Friday, April 01, 2005
My nephew Daniel reminded me that I posted this review here a little over a year ago. It certainly feels relevant today.
It may be impossible to overstate Robert Creeley’s influence on American writing. When the New American poets came of age in the early 1950s, they were intervening into a world in which American verse was as close to moribund as it had been since the Andrew Jackson administration in the 1820s. The Objectivists were out of print & several were on extended leave between poems. The modernists were dead or in Europe, save for the notable exception of Pound & he was in a psychiatric hospital, still eligible at that point to be tried for treason, the death penalty a distinct option. Otherwise, there was Williams & the
I am a poet! I
am. I am. I am a poet. I reaffirmed, ashamed.
– speaks to the circumstance. That last word rings out: to be a poet in 1950 was a hard claim to make. The number who were writing well in
The New Americans changed all that. The Beats got most of the press, combining as they did their open return to romanticism with a lifestyle antithetical to the “man in a gray flannel suit.” & the Allen anthology itself may only have been the tip of an iceberg by the time it arrived a decade hence. But the gauntlet flung down by Ginsberg in “Howl,” as by Olson in “Projective Verse,” to reimagine poetry’s meaning & place in the world, was a challenge taken up by literally dozens of writers intent on disentangling the nets of being that the SoQ had thrown over the possibility of vision & action in the poem.
Of the New Americans, nobody promoted good writing by example more clearly or passionately than did Robert Creeley. The relation of the clean, spare poems of his early books, gathered into For Love, to the whole of New American poetry was not dissimilar from that of imagism two generations earlier to the larger landscape that was modernism. Yet Creeley’s spare, often rhymed verses were not simply a demonstration of the elimination of any extraneous matter – tho I think sometimes these poems were taken as such, especially by SoQ types who wanted to bring him in as their token New American when discussing their blinkered view of American verse. In fact, if you read Creeley’s fiction, which he wrote quite a lot of during the 1950s, you see the very same logic that operates in the poetry to create such “clean” effects extend in prose & come across as something far more modular & convoluted. In each what is being tracked is the sensuality of thinking. In his work, it’s a physical, almost erotic presence, even when created entirely out of grammar & voiced hesitation.
Words, Creeley’s next large collection from Scribners, proved more controversial for the simplest of reasons: the poems were longer, even if the lines were somewhat leaner. As the poems extended themselves, it became hard not to notice how, like in his fiction, Creeley’s process followed thinking as a physical process. The disembodiment of pure exposition was of no interest to him.
Pieces, which followed close on Words, demonstrated once & for all how profoundly radical Creeley was as a poet – more so, actually, than any of his fellow projectivists. If Words can be said to reflect the visible influence of Louis Zukofsky, Pieces reflected two influences new to Creeley, Ted Berrigan & Gertrude Stein. Further, they were entering into his work in a different way, not simply as surface color. Instead, Creeley seemed to be distilling the underlying principles of their poetry & casting them into his own work in ways that I don’t think could have been anticipated by either writer. Perhaps even more important, in looking to Berrigan’s use of linked verse (which Ted in turn had taken from John Ashbery’s “Europe,” transforming it into something more supple), Creeley was demonstrating an ability to look to & take seriously the lessons of younger poets, an exceptionally rare quality among major poets.* Pieces proved as radical to the New American Poetry** as that literary phenomenon had been to the somnambulant scene of the 1940s.
Creeley’s later poetry coincides with his association with New Directions. Its defining feature over the years – and, realistically, this has been the actual bulk of Creeley’s production as a poet – has been a more relaxed torque to the syntax & a contentment in general with the lyric form (tho not always deployed to traditional lyric uses). At a point when most projectivists had thoroughly bought into the idea that one works toward that Major Poem – for Olson Maximus, for Duncan Passages – the third major figure of the Black Mountain Three went in a completely different direction.***
With Pieces (& its prose cousins of that period, Mabel & A Day Book), Creeley could claim to have changed poetry twice in his lifetime, something only John Ashbery among his peers could honestly have been said to have done as well.+ Which is to say that Creeley had written in such a way as to expand the possibilities of poetry for all writers, not just him alone. One consequence of this, it’s worth noting, has been that he has been held to a different, harder standard than almost any other poet or his or any generation. I’ve heard, far too often, that Creeley’s poetry has been in some form or other deficient in recent decades, when objectively I don’t think that’s the case at all. Rather, having changed poetry twice, his work since the mid-1970s has been a part of poetry rather than a radical overturning, extending, or undermining of what’s already there. In that regard, he’s been like almost every other major or minor poet. But, having set an expectation that any given book of his might, in fact, change the world, books that fall short of that particular goal are seen as being not his best work. This almost feels like some kind of curse, in the general “no good deed will go unpunished” category.
So it’s worth noting that the poetry in If I were writing this – note the particular uses of capitalization here++ – is changing. These poems, composed over the past half dozen years, seem more insistent on audible increments of form than much of Creeley’s poetry over the previous twenty years. Consider this stanza, the first in an elegy for Allen Ginsberg,
A bitter twitter,
some sad news,
the birds gone to nest,
in the darkness,
asking no improvident questions,
nothing in the quiet dark.
Ten commas, 17 lines, a welter of sound patterns cascading through it, the primary structural elements of this 42-word sentence come down to just five tucked well into its center: someone’s getting / some sad news. It’s as if the generality of these lines is accentuated, as if to say that’s not what this is about. Indeed, I would argue that this poem is, in fact, about all the other stuff here – the sound particularly, so insistently reiterative that it works against what one might think of as rhyme’s zero degree of harmony – here it comes across as plaintive, even despairing. Indeed, with six of the lines ending on -ing, the use of sound in the remainder of the lines is magnified. I might be willing to argue, in fact, that the most important word in the stanza doesn’t appear here at all – rest. We anticipate it after nest & the alternative roost calls it further to mind (as its present/absent rhyme magnifies the -es in darkness). The absence is an interesting instance of what form can do to/with philosophy & vice versa. The whole power of the word roost lies not in the physicality of birds settling, but by the degree that our mind has to move from expectation to actuality. That palpability of absence mimics of course the elegiac experience itself. These are hardly the characteristics of a poet lightening up or coasting. If anything, one might argue that there’s a renewed intensity in these poems.
Many of these works have appeared previously, a fact that New Directions carefully avoids acknowledging on the verso. Readers, tho, who have acquired Creeley’s collaboration with Archie Rand, Drawn & Quartered, or with the great photographer Elsa Dorfman, En Famille, already own a substantial fraction of this new volume. But I’m one reader who thinks that you need a both/and strategy when it comes to the works of Robert Creeley, not an either/or. All my life, he’s been the closest thing we have had to a dean of American poetry, and our world has been & is the richer for it.
* Perhaps because it so clearly violates all three laws of Personal Literary Teleology:
1. “The history of literature leads directly to me”
2. “The history of literature reaches its apotheosis with me”
3. “After me, literature has no need to evolve further”
** Note to self: write blog on how the New Americans evolved beyond the New American poetry. Viz. Dorn’s ‘Slinger, Baraka’s renunciation, Ginsberg’s harmonium, etc.
*** Note to self again (related project): contrast Maximus & Passages to ‘Slinger & Paul Blackburn’s Journals as alternate models of the longpoem.
+ First with The Tennis Court Oath, second with Three Poems.
++ Not to mention the implied presumption that maybe I’m not writing this.