Robert Creeley's poem "Fading Light," originally published in a 1988 collection of poems titled Windows, was republished in 2001 in Just in Time, which contains the entire contents of three of Creeley's earlier collections. These poems illustrate the themes and styles with which the poet engaged himself as he approached the age of seventy. Thus it represents a mature effort of a poet who has been writing since his late twenties. The poem is short, only twelve lines long, and its line length is somewhat more extended than in most of his poems. Many of Creeley's poems are short, sometimes so short that they achieve comprehensibility only as part of a longer cluster of poems. The typical Creeley poem tends to be a sinewy stream of words on a mostly white page. Indeed, for a poet who often places a single word, sometimes a word as simple as "the" to stand alone as a line, his lines in this poem mark a minor stylistic shift. "Fading Light" is a poem that begins with a very simple image—an image of dusk seen through an open window—a commonplace, almost impersonal image that is transformed from perception into reflection on time and memory, all in an austere, remote style, one in which the diction is kept spare and deliberately simple. Belying the simplicity of the diction, however, the poet uses a number of techniques to cause the work to be somewhat difficult to interpret in a first reading or hearing. The poem is punctuated as one sentence, but it is composed of fragments that are so deliberately, ambiguously constructed that the reader has to interpret where and how the different parts interact to create a meaningful whole. It is the difficulty in understanding what exactly is being said that causes a careful reader to attend to the diction, syntax, imagery, and sound of the poem.
Robert Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1926, the son of a physician. In 1928, his left eye was injured in an accident, which resulted in blindness and eventual removal of the eye. His father died in 1932, leaving his mother overwhelmed with the responsibilities involved in liquidating his father's medical practice.
Creeley attended Harvard from 1943 to 1946, interrupted by a stint as an ambulance driver in India during World War II. He was not a diligent student and dropped out of Harvard during his senior year without receiving a degree. In 1950, he began a literary correspondence with Charles Olson, which proved beneficial to him. Creeley taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1954 to 1955, where he associated with a number of experimental poets and artists. Visiting San Francisco in 1956, he came to know a number of the Beat poets including Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg. During subsequent years Creeley taught at colleges in New Mexico, British Columbia, and California, before moving permanently to Buffalo, New York in 1966. His poems, however, do not show a sense of place, and critics have noticed that it is often very difficult to attach poems to biographical or geographical places in the poet's life.
In 1960, Creeley received the Levinson Prize for ten poems published in the May edition of Poetry. His work attracted critical acclaim and was anthologized in a number of influential collections such as A. Poulin's Contemporary American Poetry in 1980. From 1989 to 1991 he was the New York State Poet. Since 1989, he has taught poetry and humanities at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He won Yale's Bollingen Prize, one of America's most distinguished recognitions for poetry, in 1999. In September 2001, he was awarded the prestigious Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award for his works, a recognition that included a substantial financial reward. Creeley has published his work through major publishing houses, but much of it has also been issued in small editions by small presses and is difficult to locate. Fortunately, his works have been collected and reprinted in more extensive collections. "Fading
Light" was reprinted in 2001 in the book Just in Time. He has given many interviews, some of which are reprinted in works by literary critics. Creeley has also issued recordings of himself reading his poetry and has influenced many poets who came of age in the 1970s.
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The very first line of "Fading Light" introduces several key aspects of the poem. The poem begins with an immediate, emphatic "Now," followed by an impersonal "one" who could be the poet himself or, indeed, anyone, a pronoun that is followed by "might catch" in which the possibility of seizing a moment is at once asserted and then immediately questioned. Terry R. Bacon has remarked that "Creeley's poetry is expressed in the perpetual NOW. It is a 'real time' rendering, in a very solipsistic sense, of the universe he perceives." The title of poem has helped to establish that the poem is about dusk, and it is this moment of dusk to which the poet directs attention, as though perception could freeze the moment into something palpable. Creeley repeats verbs, as he will do throughout the poem—"catch it see it." His refusal to punctuate conventionally or to add connective words such as "and" begins a pattern of disjointed phrases marked by verbs that are connected elusively to their grammatical subject. The reader, indeed, must supply the subjects and make sense of the phrasing in order to make this poem meaningful.
The transition from the first line to the second line demonstrates that Creeley will use the poetic technique of enjambment in this poem. Enjambment occurs when a line's sense continues into the next line, with no pause. Commonly, lines that are not enjambed, which are called end-stopped lines, have some kind of punctuation, such as a comma, period, or dash, to show the reader that a pause is necessary. Enjambed lines, on the other hand, rush onward, usually to find a pause in the middle or end of a subsequent line. All the lines except the last one in this poem are enjambed. Interestingly, Creeley says in the interview included in Just in Time, "I read the breaks." Thus, in his own reading, the poet would pause at the end of lines, whereas the meaning of the lines clearly demands that one go on into the next line. While there may be other interpretations, there seems to be a pause after the first "it," in the first line, with a second pause after the word "shift." Thus, the natural reading of the first line seems to go over into the second, and would be punctuated thus: "Now one might catch it, see it shift …" That the poet does not write it as it would be spoken is a clue that his intent is to frustrate the reader's uncritical expectations.
The second line repeats the uncertainty of the first. The "it," which we infer to be the fading light of the title, is "almost substantial blue," teetering just outside the poet's certain grasp. The light is indeterminate, being "blue / white yellow light." The jumble of adjectives will be paralleled later in the poem by a heaping of verbs and adverbs. All of this is deliberately confusing, but the confusion in syntax is related to the confusion in perception. The light is fading, indeterminate, of changing color and quality, and the concepts and recollections about to occur in the poem are similar in their elusiveness.
- Poetry in Motion, directed by Ron Mann in 1982, was released on DVD by Public Media in 2002. It features performances by a number of the Beat poets, including Robert Creeley, in front of live audiences.
- A CD of Creeley reading poetry titled Robert Creeley (2001) was released on the Jagjaguwar label.
- Creeley reads his poetry with a jazz trio on a CD titled The Way out Is Via the Door (2002).
- The Electronic Poetry Center maintains a website on Robert Creeley at www.wings.buffalo.edu, which includes links and selected poems.
- The Academy of American Poets maintains a website on Creeley at www.poets.org, which includes numerous links.
The reader has to supply the connections between the subject and the various verbs of the poem. While one might fairly easily interpret that one might "see it shift … become intense definition," the word "think," which is characteristically poised at the end of a line, is a verb without a clear subject. Perhaps Creeley is telling readers that one might "catch it" and one might "think / of the spinning world." Here, there is a transition from object to concept. Creeley has steadfastly tried to eliminate concepts and abstractions from his poetry, following the advice of the American poet William Carlos Williams, with whom the young Creeley corresponded and who is credited with the poetic slogan "no concepts but in objects." The spinning world is something, however, that has to be thought about, not directly perceived. This shift starts to take the poem beyond sight into what lies beyond.
Readers see the abstractions and ambiguities become more apparent as the poem progresses. The "of the spinning world is it as" is very easy to stumble over when reading aloud. Perhaps Creeley wants readers to read his words as "think of the spinning world. Is it as ever?" The answer is not obvious, and in struggling for a resolution to the demands of the tortured syntax, perhaps the poet makes his point. The fading light is hard to catch, and the meaning is hard to catch, and it may be the reader who has to supply the meaning that the world and the poet fail to make clear. A striking image, "this plate of apparent life" contains both the abstract word "life" and the concrete word "plate" which will foreshadow "supper" in the penultimate line. By this point, the poem has gone beyond perception to asking questions about the world and about life. The world has changed, or why else would the poet seem to ask "is it as / ever?" Likewise "apparent" gives no clear direction to "life"; it merely seems to undercut the solidity of life. Everything Creeley says, he seems to contradict.
Suddenly there is a different kind of shift, occurring as usual right before the end of a line. The poet says "hold on / chute the sled plunges down ends / down the hill …" It is as though he puts some motion into the middle of a deliberately confused situation, and the reader speeds up and reads, right after the word "patient" about a chute and a sled plunging down. The word "down" is repeated three times in two lines. "Patient" is used twice, once in the middle of the poem and once in the last line. Additionally, Creeley uses "time" twice within three lines. This repetition and quickening pace push the poem to its conclusion. Memories, triggered by the fading light of the poem's title, start rushing out like objects down a chute, like a sled rushing down a snowy hill in winter. In keeping with the indeterminate, contradictory nature of this poem, this rush is juxtaposed with the repeated word "patient."
Thom Gunn has said that as Creeley has matured as a poet "the book rather than the individual poem becomes the meaningful unit." It might be useful to note at this point that this poem was placed near the end of a book titled Windows and is immediately adjacent to other poems that are clearly observations of the world through windows of various sorts. A poem on the facing page is titled "Echo" and talks of weather that is grey and cold. The darkness, the sled, the position next to other winter poems all make "Fading Light" a winter reverie. The fading light is a real event outside a literal window, and the poet observes the ways the colors shift at dusk, and he thinks of the passage of time and life, which seems like a plunging sled going downhill to the "field's darkness" but, back inside, "supper here left years behind waits." The vision of light fading into darkness triggers in the poet memories of suppers years before, and yet he does not act, but "patient in mind remembers the time."
In this poem, Creeley plays with language so that readers' observations of reality are brought into question, so that they can think mindfully about the things of the world. On the other hand, it is reasonable to notice that this is a poem written by a man who is entering old age, that the "fading light" may also be the fading energy and life force of the writer. It would be very much like Creeley to hide any personal reference in wordplay and tortured syntax. In this reading of the poem, Creeley recognizes that even the fading light is transitory and ephemeral, that the world continues to spin, and that what is ultimately left to him in the face of death is a patient holding on and a looking back as his life's story rushes on faster and faster.
One of the significant themes of this poem is uncertainty. Just as the fading light of dusk makes clear vision impossible, the words of this poem emphasize the uncertainty of perception and memory. Starting with the first line's "one might catch it," the poem contains constant repeated references to uncertainty. The "almost substantial" light, which is "blue / white yellow" is of indeterminate color and materiality. Life itself is but "apparent" life, nothing palpable and direct, but vague and indeterminate. Near the end of the poem a sled goes "down the hill beyond sight down / into field's darkness." Nothing certain can be asserted about what happens in that darkness.
Creeley does not say that these events and perceptions occurred to him. Neither does he create a persona, a voice of another character, who tells his own story to a reader. Some of the most significant themes of impersonality occur at very strategic places in the poem, in the first and last lines. It is "one" who might perceive this light. The experience is a common one. Everyone, except for the blind, has experienced fading light at dusk. It is quite significant that the poet does not say that "I" might have seen this light, but that "one," which represents the self as well as the universal consciousness, might have seen the light. Although Creeley does sometimes include himself in his own poems, he usually writes deliberately subdued poems in common diction, taking the focus off the poet and putting it into the words and images. In the middle of the poem he uses the phrase "makes all sit patient." This is an ambiguous and impersonal word, which can be interpreted as "it makes all persons patient" or, alternatively, "it makes me all patient." A less careful poet would probably give the reader one possible interpretation. Finally, at the end of the poem, "patient in mind remembers the time" does not say whose mind is doing the remembering. On the one hand, it can be the poet's own memory, but he does not say that it is his. On the other hand, while a memory must be someone's memory, the universality of the experience, indeed, its mundane character, suggest that it is someone's memory, and perhaps everyone's memory. It is through an impersonal description of optical and mental events that the poet tries to link his own perceptions with those of his audience.
Topics For Further Study
- In the 1950s a group of young poets became known as the Beat poets, the harbingers of the Beat Generation. Do research on this group, identify four key participants, and locate at least one characteristic poem from each writer. What do all these poets have in common, and how are their poetic voices distinctive?
- Two influential creative movements of the period from 1950 to 1965 were abstract expressionism and jazz. Locate an art print of an abstract expressionist such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko and find a recording of jazz that you think complements the work of art. Then choose a poem by Creeley or Kerouac or Snyder, or another poet who was writing in that time, and perform the poem in front of the art, with jazz playing in the background.
- Poetry festivals are a relatively recent phenomenon. Using the Internet, try to locate as many poetry festivals as you can. Do not limit yourself to the United States; other festivals occur in Britain and Australia, for instance. Do these festivals identify featured poets? Who are the poets who are identified as special guests? Try to locate poems by these poets.
- Music and poetry have an ancient connection. The word "lyric," for example, is derived from the early musical instrument called the lyre. Make a personal compilation of songs whose words can stand alone as poetry. Write up the words and try to analyze them as poetry. What literary techniques can you find?
- Poetry readings occur frequently in many locations, including book stores, coffee houses, and other smoke- and alcohol-free environments. Try to attend at least four different readings at different venues if possible. Keep a record of the kinds of poems you hear. What are the subjects and techniques? Do any of them seem especially effective to you? Summarize your results in a brief written evaluation.
- One way to encounter poets for the first time is to read anthologies. Go to a library or a book store and spend some time looking through a collection of work by different poets. What poets appeal to you? Using reference works or the Internet, research their lives and careers.
This is a poem that ends up inside the poet's (or is it the reader's?) head. In the middle of the poem we find a shift from the immediate occasion of the work, which is a vision of dusk, presumably a winter dusk seen through a window, to a series of meditations and memories. At the end of the fifth line Creeley introduces an unpunctuated question: "is it as / ever this plate of apparent life / makes all sit patient …" Here he ties the present to the recurring past. He also seems to evoke a memory from childhood, sitting patient and waiting for supper to be served. This memory is more likely from childhood than from adulthood in that children are often hungry and impatient to be served, whereas adults are more in control of the food and the supper ritual. He also uses words such as "chute" and "sled," which seem to allude to a New England childhood. The chute is a coal chute, and coal was often burned to heat buildings seventy years ago, and of course the sled is only used in a snowy climate. The sled is an apparatus of childish pleasure, and Creeley most likely has a particular hill in mind and a particular dark field from his childhood, though he does not identify any of them for his readers. Finally comes supper, but this is not a supper awaiting the poet in the present; rather, it is a memory of "supper here left years behind." And by the last lines of his poem, the poet makes it extremely obvious that he has gone back into memory when he concludes by saying, "patient in mind remembers the time."
Mortality and Anxiety
It is important to remember that this is a poem by a man approaching old age. Like many modernist writers, Creeley does not take comfort in the promises of traditional religion; there is no hope of heaven or redemption in his work. Death induces anxiety and insecurity for him. Anxiety is not totally negative, however, if it sharpens perceptions and leads to a cherishing of all the mundane events of daily life. For a poet who abhors simile, this work nevertheless employs something similar, a metaphor, which is an implied comparison between two dissimilar things. The fading light of the title can be compared to the waning life force of any person. Always one to eschew melodrama, Creeley makes his poem impersonal and universal. Everyone is fated to die. Death is, simultaneously and paradoxically, both the most personal and the most impersonal of fates. The impersonality of this poem, its uncertainty, and its lapse into early memory all find a culmination in the poem's overriding existential concern, which is the poet's confrontation with anxiety and his own mortality.
At first the diction of the poem seems unremarkable. There are no odd, unusual, or difficult words. A careless reader might not even think of noticing the diction, but that would be a mistake. Creeley has very consciously picked out words that do not call attention to themselves. There has long been a struggle in American writing between stylists who utilize uncommon diction and unusual imagery and those, like Creeley, who try to use common speech. This struggle goes back centuries, hearkening back to the English Civil War and the elaborate and erudite poetry of the cavaliers on the one hand, and the sturdy and direct Puritan texts on the other. Creeley has enlisted the banner of plain speech and straightforward expression.
The poet makes extensive use of the device of enjambment in this poem. Enjambment is the technique of continuing the sense of a line forward into the next one. It is to be contrasted with the endstopped lines that are characteristic of much metered and formal poetry. In this poem the last word of every line, except for the last, leads the reader on into the subsequent line. There is no reason to pause at the end of each line, at least no reason that would lead to a comprehensible and natural reading of the poem. It is very apparent that Creeley deliberately enjambs each line in order to produce poetic effects. The first effect is that of a breathless tumbling into the images of the following lines. A second effect is to isolate subject from verb and to shatter phrases, isolating words in space at the end of the lines. In most enjambed poems, the technique makes for a more fluid and natural oral interpretation, but here the enjambment does just the opposite, calling attention to the artifice of the work.
Many poems do not resolve themselves until their concluding lines. This phenomenon is true of Shakespearean sonnets as well as this poem. What Creeley does that is distinctive here is to present a long "sentence" that is not a conventional sentence at all. Though expressed in common words, and containing elements of a sentence such as multiple verbs and associated phrases and clauses, and though it does hang together to make a comprehensible sequence of thoughts, it is not a prosaic expression, but a poem that uses the rules of language for an unconventional purpose. It is not until the very last phrase, "remembers the time," that the reader can see what the first line signifies, that the fading light of the title triggers a memory of supper years before. The poet suspends the syntax in several ways, using enjambment, lack of conventional punctuation, and omission of words that would help clarify the meaning, all to postpone the reader's comprehension of his poem until the very last line. This syntactic suspension makes the poem challenging to interpret.
