Ten years ago the University of California Press issued a stout, indispensable volume: THE COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT CREELEY, (1982). Do we really need this new book, billed as “a collection of 200 poems from over four decades”? In a word, yes. To begin with, much of the work gathered here—sixty-odd poems—postdates the 1982 collected edition. There’s an added interest in seeing Creeley’s own retrospective look at his career. And there’s the lovely design of the physical book itself—a compact volume that’s a pleasure to hold.
Creeley, like some of the Abstract Expressionist painters he admired, has long courted risk. Many of his poems virtually invite dismissal from all but the most sycophantic readers, so minimal are they. What makes some of them work while others don’t? Can Creeley himself tell the difference? Not always, on the evidence of this selection.
A general rule is this: The more easily paraphrasable a Creeley poem is, the more likely it is to be forgettable (see for example the banal “social commentary” of “Oh Max”). At the other pole is flaccid minimalism (“Focus”). Somewhere between these extremes is the true Creeley vein. The key is music, only fleetingly heard in the late poems but strong before, as in “The Answer”: “Will we speak to each other/ making the grass bend as if/ a wind were before us, will our// way be as graceful, as/ substantial as the movement/ of something moving so gently.// We break things in pieces like/ walls we break ourselves into/ hearing them fall just to hear it.”