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The Charm, 1945–1952
Burma, New Hampshire, Aix-en-Provence
LETTER TO GENEVIEVE AND HELEN CREELEY
Dear Mother and Helen,
We soon will land, and after that I suppose everything will become something over which I shall have little or no control. I am actually looking forward to that time, though I should never have thought I would. But then many of the things that have occurred in the past year I could never have predicted, and they are the very things which will make me think as I do. It will be quite pleasant to carry out someone's orders, to do what one is told. yet, should I find myself on my own at anytime, I have enough strength, enough intelligence to rescue me. I do not worry about that, and it would be little help if I did. Anyhow, I am ready, as much as I can be ready, for what is coming.
Being at sea for a month, away from all past influences, did a great deal for me in many ways. On ship, having only one companion and he so different in his tastes, I found all the time I could possibly need for thinking and reading. It was rather like waking from a nightmare with the realization that the nightmare had only been oneself. All I have done, and so much it was, to ruin myself, to hurt those who love and trust me, to cloud my eyes to everything while it was so very important for me to see, all of this I saw and realized. I thought about it over and over again, until at last the mistakes were clear, were obvious, and I could know them as mistakes myself; and to call an action a mistake has nothing to do with knowing one is. The little good that was left I have kept, and on that I must begin to build my whole new structure, nothing more or nothing less. I have a great deal of work to do.
I wrote quite a bit, and very little of it is good, or I think is good, yet that will do for now. I can't alter my wish to write. That remains, and I can only adjust to it. I do believe that I shall be able to someday; I will not admit ever that it is only a dream or something which I can never realize.
I think of a number of quotations, all of them admirable, which I might now use for my own life. The very obvious one is in Polonius' speech to Laertes in Act I, Sc. III of Hamlet "This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man". Oh, that would help, I think, but not answer. So much more is necessary. I think of Walpole's Fortitude, and I remember reading it when I was quite young and almost wishing someone would beat me, so that I could be as brave as Peter Westcott. That book begins with this: "Tisn't life that matters; 'tis the courage you bring to it". And that's much more than true, and still not nearly enough. No quotation is enough. How could it be? nothing outside oneself can ever be enough. I cannot be told, and I cannot be shown how I should live. I can only find out for myself. But I sincerely wish to hear how others have done it, to have them tell me what they have learned, for they may lead me to my own answer, though they can't actually give it to me. Enough of this. I will learn, because I must.
Remembering letters I wrote in prep school, even when at Harvard, I am afraid that you will think I am insincere, verbose, because of what has preceded this. Believe me, I am not; this is not a time for that, and it was then. If I appear to take myself too seriously now, it is because for the next year and a half I shall hardly be a "self" at all. And think of the last year where I took myself seriously in such an unserious manner. I love you both much, more than I can tell you, and it will always be so. Take care of yourselves, Bob.
[RC's note, upper left margin] 1 The ship's library happened to have and I reread, enjoying it as much as I once did.
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LETTER TO GENEVIEVE AND HELEN CREELEY
2012 Volunteer Robert Creeley A Platoon Section 1 S.E.A.C. April 13, 1945
Dear Mother and Helen,
Cooler this morning, God be praised, and letter-writing becomes an actuality instead of a hope. We're having the preliminaries to the monsoon at present—rain which comes in the later part of the day and clears about night-fall, though I'm by no means happy to see the advent of the monsoon, the respite from the heat is undeniably welcome.
Working at last. I'm attached to [??] and have begun to do the work I wanted to do five months ago. To give you some picture of what it consists, the following is more or less typical. About six the I.O.R.s (Indian Other Ranks) begin to chatter and make sleep for anyone within hearing range impossible. So I get up, grab the canvas bucket which someone considered a curio, get some water, and wash—the latter action is for the most part futile, because in an hour I'll be sweaty and consequently dirtier than before. Then I sit around waiting for breakfast, which, if we're in luck, means eggs, bacon or sausages perhaps, and tea, but, if we're not, it is something quite indescribable. After breakfast I try to find something to do—sweep out the ambulance, straighten out my kit, talk with anyone who will, or do what I'm doing now, anything, you see, to fill up the time between breakfast and the arrival of casualties. These come in at about nine thirty. They're treated as quickly as possible, loaded into an ambulance (we'll say mine), and taken back to the C.C.S. (Casualty Clearance Something). now the last sentence involves a half day's work where I am at present. From our A.D.S. to the main road, which is very fortunately tarmacked, there's some four miles of bumpy, dirt road, and it's difficult to drive more than five miles an hour without making the patients very uncomfortable. And in the case of bad stomach wounds or something similar it's impossible to go that fast. Once on the tarmack I can go much faster, and in a relatively short time I've arrived at the C.C.S. some twenty miles distant (in this case).
I drive up in front of "Reception", get out, and, forcing all the authority summonable into my voice, shout "stretcher bearer!" Sometimes they come, sometimes they don't. Should they not come, I go ferret them out from wherever they're sleeping and prod them into taking out my patients. Once the ambulance is clear, I simply turn around and come back to my A.D.S. and spend the rest of the day doing whatever I can find to do until it's time to sleep.
