Robert Creeley

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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 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.)


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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 still working out. But again, most of the other poems are fine too. I suppose the one that has "injured" me most was "The Hill." A fine old elizabethan shell game that is. Striking with his fiercest weapons first: SYNTAX. Creeley is always forcing you to rearrange your own eye, to disregard, or abandon any "gestalt" you bring to merely reading a poem. There are no "ready made" in his verse. One must Read each word, pause at each caesura. Try to follow. It is a lot of work. And if now, you (reader) run the risk of being easily "had." Or literarily, you run the risk of losing all sense, or all the sense Creeley is pushing you towards…. [We] want all this stuff to Mean something to us. Creeley begins "The Hill"

       It is sometime since I have been
       to what it was had once turned me backwards,
       and made my head into
       a cruel instrument.

The first two lines are almost impenetrable. You have to read the hell out of them … and when you do, & are properly stood on your head and caught live in Creeley's terrible little globe (the inside of it) … the rest is easy. "a cruel instrument" is staggering & precise, & one is moved. After these four lines, the rest is merely the working of a wonderful poetic mind. "Shapely," as Ginsberg says. (pp. 82-3)

LeRoi Jones, "Poetry: 'A...

(This entire section contains 499 words.)

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Form of Women'," in Kulchur (copyright © 1961, by Kulchur Press, Inc.), No. 3, 1961, pp. 81-3.

Richard Howard

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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 recurrence … is a poetry without verse; a poetry without return or ending … is a poetry without rhyme or reason (ratio); for rhyme and reason do go together, since the aim of both is to bring things to an end; a poetry … of precision but no rhythms—there is not a single sentence anybody will ever murmur to himself. And that is just what Creeley is after, or rather, he is not after something but seeking to be present with it: a poetry that cannot be murmured, remembered, but rather encountered, confronted…. Experience, then, is for him a matter of separation, the substitution of incoherence for subject matter (hence the titles of Creeley's two books, which are concerned with precisely the subjects most often thought to involve connection, love and language, and which for Creeley affords a kind of ecstasy of isolation, each instance of the use of his body and of the use of words as discreet, singular, insistently unique:

                      now screaming
                      it cannot be
                      the same)

—and the poem a strategy to avoid pattern …, to dissolve continuity and what used to be called the keeping of imagery; what is sought is the losing, an imagery out-of-keeping, an imagery kept out…. This question of the broken form, of something made to be—or to appear—fragmentary, partial, incomplete is of great importance to Creeley's work…. It is as though the contours of regular form must blur, dim and deceive us until we lose contact. Only the broken surface reveals the truth…. It is the first time in the history of poetry that a man has written a poetry of forgetting …—a poetry without any of the axiological signs and spells which serve to hold it in the mind; without images or rather with an imagery pulverized beyond the recognition of shared contours, an imagery hugged to the self, "played" close to the chest…. Creeley's method [is] a treatment rather than a technique of destroying expectation, of forgetting in order to avoid ending, which would mean having to re-open the healed, scabbed-over trauma—instead, everything is kept raw and ruined here, giving or enforcing the impression both of debris … and of contusion, the incurable wound…. Yet though there can be no doubt about the dismemberment (as opposed to remembering), it is precisely the ritual that is in question, for Creeley's poetry is in opposition to all ceremony, all politeness, which is inevitably a long poem since it is full of recurrences…. Creeley wants no poem remembered, wants each poem to enrich himself and us by what it reveals of his poverty, for in the entrancement of isolated experience the first obstacle to action is the absence of obstacles, of a resisting norm from which to vary…. (pp. 145-49)

The masters of linguistics tell us that there is no reason for the sentence, in its unconditioned state, to end—ever. There is every reason to suppose that we all, unwittingly, spend our lives within one and the same sentence, a single locution which is coterminous with our own bodies. This is what Robert Creeley means when he says that "words are common, and language knows more than one man can speak of;" it is his power (and, as well, his pathos) to have added his voice—sour, stumbling, secretive—to that enormous and obsessive murmur which sometimes rises from literature and which is perhaps its justification, the utterance of our becoming. "There is no more to live," Creeley says darkly in his preface to For Love, "than what there is, to live. I want the poem as close to this fact as I can bring it." He has brought his poems so close to that "no more" of his, to that irreducible absorption in what is there, that he speaks, or we hear him speak, out of an absolute solitude—honorable certainly and enriching to us…. (p. 150)

Richard Howard, "Robert Creeley: 'I Begin Where I Can, and End When I See the Whole Thing Returning'," in The Minnesota Review (copyright 1968 by the Bolingbroke Society, Inc.), Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1968, pp. 143-50.

