The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360

Many of the poems Robert Creeley wrote in the 1950’s concerned some intense moment or passage in a man/woman, often husband/wife, relationship. Woman appears in several guises in these poems—sometimes, as here, in two (at least) in the same poem. The reader finds the woman who is in possession, so to speak, possibly the wife, asleep. The man, her lover, perhaps her husband, tosses and turns, unable to rid his mind of its preoccupations, particularly with another woman, to whom he has also apparently made love, and who is even now not far off. Finally, he complains of his anguish out loud, and this stirs the wife figure beside him into semiconsciousness—she utters a muffled sound and puts her hand on his back.

Transformed by this touch of the real, the man appears to calm down and to view the woman he is with in a light different from that in which he viewed her at the outset. Then, she was “a flat, sleeping thing”—somewhat insubstantial to him, unholdable, removed. This remove stirs the embers of his yearning for the other woman, the one “on the roof”—literally so, perhaps, a houseguest in the poet’s Mediterranean villa— metaphorically so, surely, since she is “on his mind.” His longing increases until he groans audibly, which causes his companion to hug him. This in turn changes his feelings toward her and toward the other woman, which makes him think that he has uttered this poem “wrongly,” because he had been misrepresenting his companion to himself.

One must allow that the woman on the roof could be solely a figment of the poet’s imagination, an ideal figure of compliant passion who is liable to spring into (mental) life whenever her “host” feels lonely. The “whip” of the title might be something with which the poet is beaten, or with which he beats himself—guilt, remorse, desire—but it also describes the way the phrases whip around as the poem abruptly shifts emotional direction. “Whip” can also have the sense of “spur”: to urge someone onward. Here, the chain of events whips the poet toward a conclusion.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611

It was Creeley’s practice at this time to use old measures in new ways, to use, as here, the couplet as a frame for free verse. From an outset at which the first two lines have an identical number of syllables, the poem proceeds through variations upon this measure, ringing telling changes upon the count initially established. For example, in the second stanza or couplet, “sleeping thing. She was,” with its five syllables and three or four stresses, is played against the next line, “very white,” to render the latter slower, more emphatic. The ear, without necessarily becoming conscious of the fact, allots a certain duration to each successive line, which is based upon the units of time (sound) that immediately precede it. Expecting four beats, five syllables, one tends to draw out a shorter line, giving more duration to fewer syllables. In such ways, meanings arise throughout the poem from various speedings-up and slowings-down, which, together with the hesitations of the end-stopped lines—always end-stopped by Creeley in reading—provide an impression of language under the pressures of actual speech, of a thinking that is feeling/sensing its way through a difficult territory or tangle of human predicament, seeking some enlightenment by way of surcease from troubling thoughts.

Rhyme also comes and goes, surfaces and submerges, throughout “The Whip.” While it is seldom found at the line ends, it crops up in several telling series: bed, feather, very, addressed, myself, returned, encompasses, yelled, said, in which the assonantal sound e connects its words into an extrasyntactic unit of associational meaning; or night, flat, white, quiet, fit, That, it, but, what, that, put, act, in which the consonance of the final t sound performs a like function. One notes too the hand/ back/act sequence that helps connect that particular action, and the night/white/ quiet trio: white night, the whiter for being so quiet?

Creeley’s poems of this period derive great energy from the tension between the sentence and the end-stopping of the lines. What will he say next? The reader may wonder, waiting for the corner to be turned. It will often be a surprise. “[A]ddressed” and “encompasses” are two such surprises, as is the final word (and line), “wrongly.” About this word there is an aura of ambiguity. Does it modify “think” or “say”? Grammatically, it could be either; syntactically, it should not be both; poetically, surely it is both. He thinks—that is his mistake; he says—that too is an error.

Creeley, here as ever, makes masterly use of his vocabulary. Most of the words are short—monosyllables or disyllables—and therefore usually of Anglo-Saxon derivation, carrying with them that sense of the common and down-to-earth that such diction communicates so well (for sound historical reasons). It is against this background that “encompasses” stands out, lengthy and Latinate, and it is this distinction that accounts for the slight shock one feels when one encounters it. The tone of the poem moves back and forth between a demotic American and a slightly Frenchified courtliness. It is somehow a poem of courtly love, in the troubadour tradition, and such phrases as “my love” and “very white”—even “a fit,” in its older sense—coupled with “addressed,” encourage one to read it in that tradition. It moves matters ahead quickly, however, with what feels like a contemporary, American speed; it does not shy away from the right word, even if that word is an ugly exclamation: “Ugh.” In this way, Creeley can suggest the persistence into the present of past manners, and something of how, in the present, these traces may be met and dealt with.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 167

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