diggers' tale is exceptional, vibrating with pressures, heavy with the impact of what he has to tell.

However, the impact, pressure and intensity I mention are only part of Creeley's writing behavior. There are some cats in the tales, but one wishes that there was a dog too, the kind Whitman mentions as moving along the street in constant and instinctive rapport with the shifting circumstances which confront him. Such dogs need not debate whether to stand still, sway sideways or skedaddle. Their perceptions shift instantaneously into their responses with a kind of mindless kinetic intelligence. Creeley's writing moves with the same motion through the environment he is counting over. What his eye, ear and memory confront along the streets, walks and halls of his own house and spaces is bodied forth—stand, sway or skedaddle—with instant animal immediacy. Only this dog is a sly one, like a fox, like a serpent, like a man, and so bodies forth a human motion in the midst of human objects, events and others…. Time has its own tales to tell and I venture to guess that where fiction is concerned Creeley's tales will figure prominently in the telling, not only for the exceptional care and almost bewildering beauty with which his sentences move as they take measure but also … [with] a strong sense that Creeley has managed one of the subtlest and most sensitive accounts extant of what it is like to be a human animal in our time. (pp. 101-03)

The commitment to singleness [of self] removes the all but ingrained temptation to reach out for wisdoms, ideas and masterpieces which carries all too many artists' energies to further and further rooms. Recognizing that he is single, Creeley stays at home and thus attempts to possess the house he actually occupies. His advantage follows from the fact that there never have been wisdoms, ideals and masterpieces located in some elsewhere beyond man. He is himself the wisdom, the ideal and the masterpiece—such as he is. (p. 103)

All writing is thought moving from word to word and when Creeley crosses over into the writing world he continues to move just as in the everyday world, one step, street or party at a time. And no knowing until he gets there which is which or next. The same exceptional concentration continues, only now his conspicuous gift for phrase-making enters in, the art of fielding the objects events and others he encounters on the pathless writing paths he moves along and getting them across to readers with superlative grace, skill, impact. Because the paths are pathless—maybe this way, maybe that—the fielding has to be catch-as-catch-can, in the dark, out of the blue…. There must be at least a dozen poems in For Love that will always cause readers, particularly other writers, to shake their heads in disbelief. How on earth did he manage that one. And that one. And that one.

Much of the management traces to the concentration mentioned, deep in a dream of the occasions he moves among. But perception is perhaps a better word, meaning 'to take from'. (pp. 103-04)

Creeley moves into the writing world when and as some occasion stirs his interest, starts him thinking. He writes as long as interest continues, driving toward no particular conclusion but instead a cessation, that point of rest which tells us that the day, work, preoccupation or demon is done, at least for the moment. Which means the individual stories or poems can be fully as elusive as would be any one act or event in an individual's life. It is when occasion is linked to occasion that characteristic attitudes and actions emerge making life intelligible. Similarly what is obscure in a given story or poem becomes intelligible as in the other stories and poems certain recurrences, call them rimes, form into a kind of meeting place, call it rime-thought. (p. 107)

Because so many of the lyrics [in For Love] are so brief one might wonder how anything as reaching as full rime can find room. Answer is that in any given poem—or story—it doesn't. Any sensible man knows that what happens on a single occasion will scarcely open doors to full revelation of his life. It takes many and many a time. Individual Creeley poems are phases of the one poem he is always writing, just as, in a larger sense, all the poems and tales ever written are parts and parcels of the one song and story named Man. That Creeley's writing tends toward the microcosmic traces to the individual, perhaps his New England origins, the strict eye, utilitarian instincts and puritan conscience. (pp. 109-10)

It is a measure of Creeley's importance that he is able to single out from our customary speech an elan, spirit or air equivalent to or at least reminiscent of that which informs so many Elizabethan songs. (p. 113)

Warren Tallman, "Robert Creeley's Tales and Poems" (1962 and 1965), in Open Letter (copyright © 1976 by Warren Tallman), Winter, 1976–77, pp. 93-118.

Terry R. Bacon

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1999

"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,
          grandfather and grandmother—
          They are all dead now.

Formal deviation occurs when the seven two-line stanzas are followed by a single last line. And as none of the "couplets" provides an opportunity for syntactic termination, the reader is compelled to proceed to the single last line—which terminates with a period. The dash at the end of the seventh "couplet" operates as a sharp break or change in thought and acts as a "lead-in" to a conclusive statement. The last line is a very strong closural allusion. All of these devices combine to provide strong closural force, and, although most of Creeley's poems do not exhibit closure as strong as this, "And," is an example of the simultaneous operation of the closural devices Creeley employs most often. (pp. 234-36)

Most of the poems in For Love (1962) and Words (1967) exhibit one or more of the closural devices discussed above, and it is this group of poems that I would classify as his early poetry. At the end of Words four short pieces appear under the title "Fragments." These "fragments" have the form of journal entries—the poet's record of isolated thoughts, perceptions, or impressions. With "Fragments," Creeley began the practice of recording these isolated perceptions without developing or extending them into poetic structures. The fragments exhibit an austerity of expression that becomes more and more characteristic of Creeley's later poetry, and their appearance at the end of Words signaled the direction in which Creeley's poetry was moving. The extension of this practice into book form came with Pieces (1969).

Pieces was written as a journal. Three dots were used to separate entries made on different days, and a single dot to separate individual entries. The published work is composed of poems interspersed with fragments and prose entries. The poet's perceptions in Pieces are more dissociated and do not, as a rule, follow the patterns of thematic development evident in the earlier books…. The perceptions, which tend more toward metaphysical speculation than the nature of human relationships (the predominant theme of For Love), move increasingly to the extremes of either pure abstraction or mundane domestic observations. The entries that are thematically related do not necessarily manifest that relationship in a systematic thematic structure; rather, they take the form of disjunct observations on a single theme. There is little of Creeley's earlier tendency to close the poems with either a stated or implied observation, idea, or pronouncement. (pp. 238-39)

["Kid"] is more indicative of the direction in which Creeley's poetry is currently moving:

                       The kid left
                       out back waits
                       for his mother's
                       face to
                       a win-

The poem records a single perception whose irreducible quality is evident in the fact that to restate it one needs to use almost every word in the poem. The only closural force in a poem of this type is that inherent in the emotional-semantic complex that produced it: the closure presumed to exist in any syntactic structure…. The structural integrity of a poem like "Kid" is the integrity of the single, unified perception organized according to known syntactic principles. The sense of finality or "clinch" is present to the degree that the reader perceives what is recorded in the poem as an integral perception or experience. (p. 241)

Pieces and A Day Book were transitional works, bridges between the more developed poems of Creeley's earlier books and the less developed fragments that are more typical in the later ones. Both of these transitional works contain poems of a length comparable to the longer poems in Words, but the isolated fragments and short, undeveloped poems like "Kid" are more common. What precipitated this shift toward conscious artistic constriction was probably Creeley's increasing awareness that in insular perceptions is the intensity of focus (and, hence, energy) that dissipates in protracted effort. His concern is with capturing the NOW of a life situation, with rendering the everpresent moment of experience. That concern has always been an essential part of his poetics, but in the later poetry his focus has narrowed—with the consequent result that the perceptions are more distinctly isolable. (p. 242)

[Some] of the "things" in his latest book [Thirty Things (1974)] are so narrowly focused that reader speculation is either meaningless or futile:

                        The apple in
                        her eye.

"Alice" is one of the extremes that Creeley's poetry has moved toward: the utterance is no longer even a complete sentence. Here is fragmented thought, a syntactically incomplete statement. With this the poet edges toward silence. "Alice" is a statement of non-statement, a poetry (if you will) where closure is a meaningless concept because structural development is (apart from the sequential arrangement of the words) non-existent. (p. 243)

In narrowing his focus, Creeley expands the speculative possibilities of the situations he deals with by refusing to qualify them. By consciously restricting the manner and extent to which he deals with a situation, he increases the number of perceptual associations that follow from what he does say. Paradoxically, he says more by saying less….

Creeley's poetry places a great deal of the burden of empathetic understanding on the reader, thereby creating an epistemological dilemma…. Creeley's perceptions are epiphanies: glimpses of moments in the life situation that are brought into sharp focus through the high energy transference that is presumed to occur. The extent of the reader's own experiences will to a large degree determine the extent to which those perceptions are meaningful. In any case, the poems are projective; they are manifestations of that continually speculative situation, that circumstance that, for Creeley [as revealed in an interview], is "constantly provocative."… (p. 245)

The closural force present in much of Creeley's poetry, especially in the early work, does not preclude or militate against that speculative situation…. Creeley's poetry has as its structural basis a pattern of associated perceptions, not, as is the case with much poetry, an "undercarriage" based on referential logic. The perceptions are necessarily enclosed in a syntactic framework, and the framework is itself a part of the structure of the poem. But the closure of the structure does not necessarily imply the termination of the perceptions, as might be the case if his poetic structures were based on referential logic. (pp. 245-46)

The examination of closure in Robert Creeley's poetry illuminates not only Creeley's development as a poet but the essence of projectivism as well. Throughout Creeley's work there is a prevailing sense that most of the poems are integral, that, even when they are purposefully anti-closural, they are complete. This is as true with the early developed poems as it is with the later undeveloped fragments because the integrity in either case derives from the integrity of the perception—whether it is a single, unified perception … or a more complex pattern of associated perceptions…. The extreme constriction of some of the later "things" … moves his work beyond the realm of closural analysis, but the integrity of the perception remains—and this is a key to the essence of projectivism. (p. 246)

Terry R. Bacon, "Closure in Robert Creeley's Poetry," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1977, by Jerome Mazzaro), Winter, 1977, pp. 227-47.

["Hello: A Journal"] takes Creeley hop-skip through nine Oriental countries and brings back for his readers these post-card poems full of enthusiasm, humor, perceptiveness, affection. The form suits his open style—Creeley rises to the occasion of their abbreviation and spontaneity with an uncanny poet's sense for the right word sustained at a very high pitch, traveling faster than sound, not a bit of jet lag in evidence. (p. 128)

Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the January 30, 1978, issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), January 30, 1978.

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