Monday, April 03, 2006

Thursday, when I got back from Boston, among of the stack of books that had come in the mail while I’d been traveling was On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay, by Robert Creeley. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that Thursday also had been the first anniversary of Robert’s passing.

Reading – devouring, really – these last few poems, less than three dozen in all, virtually all in the characteristic halting gait of Creeley’s late poems, not all that different from a sense of line & stanza that evolved from the late 1940s up to the early ‘70s, after which it seemed content to serve almost as a homing device. One thinks in one’s poems & never is that reality more evident than in Bob’s work, but Creeley’s line, so identifiable he could have patented it, seems finally not so much how as it is who is thinking:


Up a hill and down again.
Around and in –

Out was what it was all about
but now it’s done.

At the end was the beginning,
just like it said or someone did.

Keep looking, keep looking,
keep looking.

One might argue, with some justification, that this is a poem that Creeley has written before, and yet it seems clearly so beside the point. Approaching this work, possibly any work, with an air of judgment ultimately will tell you so very little about what is going on when there is so much more to be gained by not doing so, by reading through that old nagging sense, getting beyond it to see what the poet was sensing, was after. I find this poem, as I do several others here, absolutely compelling, memorable in ways that forced me to commit so many of the poems in For Love, the first of Bob’s books I owned some 40 years ago, to memory. Is this a great poem? I don’t care – it certainly for me will be a touchstone of what I personally love about poetry going forward.

The concerns of the poem are not a young person’s, and this is a book filled with elegies, with saying goodbye, recalling regrets:


I’ll never forgive myself for the
violence propelled me at sad Paul
Blackburn, pushed in turn by both
our hopeless wives who were spitting
venom at one another in the heaven
we’d got ourselves to, Mallorca, mid-fifties,
where one could live for peanuts while
writing great works and looking at the
constant blue sea, etc. Why did I fight such
surrogate battles of existence with such
a specific friend as he was for sure?
Our first meeting NYC 1960 we talked two
and a half days straight without leaving the
apartment. He knew Auden and Yeats
by heart and had begun on Pound’s lead
translating the Provençal poets, and was
studying with Moses Hadas at NYU. How
sweet this thoughtful beleaguered vulnerable
person whose childhood was full of
abusive confusion, his mother the too
often absent poet, Frances Frost! I wish
he were here now, we could go on talking,
I’d have company my own age in this
drab burned out trashed dump we call the
phenomenal world where he once walked
the wondrous earth and knew its pleasures.

Four of the 26 lines here break on the word the, an enjambment that calls up Robert’s familiar rasping voice immediately to mind, yet the stanza that is so often a defining pulse in his writing has been set aside for the wealth of detail about Blackburn, aspects that might seem odd to us now – who recalls the poetry of Frances Frost, best known to poets of my generation for her work as editor of the children’s book edition of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, a commonplace in the 1950s?

The last few times I saw Bob read, he invariably spoke openly about the approach of death, concerned more with the loss of others, particularly of his own generation, who were going ahead of him. No more than a dozen of the poets in the Allen anthology are still living, fewer still who continue to write. Even the essay that concludes On Earth, ostensibly on Whitman but wide-ranging ultimately, focuses on the questions of age:

I could go on quoting. Age wants no one to leave. Things close down in age, like stores, like lights going off, like a world disappearing in a vacancy one had no thought might happen. It’s no fun, no victory, no reward, no direction. One sits and waits, most usually for the doctor. So one goes inside oneself, as it were, looks out from that “height” with only imagination to give prospect.

Given all this, it is not surprising, I suppose, that the poems in this book, perhaps to a degree not seen in Creeley’s earlier books, have a harder time closing – the last line of the poem for Blackburn, which feels forced, is a case in point. Similarly, the longish (five pages, even tho these pages, at 4.5 by 7 inches, are small) anti-war poem “Help!,” and even the final “Valentine for You,” one last echo of Zukofsky, seem not so much to finish as to be turned, finally, aside. What else, after all, is there to do but keep looking, keep looking?