When Creeley published "Fading Light" in 1988, he was entering a phase of his career as a distinguished elder statesman of American poetry. Having gone to India during the 1940s, he had been associated with important creative writers at Black Mountain College, and later with the Beat poets. By the time he published this poem he, along with other formerly radical members of his generation, had become converted into fixtures of the poetic establishment. It is a familiar progression, from radical to tenured and respected professor, but by the late 1980s he, along with such luminaries as his old friends Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, had found themselves embraced by an establishment they had once opposed.
During the early days of Creeley's career, modernist formalism, epitomized by the work of W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot, was at the center of American academic poetry. Things started changing rapidly during the late 1950s with the rise of confessional poets such as Robert Lowell, as well as the emergence of Creeley's Beat friends. The 1960s were anarchic in many ways. Frequently poets felt obliged to take political stances, but Creeley, though he sympathized with the anti–Vietnam War activists, did not employ his poetry as a political tool. By the 1980s, as this poem was written, the American poetry scene had fragmented into multiple segments, each with its own audience, purposes, publications, and venues.
One of the trends in American poetry when Creeley wrote this poem was the rise of a new type of academic poetry. It is true in some sense that much poetry has been academic, in that poets often are drawn to teaching, and good poets are sometimes rewarded with teaching positions at colleges, though William Carlos Williams was a practicing physician and Wallace Stevens had been a corporate attorney. But by the 1980s, the proliferation of creative writing programs in universities around the country had led to the rise of what poet Albert Goldbarth called "po-biz," in which recipients of graduate degrees in creative writing wrote books of poetry, reviewed the books of others in similar programs, and were rewarded with academic jobs and the occasional monetary prize. The increasingly academic direction of poetry coincided with a dramatic fall-off in the size of the poetry-reading public, as poets began to write primarily for small specialized audiences. Creeley had participated in the prototype of the master of fine arts programs back in his years at Black Mountain College. Though that school did not survive long, subsequent generations of aspiring poets went in the academic direction.
Another trend in the late 1980s was a countercurrent in poetry, the rise of a new formalism. Poetic tastes had veered from popular tastes; rhyme and meter seemed to have fallen out of favor sometime before the death of Robert Frost. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s free verse became the dominant form of poetry. Some of it could be superb, as Sylvia Plath at her best, but as poetry became easier to compose, it also could tend toward sentimentality, slackness, and narcissism. A number of poets returned to formal structures with new enthusiasm. Poets as different as Derek Walcott, Dana Gioia, Anne Stevenson, Donald Justice, and Seamus Heaney published new work in The Formalist, The New Criterion, and other places. A number of important anthologies of formalist verse were published, and displayed a far different aesthetic intent than does most of Creeley's work.
Finally, at the time "Fading Light" was published, other poets initiated still other movements in American poetry. The first slam poets came on the scene. Slam poetry is a competitive poetry event in which audience members judge poetic performances by assigning scores to them, and these scores are added and tabulated much like the scores in figure skating or Olympic diving. In a typical slam poetry night, several poets pay entry fees and some advance to second or third rounds, and at the end of an evening a winner is announced. Many of the successful performances turned out to be comic or dramatic, with expressions of outrage at sexual, racial, or social oppression a staple of the slam scene. Around the same time, poetry festivals sprang up. In 1986 the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival began. It is a juried festival, in which organizers invite distinguished poets to give readings and workshops in a festive environment of public performance. Other festivals, such as the Austin International Poetry Festival in Texas, are non-juried, and provide multiple stages and microphones to all participants. Both types of festivals try to return poetry to its origins in the spoken word and in performance. What all these movements try to do is to take poetry off the printed page and to showcase it for listeners.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Creeley found himself securely placed among the grand elder statesmen of American poetry. His Bollingen and Lannan awards cemented his critical reception. Yet not all critics are impressed by the kind of poetry his career presents. Writing in an article on Creeley's mentor William Carlos Williams, Christopher MacGowan writes in The Columbia History of American Poetry that "The whole line of American poetry to which Williams is such an important figure, the line that includes such figures as Olson and Creeley, comes under similar attack from time to time." A great deal has been written about him in the last fifty years, both positive and negative. Carol Muske Dukes has said that "some critics find that he is occasionally hyper-oblique, self-consciously cute, and for all his brevity, overwrought." She quotes critic John Simon who said, "There are two things to be said about Creeley's poems: They are short; they are not short enough."
Other critics are more charitable. Don Byrd wrote that "When Creeley's poetry is dull, as it sometimes is, it is the dullness of the real, and when it is exciting, as it often is, it is the excitement of the real." Noting that Creeley began his career in rebellion against academic poets only to end up as an academic himself, Byrd distinguishes between academic and underground poets by their different approaches to poetry. "The academic poets, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, write writing as it is prepared: Creeley writes writing as it is written." Writing in 1996, Bill Piper remarks on Creeley's ability to avoid self-repetition when he states that, "Unlike many artists who reach a stride and remain with it, often becoming stale, he seems to diversify, and his work gains in interest with his deepening experience."
In her review of Windows, the collection in which "Fading Light" was originally published, Penny Kaganoff relates the book's title to its contents: "these carefully honed poems themselves function as 'frames' through which Creeley measures with mature insight and inventiveness the limits of reality and existence." Numerous critics have remarked on the immediacy and directness of Creeley's poetry, as does Terry R. Bacon, who declares, "Creeley's perceptions are epiphanies: glimpses of moments in the life situation that are brought into sharp focus through the high energy transference that is presumed to occur." In a 2002 review of Just in Time, Stephen Whited says, "The author's comforting, bebop inner voice chatters away insistently, harmonizing and connecting moment with moment, like a Charlie Parker solo." Remarking on the development of themes in Creeley's work, Whited goes on to note, "Aging has changed the focus of the familiar subjects to whom the seventy-five-year-old Creeley continuously returns; the pleasant influence of narrative and memory has been more evident in his work since the mid-'80s." Regardless of their enjoyment of his austere and oblique poetry, critics agree that Creeley has been a major influence on many younger poets and a significant presence in late twentieth-century American poetry.
Pool is a published poet and reviewer and a teacher of high school English. In this essay, Pool discusses elements of formal structure in Creeley's poem.
A young or inexperienced reader of poetry might well be perplexed upon first encountering Robert Creeley's poem "Fading Light." The poem lacks many of the features that are prominent in other poems. There is no rhyme and no meter, as in traditional verse, and yet the poem also lacks the colloquial familiarity of much contemporary free verse. Instead, the poem is difficult to grasp upon first reading, and even in subsequent perusals does not easily yield up its meaning and structures. Still, Creeley is regarded as a major poet, and as with many works by major writers, this poem reveals a structure that, while not obvious or simple, nevertheless connects the apparently chaotic lines and imagery into a coherent whole.
Some critics believe that a poem can best be interpreted in isolation, that close reading of the words on the page will generate a sound understanding, that biography and literary history are extraneous to the comprehension of a poem. On the other hand, it seems undeniable that knowing about the history and circumstances of a poem's composition adds to our appreciation. Creeley began his writing shortly after World War II. He became associated in the early 1950s with a group of writers and artists at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an avant-garde experimental school where Creeley worked with the man who most influenced his early work, Charles Olson. There he also met Jackson Pollock and other pioneers of abstract expressionism in art. Like the abstract expressionists, Creeley faced the problem of form. He rejected the traditional verse forms that were the fashion of his time, striking out for a different modernist style. Serious art makes substantial demands on its creators; slackness and laziness are constant temptations when one has thrown over the old rules and old canons of style. Arthur Ford has stated that Creeley often quoted Pollock's proclamation: "When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I am doing." As Ford also explains, "The form that a poem takes never precedes the poem itself but rather comes from the demands of the poem as it is in the process of being uttered." Given this aesthetic, what are the formal demands of "Fading Light," and how does Creeley meet them?
In striving for an alternative way of making poems, Creeley was influenced by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, but most especially by Charles Olson. Olson devised a theory of "projective verse" in which the determining factor of line length is the poet's breath. Creeley was influenced by the way that Williams would sprinkle words vertically down the page in very short lines. He instinctively believed that the poet should pause momentarily at the end of each line, emphasizing and highlighting it. Ironically, in hearing recordings of Williams, Creeley was struck by the way the older poet did not read his work that way. Nevertheless, Creeley had picked up an important formal technique by his creative misreading. He always pauses a bit at the end of each line. As he said in an interview with Charles Bernstein, "I read the breaks. To me, like percussive or contrapuntal agencies, they give me a chance to get a syncopation into the classic emptiness…." By "contra puntal," he refers to the technique in music of having two independent but harmonically related melodies playing together. He further says, "I mean, it gives me, not drumming precisely, but it's a rhythm of that character." It is the counterpoint of end-stopped lines played off against the syntactic enjambment of the meaning that provides the most important structure of this challenging poem.
All the lines end without completing a thought; a reader cannot pause and make sense. The meaning of the lines compels the reader to keep on going until there is a comprehensible place to pause. Creeley makes the task more difficult by refusing to provide any punctuation except for a period at the very end, as though this poem were one coherent sentence. The pauses make the poem sound strange. Nobody talks that way; language is not being used for its accustomed purposes; what readers encounter is a poem with everyday words arranged in a puzzling rhythm and expressing thoughts that do not make immediate sense. Thom Gunn, the critic and poet, assures readers that Creeley always reads the line breaks as little silences. Creeley knows full well that he emphasizes words such as "it" and "as" and "on" and "for." None of these words allow the reader to pause, but since readers are expected to pause, readers experience the rhythm of voice and silence in counterpoint to the flow of phrases and images in the poem.
Besides setting up a contrapuntal struggle between sound and sense, Creeley's lines also echo and rhyme words in the lines. In the Bernstein interview, talking about poems from the same collection that includes "Fading Light," the poet says about his line breaks, "It's also an agency for a lot of half-rhyming or accidental echoing that I really enjoy. It's sort of like water sloshing into a pan … Lapping at the edges." As the poem concludes it accelerates almost like a sled reaching the bottom of a hill.
chute the sled plunges down ends
down the hill beyond sight down
into field's darkness as time for
supper here left years behind waits
patient in mind remembers the time.
The repetition of "down" within, at the beginning, and at the end of only two lines emphasizes the motion of the poem and sets up a melody of repeated sounds. Likewise, "time," "behind," "mind," and "time" set up a repeated rhyming structure in an otherwise unrhymed poem. If these are what Creeley calls "accidental echoing," they are certainly improvised melodies that he sets up in counterpoint to his strange and halting rhythm. Ford has said about Creeley's poems that
the poem must be free from a preconceived rhythmical structure, while at the same time adhering to certain rhythmical patterns within itself, which may involve in fact, similar and dissimilar sounds within and between lines, textures of words and sounds, indeed textures of ideas themselves.
While there is indeed a contrapuntal texture of rhyme and near rhyme in this poem, the most important structure is that provided by syntax. Due to the enjambed lines and the lack of punctuation, it is not immediately apparent where phrases and clauses begin and end, except that they evidently never end at the conclusion of a line. The reader has to determine where to pause within the lines to make the poem meaningful. If the poem were to prove meaningless after all the effort it demands, critical readers would react negatively. Fortunately, the poem can be read in ways in which there are meaningful images and ideas. The poem begins with a reference to a light that seems to shift as it fades. This image is followed by musing about the world, and an elliptical question, "is it as / ever …" Then halfway through the poem Creeley introduces imagery of sitting "patient" (not patiently) followed by the accelerating phrases and images of a sled plunging down "beyond sight." As Gunn remarks, "The result is a kind of eloquent stammering; there is a sense of small persistent difficulties all right, but of each being overcome in turn, while it occurs—the voice hesitates and then plunges forward." Far from being left beyond the poem's field of vision, however, readers are brought back to "supper here left years behind" and a repeated motif of "waits / patient in mind" and, in a parallel rhythmic vein, "remembers the time."
The key to the poem is its last word. Creeley has said about his work that, "Nothing is permitted to quite end, or stop, until the final word of the poem." The poem is a meditation on time, on time's passage, on the endurance of the world, and resolves with a memory of time gone by. In baroque contrapuntal music, the disparate yet harmonious melodies must resolve themselves in the concluding bars. In Creeley's poem, the syntactical problems and the eloquently stammering line breaks resolve themselves in the announcement of the poem's true theme: time. It is somewhat ironic that this poem should reflect a classical or baroque structure, given its deliberate understated diction and its refusal to fly away into theory or metaphor. The words are the most plainspoken imaginable, and the poet is one who early in his career turned away from verbal pyrotechnics, elevated diction, and erudite allusions. Indeed, as Tom Clark, writing in Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place, asserts "In the dialectical unfolding of literary history the moment of the common comes typically as an antidote to periods of over-refinement and baroque difficulty."
Creeley began his career writing poems that were significantly different from those of W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost, only to find himself, late in life, perhaps without thinking about it, incorporating formal techniques akin to musical composition. Perhaps this reversion to formalism is less surprising than it might first appear. Ford notes that Creeley is more of a formalist than most readers realize.
Creeley's poetry exhibits a much greater regularity and formalization than is usually assumed; and, what is even more significant, much of his poetry and prose, especially from the later years, can be understood best as products of the push toward form, of the classical need for preexistent form despite the modernist dismissal of it.
What Do I Read Next?
- Robert Creeley's book Just in Time (2001) consists of three shorter poetry collections written by Creeley between 1984 and 1994. It contains the poem "Fading Light," among others, as well as informative interviews with Charles Bernstein.
- Arthur Ford's Robert Creeley, though published in 1978 and therefore not including the poet's later work, is nevertheless a quite readable introduction to Creeley's life and the first half of his career.
- Robert Creeley's Life and Work (1987) contains a large number of short reviews and essays on Creeley's work. It also includes some of his early letters to other poets who were influential in his developing style.
- A. Poulin's Contemporary American Poetry (1980, 3d ed.) has a good selection of Creeley's poems along with many others by his contemporaries.
Ultimately there is something quite satisfying in finding form in a Creeley poem. A poet who wanted to make poetry new, a high modernist of the last half of the twentieth century, in his later years writes poetry that is formally challenging and complex. The true artist must constantly deal with the opposing demands of freedom and formalism, and Creeley has demonstrated that the creative response to sterile formulaic formalism lies, not in ecstatic verbal excess, but in the creation of disciplined, controlled, and innovative structures of form and meaning.
Source: Frank Pool, Critical Essay on "Fading Light," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay, Gunn explores the language of Creeley's poetry, including its movement, form, and tendency toward neutrality.
Popular though Robert Creeley's poetry has become in recent years, its language has never fitted in with the official current notions of the poetic. For example, the verbs do not work harder than, say, the adjectives; there is as little metaphor as in the most straightforward prose; and the diction throughout tends to be general, unsuited to the sensory effects we prize nowadays. So much for the orthodoxies of the twentieth century, Creeley might remark, but I am left trying to reconcile my conviction that poetry does work primarily through the vigour of its language with my experience that his poetry does speak to me, and to many others, in a way that is powerful and persuasive.
How does his language work, then? In commenting on the neutrality of Creeley's diction, one poet has evoked the name of Waller, and another has compared his pared-down antirhetorical flatness to the plain style of an early Elizabethan like Barnabe Googe. Nor do you have to go far to pick up Renaissance echoes: here is a poem from about 1960 called "For Friendship":
make a chain that holds,
to be bound to
others, two by two,
a walk, a garland,
handed by hands
that cannot move
unless they hold.
Neither Waller nor Googe are inappropriate names to connect with this sweet-natured and sweet-sounding generalization, in which the complete neutrality of language exposes a density of definition, and if the sheer melody of Waller is not achieved (or even aimed at), it is in a sense glanced at by the tetrameters, which Creeley both creates and at the same time carefully rejects in the lineation of the first stanza. The rejection of regularity, minute though it is here, already points to a great difference between Creeley's and any Renaissance practice. The poem reminisces about iambs but it has its own slightly shifted rhythm, which is sustained not by a tradition but by the varying pace of the singular voice.
If Creeley has come to dislike simile, finally, as "always a displacement of what is happening," he has come also to dislike all regularization, because it does something like the same thing. In a recent interview he said about Charles Tomlinson's use of the triadic line, which was invented late in life by William Carlos Williams, that Tomlinson was "missing where the initiating impulse is in Williams." It is all-important for him then to be true to what is happening, to stick to the initiating impulse, to keep from what he sees as the dead predictabilities of a systematized rhythm or language. Throughout his career I notice the recurring term stumbling for his poetic procedure, most recently in the "Prayer to Hermes" (from Later, not included in The Collected Poems), in which he addresses the god,
is your gift,
breath, my stumbling.
