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FORM, POWER, AND PERSON IN ROBERT CREELEY'S LIFE AND WORK
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
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Chapter One Robert Creeley Out of School
The Making of a Singular Poetics
no less than water no more than wet - Robert Creeley, "Funny"
The Creeley memorials of 2005 and 2006 - festivals, readings, conferences, and especially Web site testimonials - have been so overwhelming in their homage and veneration for the late great poet that we tend to forget that it was not always thus, that Creeley's distinctive poetics have been the object of curious misunderstandings. For all his bridge-building, his geniality, and the uncanny ability, in his later years, to persuade friends and colleagues from one camp to accept and work with those of another, Creeley was and remains curiously singular - a poet who fits uneasily into the very schools with which he is regularly linked. A "Black Mountain" poet whose actual poems have very little in common with the work of his mentor Charles Olson or his close friends Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, a younger friend and strong advocate of the Objectivists, who had little taste for the citational poetics of Zukofsky or the strenuous political/philosophical engagements of Oppen or Reznikoff, an affiliated member of the Beat community, whose spare writingcould never be confused with the expansive-ecstatic mode of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso, a composer of dense, abrupt first-person lyric in an age of loose, expansive, and encyclopedic "long poems" - Creeley is, in the end, sui generis.
How, then, to characterize a Creeley poem? We might begin by considering the arguments made early in the poet's career, and still in evidence, against Creeley's lyric mode. Take, for starters, M. L. Rosenthal's now notorious commentary on Creeley in the well-known survey The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, published by Oxford in 1967. Rosenthal, himself a poet, was an early admirer of Pound and Williams (he attended many of the famed poetry conferences sponsored by the University of Maine at Orono) but, although he found the occasional Creeley poem in For Love and Words "touching" and "alive with wit," he dismissed the bulk as "brief mutterings ... or the few shuffling steps of an actor pretending to dance" (148). Creeley's humor, "especially in his complaints about married life," struck Rosenthal as "too often obvious and easy," and he concluded that "the work demand[s] too little from its author, though the author demands a good deal of attentive sympathy and faith from the reader" (159).
It is a judgment echoed by the eminent Christopher Ricks, now the Oxford Professor of Poetry, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1973 that "Creeley is at the mercy of his own notions. He would seem to be a professional quietist and libertarian, but these conventions (e.g., no regular verse, no standard linear development) turn out to be more cramping than those of a minuet" (7 Jan. 1973, 5, 22). And in the Yale Review for Autumn 1977, Helen Vendler, comparing Creeley to Olga Broumas, the Yale Younger Poet for that year (the occasion was the publication by Scribners of the Selected Poems), declared, "Creeley remains so much a follower of Williams, without Williams's rebelliousness, verve, and social breadth, and his verse seems, though intermittently attractive, fatally pinched" (73-74). And further, "In Creeley, there is a relentless process of abstraction, of 'serial diminishment of progression'; he purchases composition at the price of momentum and sweep." Not surprisingly, in light of these remarks, Creeley was omitted from Vendler's 1985 Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, which did include such exact contemporaries of Creeley's as John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Allen Ginsberg, A. R. Ammons, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, and James Wright.
The publication of the Collected Poems in 1982 didn't altogether change this negative mood. "Creeley is not [as claimed by the publisher] a major poet," complained Richard Tillinghast in the Nation, for "it has not been his ambition to address in a sustained manner the large human issues that are traditionally associated with major poetry" (19 Nov. 1983, 501). The title of Tillinghast's piece is "Yesterday's Avant-Garde" - yesterday, presumably, because "experimental" poetry in the Pound-Olson tradition was held suspect in the conservative 1980s. Indeed, the Language poets had now appeared on the scene, and Tillinghast takes the opportunity to disparage the new movement:
Creeley has become a guru to "language poets" - a term whose equivalent in other arts would be "dancing choreographers" or "music composers" or "food chefs." Literary self-consciousness is as old as poetry itself; every poet is a "language poet." In much of Creeley's work, however, particularly after For Love, language itself is the exclusive focus, thereby positing an ideal reader who is a philosopher of language. Wittgenstein would have spent many happy hours with Creeley's poems. My own reactions I can sum up variously, depending on my mood, as: (1) this poetry deliberately avoids communication, for reasons of its own; (2) it is so abstruse that I lose interest; (3) it is simply over my head. (504)
The last disclaimer may be true, given that marvelously wrong-headed remark about Wittgenstein, who never spent a happy hour with anyone's poems, much less those by one of his contemporaries, although, as I suggested in Wittgenstein's Ladder, the reverse was certainly the case: Creeley knew his Wittgenstein well. Other reviewers, in any case, agreed that Creeley's poetry "deliberately avoids communication"; in the New York Times Book Review, Alan Williamson observed that for Creeley, "minimalism has become more and more an end in itself.... Tautology mingled with neutral observation in a John Cage-like faith in the inherent value of silencing the interpretive function" (9 Mar. 1980, 8-9).