Cynthia Dubin Edelberg

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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 "shift and drift" of illogical associations into account in very long poems divided into parts and allows the anger, barely beneath the surface in the early poems, to spend itself in explicitly violent imagery. The most successful poetic result of Creeley's reorientation is Pieces and A Day Book, long sequences in which a wide variety of modes of perception are used. In Words, we have the beginning of Creeley's attempt to tap his intuitions, emotions and impulses for his poetry. (p. 273)

[Creeley's central theme is] the nature of the active mind…. He finds that he is caught up in the flux of daily reality and that he must make us believe that he is faithfully recording insights and feelings as they occur to him. Creeley is working toward a conceptual framework and a poetic structure in which a wide variety of modes of perception has value and place. Contemplative thought still retains its position in Creeley's poetic universe as the most highly valued mode of perception, but the poems in Words speak to his realization that there is "much else" that is inaccessible to thought.

His various attempts to find a coherent pattern to his life and to secure a meaningful self-definition involve a reassessment of previous attitudes. His effort to understand what love can accomplish and what it cannot emerges from the poems in Words to become a major theme…. The fundamental assumption in his early poems about love, collected in For Love, was that a love relationship was a possibility, an ideal condition…. Whereas the poems in Words show Creeley still looking for "Measures—/ways of being in one's life," they show him wondering if love is "Enough," if love is equal to the task he imposed on it. (pp. 279-80)

"Enough" is an important poem in a study of Creeley's poetry for two reasons. From this point on, he presents credible human women and he discusses his thoughts and feelings about them in explicitly human terms. If Creeley makes an exception to this general pattern, he will tell us clearly in the poem itself that he is fantasizing about women within the context of a dream or of a drug-induced state. Closely associated with this decision to portray life-like women is his reassessment of his heretofore fundamental assumption that love is a mystical force capable of infusing ordinary experience with transcendent meaning….

Over and again in Words Creeley says that he tested his belief in the power of love against his actual experience and found that his hope was an illusion. He cannot find profound inspiration in love anymore than he can find complete understanding by virtue of analytical thinking. All he can do is live each moment as it comes and bear witness to what he feels and what he thinks about his experience in the poem…. We get poems … in which Creeley records an "instant" of his experience, wonders about its significance, and resigns himself to not knowing.

Creeley's attitude toward his poem is the third major issue in Words. He focuses attention on the process of writing a poem from the point of view of a careful poet who is actively engaged in the process of poem-making. He invites the reader to collaborate with him, to help him think through his technical problems. He involves us in the activity of composition by opening the poem to include the dynamics of its making. We are frustrated when he is frustrated and satisfied when he is satisfied. We come to realize than he is compelled to write…. (p. 284)

There are many poems in Words which, to use Duncan's phrase, are poems of linguistic impulse. Of these poems which disclose the poet's frustrating experience with verbs, nouns, subjects and tenses—their multi-faceted nature as well as their arrangement—the one which lays bare the confusions involved most plainly is "For W.C.W.":

                   The rhyme is after
                   all the repeated

                   There, you say, and
                   there, and there,
                   and and becomes

                   just so. And
                   what one wants is
                   what one wants,

                   yet complexly
                   as you

                   let it go.
                   I want—

                   Then there is—
                   I want….

The poem truly pays homage to William Carlos Williams. Creeley praises Williams' ability to record the continuity of experience faithfully and, at the same time, to delineate the uniqueness of each instant precisely. The lesson Creeley is reluctantly learning from Williams has to do with finding the exact word and setting it in the poem "just so." "For W.C.W." argues that there are three methods for conveying recurrence: rhymed words suggest correspondence, as do parallel constructions and repetitions. Yet nothing can happen quite as it did before. It is the poet's difficult task to make fine distinctions. (p. 285)

Creeley's three major themes are intertwined and resolved in the title poem of the volume. Although "Words" is a "braided" poem, its central focus has to do with Creeley's deep commitment to his craft. The poem is a sophisticated apostrophe in which the poet addresses his medium with loving respect, fully conscious of the frustration of waiting for words…. Creeley is too experienced with words to accept the aesthetics of silence naively. A poetic posture which asserts its authority by refusing to say what it surely, obviously knows may well be a sincere and authentic one. But for him it is not. When his "tongue" is "rotten with what//it tastes," there perhaps ought to be words as something at least to say; yet he cannot find them. If he "cannot speak" it may be because he is afraid. Words are ultimately mysterious elements which may mock his intention to manipulate them. The poet wants to possess words but he discovers that words will not be possessed; like "ash," they cannot be eaten. He admits to his presumption and to his awkwardness; yet he remains essentially confident. "Some day," he says, words, the drift of them, will naturally, miraculously be given to him.