If one stumbles, led or pushed by impulse, one stumbles into the unforeseen, the accidental. Even so, the accidental may have its patterns. In a poem of more than twenty years ago, "For Love," he says:
Let me stumble into
not the confession but
the obsession I begin with
A confession may be for once only, but an obsession recurs. However, it recurs as something felt afresh and with its original force: to adopt Lawrentian terms, you might say that it rises up again as a renewal and not a repetition. The poetics of impulse and renewed accident is closer to Lawrence's "poetry of the present" ("flexible to every breath," said Lawrence) than to the sententiae, or perhaps cynical epigrams, of Googe's beautiful poem "Of Money."
It was Creeley who made the famous remark that form is never more than an extension of content, and in so far as the accidents of composition are embodied in the surviving poem, his remark is constantly illustrated, for he apparently does not tidy up the odd, the peculiar, or the awkward. His suggestive or at times puzzling strangeness is directly opposed to the calculations behind those kinds of rhetoric of which he has so much dread. There is for example the disconcerting language of the last lines of "The Whip": "for which act // I think to say this / wrongly," where because the reference of "this" is unclear and the locution "I think to" unusual, the whole poem is called in question: thus the characteristics of the style enter the content of the poem, as they always must.
Easy as Creeley's poetry looks at first glance, then, much of it is to be grasped only with the closest attention. The Collected Poems is a formidable volume to read straight through: even though it stops short at 1975, thus omitting two later books, it is 678 agreeably printed pages long. You are lucky in fact if you have had the opportunities to read most of the work as it came out in the original collections over the last thirty years.
But certain general impressions strike me at once about his career as a whole. The first is that the style goes through only quite minor changes from beginning to end. I find more of the wonderful comedy early on, and the most recent poetry of all (I am thinking of Later) has been hospitable to some dreadfully soft emotion about growing old, but essentially the poetry is still written with the same plain, terse language and the same sure command over the verse movement. The next general tendency is that there are changes in the organization of the poems volume by volume. The early poems are complete in themselves, independent of each other, however much they may share themes. In the collections of the 1970s, however—Pieces and In London, for example—poem leads into poem, group leads into group, and the book rather than the individual poem becomes the meaningful unit. There is also in these books far more fragmentary material included—what you might plausibly call notebook jottings, some of them interesting in connection with the rest of the work or with our thinking about Creeley, some of them less so. The poetics of accident may permit a stumble of this sort, entitled "Kid":
"What are you doing?"
Writing some stuff.
"You a poet?"
Now and then.
Form here is only too clearly an extension of content. I can afford to comment with a certain acerbity because my admiration is so great elsewhere: I want to warn the new reader who dips into the enormous book and pulls out this kind of thing before coming to the good writing. But it would be a mistake for any critic to train his big guns on such minimal poems; there are a large number of them, exercises, notations, experiments, jokes, but after all, there is a certain proportion of deadness present in the complete collected works of any poet.
In one sense, though, "Kid" is a characteristic poem, for its very modesty. It is an epigram, of sorts. Creeley is at once to be differentiated from his old associates Olson and Duncan by the kind of poem he wants to write. Where their ambitions were epic, expansive, inclusive, drawing upon whole libraries of external material, his were doggedly narrower, drawing almost entirely on the irregular pulse of the personal. This is not to say that he aims at the "lyric," even though he has entitled many a poem "Song," for with him it is the speaking voice that matters, not singing or lyring but stumbling, with all the appearance of improvisation, tentatively and unevenly moving forward, but with a singular gift of "melodious breath," a gift for the true-sounding measure that Williams himself once praised. (Before you accuse Creeley of speaking in cliché about his lines taking "the beat from the breath," you should remember that it was he and Olson who originated the phrase; it is not their fault that others stiffened it into platitude.) And his narrow subject matter, that field of energy through which he stumbles, is the intensely apprehended detail of the heterosexual private life.
The feeling in his best poetry is fresh and clean; as though it is discovering itself just as it gets written. Creeley takes nothing for granted, and if his doing so makes for the wonderful unexpected funniness of "I Know a Man," and for the hilarious lines in his serious troubadour poem "The Door," and for the frankness of "Something," the poem about the pee-shy lover, it is also responsible for a depressed awareness of vulnerability like that illustrated in the note about going through New York in a taxi where he records his "continual sense of small … persistent difficulties." The vulnerability exposed in Creeley's poetry is almost constant. But nobody has ever pretended that stumbling was a fluid motion; it is, precisely, an encountering of small persistent difficulties in moving ahead, and if the phrase about New York describes one of the main subjects of his poetry it of course can be taken to refer to the style as well. Finally you could say that his strength arises from his constant perception of weakness. If he is the most heterosexual of poets he is also the least macho.
One situation you can find again and again in Creeley is that of the speaker in bed, either alone or not, uneasily lapsing in and out of sleep, in and out of dream. It occurs for example in a well-known poem, "The World," which starts:
I wanted so ably
to reassure you, I wanted
the man you took to be me,
to comfort you, and got
up, and went to the window,
pushed back, as you asked me to,
the curtain, to see
the outline of the trees
in the night outside.
To hear a reading by Creeley at his best is to be aware of the importance he gives to line-endings. He makes a point of pausing on them always, whether there is punctuation or not; his free verse line is thus always preserved as an audibly identified unit. The result is a kind of eloquent stammering; there is a sense of small persistent difficulties all right, but of each being overcome in turn, while it occurs—the voice hesitates, and then plunges forward. You can see how such a reading suits the above lines, with what kind of obstinate holding-on it must stumble forward, even past the interruption, the almost pushed-in qualification of "as you asked me to," and finally getting there, to the end of the sentence, having thus felt its way through the poem's opening. The movement forward in these lines is certainly as much part of the meaning as the language itself, which as usual is plain in the extreme. Plain yet not always obvious: "ably" makes a point of much subtlety about the kind of firm flexibility he would have if he were the man she took him to be. And that third line, a breath-unit in itself, implies a large and complicated statement about assumptions and appearances. I want to go on to quote the rest of the poem, taking it in two more parts, not only because it is one of Creeley's best but because once you have come to terms with it you have made an entry into all of his work by discovering the comprehensiveness of packed life beneath the apparently simple and prosaic surface. It is a bare scene indeed: nothing much, nothing physical anyway, has been seen with clarity, nothing much has been done. An outline of trees is visible, that is all, because a curtain has been pushed back. But an outline of certain feelings has also been suggested, and that gives us something to go on when we embark on the long second sentence:
The light, love,
the light we felt then,
greyly, was it, that
came in, on us, not
merely my hands or yours,
or a wetness so comfortable,
but in the dark then
as you slept, the grey
figure came so close
and leaned over,
between us, as you
slept, restless, and
my own face had to
see it, and be seen by it,
the man it was, your
grey lost tired bewildered
brother, unused, untaken—
hated by love, and dead,
but not dead, for an
instant, saw me, myself
the intruder, as he was not.
It is a sentence so thick with comma-enclosed qualifications, because so much is happening simultaneously, that you can easily lose yourself in it. But the remedy is in the voice: it is even truer of Creeley than of most poets that the way to understand him is to learn how to read him aloud. From testing one reading against another you can "feel out" what it is "we felt" that ties the first part of the sentence together. We felt not merely each other's hands, not merely the wetness (of orgasm, it must be), but the grey light which in dream vision congeals to the ghost of the dead brother. Such exploration of the voice shows the density of the sentence to be wonderfully justified: it is not sensory writing in the usual way, not like Tennyson or Hart Crane, but it is as if, rather, Creeley goes directly to the organs that do the sensing. Synaesthesia occurs casually and as a matter of course. And the greyness when it comes the third time has become a quality of being—for the grey brother who lived in some limbo, where he still momentarily persists, was "unused, untaken": his greyness, his indefiniteness was such that "the world" had no use for him at all, it did not even exploit him. The reading voice (mine, yours, not necessarily Creeley's) continues, interrupting itself, but resuming, into a further change. The ghost intruder for an instant looks on me, the speaker, as the intruder in the bed. That is the man he takes me to be. By comparison with him even I seem "able"—competent, fluent, potent—belonging as I do to the world of the living. The pathos is far-reaching.
I tried to say, it is
all right, she is
happy, you are no longer
needed. I said,
he is dead, and he
went as you shifted
and woke, at first afraid,
then knew by my own knowing
what had happened—
and the light then
of the sun coming
for another morning
in the world.
The last line would perhaps be weak if "the world," though not referred to as such before this, had not picked up so much weight of meaning during the poem as a whole. The world here is the real world with its common-sense light contrasting to the grey light of the love-making and the ghost: but wasn't it also the place that produced the brother, that rejected him so thoroughly before his death? The reassurance of the new day is tempered by the implication that we are creating our own ghosts of deprivation and despair as we go about our lives.
The poem is characteristic of Creeley at his best. He has gone beyond, or behind, the classic twentieth-century split between image and discourse: he does not attempt sharpness of physical image, and the discursive part of the poetry is more aptly termed "assertion" (the word used of it by Robert Pinsky, the poet who compared him to Googe). Though "The World" takes a narrative form it is like many of Creeley's nonnarrative poems, in that the real course it follows is that of the mind, wandering, but at the same time trying to focus in on its own wandering and to map a small part of its course accurately and honestly, however idiosyncratic that course may seem to be—idiosyncratic in its pace, in its syntax, even in its subject matter. In attuning our voices to that mind, in paying our full attention to the way it moves and shifts, we become part of its own attentiveness and can share in "the exactitude of his emotion."
It is by that sharing that the apparent idiosyncrasy ceases to be such, that is ceases to be special or unique. Creeley himself has the best comment here, on the opening page of the introduction to his Penguin selection from Whitman: "It is, paradoxically, the personal which makes the common in so far as it recognizes the existence of the many in the one. In my own joy or despair, I am brought to that which others have also experienced."
Arthur L. Ford
In the following essay, Ford discusses form in Creeley's poetry, arguing that Creeley is a classicist who has struggled, often successfully, with the projectivist inclination to disregard a priori form.
The tradition within which Creeley writes—the Williams, Olson, Projectivist tradition—insists that the poet be free to choose the form most suitable to the point being made; indeed, as seen in Chapter 2, Creeley maintains that the poem itself must be free to receive the form resulting from its own insistence. Since each utterance is unique, the syllables and lines must arrange themselves into a unique configuration. One observer of Creeley's poems, Robert F. Kaufman, has said flatly: "In fact, the whole idea of formal organization and measure is repugnant to him…" On the other hand, an equally perceptive observer, Carl Harrison-Ford, introduced Creeley to Australian readers by saying that Creeley is "a man who sees recurring patterns…" Both quotations are taken out of context, of course, but they do illustrate the nature of the debate—and for many the confusion—over the shape of Creeley's poetry and fiction. Is it possible to have in poetry both form and flux? Can one man see recurring patterns and yet reject the whole idea of formal organization? Williams is a poet closely associated in the mind of the reading public with "free verse," and yet he came near the end of his career to the "triadic line," a versatile variation of the terza rima, although still a formal construct; and Creeley is a poet whose best known statement may well be, "Form is never more than an extension of content," and yet his poems consistently arrange themselves in two, three, or four line stanzas, and his fiction, as seen in Chapter 5, exhibits a concern for form and recurring pattern. Any commentator on Creeley's work must decide for himself to what degree Creeley inclines to the formal, to the recurring and stable shape behind a poem or piece of fiction. Is Creeley repelled by formal organization, and if so, how to account for his quatrains? Does he see recurring patterns, and if so, how to account for the bits and fragments particularly of his later poems and for the difficulty of knowing how to read A Day Book and Presences? Or perhaps form is used by Creeley in the way he saw Whitman's form, while sitting beside the ocean in California: "The constantly recurring structures in Whitman's writing, the insistently parallel sound and rhythms, recall the patterns of waves as I now see them daily." The shape of the wave is always the same, but each wave is unique in its own composition.
I Creeley as Classicist
Again to begin simply: Creeley must be seen as a classicist who needs and in fact uses standard, a priori poetic forms and who more recently has been searching for usable external forms for his poetry, and yet who because of his time, his associations, and his own statements is best known among his contemporaries as a Projectivist poet. The irony upon which he relies so heavily in his poetry and fiction has its parallel here. Perhaps the tentative, probing, hovering rapier technique and the thematic concern with the search for but never attainment of form and self demand a substantial, external form. Whatever the cause, Creeley's poetry exhibits a much greater regularity and formalization than is usually assumed; and, what is even more significant, much of his poetry and prose, especially from the later years, can be understood best as products of the push toward form, of the classical need for preexistent form despite the modernist dismissal of it.
Creeley speaks often of the poem shaping itself while it is being formulated, of the poem assuming its own unique presence resulting from the pressure of the creative circumstance. In this sense, the poet cannot be consciously aware of the form of the poem until the words begin to appear, and for Creeley this apparently means before they begin to appear on the page. In a lecture delivered at the Literarisches Colloquium, Berlin, in 1967, he said. "What I have written I knew little of until I had written it," echoing a statement made three years earlier, "I have never explicitly known—before writing—what it was that I would say." But—and here is the crucial point—a poem created without conscious preplanning need not be formless. Another New Englander, Robert Frost, user of the stanza and the iamb, claimed for the poem: "It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader."
Creeley too recognizes that a mind can—and must—intuitively shape the poem that is being uttered, and can—and with Creeley almost always does—fall back upon certain recurrent forms for the outline or at least the skeleton of that shape. In an interview for the Times Literary Supplement in 1964, Creeley quoted E. R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational: "Automatic or inspirational speech tends everywhere to fall into metrical patterns" and then, two years later, he stated more explicitly what these patterns tend to be for him: "Because I am the man I am, and think in the patterns I do, I tend to posit intuitively a balance of four, a foursquare circumstance, be it walls of a room or legs of a table, that reassures me in the movement otherwise to be dealt with." More recently, looking back on nearly three decades of productivity, Creeley acknowledged his predisposition toward patterns. "My tidinesses," he said, "are insistent. Thus the forms of things said moved through accumulated habits of order…" While asserting then, as seen in Chapter 2, that each poem must be true to its own insistence, Creeley quite clearly recognized at least by the midsixties that his poems tend to arrange themselves in certain recurrent patterns, reflecting order, balance, and symmetry. Furthermore, it is possible to follow the interplay between the projective line and rhythm (breath and syllable) and the persistence of pattern throughout the development of Creeley's poetry. Creeley's best poetry, then, does not so much reflect a conflict between Projective Verse and standard forms as a successful fusion of the two.
II The Earlier Poetry
In For Love, Creeley's first substantial volume, which covers the formative decade of the 1950s, we can see the poet working out an accommodation between the freedom resulting from his reaction against the fixed metrics of the 1940s and his own predisposition toward pattern. In the early poems such as "Hart Crane," "The Song," "The Crisis," and "Le Fou," Creeley spreads his lines across the page, arranging them in projectivist units. But even here, the pattern hovers in the background, as in "Le Fou." The "organic" quality of this poem has been discussed earlier; it is sufficient here to point out that the poem is based on a 4-2-4 line stanza arrangement once the lines set off from the lefthand margin are either raised to complete the preceding line or are brought back to the left-hand margin. The only exception is the final "goodbye," appropriately so. Such a rearrangement of the line, of course, destroys the poem—image, rhythm, and line are no longer working together—but it does reveal a more traditional pattern behind what appears to be projectivist lining.
Very early, however, Creeley shifted to more overt traditional stanza forms, usually composed of two or three units with an occasional four line unit and with frequent combinations. "The Rhyme" will serve as illustration.
There is the sign of
to borrow the theme.
But what or where to recover
what is not love
I saw her
and behind her there were
flowers, and behind them
nothing. (For Love)
Here the stanza is more than regular; each is grammatically complete in itself, a feature found frequently in Creeley's poems of the early fifties when the stanzas tend to fix themselves on the page with individual insistence.
In Section Two of For Love, the poems of 1956 to 1958, the quatrain becomes the predominant form, with most stanzas ending with periods, thus emphasizing again the auditory as well as visible presence of the stanza unit. Even a poem such as "The Invoice," which uses an unusually colloquial diction and syntax, is arranged in three logical and grammatical units.
I once wrote a letter as follows:
dear Jim, I would like to borrow
200 dollars from you
to see me through.
I also wrote another: dearest M /
There is no one
here at all.
I got word today,
sport, how are you making it?
