These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.
Robert Creeley (1926 – 2005) is an American poet, and usually associated with the Black Mountain poets, a group of high-energy poetry experimenters. Creeley’s poems are unique and hard to mistake for anyone else’s poetry, and his poems tend to be short, minimal, and lyrical. (And they are short enough that I once believed that his poems could be read in the time between two drags of a cigarette – drag, poem, drag (I thought it might be a way he found form that relied on breath, or “projective verse.”)) His poems create or find their own forms. One of Creeley’s most well-known poetic statements is “Form is never more than an extension of content.” This statement, which embraces the open form, is, I think and hope, pointed right at the New Critics and their formalistic ideas on poetry and self-containment.
While reading The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), I pick up on themes of love (lots of love), loss, isolation, hopelessness, absence, and division, among other abstract ideas. This is not to give the idea that these poems are depressing, which I don’t feel they are. In addition, there are joyful and funny poems, but what I’ve focused on for the most part is division – division between word and the thing it represents, or the want for the lack of division.
To preface this I want to think of Wittgenstein who wondered whether we speak language or it speaks us. (I think it was Wittgenstein.) I think a Modernist poet would say we speak language, as they typically try to use language to impose order or meaning on a world that seems meaningless. The Modernist poet creates “supreme fictions” or “fictive certainties” that he/she hopes will generate a meaningful existence or space to inhabit. The Post-Modernist poet, I think, however believes language speaks us and that language mediates our experiences with the world, especially through its syntactic structures. Robert Creeley (like Charles Olson) provides a third option – a sort of pre-linguistic experience of reality, where word and the thing the word represented were one, where words “are always / with me, / there is never / a separate // place” (“Words” 332), and a place where “words” weren’t worn down into abstraction by “inveterate goodwill!” (“Divisions” 33).
Divisions 1 Order. Order. The bottle contains more than water. In this case the form is imposed. As if the air did not hold me in and not let me burst from what may have you or inveterate goodwill! To make it difficult, to make a sense of limit, to call a stop to meandering – one could wander here in intricacies, unbelted, somewhat sloppy. But the questions are, is it all there or on some one evening will I come again here, most desperate and all questions, to find the water all leaked out. 2 Take it, there are particulars. Or consider rock. Consider hardness not as elemental but as stone. The stone! And just so invincible. Which is to say, not a damn thing but rock. But, just so, that hardness, which is to say: the stone. Or if only to consider, don’t. Loss exists not as perpetual but, exact, when the attentions are cajoled, are flattered by their purport or what they purport to attend. Which remains not, also not, definition. But statement. But, very simply, one, just so, not attend to the business not his own.
In this ars poetica, part 1 is about the idea of poetic form. (On a side note, I want to note a hypothesis and reminder to myself that post-modern poetry is that which reacts against New Criticism poetry.) If a poem is to use a pre-established form, then it will “limit” the poem in its “meanderings” of experience and exploration. It limits the particulars that can enter a poem. It limits content. For Creeley, the poem, I think, is the experience of watching language and words appear in the moment of composition and expression, as he says in the introduction to Words (1965): “So it is that what I feel, in the world, is the one thing I know myself to be, for that instant. I will never know myself otherwise” (261). That instant, that moment is important because it can’t be repeated (which may be why Creeley did not revise his poems). And if a poet is to write through a pre-existing form, which is a pre-formed lens to view reality or one-size-fits-all container for experience, then the experience and the unique experience of the composition are lost. As a result, the form cannot hold all that could be held, and the reader will “come again here [to the poem], most desperate and all questions, / to find the water [in the preformed bottle of line 2] all / leaked out.” The pre-established form creates division between the limited and the potentially full experience and between the word and what it represents.
In part 2, he is trying to connect words with objects. He is trying to make “hardness” more than abstraction. He’s putting “hardness” into the stone, where it belongs if one wants to experience “hardness,” or even experience “stone.” (He is not abstracting (“pulling out”) the adjectival property of “hardness”; he is performing the reverse action. So Creeley attempts to de-abstract (or implant) language and get it back closer to the word-object relationship, which is where the real meaning/experience of the word is. For instance, this word-thing relationship locates “loss” much closer to the feeling that “loss” is “perpetual,” and not an “exact” definition “cajoled” into meaning through the habits of use where it loses its original sense, feeling. “Loss” is not an abstract word, a statement, or a fact – as loss is the feeling of the “perpetual” absence.
As another example, to help clarify, there is the poem “A Marriage” (170), where the speaker first tries to define his partner by placing a wedding ring on her finger, thus defining her as bride and wife. In the next stanza, he kisses her, as if to indicate she is something physical to experience, and probably sexually. In the last stanza, he “gave up loving / and lived with her.” That is, he kept trying to impose abstract ideas of love onto her instead of living with her and intimating a bond with “with her,” a bond much akin to the relationship between the word and the thing it represents.
Another place to look at this idea is in one of Creeley’s more well-known poems “I Know a Man” (132).
I Know a Man As I sd to my friend, because I am always talking, – John, I sd, which was not his name, the darkness sur- rounds us, what can we do against it, or else, shall we & why not, buy a goddamn big car, drive, he sd, for christ’s sake, look out where yr going.
This poem, on one level, is about the breakdown of language, at time when the speaker encounters emptiness, which is represented in the abstractions he speaks, which underscores a dislocation between the word and the actual, not to mention the self not being immersed in the world. The first language breakdown is with “John,” a name he uses to identify the person who he is speaking to, even John “was not his name.” The speaker in this poem is an “unsure egoist,” a phrase that appears seven poems earlier in “The Immoral Proposition” to indicate a person uncertain of his certainty. The “unsure egoist” in “I Know a Man” is always talking, but as we quickly learn, his words don’t attach to anything (not even “John,” as mentioned), and he gets lost in abstractions. His language has no reference – there’s no intimacy between word and object, like the intimacy between the partners living together. Even “goddamn big car,” a material possession meant to fill a spiritual (and maybe linguistic) void, is abstract, or at least not particular enough – it is general (we don’t even know the make of the car). As a result, the last stanza could be read didactically – the advice the other person in the poem gives is “to do and not think.” In the doing and looking (in poem appearing before the author as it is written), perhaps, is where the connections are made and where the divisions disappear, a place I think Creeley wants to inhabit.
David Perkins provides a good overall summary of Creeley’s poetry:
He [Creeley] retrenched into the small and muted. His poems focused on a metaphor or complex of feeling, which planted itself in the mind. Often the sentences were illogical, elliptical, or suspended in the indefinite; they opened delicate, precisely calculated gaps, so to speak, from which suggestions of meaning were emitted. (505-506)
I don’t really see the ellipticism happening until about 1968 in Pieces, which is maybe why it is titled that and why he so often uses a dot between so many of the stanzas to indicate the ellipsis between thoughts.
I also think he is one of the 20th century’s great poets of love.
Perkins, David. “Robert Creeley.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. 505-507. Print.