Like M. L. Rosenthal, Williamson and Tillinghast are what we used to call academic poets, before the academy, thanks in no small part to Creeley himself, began to welcome poets of a very different stamp. A quiet revolution has certainly occurred. But what Charles Bernstein dubbed "official verse culture" - the culture of the leading commercial presses, journals, and prize-giving institutions - has not changed all that much: witness David Lehman's recent Oxford Book of American Poetry, published in 2006. Lehman is a poet with New York School credentials and a PhD from Columbia, who has held a variety of academic posts but is perhaps best known for his general editorship of the annual Best American Poetry volumes, one of which he invited Creeley to edit. In the new anthology, a 1000-page blockbuster, Lehman gives Creeley short shrift. Whereas James Merrill and A. R. Ammons (both born, like Creeley, in 1926) get twenty-three and fifteen pages respectively, Creeley gets a mere five. In his headnote, Lehman avers:
Even poets on the other end of the poetic spectrum admire Creeley, as in Donald Hall's phrase, "the master of the strange, stuttering line-break." Hall observes that if you took a sentence from a late Henry James novel like The Ambassadors and arranged it in two-word lines, you would "have a Creeley poem worrying out its self-consciousness." Creeley seems often to substitute speech rhythms for imagery as the engine of the poem. (745)
What, one wonders, is Creeley's "end of the poetic spectrum," a place Lehman alludes to as just faintly disreputable? One surmises that the term refers to Black Mountain or Beat or, more broadly, the "Pound tradition": Olson too only gets five pages, Duncan, five, Levertov, three, and Ed Dorn is not included at all. To be called "the master of the strange, stuttering line-break" is, in any case, to be treated as eccentric - a poet who has his limitations, of course, but at least has this one talent, a talent that allows the poet to produce line units that recall "cut up" segments of Henry James. Moreover, Lehman implies, Creeley's "substitution" of speech rhythms for imagery as the "engine of the poem" is somehow aberrant: imagery, after all, remains in most accounts the hallmark of poetry.
From Rosenthal to Lehman, Creeley's detractors have voiced the same reservation: Creeley's lyric is too "minimalist," "cramped" (Ricks), and "pinched" (Vendler), its language too abstract and conceptual, its communicative channel too often blocked, its subject matter too far removed from the "great human issues." True, Creeley has invented a new verse form - "the strange, stuttering line-break" - but, we are told, such prosodic invention, employing those speech rhythms that substitute for the resource of imagery, is not enough.
Rosenthal, however, concludes his chapter on Creeley with a remark that points unwittingly in another direction. He wonders if poetry like Creeley's, with its "restraint and cool control, is the last stand of genuine sensibility against the violence and ruthlessness of twentieth-century civilization. But genuine sensibility cannot give up its passion quite so tamely; it all seems a little too confined to settle for just yet. - Perhaps after World War III? If so, Creeley is indeed ahead of his time" (159). However we want to take this melodramatic comment - and, sadly, the reference to World War III no longer seems so far-fetched - Rosenthal does seem to sense that Creeley's "cool control" provides a special measure for the violence and ruthlessness of our own moment. Keeping this notion in mind, I want to turn now to a characteristic poem from For Love. Here is "The Rain":
All night the sound had come back again, and again falls this quiet, persistent rain. What am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often? Is it that never the ease, even the hardness, of rain falling will have for me something other than this, something not so insistent - am I to be locked in this final uneasiness. Love, if you love me, lie next to me. Be for me, like rain, the getting out of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference. Be wet with a decent happiness. (CP1 207)
Rain is, of course, one of the most prominent symbols in poetry, whether as a portent of storm, flood, and human destruction, or conversely - and more commonly - as the source of life, fertility, and renewal, as in English poetry from Chaucer to Eliot, or for that matter in East Asian poetry as well. As a Basho haiku has it: "Spring rain / leaking through the roof / dripping from the wasps' nest." In Romantic and modernist poetry, the association of rain with the longing for sexual fulfillment occurs again and again, from Verlaine's "Il pleure sur mon coeur" to Thomas Hardy's "We Sat at the Window," to Apollinaire's calligramme "Il Pleut" with its visual representation of women's voices raining down the page, as if in the poet's memory (see page 26). Closer to home, Creeley surely knew William Carlos Williams's 1930 poem "Rain," which begins:
As the rain falls so does your love bathe every open object of the world - In houses the priceless dry rooms of illicit love where we live hear the wash of the rain - (Litz and MacGowan 343-44)
Here, in what Williams himself once referred to as "the best poem I have ever done" (527), rain is associated with the poet's desire for an unattainable love and is contrasted to the indoor world of "dry / rooms / of illicit love" - a "love" associated with the "whorishness" of "metalware" and "woven stuffs" (344). The poem's lineation follows the movement of the rain "falling endlessly / from / her thoughts" (346); the poet longs to be "bathed" by the "spring wash / of your love / the falling / rain." But something fearful or perverse in his nature prevents it from happening: "my life is spent / to keep out love / with which / she rains upon // the world" (344).
