Friday, October 13, 2006


If you were only going to own two books of poetry, you could do far worse than making them the two volumes of The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley. UC Press has finally released a paperback edition of the original Collected Poems, 1945-1975 to coincide with (and echo in look) its new Collected Poems, 1975-2005, which is just out in hardback. The two volumes together will run you $75 and change – that may be the best deal in all of poetry.

Robert Creeley already was the dean of American poets – I can think of no better way to describe him – by the time I first wandered onto the scene in 1965. It is difficult – impossible – to imagine that at the moment he was only 39 years old.¹ His first trade press book, the 1962 Scribners volume, For Love, gathering together material from eight earlier chapbooks, had made him the most popular – and accessible – of the non-beatniks involved in the New American Poetry.

His was also the last generation in which every young poet of substance could expect reasonably to have a book by a major trade publisher & thus in most bookstores in the country. Soon enough, the rapid increase in the number of poets & the decrease in the number of bookstores willing to stock much in the way of verse beyond Blake, Gibran & Rilke caused the trades to retrench into becoming essentially a small press scene of their own, albeit with distribution, ad budgets & some ability to influence institutional awards. Even poets just a few years younger than Creeley, such as Ed Dorn, soon found such doors shut to them.

So we turn out to be incredibly fortunate that Creeley had such distribution while still in his thirties & at a moment when it still meant something in terms of reaching a broader audience. The brevity of Creeley’s poems belies the fact that he was, throughout his life, one of the most brilliant of innovators & with perhaps the most subtle ear of his generation. If the arc of these two volumes differs, it is that the earlier one shows the work of a young man anxious to remake the world of verse over in his own aesthetic image. The poems are intense & often need to be read with a great sense of urgency & even an tone of anger or despair, pausing – as he invariably did – audibly at the end of every line. By the start of the second volume, Creeley was already the most widely imitated poet in the English language & was in the process of concluding his long relationship with Bobbie Louise Hawkins. In 1976, while doing a reading tour of New Zealand, he met Penelope Highton, who was to become his wife & companion for the last 27 years of his life. Both her spirit and the more settled domesticity of his last marriage are inseparable from the poems of the second volume. It’s easier going & the quest isn’t so much to change poetry – Creeley had already accomplished that – as it was to always stay attentive to the immanence of daily life.

Close readers of Creeley’s verse may be surprised to discover that there are only four “uncollected” poems to the second volume, works I suppose that were written after he’d completed the manuscript for On Earth which was in production at UC when he died. Here is the most amazing of the four, entitled “Poets”:

Friend I had in college told
me he had seen as kid out the
window in backyard of an
apartment in upscale Phila-
delphia the elder Yeats walking
and wondered if perhaps he
was composing a poem or else
in some way significantly thinking.
So later he described it, then
living in a pleasant yellowish
house off Harvard Square,
having rooms there, where,
visiting I recall quick sight of
John Berryman who had been
his teacher and was just leaving
as I’d come in, on a landing of
the stairs I’d just come up, the
only time and place I ever did.

If you’re still an undergraduate or elsewise challenged economically & your parents or spouse or whomever ask you what you want for this year’s forthcoming holidays, print out the online ads under the links to these two volumes above, and tell them to get you these. They’re a present you’ll keep – and use – for the rest of your life.


¹ This made him the same age as my mother, which I, in my teenage wisdom, was certain was a very old age. My own father died that same summer at the age of 38.


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