And, why don't you get with it. (For Love)
As discussed in Chapter 5, Creeley was going through an important period in his life while writing the poems roughly contained in the second half of For Love. His first marriage had ended in 1955; and early in 1957, he married his second wife, Bobbie. Again as discussed in Chapter 5, Creeley's poetry reflected this change as it moved through a bitter skepticism of marriage to a treatment of woman as mythic muse and, finally, to an acceptance of woman and the reconciliation of human relationships with poetic production represented in Bobbie. In a portion of an interview quoted in Chapter 5, Creeley observed that as he personally became more relaxed his lines became more lyrical; and part of the movement toward a more lyrical line involved an easing but not an elimination of the four line stanza. Now the lines lengthened and the syntax tended to run on from stanza to stanza, resulting in a greater flexibility and fluidity of line. The effect is not to eliminate the stanza as the controlling presence but rather to place it in the background, thereby allowing it to give shape to the poem without obtruding into it. As Creeley's attitude toward love relaxed, as his lines relaxed, so did his stanzas. Exceptions remain, of course, but now the stanza patterns tended to serve not as external skeletons but as internal skeletons, giving physical shape to the poems without making the reader so blatantly aware of the form.
The success of this more relaxed pattern can be seen in the poems, "The Rose" and, particularly, "For Love," discussed in the conclusion to Chapter 4, but it can be seen in other poems from this section as well, including "The Name," Creeley's poem to his daughter by his first marriage.
as you can be,
let my name
be in you flesh
I gave you
in the act of
loving your mother,
all your days
the woman in you
there was no thought
of it but such
pleasure all women
must be in her,
as you. But not wiser,
not more of nature
than her hair,
she gives you.
There will not be another
woman such as you
the way you came,
the days of waiting.
as you can be,
all my daughters,
when that time comes,
Let the rhetoric
stay with me
your father. Let
me talk about it,
saving you such
exposure, let you
pass it on
in you. I cannot
be more than the man
who watches. (For Love)
Here as in most of Creeley's poetry the insistence is on physical reality—the name, the act of conception, the child—played off against the father's rhetoric, ironically, of course, the poem itself. He is asking that his daughter, "all my daughters," be natural, that is, complete the forms they are growing toward (as a poem grows toward its completedness and finally occupies its form), while he, the father, talks about it and watches. The irony of the poem results from the child's naturalness opposing the father's rhetoric; however, through this "rhetoric" the child receives her greatest gift, the father's love. Although lines are short, the first sentence stretches out over five quatrains, fifty-eight words followed by the three word switch, "But not wiser," at the end of stanza five.
As discussed in Chapter 4, Creeley achieved a level of personal ease during the composition of these late poems in For Love with his marriage to Bobbie, an ease reflected in the integration of myth and Creeley's own reaction to woman. To this integration must be added the successful combination of syllable and line on the one hand and a need for external form on the other. Perhaps this is why many readers find the poems in the last third of For Love among Creeley's most satisfying.
III The Later Poetry
Creeley's poetry changed during the sixties, of course, and an important aspect of this change can be seen graphically in a discussion between Creeley and Allan Ginsberg at the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963 and in an epilogue to the published transcript of that discussion in 1968. In a major section of that transcript Creeley discussed the literal physical requirement conducive to his act of composition, insisting that ideally he should have a typewriter (as opposed to pen or pencil), strong rhythmic music, and paper, usually an 8? 11 sheet.
I best like, most like, the yellow copy paper that's not spongy, but has a softness to it, so that when you type, the letter goes in, embeds a little. I hate a hard paper. When you erase this paper you take a layer off…. So I got a legal size sheet. And it was sud denly a terror, because I would finish what was normally my habit of dealing with the paper and realize that I had about six inches left at the bottom that was blank. This set up a whole different feeling.
Creeley did not simply drop a casual remark in the midst of other ideas; this was the point he was making. He was and is acutely aware of the physical context of his own body, and it is not stretching the point to suggest that the same temperament that needs a prescribed physical surrounding for composition also composes poetry and fiction that need external forms.
At the time of this dialogue, however, Creeley's poetry—the poetry of the last part of Words and most of Pieces—was becoming more and more jagged and elliptical as he attempted to freeze a moment in the fixed frame of the poem. As discussed earlier, particularly in Chapter 2, such an attempt must fail, but the effort as a whole need not fail since each poem contributes to the perception of what is being attempted. In his epilogue to the discussion with Ginsberg, written in 1968, Creeley described how he consciously attempted to move away from those physical conditions described in the dialogue by writing in notebooks. He hoped to achieve a greater immediacy by having the poem come where and when it will. Ironically, perhaps this freedom from physical contexts that Creeley sought resulted in one more context that he found useful: the notebook or journal. Particularly in Pieces, and most obviously in two recent prose works, A Day Book and Presences, Creeley uses the form of the journal to give shape to his statements; and because the form is there, his statements are allowed to take on an even greater sense of formless immediacy. In the poems the two, three, or four line stanzas often remain, but now the moment is caught in the act of spontaneous notebook jotting.
The poems of Words and Pieces have been discussed in earlier chapters; perhaps it is best here to say simply that the journal entry provided an opening up of Creeley's poetry and a relaxation of the impression, if not always the line. Some poems are presented as off-hand remarks (again the fragment): "So tired / it falls / apart" (Pieces). Other lines suggest casual rumination as the mind wanders over interesting paradoxes:
one was. (Pieces)
Even longer, complete poems, however, often use the journal appearance to provide the form for a series of itemlike stanzas.
Kids walking beach,
who knows which.
The scale is neither
big nor small.
Want to get the sense of "I" into Zukofsky's
locus of experience, not a presumption of expected
The movement is simple: from observation of an event in stanza one to an abstraction based on that event in stanza two to a relevant reference to an external source in stanza three and then to action resulting from the previous sequence in stanza four. Each item is placed carefully in its appropriate form: Stanzas one and two of equal bulk and shape, stanza three relaxing into longer lines, and stanza four blurting out its three words.
Pieces then is, as Denise Levertov suggested, best read as a journal. Although many of the poems were apparently written literally as journal entries, within the context of the present discussion it is the device of the journal that is important because it gave to many of the poems in this volume and, significantly, to the volume itself both the excitement and convincingness of immediate utterance and the fact of preexistent form. In other words, the sense of a physical journal and the literal act of writing in that journal gave to Creeley enough framework so that he could include anything in the volume—even items that appear formless. It is a mistake, therefore, to see Creeley's poetry moving from order to disorder; rather, it must be seen simply as moving to another kind of order.
IV Presences as Form
From early in his career Creeley published his poetry together with paintings or graphics; however, it must be said that the combination of graphic and poetry was more often sympathetic than illustrative; that is, his poems did not comment on or illustrate the paintings (as did Williams' Pictures from Brueghel, for instance) but rather paralleled, in tone perhaps, the paintings or graphics used. An early example is The Immoral Proposition, published in 1953 with seven drawings by his friend, René Laubrès; and more recent examples are St. Martin's (1971) and Away (1976), each with a series of monoprints by his wife Bobbie, and the poem "People," published in a separate volume in 1971 with a series of sketches by Arthur Okamura. In this volume, Okamura's sketches depict tiny human figures arranged together into various geometric shapes and patterns or into stylized shapes such as flowers, while the accompanying poem, in short three line stanzas, makes direct and indirect references to them.
In the examples cited, Creeley appears to be using the illustrative matter as a stabilizing element for his poetry, much as he might use a quatrain or any other external form within which and against which his lines work. More recently, however, Creeley has produced a curious piece of prose that mystified a number of people, but that can be understood to some extent at least within the context of this discussion of form. Presences was originally written as an accompanying text to a collection of paintings by Marisol, but the text apparently had so little to do with the paintings that the publisher at first refused to use it. In one sense the publisher was correct—the work is not a text for the paintings; in another and more important sense, however, the publisher was wrong, because Creeley is attempting in this prose work what he sees Marisol doing in her paintings—that is, to lock dreamlike experiences on the canvas through crystallized surreal devices. The fact that his images do not correspond to hers and, further, that his words to not gloss her paintings apparently caused confusion in the minds of some readers, but the work becomes accessible if seen from another angle—or perhaps more accurately from two other angles.
First, in regard to Creeley's need for a priori form. The work itself is divided into five sections with each section subsequently divided into three parts of approximately 500, 1000, and 1500 words each. Creeley was interested in a manuscript of approximately 15,000 words and normally thinks in terms of 500 words to the page; therefore, he needed thirty pages of material. Furthermore, he was intrigued with the mathematical symmetry of combining these into groups of a single page, a double page, and a triple page and then shifting them according to a simple formula as represented on his title page:
1. 2. 3.
2. 3. 1.
3. 1. 2.
1. 2. 3.
2. 3. 1.
Creeley was interested in the fact that a diagonal line could be drawn from right to left through the numbers. This therefore became the principle upon which Presences is organized. The form is blatantly exterior, even formularized; however, the effect is to free Creeley from form rather than to trap him in it because now that this need is fulfilled, he can roam where he will, where his mind and feelings take him.
And this brings us to the second necessary approach to Presences. Creeley's mind and feelings took him in this work back to a persistent preoccupation over the past twenty-five years—a preoccupation that he saw also in Marisol's paintings. Perhaps even more than before, the insistence in this work is, as he says here, "When I show myself as I am, I am, I return to reality." Even while moving through memories of his own past, through personal feelings, through reactions to ideas, none of which appear to follow a linear development, all of which appear as almost journallike entries (the dates of composition are included following various "entries" and again one is reminded of the journal aspects of Pieces and A Day Book), Creeley's thrust is toward the actuality on the page. He insists throughout on the fact, from the title Presences through a discussion in the work itself: "Human life he had begun to recognize as an accumulation of persistent, small gestures and acts, intensively recurrent in their need if not, finally, very much more than that. The ideas they delighted in, or suffered, however much they did affect the actuality of all, were nonetheless of a very small measure of possibility." He even attempts using words almost abstractly to suggest, but more than that, to make real a "presence": "The clock, on the wall, walks to the door. The door, in the wall, walks to the stair. The stair, up the wall, walks to the window, both ways." Creeley here and elsewhere in Presences uses the surreal technique of objects melting into other objects (like Dali's clocks) and the cubist device of seeing various planes of an object simultaneously ("both ways"); however—and this is a crucial qualification—Creeley can do this only because he has already established the form. Because the hole is clearly there to be filled and because it is filled with hard facts, "presences," Creeley is in his own mind free to move nonlinearly across the work. Ironically, the very arbitrariness of the form—geometrically arranged units of five hundred words each—releases Creeley to a freedom of movement and development.
The thesis of this chapter—that Creeley is a classicist who has struggled, often successfully, with the projectivist inclination to disregard a priori form—is seen most clearly in the epigraph to Presences. Creeley quotes the contemporary painter, Donald Sutherland: "Classicism is based on presence. It does not consider that it has come or that it will go away; it merely proposes to be there where it is." The fact of form is inextricably bound up with other facts of the poem or piece of fiction. Just as the emotion, the object, and the word must be substantial and able to exist as realities on the page, so must the form, the configuration, the field, the grid. Classicism for Creeley, as for Sutherland, is the insistence on the hard presence, one of which is the shape of the work itself. Creeley needs these "presences," which can be, finally, either fact as form or form as fact.
Source: Arthur L. Ford, "Form as Fact," in Robert Creeley, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 116–27.
Loss Pequeño Glazier
In the following essay, Glazier discusses Creeley's talents as a writer, his connections to Black Mountain College, and his beliefs about the art of writing.
For the second half of this century, Robert Creeley's work as an innovative poet has occupied a singular place in postwar American letters. The contributions of Creeley, with Charles Olson, were instrumental, through Projective Verse, to the definition of emerging senses of poetic form in the 1950s. The Black Mountain Review (1954–1957), which Creeley edited, was a landmark literary journal of the period. Creeley's work, along with that of other poets connected with Black Mountain College, has also been a benchmark against which subsequent poetry has been measured. Perhaps most important, Creeley's career has placed him as immediately active in the record of the contemporary American "new poetries." Though known primarily as a poet, Creeley's poetry is intricately tied to other genres of writing, prose the most important among them. He has also made substantial contributions in essays, letters, editing, autobiography, collaborations with artists, the interview, and various forms of miscellaneous writing. The fact of literary engagement is crucial to Creeley's work; his sense of writing as a multifaceted engagement may well stand as a definition of the contemporary literary endeavor.
Known for the dictum, "form is never more than an extension of content," Creeley has largely been connected with Black Mountain College and with Projective Verse. The latter, developed primarily in the early 1950s, was not meant as a defining style for any poet but as a means of breaking from poets associated with the New Criticism and their insistence on form as extrinsic to the poem, dominant at the time. Creeley also had considerable interchange with other poetic alternatives, including the Beat poets. Further, he coedited the anthologies the New American Story (1965) and The New Writing in the U.S.A. (1967), which presented the work of divergent groups of writers. To date, Creeley has been mentor to or advocate of many American poetry movements including the Beats, Objectivists (retrospectively), the San Francisco Renaissance, poets of the New College of California and the Naropa Institute, writers associated with a multitude of small presses, and most recently, Language poets. Creeley's involvement with this last school includes his inclusion in This 1 (1971), credited by Ron Silliman as being a harbinger of language-oriented poetry. In addition, two of Robert Grenier's five critical texts in the issue were about Creeley; one of these included the assertion, as related by Silliman in his introduction to In the American Tree (1986), that "Projective Verse is Pieces On," an acknowledgment of the importance of Projective Verse and Creeley's collection of poems Pieces (1968) to emerging poetries. Creeley's literary involvement and lasting contribution, more than with any single poetic idiom however, has been with the possibilities of new writing—and he has been a tireless campaigner for efforts exploring these engagements.
Though popularly considered a love poet, Creeley's poems are given to explore the incongruities of such relations, rather than allowing for their easy statement. Creeley has, especially in his early work, presented the persona of an "unsure egoist"; many of these poems carry a veneer of accessibility yet often befuddle the reader with senses of conflicting identity, shortfalls in the possibilities of interpersonal communication, and a persistent characterization of the self as isolated. He is also known for his formal investigations in the late 1960s; here his texts are multiform, stanzaic verse giving way to brief epiphanies, observations, sketches, prose interruptions in the form of journal entries, personal reflections, and rhythmic notation reminiscent of the improvised jazz that was formative to his early creative development. This period was to prove the most rankling to literary critics representing conservative American poetic ideologies. Though the poetics of his recent work take a turn as yet unexplored to any depth by contemporary critics, Creeley's entire oeuvre stands as a monumental contribution to the realignment of poetic form in the second half of the twentieth century, and his poetic achievement renders, as Robert Hass suggests in Twentieth-Century Pleasures (1984), "what the mind must, slowly, in love and fear, perform to locate itself against, previous to any discourse."
Robert White Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on 21 May 1926. His parents, Oscar Slate and Genevieve Jules Creeley, soon moved the household—Robert, his older sister, Helen, and Teresa Turner, the family housekeeper—to a farm in West Acton. In 1928 Robert Creeley suffered an injury that resulted in the loss of his left eye three years later. Oscar Creeley, a successful physician, died in 1930, and Robert Creeley found himself growing up in a household of women. He enjoyed a closeness to nature and in later years reflected on his youth in West Acton as essentially a small-town experience despite their geographic closeness to Boston. He considers himself to have been raised in "the New England manner, compact of puritanically deprived senses of speech and sensuality," an environment in which one did not feel encouraged to linger over words and in which the sentiment was that "life was real and life was earnest, and one had best get on with it."
At age fourteen he entered Holderness School, a boarding school for boys in Plymouth, New Hampshire. His early interest in writing was evidenced by the articles and stories he published in the Holderness School literary magazine, the Dial. In 1943 Creeley entered Harvard University, but his attendance was interrupted by service as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in the India-Burma theater during World War II. In winter 1945 Creeley returned to Harvard and married Ann McKinnon the following spring. With Ann he would have three children, David, Thomas, and Charlotte, born in 1948, 1950, and 1952, respectively. He assisted in editing the special E. E. Cummings issue of the Harvard Wake, which included contributors such as William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Allen Tate, Karl Shapiro, Wallace Stevens, and Mark Van Doren. The Wake also included Creeley's first published poem, "Return."
With its street ending in "darkened doors" (a "darkness" that recurs in subsequent work) and the disaffiliated sense of home evoked in the closing lines—"enough for now to be here, and / to know my door is one of these"—"Return" makes clear that Creeley's homecoming from war, as for many, was less than satisfying. As Creeley has noted, a new social perspective had to be found: "The value of one's life as a progression toward some attention was gone because the war demonstrated that no matter how much you tried, as Morganthau said: facts have their own dynamic."