The joke about waiting being the greater part of military action, as you may have gathered, is no joke out here. Luckily I've a few books and my own writing to fill out some of the blanks. (Books, understandably, make the ideal package from home.) nevertheless, many times I think I'd have had it, had nothing happened within a few minutes later.
It's literally impossible to tell you what is happening here, the atmosphere is always changing, first grotesque, then absurdly funny, now poignantly sad, and then quite pointlessly ugly. One's system of values shifts from day to day. Last night, for example, six feet from where I was sleeping, an I.O.R. was lying with his side shot away, still living after a day and a half; they could do nothing for him. Just before I fell asleep, he died and, as I was dozing off, I could hear his death rattle. But I was too tired to think about it. I suppose normally one sees very few people die, and their death means shock and great sadness. Here there is only a minute for the shake of a hand, a comment rather bitterly appropriate, and then it has passed; all of it, until the next. And who's to say even that much is not wasted?
War, as well as Elizabethan drama, is a good exponent of comic relief. For me there have been infinite numbers of instances. I remember one time when I was still driving a water truck for H.Q. we could find no water point with a pump. So I with two I.O.R.s began an extremely ineffectual bucket brigade. Well, the sun was hot as I think it can ever be, and I was streaming with sweat, and the damn tank seemed bottomless. yet I was laughing and thoroughly enjoying the situation, all because the pants of the I.O.R. in the middle fell down every time he passed the bucket up to me on the truck. Thank God for British issue butts!
Please keep your letters coming—especially, Helen, ones like the last long one from you. They help so very much. And if you can find time for photographs, they'd also be appreciated. you can rely on my writing as often as it's possible.—In the meantime take care of yourselves and Sandy.
All my love, Bob
P.S. I have a photograph enclosed in this letter. Hope it comes through alright.
Volunteer Robert W. Creeley
[The black square indicates censored content.]
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LETTER TO GENEVIEVE AND HELEN CREELEY
Vol. R.W. Creeley
May 10, 1945 Am. Field Service A.P.O. 465, c/o P.M. ny ny
Dear Mother and Helen,
your letters are coming in regularly, and I am more than thankful that they are. Mail is the most effective morale-builder there is out here; an oft repeated fact, but one well worth repeating.
At the present there is a temporary lull in activity. Consequently, I'm getting a rest which I can't say I'm glad to get, but which, I suppose, is good for me. Since I haven't reached a point where I'd be glad to be back and take things easy, I'd much rather be working. Anything is better than inactivity I've found; the latter makes me extremely restless and moody, gives me too much time to think.
All this serves to introduce the subject of reading material. I can never have too much of it. To date I've received no copies of the "new yorker" nor any of the "new Directions" publications which I thought might be most convenient for you to send me. If you can pick up any copies of the "Partisan Review," "Poetry" or "Furiosa" (I'm not sure that the last is still being published), I should enjoy having them. Please do not consider this in any way a reprimand for what I might think a lack of cooperation. The blame, if any can be justifiably placed, might well be put on postal facilities. They are certainly not all one might wish for. So I think that that is where those various things I have asked for are—somewhere between you and me. They'll probably arrive some day.
I'm looking forward to the monsoons with a great deal of curiosity and uneasiness. I've heard some very incredible tales about them, and they've come at one time or another from fairly reliable people. naturally the more imaginative will tell me tales of how the rain comes down to within six feet of the ground at which point it changes to steam. The effect of this on the average person seems obvious—driving conditions, I am told, are impossible. Sometimes vehicles are mired down for days waiting for someone who can't move himself to come and tow them out. The whole procedure becomes a symbol of gullibility—the monsoons, consequently, must be pretty God awful, and the fact that they last for two or three months makes them hardly more attractive.
It's unfortunate that the people involved in the field work part of a war can't know where and when they will be wanted. But that, I suppose, would terminate the war a bit too quickly to suit the ambitions behind it. Moreover, if it weren't for the suspense and the frustration, which constant waiting creates, the people involved might forget their negations, surely the type of thought produced by unavoidable and unending [begin strike through]expectation[end strike through] repression, and come forth with some constructive thought. And who knows what that might lead to?—I will always feel pity for those who are forced to wait for something they actually see no reason to wait for, caught in a situation they can neither correct nor understand. What can they do but gripe?
I have written to Arthur. I wish in a way that he were not overseas—my reason for that is apparent. yet, since I know he shared the curiosity I had, I'm glad that he will be satisfied. The experience he is having can intensify or blunt appreciation of the things most elemental in our lives; it can make or break a person as sensitive as Arthur, and I think his comparatively sound sense of logic and reasoning will cause it to have the former effect.
Your descriptions of Sandy and his explorations into what makes things work make me wish that I were back with you to see it for myself. I spend a great deal of time thinking of the various things I should like to do with him, picnics and all the rest, and if Arthur can spare him long enough, I'll see those hopes come true. It is something for me to look forward to.
Thanks for sending the camera. It hasn't arrived yet—no packages, other than the almonds, have, for that matter. It's a very slow process I've found from the experiences of my friends. But God willing they do get here eventually. I would like some films for it, if you can get them—rather difficult to get out here. Please take care of yourselves. And keep writing as often as you can. Give my love to Sandy and tell him that I'll bring him back lots of presents.