Creeley's poem is at once more intimate than Williams's and yet also much more opaque. Written in six quatrains rather than in Williams's spatially organized free verse lines, it begins literally enough with the sleepless poet aware of the "quiet, persistent rain" that has been falling "all night." The rhyme "rain" (in the title), "again," "again," "rain," would seem at first to function mimetically, sound repetition conveying the gentle rainfall itself. But syntax undercuts sound, for the second "again" introduces a new clause with a tense shift and inversion of word order. Creeley's is not, in fact, "speech rhythm": to whom and in what context would anyone say, "and again falls this quiet, persistent rain"? The fourth elongated line, moreover, with its alliteration of t's, emphasizes not regularity of rhythm but an irritating persistence. Indeed, the first stanza swiftly establishes the poem's tone of malaise, dislocation, restlessness.
Hence the shift, in stanza 2, from the rain itself to the poet's intense self-questioning: "What am I to myself / that must be remembered, / insisted upon / so often?" As Creeley's detractors note, the language is abstract and conceptual, the grammar ungainly: the question "What am I to myself" is guardedly indirect. The key word here is "insisted," which is repeated in stanza 4, where the poet wishes for "something not so insistent" as the falling rain. From "persistent" to "insistent": the two adjectives are close enough to be almost interchangeable, but "insistent" has a more negative connotation. A persistent caller, for example, is not as irritating as an insistent one - a person who demands your attention, who wants something. The poet knows this, knows that he can never respond to the external stimulus - whether it be the "ease" of gentle rain or its opposite, the "hardness of rain falling" - casually or instinctively. On the contrary, it is his condition "to be locked in this / final uneasiness." Never, it seems, can the poet be easy.
Note that as readers we have absolutely no idea why this should be the case. Unlike, say, the Robert Lowell of "Eye and Tooth," whose similar insomnia ("Outside, the summer rain, / a simmer of rot and renewal, / fell in pinpricks. / Even new life is fuel -" [Lowell 334]) links the poet's present pain from a throbbing cut cornea to a terrifying childhood memory of something once seen ("No ease for the boy at the keyhole"), Creeley does not concern himself with cause and effect, past and present. The world merely is; it is everything that is the case, and one has to deal with it as best one can. At the core of "The Rain," as in most of Creeley's poems, early and late, there is mystery - a mystery that no "conceptual" statement can clear up.
And so the lover turns to his woman and pleads with her: "Love, if you love me, / lie next to me." It couldn't be simpler, or could it? It is she who must now supply the "rain" that can get him out "of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi- / lust of intentional indifference." Here the clumsy catalogue of abstract nouns with the awkward line break after "semi" provides a terrifying sense of the paralysis and anxiety that haunts the man who speaks. Even his "intentional indifference" (perhaps the lovers have had a quarrel earlier?) is haunted by "semi-lust," a feeling that can't be ignored but is not strong enough to act on either. As for the woman beside him, we have no idea what she is thinking or feeling, and neither does the poet. "If you love me" is a big "if."
Excerpted from FORM, POWER, AND PERSON IN ROBERT CREELEY'S LIFE AND WORK Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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