The Creeleys lived in Truro, Massachusetts, with Robert Creeley commuting to Harvard until the summer of 1947, when in his last semester he withdrew from the university. The Creeleys then moved to Rock Pool Farm near Littleton, New Hampshire, and practiced subsistence farming while living on Ann Creeley's income from a trust fund. At Rock Pool Farm Creeley also bred pigeons and chickens, which he showed in Boston. During these years Creeley began to listen to jazz, especially Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Jacky Byard, and Dick Twardzik. He was "fascinated with what these people did with time. Not to impose this kind of intellectual term upon it … this was where I was hearing 'things said' in terms of rhythmic and sound possibilities." Creeley credits Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, D. H. Lawrence, and Hart Crane with making clear to him the possibility that a writer has "access to your feelings and can really use them as a demonstration of your own reality." However, jazz took him further: besides the acoustic and improvisatory elements these musicians employed, Creeley credits them with extending the possibilities of his writing by making clear "how subtle and how sophisticated … how refined that expression might be."
In December 1949 Creeley heard Cid Corman's Boston radio program This Is Poetry and began a correspondence with Corman, which lasted for six years. In 1950 Creeley gave his first public poetry reading on Corman's program and became American editor for Rainer Gerhardt's German magazine Fragmente. During this period Creeley and Jacob Leed collected manuscripts for a proposed (but never published) experimental magazine, the "Lititz Review."
Meanwhile a friend had sent to Creeley two of Charles Olson's poems for the magazine. Creeley responded to Olson with some criticism, thus beginning an extraordinary correspondence that lasted until Olson's death in 1970. These literary exchanges produced more than a thousand pieces of correspondence; the "range and articulation" of the letters, Creeley has written, "took me into terms of writing and many other areas indeed which I otherwise might never have entered." The correspondence was vital to the developing interests of both writers and formed, as George F. Butterick noted, "a critical document for understanding the emerging poetics of a generation, as well, perhaps, of the poetries yet to come." One of the principles of these "emerging poetics" is Projective Verse, usually circumscribed by Creeley's declaration that "form is never more than an extension of content" and Olson's instruction in his essay "Projective Verse" (1950) that poems proceed from "the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE" and from "the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE." One of the motivations behind Projective Verse was to provide a means of breaking from poets associated with the New Criticism. As Creeley has subsequently explained, "The forties were a hostile time…. The colleges and universities were dominant in their insistence upon an idea of form extrinsic to the given instance." What was objectionable was the "assumption of a mold, of a means that could be gained beyond the literal fact of the writing here and now, that had authority." Projectivism was not meant as a defining style for any single poet but recognized "that writing could be an intensely specific revelation of one's own content, and of the world the fact of any life must engage." Creeley later reflected on Olson's "Projective Verse" essay and its subsequent "curiously mystic effect upon people." According to Creeley: "I took it to be a series of observations akin to Pound's rules of thumb, 'a few don'ts' for example, and used it in that sense. [Olson] showed me how the line might be organized in terms of the breath involved in it. [This approach] is a fairly practical application of emotion in terms of a given series of beats and is not at all a mystique."
In 1951, with children to support, the Creeleys moved to France, hoping to survive more economically on Ann Creeley's income. Much of the material gathered for the "Lititz Review" went into Corman's Origin I (1951), the Olson issue, in which Creeley's poem Hart Crane appeared. Origin II (1951) featured a special section of Creeley's work. Because of the inflation in France the Creeley family moved to Majorca, Spain. Creeley was briefly editor at Martin Seymour-Smith's Roebuck Press at Majorca, an experience that—along with the increasingly bitter tensions in his marriage—played a key role in his novel The Island (1963). In 1952 Le Fou, his first book of poems, was published by Golden Goose Press. On Majorca Creeley and his wife started the Divers Press, an independent press that focused on publishing experimental writers and was founded to create "a place defined by our own activity and accomplished altogether by ourselves—a place wherein we might make evident what we, as writers … hoped our writing might enter." The press published Corman's Origin VIII (1953) as well as books by Olson, Paul Blackburn, Irving Layton, Douglas Woolf, Larry Eigner, Robert Duncan, and Katue Kitasono. Divers Press also published Creeley's second book of poems, The Kind of Act Of (1953), and a collection of Creeley's stories, The Gold Diggers (1954).
Through Ezra Pound, Creeley had met René Laubiès. Illustrations by Laubiès, with their simple yet bold brush strokes and emphasis on materiality, were published on the covers of Creeley's The Kind of Act Of, The Gold Diggers, and his later book The Whip (1957). The Immoral Proposition (1953), published by Jonathan Williams as Jargon 8 and printed on long, folded pages loosely bound by string, comprises poems by Creeley, each accompanied by a drawing by Laubiès.
As a poet Creeley was intensely conscious of "elders" such as Pound, Williams, and Louis Zukofsky. Nevertheless he commented that "initially I had thought that my work as a writer would be primarily in prose." This is evidenced by his manifesto in Origin II, which discussed Projectivism and a possible new approach to prose. Any consideration of Creeley's poetry must include a reading of his prose. Visual art also opened up new avenues for Creeley. In 1953 at a gallery in Paris he was struck for the first time by Jackson Pollock's work, discovering in Abstract Expressionism specific approaches to writing.
A decisive opportunity arose when Olson proposed that Creeley edit the Black Mountain Review. Intended as a promotional vehicle for the college, the Black Mountain magazine had under Creeley's editorship some affinities to Origin. Creeley hoped to extend these interests and to explore "the ground that an active, ranging critical section might effect" by including "critical writing that would break down habits of 'subject' and gain a new experience of context generally," a vision that has stayed with Creeley to this day. In March 1954 the first issue of the Black Mountain Review came out just before Creeley left Majorca to teach at Black Mountain College, meeting Olson for the first time. At Black Mountain he was introduced to artists and writers with whom he would maintain lifelong contact and began his first, somewhat awkward, teaching experience. Black Mountain was an artistic community that included visual artists, musicians, and dancers as well as writers; it offered students a chance to develop their own approaches to creative work. Because of the journal the label "Black Mountain School" soon came into use to describe contemporary poets such as Olson, Duncan, Denise Levertov, Edward Dorn, and Blackburn—writers that, though sharing specific interests, vary in their writing styles.
In July Creeley returned to Majorca and unsuccessfully tried to repair his troubled marriage. He continued to edit the Black Mountain Review, publishing issues in the summer, fall, and winter of 1954. (Only three more issues of the magazine appeared, in 1955, 1956, and 1957—each with cover art by Laubiès.) Creeley's last Divers Press book was an anonymous pamphlet, A Snarling Garland of Xmas Verses (1954), "a wallet pocket-book" of five poems fashioned from one folded pullout strip of long paper. Distraught about the breakup of his marriage, he returned to Black Mountain College and resumed teaching.
At Black Mountain there was a great deal of interaction with painters known as Abstract Expressionists. Creeley formed close relationships with Pollock, Philip Guston, Jack Tworkov, Willem de Kooning, Esteban Vicente, John Chamberlain, Dan Rice, and John Altoon. Later, at the Cedar Bar in New York, Creeley came to know Franz Kline. With Guston and another painter, Ashley Bryant, Creeley "gradually … began to come into the relationship to painters that does become decisive." (Bryant had contributed the frontispiece drawing to Le Fou.) Creeley considers Altoon extremely important because "the things he drew, made manifest in his work, were images in my own reality." Most important was the Abstract Expressionists' approach to art: "Their ways of experiencing activity, energy—that whole process, like Pollock's 'when I am in my painting'—that the whole condition of their way of moving and acting and being in this activity was so manifestly the thing we were trying to get with Olson's 'Projective Verse,' the open field." Painting, in the mid 1950s, Creeley felt, "was far more fresh as imagination of possibility than what was the case in writing, where everything was still argued with traditional or inherited attitudes and forms." The affinities between Projectionism and Abstract Expressionism are evident in Tworkov's statement in 1957: "My hope is to confront the picture without a ready technique or a prepared attitude, a condition which is nevertheless never completely attainable; to have no program and, necessarily then, no preconceived style." Creeley's All That Is Lovely in Men (1955), published by Jonathan Williams, includes drawings by Rice. These illustrations had "disposition toward, for, and of, SPACE," which Creeley liked tremendously. He insisted that "there is no matter more urgent, now, than how we occupy our space."
In 1956 Creeley resigned from Black Mountain College and headed for San Francisco "to see the Pacific Ocean, if nothing else." Creeley spent a remarkable three months in San Francisco, where he met Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and other writers. San Francisco at the time, writes Creeley, was "an intensive meeting ground" full of "blasts of sound, and talk of Pollock, energy" and "packed with things happening." Creeley published poems by some of these writers in the seventh and final issue of Black Mountain Review. Through vital participants in the new poetries of the West Coast, Creeley also made lasting friendships.
The next few years would see several important events in Creeley's life. He received a B.A. from Black Mountain College in 1955 and married Bobbie Louise Hoeck two years later. Children in the Creeley household at the time included Kristen (stepdaughter), Leslie (stepdaughter), Sarah (born 1957), and Katherine (born 1959). In 1960 he completed an M.A. from the University of New Mexico; he lectured there periodically until 1966. His publications during this time included If You (1956), The Whip, and A Form of Women (1959). He was awarded the Levinson Prize for ten poems in Poetry and a D. H. Lawrence Fellowship, both in 1960. In addition he was included in Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 (1960), the defining anthology of the decade.
For Love: Poems 1950–1960, Creeley's first widely circulated book of selected poems, was published by Scribners in 1962. The collection was widely reviewed and nominated for a National Book Award, selling more than forty-seven thousand copies. Of Creeley's popularity at the time, Robert Hass remembers going into college lounges "jammed with people sitting on the floor, nodding their heads in profound sympathy and agreement with some [Creeley] poem they had heard only once."
Consisting of three chronological sections covering 1950 to 1960, For Love is best known for its presentation of the love lyric, in which, in Olson's words, "the intimate / is an exactitude." In his prefatory note to For Love, Creeley comments: "Insofar as these poems are such places, always they were ones stumbled into: warmth for a night perhaps, the misdirected intention come right; and too, a sudden instance of love, and the being loved, wherewith a man also contrives a world (of his own mind)." Though popularly considered a love poet, Creeley typically explored the incongruities of such relations. Especially in this early work, Creeley presents, as Charles Altieri has written, the persona of an "unsure egoist." Many of the poems have a veneer of accessibility yet befuddle the reader with varied senses of conflicting identity, shortfalls in the possibilities of interpersonal communication, and a persistent characterization of the self as isolated. Creeley has since commented that he had not expected a collection concerned with "marital confusion, loneliness, and isolation" to be so popular; that it struck such a chord in readers at the time was a significant statement about modern culture itself.
The poems in For Love tend to be compressed and urgent, focusing on a single event or fact of observation. One of the most often discussed of these poems is "The Warning," in which
For love—I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.
Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.
The phrase "for love" echoes the title of the collection. An immediate "quick surprise" for the reader is that "The Warning" is a warning; it is not about love's pleasantries but its limitations. The act proposed in the first stanza is immediate, ritualistic, and violent. (Creeley has suggested that this proposed act is rather "a true measure of an ability to love," a defining boundary in the possibility of the relation.) The poem clearly conveys to the reader pent-up energy and violent pressure, as illustrated by the phrase "split open your head."
A similar pressure is expressed in "The Whip." (Creeley has written about the idea of "the whip" as having to do with the conflict between the mind and the body: "It's a weird tension and the torque that's created by that systematization of experience is just awful … something was really, you know … slashing and cutting me.") In this poem the narrator is in bed. Two women are present: one "on / the roof," a troubling, dreamlike presence who is a "woman I / also loved"; and the other tangibly next to him and, by contrast, inert. His reaction to this crisis of values, "lonely," is to cry out. The woman next to him puts her hand on his back, and, paradoxically, this tender act "whips" the narrator. The message for the marital relationship then is doubt and misperception.
The narrative of this poem also has a parallel in Creeley's story "The Musicians." Here, there is also a woman on the roof, dressed in a housecoat, seemingly deranged because of a love gone wrong. The persistent presence of three characters—of whom one is always detached—typifies the relations of both the poem and the story. The title also proceeds from the jazz sense of "whip it" or "whip that thing," which serves as an exhortation for a musician to play an instrument. (This phrase can also refer to sexual activity.) There is music playing on a phonograph, and musical instruments are present, though unused. What the characters in the story "play" however, are proposed narratives, that is, other stories; hence the title might suggest "tell that story." "The Whip" also operates rhythmically. Observing the terminal junctures at the end of each line, one gets a clear sense of a rhythm that communicates "the bleak confusion from which [the poem] moves emotionally" in bursts of jazzlike phrasing. Creeley states that it is jazz "that informs the poem's manner in large part. Not that it's jazzy, or about jazz—rather, it's trying to use a rhythmic base much as jazz of this time would…. That is, the beat is used to delay, detail, prompt, define the content of the statement or, more aptly, the emotional field of the statement. It's trying to do this while moving in time to a set periodicity—durational units call them." The third sense of the title is "whipped up," meaning exhaustion of the characters. In this sense the narrator is recounting the poem's activity "wrongly," since the exacerbation of interpersonal situations really leads to emotional constriction.
Creeley taught at the University of British Columbia in 1962 and 1963, then returned to New Mexico as a lecturer until 1966. During this time he completed The Island, set on Majorca in the early 1950s. This novel, "a process of discovery," on one level discovers that "no wife—indeed no other person—can reify one's existence, that the 'love' that demands such reification is really a form of infantile dependency." But The Island involves discovery in other ways and is crucial to Creeley's poetry. Resonant in breadth to Olson's Maximus Poems (1953–1975), Duncan's Passages (1968–1987), Ginsberg's Howl (1956) and Kaddish (1960), Williams's Paterson (1946–1963), and Pound's Cantos (1917–1969), The Island was Creeley's "first 'long poem'; it was the first piece of serial writing that went on for many days, weeks, and so forth." As such, it opened up, as Creeley relates, "a great deal of possibility for me…. I think it permits poems like 'The Finger' to be written." In terms of structure, The Island follows a numeric procedure: "Each chapter is an economy of five pages in length, with five chapters to each of the four parts. And five times four is twenty, which is the number of chapters in the book." The Island, then, should be viewed as a formal investigation. In this way it shares more with poetry than fiction of the period. Creeley is insistent that The Island had no preexisting narrative plan or outline: "I did not 'work out the novel in my mind…. 'I 'worked it out' literally as I wrote it."
In 1963 Creeley read and lectured with Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, Levertov, and others at the Vancouver Poetry Festival, another defining literary occasion. Creeley was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1964, the same year he won the Oscar Blumenthal Prize for thirteen poems in Poetry magazine. He also received a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1965. That year the Scribners edition of The Gold Diggers and Other Stories was published, as was the New American Story, which he coedited with Donald Allen. In addition Creeley participated in the Berkeley Poetry Conference, another significant gathering of new poets. In 1966 he was visiting professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. (Although he has had concurrent appointments, his affiliation with Buffalo has been continuous since he became professor of English there in 1967; he was appointed David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters in 1978 and Samuel P. Capen Professor of Poetry and the Humanities in 1989.) He was the subject of the National Educational Television film Poetry USA: Robert Creeley (1966), and a British edition of collected poems, Poems 1950–1965 (1966), was published. Creeley also edited Selected Writings ofCharles Olson (1966). This volume, introduced by Creeley, includes the Mayan Letters (1953), an extraordinary group of letters written to Creeley while Olson was in Mexico; a selection of Olson's essays and poems; and Olson's defining "Projective Verse" essay. The following year Creeley received the Poetry Magazine Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prize, participated in the World Poetry Conference in Montreal, and, with Donald Allen, edited The New Writing in the U.S.A.
At a time when Creeley could have perpetuated the well-received forms of writing in For Love, he pushed forward, extending the writing process and his investigation of its materiality, moving from a "generative" to a "conjectural" mode. Words (1965) was an important advancement in Creeley's poetic project. In this work Creeley explores several aspects of the possibility of the poem. Adhering consistently to his idea of "measure," the poem emerges in Creeley's work as an active engagement with its own language. As he commented in Berkeley in 1965, "measure" is for Creeley "the actual measure of the speech, the way the words are going … the topography or actual ground, in no metaphoric sense, of where it is one is moving…. In other words, how does one gain a use of that place where he or she is, in no sentimental or enlarging way? How do you get to ground?" Words themselves are experienced as physical in relation to the poet's presence. In Words Creeley's work explores a literal physicality of subject matter. This is prefigured by the epigraph (a quote from Williams), which evokes "a counter stress, / born of the sexual shock, / which survives it." In addition to the clearly intended sense of the text as the body, poems such as "The Woman" ("you have left me / with, wetness, pools / of it, my skin / drips"), "The Dream," and "Distance" also graphically explore elements of the heterosexual experience. This is the element of Creeley's work to which M. L. Rosenthal reacted so vehemently in his well-known essay "Problems of Robert Creeley." (Sherman Paul's often cited response to Rosenthal's attack appeared in a 1975 issue of Boundary 2. These two essays provide opposing arguments in the reception of Creeley's work of this period.) The heterosexual experience is reiterated by the recurring image of "the hole," as illustrated in this section of "The Language":
I heard words
and words full
is a mouth.
The image of "the hole" refers to both the incapacities of language and to sexuality from a male viewpoint. In these poems "the hole" is a site of incredible tension. The gendered view of sexuality in these poems may be the most difficult element of Creeley's work to reconcile. In this regard, Charles Bernstein remarks in Contents Dream (1986) that "Creeley's work attests to the experience of maleness as a social condition, replete with the troubling and problematic values that are so central a part of that role." Certainly "troubling" values are evoked in these poems. As the tension of gender escalates, Words leads to explicit gender-based violence. Wendy Brabner alludes to this mechanism as a tendency by the poet to "confront [his] fears and conquer them through some form of violent action." This brutality emerges most strikingly in "Enough" ("Your body is a garbage can") and "Hello" (where "he" caught "the edge of // her eye and / it tore, down, / ripping.")
Violence can also be seen as a statement of Creeley's poetics, "ripping" language to pieces. Part of this process involves discarding logical relations and embracing verbal positioning resembling Abstract Expressionism in image, representation, and arrangement of compositional elements, thus working to eschew traditional methods of knowing. In his essay "A Sense of Measure" Creeley rejects the assumption that order "can be either acknowledged or gained by intellectual assertion, or will, or some like intention to shape language to a purpose which the literal act of writing does not in itself discover." Early into Words logical associations begin to disintegrate as Creeley's writing pursues this course. In "I Keep to Myself Such Measures" the narrator asserts that "there is nothing / but what thinking makes / it less tangible." As the poem "The Window" declares, "I can / feel my eye breaking" or the proposal of "Intervals" that "who / am I—/ identity / singing."
Toward the end of Words short poems stand out, illustrating modes of abstraction in this collection and also substantially prefiguring work to be collected in Pieces. Among these are the four-line poem "The Farm" ("Tips of celery, / clouds of // grass—one / day I'll go away"), "Joy," "A Piece," and "The Box." The last is dedicated to the artist John Chamberlain and uses words as a material to create a work of sculpture:
Like a work of sculpture, the poem has defined, solid parameters. Its construction is less than typical, a fact that the reader (who would expect four sides of a box) observes with the first line. As Creeley has noted about painting, "If no one sees a painter, or, rather, what he is doing—finally, not 'doing'—doesn't he still have things?" Creeley's poetics insist here on words as real and concrete components of the poem operating, as Joseph M. Conte has suggested, as "paradigmatic forms whose elements continually evaluate their own affinity and dissimilarity." The poem has "things" substance: it attempts to constitute an object with mass—one constructed of common objects—but pieced together the way an Abstract Expressionist sculpture might be. This constellation follows Creeley's account of Pound's instruction that "poetry is a form cut in time as sculpture is a form cut in space." Through this construction, Creeley shows his engagement with "making the world / tacit description / of what's taken / from it."
Creeley collaborated with R. B. Kitaj on A Sight in 1967, the same year Robert Creeley Reads, a recording of Creeley reading from Words, was released. It was followed by The Finger (1968), which was illustrated with collages by Bobbie Creeley. Numbers (1968), written at the suggestion of Robert Indiana, is a "sequence of poems involved with experiences of numbers," accompanied by ten strikingly colored folio serigraphs by Indiana. The subsequent publication of the sequence in Pieces, though textually accurate, cannot convey the visual dimension and graphic richness of this earlier presentation of the text.
Creeley's maturation as a poet is closely linked to The Island. According to Creeley, writing the novel "led me to feel through things in a more various way…. I'm more at ease with myself; I have much more very literal confidence." As a result Creeley has described the poems collected in Pieces as approaching "a far freer context of statement." Preceding the better-known 1969 Scribners collection Pieces was the 1968 Black Sparrow Press book of the same title, which has thirteen pages of poems with eight collages by Bobbie Creeley. These full-page collages are composed of fractured images that cohere through their dynamics on the page and are a significant element in the original edition of Pieces. The epigraph to Pieces is Ginsberg's statement "I always wanted, / to return / to the body / where I was born." Though one critic has contended that this epigraph evidences saturation "by a discourse on masculinity," Creeley has argued for a sense of the body as "the [poetic] 'field' and … equally the experience of it." As Creeley insists: "It is, then, to 'return' not to oneself as some egocentric center, but to experience oneself as in the world, thus, through this agency or fact we call, variously, 'poetry.'" Pieces explores this "field" through its engagement with form.
Creeley is direct about this project, opening the collection with an untitled poem:
As REAL as thinking
by the possibility—
forms. A period
at the end of a sentence
began it was
into a present,
as it goes.
Creeley's emphasis on form argues that the tangible presence of discrete words and phrases, freed from conventional syntactic relations, makes the text "real." According to Williams this freeing of words is comparable to what Gertrude Stein had accomplished in Tender Buttons (1914). Stein had "completely unlinked [words] … from their former relationships in the sentence." The goal of such unlinking is to present words as "things" that occupy relational space. These "things," Creeley has written, "are large or small objects, having the fact of space in whatever dimension becomes them." Thus Pieces is composed of many fragments of text, "pieces" of poems. "Sometime in the midsixties," Creeley later wrote, "I grew inexorably bored with the tidy containment of clusters of words on single pieces of paper called 'poems.' … My own life, I felt increasingly, was a continuance … and here were these quite small things I was tossing out from time to time, in the hope that they might survive my own being hauled on toward terminus." Breaks in poetic flow, uncertainty about exactly where a poem begins or ends, and the appearance of seemingly incongruent forms, such as journal entries and fragments of letters, contribute to the interruptive quality of Pieces. Some of these "pieces" have conventional titles, but more frequently the poems begin with a phrase in all capital letters, exist within a textual flow set off by bullets, or achieve a status of being curiously attached to titled poems, reflecting the chronological accumulation of this text. Pieces emphasizes the "fact of process" of composition in an effort to "trust writing." The proposal is to move the poem into the present; its "realness" will be qualified by "presence"—process being the route to the poem's realization. As to method, in "Here" it is proposed:
My plan is
these little boxes
make sequences … [.]
With the "plan" of the journal-like progression of these poems, the following consideration arises:
from such I
makes such declaration.
"Such I" alludes to a primary dilemma in Pieces. The narrator of these poems, as he tries to be more and more immediate, suffers a consequent split in identity. Creeley has described this dilemma by writing that "As soon as / I speak, I / speaks." In "They" Creeley writes of the mind following what is "true" then adds "and I also," indicating the contrast between what is thought and the "I" of the poem. However, this is more than a contrast; it is a constant friction, "a 'poet' of such impossibilities 'I' makes up," as Creeley writes in "Echo." The instability of the "I" stands out in Pieces for the intensity of conflict; through his later poems and autobiography, Creeley will continue to explore the dimensions of the "I" positioning, in Creeley's words, "the sense of 'I' into poet Louis Zukofsky's 'eye'—a locus of experience, not a presumption of expected value."
Creeley was a visiting professor at the University of New Mexico when Words and Pieces were published. The retrospective collection The Charm (1969) was also published by the Four Seasons Foundation at this time, bringing back into print works that were long unavailable. These include "Return," poems from The Kind of Act Of, and parts of Le Fou not included in For Love. In 1970 Creeley participated in the International Poetry Festival at the University of Texas and the Neuvième Biennale Internationale de Poèsie at Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium. His books, A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and Essays and The Finger: Poems 1966–1969 were published in the same year. He moved his family to Bolinas, California, in order to serve as visiting professor at San Francisco State College in 1970–1971. This move provided an opportunity to meet various writers, including Joanne Kyger, Tom Clark, Aram Saroyan, Bill Berkson, Clark Coolidge, David Meltzer, and Philip Whalen, among others. Also in the community were musicians such as the Jefferson Airplane, the Rowan Brothers, and Steve Swallow (who would later compose music based on Creeley's poems) and artists such as Kitaj and Arthur Okamura (who Creeley knew from Majorca). Some of Creeley's poems and prose of this period directly draw on Bolinas experiences and persons. In 1972 his radio play, Listen, was produced in London. Listen, A Sense of Measure (essays and an interview), and A Day Book were all published the same year. A Day Book is composed of a series of journal entries and "In London," a selection of poems later printed in Creeley's Collected Poems, 1945–1975 (1982). "In London" contains a substantial number of poems, similarly performing an act of "direct recording." Fragmentary poetic "pieces" dominate the first part of the collection with many references to "place." The original publication of A Day Book was a lavishly produced collaboration with Kitaj.
In 1973 Creeley's Whitman: Selected Poems, a tribute to Whitman's "instruction that one speak for oneself," was published. This same year he established residence in Buffalo, where he and his family maintain a permanent home. His next few collections of poetry, His Idea (1973), Thirty Things (1974), Backwards (1975), and Away (1976), are the only sections in the Collected Poems which appear as originally printed by small presses. These books record the "factual life" of the development of Creeley's poetics during this period and, as such, exemplify an insistence on the practice of writing. His Idea seems to stand as a continuation and denouement of his work in Pieces, a single series of individual fragmentary poetic pieces each beginning with a phrase or word in capital letters, in which "Days go by / uncounted." Thirty Things consists of thirty, mostly occasional, individually titled short poems maintaining, in Duncan's words, "a tension between resignation and resolution." Some of these poems are directed to individuals, sometimes evoking Bolinas by direct reference or facts of geography; other poems express a consciousness of time's passing such as "Still" ("Still the same / day? / Tomorrow") and "One Day" ("One day after another—/ perfect. / They all fit"). Backwards (the title suggesting direction, though regressive), is a short collection, similarly composed of discrete, titled poems showing a like discontent with time standing still, as in the two-line title poem of the collection: "Nowhere before you / any of this." Away consists of poems in a variety of formats, individually titled poems as well as sequences of poetic phrases separated by bullets. "For My Mother: Genevieve Jules Creeley" stands as an excursion into thematic material that emerges strongly in his later works. In this collection the idea of abstraction in poetry is again questioned. In "Berlin: First Night & Early Morning," an interlocutor interrupts a flow of poetic phrases to say:
You: "too abstract,
over again … [.]"
As Creeley moves forward in his career, it is evident that he will leave behind "exacerbated tension" and explore, as in the Williams epigraph to In London, "But what to do? and / What to do next?"
Creeley's prose works are also important in understanding his literary accomplishments. As Stephen Fredman relates, "Creeley [says] that not until toward the end of writing Words … did he begin to loosen his sense of formal necessity, to free ideas and expressions from the imperative of reaching a rested conclusion. He began then to write serial compositions, starting with Pieces … and continuing in the three prose books collected in 'Mabel.'" The three texts in "Mabel: A Story" as published in the Collected Prose (1984), are "A Day Book," "Presences," and "Mabel: A Story." A Day Book, writes Creeley, is "precisely what it says it is, thirty single-spaced pages of writing in thirty similarly spaced days of living." As such, it resonates with Thirty Things and its accompanying prose works. Written for a collaboration with Kitaj, "A Day Book" is direct, exploratory, and improvisatory; it is principally an investigation of the possibilities of form, particularly of writing within specified form. (As originally published, A Day Book is physically an experiment in form. In an oversized format, Creeley's writing appears "solid" because of its large font and is juxtaposed with striking large plates by Kitaj.) Presences, proposed because Marisol had seen Numbers, Creeley's collaboration with Robert Indiana, was originally published in the United States by Scribners as Presences: A Text for Marisol (1976). It was designed with large type and little gutter area and was accompanied by photographs of sculptures by Marisol. The text of Presences consists of "a series of improvisations upon Marisol's images, both sculptural and personal." Fredman has noted that in Presences "there is much for Creeley to identify with in Marisol's art: the isolation, the immensity of the heart, the repetition of frontality, and the constant use of the self." The text contains five sections of six single-spaced pages of text in permutations of 1-2-3, beginning and ending with 1. Of this numeric arrangement, Creeley writes, "I wanted a focus, or frame, with which to work, and one, two, three seemed an interesting periodicity of phrasing." "Mabel," "begun as an imagination of women" for a collaboration with Jim Dine, contains five sections of six single-spaced pages of text in permutations of the same 1-2-3 sequence.
Creeley's essay Was That a Real Poem or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself (1976) is an extraordinary statement of poetics; it has also served as an exemplar for the craft of the essay, influencing contemporary writers. A distinctly individual blend of autobiography and poetics, Was That a Real Poem presents to the reader an account of Creeley's development as a poet. Acknowledging that, "my thinking about poetry may or may not have anything actively to do with my actual work as a poet," he describes his work based on personal feelings, his past, and a resilient sense of poetry qua poetry. He believes that "what we call poems are an intrinsic fact in the human world whether or not there be poets at this moment capable of their creation." The matter of poetic creation is beyond him, and although at times a source of despair, it is somehow comfortingly there nonetheless. In a sense, this manifesto allows for personal involvement in writing while letting the process stand by itself, beyond the personal. Moreover, this statement is a definitive accomplishment, providing a locus of activity for the contemporary poem, "a place, in short, one has come to, where words dance truly in an information of one another, drawing in the attention, provoking feelings to participate."
Creeley divorced his second wife, Bobbie, in 1976 and, in the spring of the same year, embarked on an extensive reading tour of New Zealand, Australia, and Asia. In 1977 Creeley married Penelope Highton, whom he met in New Zealand. He would have two children with Penelope, William and Hanah, born in 1981 and 1983, respectively. The next year he accepted the position of David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at Buffalo and found a new publisher, New Directions. Creeley's first New Directions book was Hello: A Journal, February 29–May 3, 1976 (1978), poems written in the form of journal entries from tours and readings Creeley had given in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea. Creeley abandons the use of heterogeneous forms, structuring the poems as discrete units, often in stanzaic form or as poetic fragments under the aegis of a specific geographic location. The result is a reflective and consistent tone of voice in which a sense of hope emerges as a direct result of observations. For example, in "Soup (Palmerston North, New Zealand)":
Bye-bye, kid says,
girl, about five—
digs my one eye.
A change of direction is indicated in "Out Here." The narrator of the poem sits in the corner of an airport bar. He relates how "a few minutes ago" he was thinking in a sexual mode characteristic of his earlier writing, but then retracts the thought, explaining that such an approach applies "not any more," because "it's later." The speaker finds himself "spooked, tired, and approaching / my fiftieth birthday" as he relates his in-transit status, surroundings, and thoughts. Then, finally:
I'll be a long way away
when you read this—and I won't
remember what I said.
Correspondingly, the text itself is "not any more, it's later," a direct invocation of the title of his following collection of poems. Robert Creeley: A Gathering (1978) seems to have marked a change in the direction of the author. This collection, a 570-page issue of Boundary 2, sought to present "critical orientations and disclosures … as diverse as the occasion of a first gathering demands," effectively constituting a forum on Creeley's innovations and assembling many important statements about his work. The following year, Was That a Real Poem and Other Essays was issued by the Four Seasons Foundation, making available, along with the title essay, some previously uncollected poetic statements, including his introduction to Whitman: Selected Poems and "The Creative," "On the Road," and "A Sense of Measure."
Even as these collections were published, Creeley was entering a completely different arena of poetic investigation, abandoning formal fragmentation. It might have been a disillusionment with such experiment, as he writes in "Still Too Young," "all I'd hoped for / is going up in abstract smoke" and "I'm too old to do it again / and still too young to die" or because simply that formal discontinuity does not suit the project at hand. As indicated in the poem "Age," the poet has accepted the altered situation or at least does not indicate he wishes to change it: "There's no surprise now, / not the unexpected / as it had been. He's agreed / to being more settled." The facts of Creeley's changed circumstances shift the "I" into a retrospective position, leading to reflection. The titles of Creeley's five later collections of poetry all consider various forms of reflection, whether relating to memory, in Later (1979) and Memory Gardens (1986), optics, in Mirrors (1983) and Windows (1990), or acoustics, in Echoes (1982).
