What Life Says to Us

Stephen Burt

  • The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-75
    California, 681 pp, £12.55, October 2006, ISBN 0 520 24158 4
  • The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1975-2005
    California, 662 pp, £29.95, October 2006, ISBN 0 520 24159 2
  • On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay by Robert Creeley
    California, 89 pp, £12.95, April 2006, ISBN 0 520 24791 4
  • Selected Poems: 1945-2005 by Robert Creeley, edited by Benjamin Friedlander
    California, 339 pp, $21.95, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 520 25196 0

For a spell during the 1960s, Robert Creeley’s ‘I Know a Man’ may have been the most often quoted, even the most widely known, short poem by a living American. Here is the poem:

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.

Written around 1954, the poem got wide notice after For Love (1962), