Robert Creeley Creeley, Robert (Vol. 15) - 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 he 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Creeley's book, A Form of Women, is an extreme…. Creeley's poetry is an erosive thing. It has a weather & landscape to it that ought to frighten young poets. Erosive like Olson's or Pound's or Williams' or Whitman's or Shakespeare's or Ginsberg's or any really strong poet. The poetry has such definite features, & easily imitated surfaces that the weak … among us (poets) will naturally cling to how they do these wonderful things & even try to take on the content as part of their own content. I mean I read some of Creeley's poems and find myself, suddenly, talking certain things about, say, women, that I certainly don't hold with … don't even, properly, understand. (Certainly not the way Creeley must, understand, to write about them so.) The book is marvelous. Most of the poems are beauties. He is even … indicating other places he might take us that he has never taken us before. (p. 81)

He yields many times his crisp 16th century presence … to the lovely purple of what Duncan through Pound said should be saved out of the 19th. Still, there is so much in this … volume that it is impossible to catalog. However, "The Door" seems to me to be much like "a work in progress." Not the poem itself, which is a complete and extremely lovely entity, but the ideas re/writing poems (or at least re/Robt. Creeley's writing poems) that it advances (i.e. proposes) seem to me to be things he is...

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Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Diligent, strong and good are surely the epithets which attach to Robert Creeley's aspiring character …, for this poet shows, in his poetry at least, none of the distractions pressed upon him by the tendentious praise of both Leslie Fiedler and Hugh Kenner …, by the imprimatur of William Carlos Williams and the impertinence of John Simon …, and most distracting of all, by the clamorous mimicry of his juniors…. (pp. 143-44)

[Immensely out in the open now] Creeley yet continues to explore his own function—or his failure to function—as a poet with a splendid unconcern for external relations, preferring to harbor his most freakish and obvious faults quite as if they were his most original and valuable impulses (and perhaps they are—in any case they are indistinguishable from his virtues in the ultimate effect of his work …). So consistent, indeed, with themselves, so characteristic and even queer are Creeley's poems,… that they loom, or unravel, as much more like themselves than they are like any other poems, even poems by William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson…. Creeley has chosen to remain alive in the world, which means there are occasions when he has recognized the necessity of relating or concluding or repeating an experience—"it is necessary," he says, "to suppose a continuity, though none comes readily to hand." Indeed, if there is in any conventional sense—remembering that a convention makes easy what would otherwise remain difficult—a development in the art of Robert Creeley, it is a development toward not away from extremity, toward the limit of experience which makes it possible to know what the experience is by learning what it is not, and away from the center where things are neighbored, accommodated, solaced by propinquity. What we get in Creeley, what he wants to get, or is compelled by his nature to give, is a "hammering at the final edge of contact."… He is what Melville calls an isolato, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but rather the island of ego, the atoll of solipsism which life itself … forces us to leave…. But in a novel, surely, the supposed continuity is more necessary than in poems—that is why Creeley writes poems, not because of some ulterior inclination of literary temperament: poems are the one chance he has of focussing upon experience without a shift of view or voice …, without, in every sense of the word, relating. No connection and above all, no return. This notion of return (of recurrence and therefore of recollection …) is crucial to any art of verse, as the word verse itself indicates—Creeley writes not anti-poems, as has been said, but anti-verses…. A poetry without...

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Cynthia Dubin Edelberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The poems in Words show Robert Creeley looking for a way to measure his accomplishment in the world. His early poems, collected in For Love, attest to the fact that he once defined himself in terms of the power of his intelligence, his relationship with his wife and the challenge of his craft. The poems in Words make it clear that he would not be satisfied with general assessments and vague phrases. The individual poems in this volume can best be understood and appreciated as elements in a process of self-discovery. Creeley is trying to find out precisely what is important to him about thought, love and poetry and what is not. (p. 265)

This study of Creeley's three major recurrent preoccupations focuses attention on those poems in Words considered to be the most important to the development of his themes. In the course of reevaluating life-ordering suppositions concerning the intellect, love and poetry, Creeley explores the possibilities of the non-intellectual orientation, the solitary existence and the silent poetic voice. When attention is paid to the poem first as a made thing standing free of its context and then as a part of the conceptual whole, we are less likely to misconstrue Creeley's intention. For instance, several poems in Words celebrate the irrational; yet it would be wrong to focus on a single such instance and conclude Creeley ends the argument there. If we recognize the irrational expression as simply one stage in an on-going consideration of the use and limit of contemplative thought, as one possibility which will in turn be questioned and qualified as a worthwhile mode of perception, we have achieved the proper perspective.

Creeley's central theme in Words has to do with the nature of the thinking mind. In his early poems about thinking in For Love, Creeley believed intellectual activity to be the activity most worthy of respect and admiration. He felt that a highly disciplined analytical mind, unburdened by preconceived attitudes and assumptions, was potentially capable of understanding the significance of the ordinary moment. The tension in the early poems about thinking derived from the poet's realization that his own intelligence was not nearly as refined as he would have liked it to be. Many of these poems record his false starts and failed efforts to understand. Although Creeley's frustration with the limitations of his own intellectual powers was evident, he never questioned the basic assumption that the ideal mind was in fact a possibility and that the ideal exercise of the intelligence would somehow produce insights into the "truth" of experience. In Words, the poems about thinking are filled with frustration and anxiety as well; but in this volume the problems associated with contemplative thought have little to do with the poet's expressed sense of inadequacy and a great deal to do with the limitations peculiar to thought itself.

Creeley challenges his premise that the act of thinking is the most ennobling, satisfying and purposeful activity. He concludes that the task he imposed on his intellect—the discovery of "truth" or at least "something that would make it all less silly"—is beyond its inherent capability. He discusses the limitations of the rational mind in terms of the hopes he once had for it; and, finally, he experiments with ways to transcend these limitations. (pp. 265-66)

There are many poems in Words in which Creeley refers to his habit of treating the act of thinking as a self-sufficient occasion. "Walking" is a reference point in the study of the development of this theme because here the speaker does not question the value of what he is doing…. Creeley gives the drama of consciousness a physical setting which makes thinking a concrete, palpable actuality. Yet we do not know what he is thinking about or why he is thinking. His "intention" is a private matter. We cannot fault him for not achieving his goal. The poet has, in effect, rid himself of the anxiety usually associated with conventional problem solving. (p. 267)

The limitations of the rational mind is a crucial theme in Words. The "detached" milieu is lifeless and the "moment of stasis" is artificial. Then, too, rational thought, by the very nature of its intention, blunts the immediacy of sensory experience and denies the value of the spontaneous impulse. Moreover, Creeley argues, even if he were to accept these limitations the mind is not capable of remembering clearly what it was it wanted to know about the "detached" moment…. (p. 271)

Creeley is not arguing for a completely nonintellectual perspective. The poems in Words show him reevaluating "habits" of thought. He recognizes the limitations inherent in thinking "a moment of stasis possible," in assuming the proper exercise of the intelligence would lead him to the discovery of "truth" and in believing the activity of the mind to be a fascinating process which ought therefore to be cultivated and appreciated apart from any practical considerations. To deal with these limitations, Creeley introduces new methods of perception into his poetic universe. He records the spontaneous impulse in very short poems, takes the...

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Joel Oppenheimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The taut, gnomic line that characterized much of [Creeley's] previous work is now gentled, smoothed [in Later]—but just as wondrous in its new form as the old. Creeley's verse has undergone a transmutation both subtle and awesome….

The material of these poems is love—as Creeley's material so often has been—a love that has survived and mellowed, not sentimentally, but in a richer, more possible way. (p. 57)

Creeley's verse was always loaded, crammed into a small space. These lines seem even shorter, and the grammar simpler, as if the poet had finally resolved some essential dilemmas, finally arrived at some conclusions. "Thought's random torture" is what he's always been about; now he has indeed learned to "simply live." That he chooses to open the book with an inscription from the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh that enjoins us to "hold in mind/all that has loved you or been kind" is significant. It is as if he is saying it is time now for him to forget the intense inner debates that energized the early work, and pay some attention to those that are outside.

This is a splendid idea, and it makes a splendid book from one who is without question a major voice. The wars go on in that weird little world where poets live or die by college jobs and literary magazines, but Creeley stands above and apart, writing poems. There were those who worried he had burned out … but this book evinces a life and a perception that is rarely found in any time, no less ours. Creeley is alive and well and writing, and the poems continue to sing to us. (pp. 57-8)

Joel Oppenheimer, "Creeley Now," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission; copyright © 1979), Vol. XXIV, No. 50, December 10, 1979, pp. 57-8.

Alan Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Later" has much to say] about aging and death; and it comes as a bit of a shock to realize that [its author is] over 50, and [belongs]—since the death of Elizabeth Bishop—virtually to the senior generation of American poets. The shock comes, I suppose, mainly because [he has] so tenaciously played the role of enfant terrible, staking a great deal, as many members of [his] poetic generation have, on the anti-rationalism—the distrust of order and hierarchy as principles for society, the mind or art—that swept through our culture in the 1960's. Partly for this reason, [his] poetry continues to raise some of the problems of experimental work, though [he is] at an age when most writers either do, or decisively do...

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