Concomitant with this exploration, Creeley increasingly worked with different surface modes of the poem; the subject matter of his poems shifts to include natural phenomena, a more accepting gesture toward the marital relationship, a willed, though not always positive, sense of human endurance, and, as Fred Moramarco writes in an article collected in Robert Creeley's Life and Work (1988), content "characterized by a greater emphasis on memory, a new sense of life's discrete phases, and an intense preoccupation with aging." These facts of aging, significantly, are facts of human life and, like childhood ("When I was a kid, I / thought like a kid—// I was a kid, / you dig it"), are presented in an "angle of incidence" to the form of the poem. Age has many faces in these later poems, from simple facts of observation ("now my hands are // wrinkled and my hair / goes grey" or "I am no longer / one man—// but an old one") to a sense of despair, such as in "Prayer to Hermes," where "these days / of physical change" bring to the poet "a weakness, / a tormenting, relieving weakness." Here this reference is tied to the advent of winter, the season likened to the poet's body. Writing, as in earlier works, continues to be simultaneous with the body. Creeley insists on a "physical sentence." It is a sentence on the page; it is a "life" sentence (physical aging). And as a writer, his sentences also become "older." The poem's activity must similarly accommodate this "sentence," and the structure of the poem must respond to and feel "the meat contract, // or stretch, upon bones" with a sense of compacted attention and tightened poetics. With the contraction of subject matter in these poems comes a greater potency of the activity within the circumscribed area. His insistent return to the idea of "echoes" delineates a poetic form of his own making. (The idea is introduced early in his writing, evoked significantly in Words and Pieces, and brought to focus by the fact that an entire volume is titled Echoes.) The "echo," as investigated by Creeley, is expressed as something ultimately beyond grasp; what becomes foregrounded then is the act of reaching for the echo. In "My Own Stuff" Creeley expresses this idea: "It is a / flotsam I could / neither touch quite / nor get hold of … yet / insistent to touch / it … [I] kept poking, trying / with my stiffened / fingers to get hold of" and "its substance I had / even made to be / there its only / reality my own." Of course, grasping for echoes can only leave the hand empty. The place at which the poet has arrived seems an empty one because "there is / no one here but words, / nothing but echoes." Yet these poems are not empty. Creeley's later work is true to his long-standing commitment to the poem as direct observation and to textual elements of the poem constituting real objects.
The poem "Helsinki Window" in Windows is an example of a poem where words work in a circumscribed area. This poem is dedicated to the Finnish-born writer Anselm Hollo, whom Creeley has elsewhere described as "a man who lives daily, humanly, in the physical event of so-called existence." In "Helsinki Window" direct observation clings to Creeley's compositional urge, "daily" and "humanly" bounded in nine poems of roughly twelve lines each. Here, "at the edge of this / reflective echo," each rush of phrasing issues from what is immediate: the "same roof," "old sky," "windows now lit," "a bicycle / across the way," a "spare pool / of light." The elements of the poem are drawn from what may almost exclusively appear through a single window. The window's view is full of things; yet the things cohere only within the compacted structure of their frame. The window, as a frame, does not create a "picture," rather an area for the relations of "things." Creeley has pointed out that Abstract Expressionism "regains the canvas as surface—or literally imposes as significant surface anything on which the painting occurs" thereby causing painting to lose "its historical sense of picture, insofar as our sense of a picture seems to imply something which is referential." The same focus on surface applies to Creeley's poems and the result is "classic emptiness." Yet it is an emptiness which is full, the poem itself—"it / is there here here"—and it is concrete and immovable—"no / other thing can for a / moment distract it be / beyond its simple space."
"Sonnets," in Echoes, consisting of six twelve-line and one fourteen-line poem, also witnesses form compacting the information of the poem. The "window" of observation in this case is memory. Memory pushes "a twisting / away tormented unless" into the "presence" of writing. The rhythm of these poems arises from the regularity that the enclosure of form exerts on the text. This text can be highly rhythmic at times:
teeth wearing hands wearing
feet wearing head wearing
clothes I put on take now
off and sleep or not or sit … [.]
Of greatest importance is the density of the writing. This density, Creeley has stated, is "a situation in which each word becomes not so much singular as though its meaning were to be abstracted from its companies, but each word is a possible pivot or shift or relocation of what it is that I seem to be … trying to get said." In "Sonnets" there is the feature of past events (including literary precedent, as the use of the sonnet form suggests); there is the action of the poet's "I," bridging from these events to the present; but equally, there is the active sense of writing as an immediate and central "thing" operating to "get said" what is necessary. Despite the element of recollection, the focus of this work is not on what is reflected but on reflection itself, as in the collection's epigraph, "echo or mirror seeking of itself, / … makes a toy of Thought." Since thought has itself become a compositional element, "I is not / the simple / question // after all, / nor you / an interesting answer." What emerges in this collection is the interrogation of reflection, its circumscription by thought processes, and its condensation within formal frames. Thought itself becomes "consequential, / itself an act, a // walking round rim / to see what's within."
The first two volumes of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence were published by Black Sparrow Press in 1980, marking the first availability of this copious correspondence. Two major volumes of collected writings also appeared in the early 1980s. The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945–1975, including a section of "Uncollected Poems," works printed in magazines that never appeared in books, and The Collected Prose of Robert Creeley, reprinting Creeley's diverse excursions into the genre, including The Gold Diggers, The Island, Listen, and "Mabel: A Story." These were followed in 1989 by The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, bringing together a diversely published body of critical writing that would be nearly impossible to assemble otherwise. The influences for these essays include Lawrence, Edward Dahlberg, Williams, and Olson, though Pound is also clearly in Creeley's mind. These writings manifest Creeley's agreement with Pound that critical writing should come "from those defined in the arts relating" and follow creative works as "the two feet of one biped" follow each other.
The same year Creeley's autobiography not only explored his personal past but extended the form of the autobiography itself. Much as Creeley's Was That a Real Poem offered an alternative vision of the literary essay, his autobiography, first published in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (1989), reconsiders the narrative. (It was published separately as Autobiography in 1991 and republished in Tom Clark's Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place in 1993.) Though asserting that "there is an awful, self-consciously recognized limit to what may be called my sincerity," Creeley is perhaps unparalleled in making his feelings appear as facts. Thus, though this autobiography has facts necessary to its genre, Creeley's insistence that "we believe a world or have none" creates a narrative of a life lived inseparable from a writer's poetics. "It is the pleasure and authority of writing that it invents a life to live in the first place," Creeley maintains. His prose is an example of such writing. Focusing on his youth, family, and early adulthood, Creeley presents an account that is full of biographical facts and also argues for "a scale for [the] diverse presence" of humanness. As such, this very personal account presents the facts of his life as the facts argue a life. "What cannot be objectified is oneself," Creeley acknowledges, "Yet the fiction, finally for real, is attractive." In this way, the self is presented as only one possible version of lived selves. As Bernstein notes, "Amidst the onslaught of events, the self provides only an apparent centering or agency, always subject to readjustments and recentering." What the autobiography manifests is "fictions" made fact in the literal act of writing.
The Essential Burns was also published in 1989 and offered selections, in Creeley's words, among his "first delights in hearing and reading poetry as a boy." The appearance of Creeley's correspondence with Irving Layton made available documents covering, "perhaps the most seminal period in recent Canadian and American literary history" and showing the rich transnational communication that influenced the literature of both countries. Creeley's Selected Poems (1991) was compiled by the poet from his vast output. Creeley's choice of the contents was guided by his feelings about the place of poetry: "Why poetry? Its materials are so constant, simple, elusive, specific. It costs so little and so much. It preoccupies a life, yet can only find one in living. It is a music, a playful construct of feeling, a last word and communion." Standing by his earlier work, he drew heavily on The Charm and For Love, with an even but sparser inclusion of his subsequent writings. The last poem in the book, "Body," is set off as if making a statement, concentrating on the presence of the body and the physical circularity of human experience, suggesting themes from Pieces, though this poem is from Echoes. In 1993 Olson's Selected Poems was edited by Creeley, and it offered him the opportunity of presenting his personal selection of the works of the poet who was "the first practical influence upon me of a contemporary." Accordingly, Creeley acknowledges the selections as "unavoidably [his] own" and proposes that they be read keeping in mind that their relationship provided "a measure, an unabashed response to what either might write or say." Creeley points to the precedent of their collected correspondence to suggest that this collection stands as Creeley reading Olson, certainly true to their writing relationship.
Creeley has unarguably attained and has accepted the status of an elder statesman of poetry. His recognition during the 1980s and 1990s has been impressive. His works have been translated and published in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, and France, among other countries. His many awards have included the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America (1981), a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1982), two DAAD Fellowships in Berlin (1983 and 1987), the Leone d'Oro Premio Speziale, Venice (1985), the Poetry Society of America Frost Medal (1987), a Distinguished Fulbright Award as Bicentennial Chair in American Studies, Helsinki University, Finland (1988), distinguished professor rank at the State University of New York (1989), the Walt Whitman Citation, which included service as New York State Poet (1989–1991), and an honorary doctor of letters granted by the University of New Mexico (1993). He also received the Horst Bienek Lyrikpreis from the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (1993), Germany's highest honor to a living foreign poet and an award that few other American authors have received. Perhaps most significantly Creeley enjoys the distinction of having been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Though the physical presentation of Creeley's poems has changed considerably through his career, Creeley's attention has remained focused on writing as determined by the facts of experience, rather than by preconceived forms. This attention has advanced a sense of writing that, in addition to having roots in what is intensely familiar (the "common place" of his later lectures), also has no determined limit of genre. Some of his most notable later literary accomplishments include his autobiography, the occasional prose essay, interviews, orally presented poetry, and lectures. Aside from teaching he makes literary tours of the United States and the world. In addition to these genres of "writing," Creeley's commitment to discourse between the arts and technology have witnessed his poems being set to jazz (Steve Swallow's Home, appearing in 1980, and Steve Lacy in the 1985 release Futurities) and his participation in films (Creeley, produced by Documentary Research in 1988 and Robert Creeley, released as part of the Lannan Literary Series in 1990), CD-ROM (Poetry in Motion), and recently, the Internet. He has, however, expressed caution about this latest medium, suggesting that one must be conscious of "what happens to knowledge when its traditional relation to ordering and retrieval (memory) is intensively mediated by instrumentation exterior to its own function."
Of great significance have been his contributions to gallery and public art (such as his eight poems engraved on the bollards at Seventh and Figueroa Streets in Los Angeles) and his collaborations with visual artists. Creeley's engagement with the visual arts has been a consistent factor in his writing. His recent collaborators include Susan Barnes, John Chamberlain, Francesco Clemente, Cletus Johnson, Susan Rothenberg, Robert Therrien, and Martha Visser't Hooft. His collaborations with Johnson, in which Creeley provided texts for "visual transformation" by Johnson, were exhibited at galleries in Buffalo and in New York. Creeley's work with Clemente has been significant. It (1989), published by Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, is a substantial volume containing sixty-four pastels by Clemente and twelve poems by Creeley. In 7 & 6 (1988) Creeley provides poems for seven of Therrien's works. (The collaboration also includes prose by Michel Butor.) Creeley's responses to the works are factual, sometimes humorous, and address the image (presented on the facing page) with a "literalism [that] twists into pleasurable knottiness." Creeley's collaborations are "wholly in keeping with Therrien's own no-nonsense approach." Life & Death (1993) is particularly illustrative of the intensity with which Creeley approaches such collaborations. Creeley viewed Clemente's series The Black Paintings (1991–1993) on a bright Sunday morning in the artist's studio. He relates that the light made the paintings "tangible" to him and that "for me they tell a story, a very old one, of how humanly we live both as one and as many, in a world particular to our lives but also far vaster and more communal than such personal limits can ever acknowledge." Creeley wrote a poem for each image but returning home realized he wished to say more and so wrote a second half to each poem. True to the spirit of this collaboration, the paintings are reproduced in Life & Death with the poems in the order Creeley viewed them and with bullets separating the pair of textual creations for each painting.
Creeley remains a popular poet, though recent critical attention to his work has varied in frequency. Two recent critical "gatherings" in Poetics Journal (1991) and Sagetrieb (1991) include several articles on Creeley's work. A special issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction recently appeared, focusing on Creeley's prose and offering contemporary evaluations of The Gold Diggers, The Island, Creeley's autobiography, and his experimental texts. Two new books have appeared: Tales Out of School: Selected Interviews (1993), which has five lengthy interviews (four from Contexts of Poetry), and Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place by Clark. In this hybrid critical and biographical work Clark focuses on Creeley's view of the "common-place" through interviews with Creeley, a transcript of "Some Senses of the Commonplace" (a talk Creeley gave at the New College of California in 1991), and Creeley's "Autobiography." The most important form of recognition, however, has been the very real and lasting changes Creeley's work has effected in postmodern poetry. Clark, in The Poetry Beat, credits Creeley with "creating a mass-democratic cottage verse that ushered postwar American poetry outside the halls of fading ivy, and in turn made possible a whole new generation of 'post modern' academicism." Thus, the visibility of the tradition for which Creeley speaks, as Bernstein points out, is substantially greater than it was thirty years ago, and "while this tradition and its current manifestations are hardly in the mainstream of official culture, the magnitude of related subterranean, ground level, and occasionally above-ground anthologies, presses, magazines, and public readings is incomparably greater, and far more entrenched—a circumstance that Creeley has significantly helped to bring about."
Source: Loss Pequeño Glazier, "Robert Creeley," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 169, American Poets Since World War II, Fifth Series, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale, 1996, pp. 78–97.
In the following essay, Faas discusses Creeley's friendship with Allen Ginsberg, the various roles he has played in the literary world, and his turbulent path to success.
"None of the so-called Black Mountain Writers wrote in a literally similar manner. That is, Olson's modes of statement are certainly not mine, nor are they Duncan's, nor Denise Levertov's—and so on. What was, then, the basis for our company? I think, simply the insistent feeling we were given something to write, that it was an obedience we were undertaking to an actual possibility of revelation." Creeley's statement in an interview stresses the openness of the very "school" he helped found and promote. At the same time, its main tenor recalls similar statements by the Beat poets such as, say, Ginsberg's account of the genesis of Howl: "I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco," Ginsberg recalls, "… to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath. I thought I wouldn't write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind." No wonder that Creeley, in A Quick Graph (1970), quotes these words as a further, non-Black Mountain instance of the new poetry of revelation.
Creeley and Ginsberg first met in 1956 just when Black Mountain College had been shut down and Howl was completed in manuscript. Whatever sense of a common creative impulse they then discovered had thus been reached independently. On the other hand, both poets shared a common background which Creeley is clearly aware of—the disorientation of their childhood, school, and university years during the time of the Depression, of World War II, and of its aftermath: "it's the background for Allen Ginsberg, myself and many of our contemporaries. The disturbance of these years came at the end of the Depression and the chaos of values and assumption of values, the definition of values was very insistent. For example, although we had no knowledge literally of one another, Allen and I had many friends in common at that time. William Cannister was perhaps the most painfully vivid instance of one of 'the best minds of [our] generation' that one saw 'destroyed by madness.' Bill had the compulsive need to kill himself and this need was almost a societal condition, I mean it was almost the actual situation of feeling in those years: a sort of terrifying need to demonstrate the valuelessness of one's own life."
In fact, Creeley's early life resembles Ginsberg's to the point where circumstances seem interchangeable except for their specific denominations. Creeley was born on 21 May 1926 in Arlington, Massachusetts (Ginsberg a few weeks later, on 3 June of the same year in Newark, New Jersey); after attending Holderness School, Plymouth, New Hampshire, Creeley entered Harvard in 1943 (Ginsberg entered Columbia in the same year). Creeley studied under such luminaries as F. O. Matthiessen, Harry Levin, and Delmore Schwartz (Ginsberg studied under equally well-known academics: Meyer Schapiro, Mark Van Doren, and Lionel Trilling); helped edit an issue of the Harvard Wake (Ginsberg edited the Columbia Review); was temporarily suspended from the university for carrying out of Lowell House an unhinged door which was about to be painted (Ginsberg was dismissed from Columbia for his unflattering remarks about the university president and for tracing a skull and crossbones plus an anti-Semitic inscription into the dust of a dormitory window); and finally dropped out of Harvard during the last semester of his senior year (Ginsberg received a bachelor of arts degree in 1948). More seminal than what Creeley and Ginsberg were taught at the university was what they learned from association with nonacademic friends. While driving a truck for the American Field Service in the India-Burma theater during 1945 and 1946, Creeley was initiated into drugs, an area Ginsberg discovered under the guidance of two older mentors hanging out around Columbia, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Kerouac and Burroughs also gave Ginsberg the modernist education in literature and the arts which Creeley, during 1946 and 1947, explored by frequenting a bohemian circle in Provincetown, Massachusetts—particularly through his acquaintance with Slater Brown, friend of both E. E. Cummings and Hart Crane. A major part of this education was in jazz, whose rhythms were to exert a great impact on Creeley's and Kerouac's writings. "This is what I was doing from 1946 to 1950," Creeley remembers. "I was frankly doing almost nothing else but sitting around listening to records."
The post-university years for both Ginsberg and Creeley were marked by similar restlessness and ferment. After a series of visions in which he heard a voice reciting from Blake, Ginsberg underwent four sessions of psychiatric counseling followed by an eight-month stay in a hospital for psychoanalysis and therapy; he subsequently worked as a book reviewer for Newsweek magazine, was a market research consultant in New York and San Francisco, traveled to Mexico, and finally returned to the Bay Area where he helped organize the second San Francisco renaissance, launched by the famous reading at the Six Gallery. Creeley, married since 1946 to Ann McKinnon, tried subsistence farming near Littleton, New Hampshire, defaulted on his mortgage, moved to Fontrousse outside Aix-en-Province and later to Lambesc in France, then spent two years in Mallorca, taught at Black Mountain College from March to July 1954 and again during 1954 and 1955, divorced his wife with whom he had had three children, left Black Mountain, and traveled to San Francisco via Albuquerque. For all their turmoil, it was these half dozen years or so before they met in which Creeley and Ginsberg developed their distinct poetic idiom and poetics.
