Monday, April 19, 2004


Robert Creeley came to Villanova last week, the final reading in that school’s annual series curated by poet Lisa Sewell. Where Harryette Mullen, who appeared earlier in the series, had read in a largish classroom in the building that contains the English Department offices, Creeley found himself in a lounge upstairs in the student union, where the heavy plush couches & easy chairs — half of which faced away from the podium — virtually all had cards reading “please do not move the furniture.” This continued to confirm a theory I’m developing, that colleges never have genuinely decent reading spaces for poetry. Villanova is just sort of middlin’ in this regard — I can’t say that Temple or Penn or Berkeley or SF State are any better, for example, nor are they really all that much worse. For all of the energy & good vibes at the Kelly Writers House, you’d better not attract 50 people to a reading, because ten or twelve people will have to stand in the next room, their view occluded by heads, a wall, even a fireplace.


But Creeley drew twice that many, with people twisting on sofas or sitting crosswise over the arms the chair to get a view, although Creeley himself chose not to stand at the podium, noting that at 77 he knows better than to try & stand for an hour that late in the day. Krishna & I had arrived 20 minutes early for the reading — Tim Yu, take note — only to discover that all of the chairs facing in the right direction were already taken, save for one that was actually behind the podium itself. Which is where I ended up as the room filled to SRO conditions. Since Creeley was sitting on a table on the far side, with the podium mike twisted snakelike downward to catch his voice, I had sort of an odd sideways vantage for what followed. In actuality, tho, I spent much of the reading following the poems from If I were writing this that Creeley was reading.


For the most, Creeley read from the latter half of that book, from page 44 onward, skipping a few things, but then adding two other pieces at the end. By my notes, the poems he read from If I were writing this were as follows:


·         Clemente’s Images

·         For Anya

·         Memory

·         ”If I were writing this . . .”

·         Yesterdays

·         Ground Zero

·         John’s Song

·         Emptiness

·         Memory


As he read, I thought to myself that he was focusing on elegies, a concern that is sharply defined in the book’s latter half, whereas the first half seems to me centered around the extraordinary sequence “En Famille, but that’s an illusion. For one thing, “En Famille” is the first series in the book’s second part. There are three sections, tho I don’t feel or hear them as such. Further, one of the book’s most moving elegies, “’When I heard the learn’d astronomer…,’” for Allen Ginsberg, appears in the first section. That poem as well as elegies later for Kenneth Koch & for “Phil” (Whalen, I think, tho I guess Guston is possible also) were not read. Finally, it’s a stretch to hear “Clemente’s Images” or “For Anya” as elegiac.


And, as important, there was a second, more political tone implicit in Creeley’s reading. Not just in a poem with explicit political connotation such as “Ground Zero,” but in a piece the Creeley characterized as a tribute to John Taggart, “John’s Song,” that Creeley read twice, not pausing between readings, but sounding it again as if to invoke its particular urgency:


If ever there is
if ever, if ever
there is, if ever there is.


If ever there is
other than war, other
than where war was, if ever there is.

If ever there is
no war, no more war, no other than us
where war was, where it was.

No more war, dear brother,
no more, no more war
if ever there was.


But even here, intent as this poem is on a possibility that exists in language & dream only, a poem of desire that one feels as sadness — “if ever” — one senses that these are the concerns of a man Creeley’s age, like having two poems in the same book with the title “Memory.”


These same themes & emotions are foregrounded in the first of two poems that Creeley read that was not from his most recent book, nor even by his own hand — Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Indeed, one can hear that poem in a very different or new way if one hears lines like


Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in


with Creeley’s voice. Arnold’s “Where ignorant armies clash by night” comes across even more starkly not just in Creeley’s New England enunciation, which has softened over the decades, but with the knowledge that 137 years after Arnold penned those words, they are even more true than they were at the time.


Creeley closed with what he characterized as a song, “Help!” Written originally for Bruce Jackson’s Buffalo Report, the poem was republished online by Counterpunch, You can find it under that latter link. The piece’s Seuss-like rhythms —


Maybe just to be safe,

Maybe just to go home,

Maybe just to live

Not scared to the bone


— bespeak a desire to move toward optimism & action:


Use your head,

Don’t get scared,

Stand up straight,

Show what you’re made of.


Yet there is a brittleness here also that underscores exactly how far we might be from emotion recollected in tranquility:


America’s heaven,

Let’s keep it that way

Which means not killing,

Not running scared,


Not being a creep,

Not wanting to get “them.”


The desire not to be a creep is, while noble enough, hardly a positive vision. And the line “America’s heaven” won’t make it past the nearest reservation, barrio or ghetto without a predictable response. Rather, I hear them as indications very much like if ever there was of a longing for something not present, not available, something promised long ago never to have been delivered.


Creeley spoke between poems, especially preceding “For Anya,” a poem about “the outside” that is the existential extension of proprioception* — Creeley was, after all, Olson’s figure for it — about the perfectionism that haunted his youth, which he characterized as a mode of Yankee uptightness. “You can afford to write a bad poem, now,” he quoted Allen Ginsberg as advising, with the implication that this would be a good thing. Similarly, Creeley suggested that the famous “I Know a Man” was, like so much of his early work, written so as to be impregnable from outside assault. Not so much a perfect poem as a well defended one. He had not been able to break away from that, he said, until Pieces.


Now, however, one sees Creeley finding actual advantage in such works — there are kinds of statements one might make in an imperfect poem that would elude one in a less problematic text. The struggle & confusion one must confront at the far end of a lifespan amidst a world still much in turmoil makes great sense as such an occasion, here on the darkling plain.





* Proprioception, the absence within, is that knowledge of the body one gets kinesthetically from feeling one’s organs literally rubbing against one another, something that is possible only if there is something inside that is “not the body” through which they can move.

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