All my love, Bob
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LETTER TO GENEVIEVE CREELEY
Mrs. O.S. Creeley
65 Sparks St
Vol. R. Creeley
Am. Field Service
A.P.O. 465, c/o P.M. NY NY
May 15, 1945
I've sent you a package containing the artificial eye which I got in Calcutta. It was cracked a few days ago quite mysteriously. Rather annoying, since I had it in a tin packed in cotton. Anyhow, see if you can get me another of similar measurements. you might have them use one of my old eyes for determining the placement of the pupil. Please try to obtain one and send it to me as quickly as possible, for the mails are very, very slow, and it would take almost four months, were you to send it immediately. Do what you can, anyhow.
All my best, Bob
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LETTER TO BOB LEED
June 21, 1948
This will be, I should think, the last letter before I see you. Little more than a week to go. I wonder what Cambridge will look like (all of it); the same, without a doubt. It used to bewilder me to go back there when we were living on the Cape because no matter how long it had been since the last visit, I could go into Jim's place, sit down, and finish the sentence that had been left hanging in the air when I'd been forced to leave suddenly two months before. To some that might seem even pleasant, but for me it was unbelievably horrible. It confirmed my suspicion that I never talked to anyone but myself.
Speaking of Proust (which we have) recalls a particularly good comment by William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity which I figured out once he wrote when he was little more than twenty) on Proust to the effect that Remembrance of Things Past read like the paraphrase or better, the verbal recollection, of a great novel that had unfortunately been lost. I forget which of the 7 types this was supposed to illustrate (if any) but I do remember that it came somewhere in the next to the last chapter. I'd get it and quote it if the book weren't buried somewhere under all the rest. Last night I came on another comment on Proust in Otto Rank's Art and Artist, i.e., 'in contrast to Homer's spatial metaphor Proust's is temporal; that is, it attempts, by the temporal association of the present with the past, to restore the latter to life, just as Homer puts it in living form before us by means of plastic presentation. (All this is pretty obvious.) The two kinds of metaphor are, however, distinct from each other in the same way that space and time are conceptually and factually distinct. Space is a concrete idea, time an abstract, and thus Homer's metaphor is plastic, Proust's intellectualist. (now it gets a little better but for my money still a gross over-simplification so damned common to the psychologist and his use of any material beyond what is potentially his own by way of jargon.) In fact, the temporal quality of Proust's metaphor is typical not only of his famous similes but of his whole work which one might take as a single gigantic metaphor (le temps retrouve). (Of course that has been stretched to include all of the life function, i.e., 'life is but a dream' or a metaphor which in this case depends on a very slim basis of actual objective fact. I do him an injustice, however.) But in Proust the intellectualist outlook—which is almost a self-evident necessity in the modern poet—proves that at the bottom it is a matter of ideas of death and the fear of death, of will to maintain the actual life-process in himself, rather than of a will to reconquer the past, which could only come out as a neurotic expression thereof.' He goes on to conceive of Shakespeare's metaphor as dynamic, i.e., an incorporate jumble of both past and present, use of myth, present, and so on, personified metaphor—'Shylock inhumanly avaricious like the devil of gold himself'. Well, I started the book, bought it, to find out something more about the psychologist personality and this is perhaps the best evidence (not the quote) of it that I've yet seen. It is strange to consider, for example, strange for me at any rate, that Rank is propounding what must eventually get back to something not very far removed from the spiritual and just about as lucid. His rejection of Freud's idea of the artist as thwarted neurotic whose basis of creativity depends on the sexual I like and think it well-grounded in fact (the recitation of which would take too long to include here). But since I have never subscribed to the idea of man as animal or at least sufficiently well explained in these terms, I may be merely applauding the reiteration of my own beliefs. I can't tell you how many fights (actual) I've had with Ann on this score since she is a thorough-going Freudian, at least in so far as she is concerned with explaining the actions of anyone who may interest her. For example, I recently read Sorokin's Reconstruction of Humanity whose theory of conflicting loyalties on the 'socio-cultural' (i.e., the women's club, business, boy scouts level, group affiliations almost) level as the basis of the most neuroses impressed me as comparatively sensible and whose quite violent attack on Freud at least warmed me. I was nasty enough to read a number of the comments to her and we had a rather rough time of it for a while. But as she says, 'I don't like poetry', so sooner or later I'm bound to be confounded. I was annoyed, for instance, by her absorbed reading of Richard Wilbur's book, i.e., these things hurt. However, be that as it may, Freud is a thorn in both our sides. I recall at this point Paul Goodman's essay, 'The Father of The Psychoanalytic Movement', (Kenyon Review, yours), i.e., 'We must think of Freud as methodically eyeing himself for half a century, as a doctor does, and seeing that he had become old, ill, and tired. Or as a parent keeps an eye on a child who has a tendency to masturbate; what can the child do but get out?' or 'Freud was the first of the psychoanalysts and therefore had to analyze himself.
Excerpted from The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley by Rod Smith, Peter Baker, Kaplan Harris. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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