Creeley's attitude toward his poem is a major issue in the volume. Every important aspect of the theme appears in "Words." The curve of feeling in this poem parallels the development of the love motif as well…. "Words" is a love lyric. It begins with a statement about oneness: "You are always/with me,/there is never/a separate//place," and it ends with the poet's realization that words do not belong to him: "words like a/clear, fine/ash sifts,/like dust,//from nowhere." (pp. 289-90)

"Words" is a "braided" poem in which Creeley recapitulates the story of his struggle to set intellectual activity into the proper perspective. The poem begins with a thesis statement which is followed by an antithetical statement:

                     You are always
                     with me,
                     there is never
                     a separate

                     place. But if
                     in the twisted
                     place I
                     cannot speak….

The poet starts to analyze the contradiction in terms of his "indulgence," "fear" and bitter experience. He breaks off his speculation abruptly. His subject is "words" and his thoughts are leading him away from it. He can take a general sense of hope and comfort from the memory of past satisfactions. But he must not distort or complicate his present concern by lingering in the recollection. Instead, he looks forward to the future: "Some day/will not be/this one." All in all, he must simply wait. "Words" will come from "nowhere," the name William Morris gave to his Utopia. Morris excluded brilliant truth-tellers from Nowhere, a perfect place where intricate speculating is not allowed. The final sense of the volume as well as of the title poem is that Creeley, too, has decided to leave out thought-fighting. He is beginning to put faith in his intuition. (p. 290)

Cynthia Dubin Edelberg, "Robert Creeley's Words: The Comedy of the Intellect," in boundary 2, Special Issue: Robert Creeley (copyright © boundary 2, 1978), Vol. VI, No. 1, Spring-Fall, 1978, pp. 265-91.

Joel Oppenheimer

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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

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["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 not, communicate an almost unconscious stylistic authority.

Robert Creeley—I hasten to qualify—established a permanent place for himself, well before 1960s, as what the painters would call a "little master" of psychological realism. In lines too cramped for high music, but perfect for hesitation, for the betrayal of syntactic expectations, he traced the turnings of a deeply divided and self-distrustful psyche that seemed to "grow tensions/like flowers/in a wood where/nobody goes." Later, however, minimalism became more and more an end in itself in his work. Tautology mingled with neutral observation, in a John Cage-like faith in the inherent value of silencing the interpretive function. "Later" seems to hover, a little uneasily, between the two extremes; witness "End":

                   notebook kept

                   my mind in hand,
                   let the world stay

                   open to me
                   day after day,

                   words to say,
                   things to be.

I have to say that on first reading I found this passage annoying. The leveling attitude toward the experiences of life and the reasons for writing; the cuteness of "wee," the 1970's cant-word "open"—all seemed to add up to a narcissistic smugness about the refusal to be selective or self-critical. On second reading, I appreciated the poignantly childlike round-rhyme which "wee" initiates; the undertone of the familiar Creeley anxiety in "kept/my mind in hand" and—given the line-break—in "let the world stay." I saw that there was real skill at work; and that the tone—though not without complacency—was mainly nervous, a little wistful, and resigned.

In general, the stronger the note of elegiac bafflement and rage (the past utterly gone, the compensating wisdom not forthcoming), the better the writing is in "Later." In the immensely poignant title sequence and in "If I Had My Way," the tautology becomes that of memory itself, forever trying to superimpose the lost past on the present. And Mr. Creeley does lovely things with the pathos of received language: a meditation on ruins built around the child's "Here is the church"; a compendium of the "Old time blues/and things to say" of the American male on a binge that has the psychological bite of famous early poems like "I Know a Man." And one should not overlook a few brilliant short lyrics, notably "This Day"—a kind of post-Williams reduction of Emily Dickinson's "certain slant of light." (pp. 8-9)

Alan Williamson, "Music to Your Ears," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 9, 1980, pp. 8-9, 14-15.∗


Creeley, Robert (Vol. 11)


Creeley, Robert (Vol. 2)