In Creeley's, rather than Ginsberg's, case this also was a period of intensive and widespread literary enterprise. In addition to being a poet, Creeley, throughout his life, has fulfilled multiple other roles as teacher, publisher, editor, and organizer of various literary movements. While at Harvard he helped edit the E.E. Cummings issue (Spring 1946) of the Harvard Wake. Early in 1950 he and a friend, Jacob Leed, decided to publish their own magazine but failed due to problems with Leed's handpress. Yet much of the material they had collected was incorporated into the first issue of Cid Corman's Origin. Contact with Corman also led to Creeley's correspondence with Olson, who exerted a major influence on the younger poet. As a result, Creeley became editor of the Black Mountain Review and finally a teacher at Black Mountain College. Before that, while living in France and Mallorca, Creeley acted as American editor for Rainer Gerhardt's short-lived magazine Fragmente and as editor-publisher at his own Divers Press. In October 1952, Richard Emerson and Frederick Eckman published Creeley's first volume of poems, Le Fou, as a chap-book in the Golden Goose series. Two other collections of poems, The Kind of Act Of (1953) and A Snarling Garland of Xmas Verses (1954), as well as The Gold Diggers (1954), a collection of eleven short stories, appeared under Creeley's own imprint.
A source common to both Creeley's and Ginsberg's literary pursuits before 1956 was the work of William Carlos Williams, whose book four of Paterson includes a 1949 letter by Allen Ginsberg. Two years earlier, Ginsberg, at age twenty-one, had already interviewed the older poet for a local Paterson newspaper. What he learned from Williams was close indeed to the earlier breath-rhythm experiments à la Charles Olson and Creeley. By 1955, Ginsberg recalls, "I wrote poetry … arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short-line patterns according to ideas of measure of American speech I'd picked up from W. C. Williams' imagist preoccupations." Creeley himself discovered Williams through The Wedge when that volume of poems first appeared in 1944. The book to him was a godsend, and Williams's introductory remarks about a poetry revealed in the process of writing have stayed with him as a formula to describe the verse of both Black Mountain and Beat poets: "When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses." Another influence on both poets came from the work of Ezra Pound whose Make it New was a present for Creeley's twentieth birthday. Like The Wedge, that book was "a revelation" to him "insofar as Pound there spoke of writing from the point of view of what writing itself was engaged with, not what it was 'about.'"
The words highlight Creeley's insistent concern with language which, at least theoretically speaking, differs from Ginsberg's more vision-oriented creativity. Both tendencies emerged before the poets first met in San Francisco. Crucial here was the involvement with their separate circles of artistic associates. In Ginsberg's case, there was a strengthening of his ties with Burroughs and Kerouac as well as new friendships with Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others in San Francisco. In Creeley's, there was a series of new contacts with Cid Corman, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Larry Eigner, Robert Duncan, and others, many of them conducted through correspondence before the poets finally met in person. In December 1949, Creeley by chance heard Cid Corman's radio program "This Is Poetry," wrote to him, and as a result found himself reading soon after on the same station. This was followed by further readings of his own works as well as those of Joyce and Williams on station WTWN, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The subsequent attempt in 1950 to launch his own magazine in collaboration with Jacob Leed made Creeley write to Williams and Pound, which led to many important new contacts including Paul Blackburn, Jacques Prevert, and Denise Levertov.
Most crucial among all these was Charles Olson, some of whose poems had reached Creeley via Vincent Ferrini. At first Creeley was "rather put off" by Olson's verse, feeling that this poet was simply "looking around for a language" with the result of "a loss of force" in his poetry. But Olson's response ("i says, creeley, you're / off yr trolley: a man / god damn well has to come up with his own lang., syntax and song both, / but also each poem under hand has its own language, which is variant / of same") quickly made him reverse his verdict and initiated the most influential friendship in Creeley's life. Their correspondence of nearly one thousand letters which lasted till Olson's death in 1970 provided "a practical 'college' of stimulus and information" to the younger poet long before he began teaching at Black Mountain College in 1954.
Teaching at Black Mountain at first meant a whole new fulfillment which, however, turned to misery over the breakup with his wife, Ann, who had stayed behind in Mallorca. Another mishap was a car accident which left the driver with a broken leg, Creeley with a severely wrenched shoulder, and another friend with a broken back. A few months later, just at the turn of 1955–1956, Creeley left the college "in real despair, with a marriage finally ended, separated from [his] three children, [and] very confused as to how to support [himself]." One hope in traveling west was that he might manage to shed "Easternism," which Ginsberg, then living in the Bay Area, had been trying to do for some months now. A brief sojourn in New Mexico, where Creeley had plans of settling down, brought little fulfillment in this quest. Staying with friends only made him feel more dependent and restless, and after about a month or so he continued toward San Francisco—"to see the Pacific Ocean, if nothing else."
But San Francisco had a lot more to offer than that. Meeting the Beat writers particularly gave Creeley some of the self-liberation he had yearned for. Most of his later comments on the Beats share the same tenor. Burroughs and Kerouac, he suggested in 1965, had helped free literature from the imposition of "story," "plot," and "continuity" by making the writer a mere recording instrument of what, in Burroughs's phrase, "is in front of his senses at the moment of writing." Gary Snyder with his Zen Buddhist transluminations of reality had opened a whole new "successful relation of hope" in his poetry. Most important, Ginsberg assured Creeley, as Williams had, that his emotions were not insignificant. In doing so, he also helped him open up toward a more expansive way of writing. Until 1956, Creeley had been "habituated to the use of poetry as compact, epiphanal instance of emotion or insight. I valued its intensive compression, its ability to 'get through' a maze of conflict and confusion to some center of clear 'point.' But what did one do if the emotion or terms of thought could not be so focused upon or isolated in such singularity?" Here Ginsberg, in the way he had revitalized Whitman's prosody in Howl, provided Creeley with an example of what was possible. He also helped him recognize Leaves of Grass as the perhaps unsurpassed force behind the major open-form long poems of this century, such as Pound's Cantos, Williams's Paterson, and Louis Zukofsky's A. Creeley's later attempts "to deal with reality over a man's life" in his poems since Pieces (1968) follow the same tradition.
When Creeley first met Ginsberg and his Beat friends in March 1956, he was instantly invaded by their whole new sense of freedom. Within hours of his arrival in San Francisco, he was swept up in a curiously unprecedented whirligig of activities. "Great parties at Locke McCorkle's house out in Mill Valley—Allen [Ginsberg] and Peter [Orlovsky] charmingly dancing naked among a dense pack of clothed bodies, flowers at the prom! Jack [Kerouac] and I sitting on the sidelines, shy, banging on up-ended pots and pans, 'keeping the beat.' Gary Snyder's wise old-young eyes, his centeredness and shyness also. Phil Whalen's, 'Well, Creeley, I hope you know what you're doing….'" Neither Cree ley nor his new friends knew too much about one anothers' writing. But whatever they shared during the first few days of their meeting was taken on trust on the level of immediate sympathy and understanding. Walking through the city, Ginsberg would read Howl from his big black binder notebook each time they would stop in a cafe or just at a curb or on a park bench. A little later, Creeley typed the stencils for a small "edition" of the yet unpublished poem on a typewriter he had borrowed from Kenneth Rexroth's wife, Marthe. In turn, Creeley was asked eager questions about Olson and "Projective Verse"—"was it just more razzle-dazzle intellectualism? McClure and Whalen were particularly intrigued, and were at this time already in correspondence with [Olson]. Allen, as always, was alert to any information of process that might be of use."
A concrete result of Creeley's three-month visit to San Francisco was the historic seventh issue of Black Mountain Review in which Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, McClure, Whalen, and Snyder appear side by side with Black Mountain poets such as Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and Creeley himself. With Allen Ginsberg as a contributing editor, the journal, just before its decease in 1957, managed to bring together the two perhaps most influential movements in post-World War II American literary history. To Creeley himself, there was "unequivocally a shift and opening of the previous center." Yet the welcome given to the new poetic associates was far from uncritical. True enough, editor Robert Creeley, under "Books and Comments," published Kerouac's "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" as well as Williams's preface to Ginsberg's yet unpublished Empty Mirror, which credits the author with Dantean insights into the terrors of this century. But he also published a long review of Howl by former Black Mountain student Michael Rumaker, who comes close to rivaling Norman Podhoretz's later put-down of the Beats in "The Know-Nothing Bohemians." The reviewer found Howl deficient in precision of both feeling and language which strikes him as "cumbrous and hysterical." Whatever anger may have inspired the poet is corrupted with "sentimentality, bathos, Buddha and hollow talk of eternity." To Rumaker, a "listing of horrors described with inaccurate adjectives sheared would have produced greater shock—the cumulative adjectives exhaust whatever fine tension of feeling the poet may have had in the concept—but it is reduced to hysteria and the force of the poem loses by way-wardness, thrashing about…. It's sparseness that's needed here, to let the poem emerge from its adjectival obfuscation."
Such critical strictures may well have been prompted by Creeley's teaching at Black Mountain. Cut out "any too repetitive detail, or bunch of adjectives, etc." and altogether try to be more terse, he had advised Rumaker in an earlier letter from Mallorca. But as editor of the Black Mountain Review Creeley remained impartial. A footnote calls Rumaker's and Williams's comments evidence "of a concern with 'poetic means' more generally. It is certainly not a question of 'right & wrong,' but of the size of an image, and of its containment in form. In this respect Allen Ginsberg's work is an excellent occasion, and he himself is an active man." But whatever his initial response to Howl, Creeley was quick to realize that all the publicity given the Beats and their attitudes would damage their reputation, perhaps even their achievement as writers. Remembering the early days of Origin, he somewhat ruefully observed how now, in 1960, almost everyone was "getting into the so-called act," with journalists throwing around "crazy block-buster" slogans like the "beat generation." "I hate to see," he wrote Cid Corman on 17 December 1960, "the loss of attention to writing as writing, that has come of all the excitement about the social attitudes of the 'beat' or its contrary, the politically intellectual etc.—I much admire a good deal of Ginsberg's work, for example the beginning sections now to KADDISH—but would really best like reading them in a context that insisted on their quality as writing." In retrospect, Creeley understood that a poem like Howl makes real Pound's claim that artists are the antennae of the race by drawing our attention to crises that might otherwise go unattended. But where others looked for strange philosophies, he kept drawing attention to Ginsberg's poetic experiments with the formal organization of the long line.
In turn, Ginsberg was slow to appreciate fully the peculiar complexities of Creeley's poetry. For some reason or another, he confessed in 1956, he could not understand his poems "for at leastaways a half year, then they make sense." Creeley's verse was "hard," but at the same time "how spare and tender." Still more difficult to Ginsberg were Creeley's short stories which even after two years remained "confusing" to him. He was all the more surprised by the German editors of Akzente who "really broke up" over Creeley's works and thought them great. "Your laconism or purity or whatever seems to fit German present psyche perfectly," he reported back to Creeley in New Mexico. Always eager to publicize his friend's writings, Ginsberg elicited similar reactions from quarters which to a large extent stay closed to his own poetry even today. "Yalies buy your style," he wrote Creeley after a reading in New Haven; "amazing what quick reactions. Popular favorite. I wind up reading for laffs, i.e. overstate or over-racily read, rather than understate as your own style of reading them." So Ginsberg continued to read his friend's works along with his own even though some poems in The Whip (1957) added new problems just at the point when he thought to have cracked Creeley's secret. "It usually takes me time to understand how simple you are, or straight. Anyway it's a heavy thick long eggy book," he wrote Creeley on 4 January 1959.
Ginsberg's and Creeley's personal contacts since 1956 have been few and far between—for instance, at the Vancouver and Berkeley poetry conferences of 1963 and 1965 or on the occasion of sporadic private encounters. One reason for this was the rapid consolidation of the poets' respective styles and reputations after 1956. By the time of their first meeting, Ginsberg's first collection of poetry was still in manuscript while Creeley had already published several smaller collections of his poems and a volume of short stories. Inversely, Ginsberg was the first to gain international fame with Howl and Other Poems (1956) and the obscenity trial following its publication. Obviously, his was a poetry of apocalyptic vision and Whitmanesque vatic gestures. Creeley's reputation, first realized with For Love, Poems 1950–1960 (1962), was of an altogether different kind. The poet, wrote Peter Davison in Atlantic, "has a subtle, almost feminine sensibility, and the best of his poems are those dealing with the intricacies that exist between men and women." Creeley, Frederick Eckman had written earlier, is "the most conserving poet I know; he wastes nothing—in fact, at times, rather too little. Creeley's poems are characterized by constriction, the partially revealed vision, economy of utterance…. Creeley is a desperate man, artistically speaking, a purist's purist who utters not one grunt more than he actually knows." Creeley's tendency since then, in his novel The Island (1963) and more recent collections of poetry like Pieces (1968), has been toward linguistic relaxation and daybooklike expansiveness. But the hallmark of his poetic style and vision as a poet (to quote Arthur L. Ford)—"of the fragile point of contact between people" and exploring his feelings "with disarming understatement and precise perception"—has remained consistent throughout.
Despite their obvious temperamental differences, Ginsberg and Creeley have steadily deepened their friendship and mutual respect for each other over the years. This is particularly true of Creeley who jokingly admits to his filial dependence on Ginsberg ("I need you, dad") and straight-forwardly states his affection for the other poet: "I have great love for you, and faith likewise." In turn, Ginsberg's recent poem "After Later" pays homage to a poetic mode which the author has wrestled with over the years.
I am, finally
to be a Ginsberg,
yet I am
if you look
More successful is Creeley's "The Messengers" for Allen Ginsberg, which invokes the smile of his friend's quick eyes lighting a kind world as well as his voice rising "on the sound of feeling."
Aie! It raises the world, lifts,
falls, like a sudden sunlight, like
that edge of the black night sweeps
the low lying fields, of soft grasses,
bodies, fills them with quiet longing.
There is genuine love for the fellow poet, and an admiration for his work, greater perhaps than that which Creeley feels for any other living poet. Such, at least, is the verdict in a reference he wrote for Ginsberg in November 1964. "He is, for me," it reads, "the most accomplished of my contemporaries, and he has opened up possibilities for the craft of poetry which inform the whole art. I am speaking of the ground of feeling which he has managed to articulate, of the prosody required to manage this, and of the qualifications of the concept of literal person equally involved…. I learn from his example daily."
Source: Ekbert Faas, "Robert Creeley," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 16, The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, edited by Ann Charters, Gale, 1983, pp. 141–148.
Bacon, Terry R., "Closure in Robert Creeley's Poetry," in Modern Poetry Studies, Winter 1977, pp. 227–47.
Bernstein, Charles, Interview in Just in Time, New Directions, 2001.
Byrd, Don, "Creeley, Robert," in Contemporary Poets, 6th ed., edited by Thomas Riggs, St. James Press, 1996.
Clark, Tom, Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place, New Directions, 1993, p. 82.
Creeley, Robert, Just in Time: Poems, 1984–1994, New Directions, 2001, pp. 7, 8, 30, 201.
Dukes, Carol Muske, "Straight from the Hearth," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 23, 1991, p. 8.
Ford, Arthur L., Robert Creeley, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 24, 36, 117.
Kaganoff, Penny, Review of Windows, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 15, April 13, 1990, p. 59.
MacGowan, Christopher, "William Carlos Williams," in The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, MJF Books, 1993, p. 416.
Piper, Bill, "Robert Creeley," in American Writers, Suppl. 4, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996, pp. 139–61.
Whited, Stephen, Review of Just in Time: Poems, 1984–1994, in Book, March–April 2002, p. 78.
Campbell, James, This Is the Beat Generation: New York—San Francisco—Paris, University of California Press, 2001.
This book introduces readers to the major poets and writers of the Beat Generation, among whom are Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Robert Creeley. It provides cultural and historical background for this literary movement.
Clark, Tom, Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place, New Directions, 1993.
Clark's slim book contains a great deal of biographical material and the poet's "Autobiography." It also has many photographs and some poems, and includes transcripts of Creeley's interviews.
Creeley, Robert, The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, University of California Press, 1989.
This is a collection of essays, reviews, and miscellaneous literary correspondence edited by the poet. Although these writings seem disconnected at first glance, they provide an insight into Creeley's aesthetic sensibility.
Edelberg, Cynthia Dubin, Robert Creeley's Poetry: A Critical Introduction, University of New Mexico Press, 1978.
This book covers Creeley's early poetry, and it contains a large number of commentaries on individual poems.