Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

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The persistence of the past into the present is often the burden of Robert Creeley’s song, as is underlined by his very forms—contemporary versions of traditional conventions. First appearing in book form in The Whip, “The Whip” was printed next in 1962 in For Love (Creeley’s best-selling book—within ten years, some forty thousand copies were in print). “Love” itself is the big question: Is it still (was it ever really) possible? Is there more to it than words? What can a pair of lovers share—beyond “uninteresting weight”? Ultimately, Creeley plumps for love, but only while admitting to the leap of faith such a conclusion demands. Creeley was among those who, trying to rid humanity of those portions of the past that are no longer (if they every were) life-enhancing, cultivated the present, the Here and Now. Thus love could best be known, he thought, through its various instances—all else was vain rhetoric, dubious assumption. Of importance to love, however—to lovers, certainly—is continuity. Can there be a continuity free of damaging or even insupportable assumptions? Can there be a continuity that will enhance and not destroy its instances?

For Creeley, as for some other poets, these questions were not a matter for lovers alone, but for writers, too. Because writing commits a continuity, what one writes today will persist for ten, twenty, fifty years or more. Speaking surely is more “natural,” more immediate, truer to the moment. There is a tension, then, between speaking and writing; Creeley, who followed Charles Olson’s theories of the written poem as score for the spoken word, often sounds hostile to writing, or at least to that aspect of it that freezes the momentous and fixes the transitory.

Sometimes, the various women in Creeley’s poems appear to do double duty as actual (autobiographical) personages and as metaphors for the mind’s workings. In Creeley’s poem “The Wife,” for example, there are two women in opposition to each other, but one is “tangible substance,/ flesh and bone,” whereas the other is an idealized, imaginary woman who occurs only in the mind and “keeps her strict/ proportions there.” “The Wife” is a lesser poem than “The Whip,” being too stately in tone and wooden in movement, but—as duller works sometimes do—it sheds light on other poems by its author. In “The Wife,” there is no hint that the “other” is actual, an actual houseguest on the roof, possibly lusting for her host even as he lusts for her. The poem presents a different problem: As long as a man cannot rid himself of an imaginary creation, the actual persons he encounters will eventually prove inadequate. Yet if he succeeds in banishing the ideal from his mind, what measure will remain whereby to judge the actuality of experience?

There can be no enduring solution to this dilemma, but in certain moments, a humanness is suddenly possible, as when, in “The Whip,” the woman puts her hand on the man’s back and he changes his mind.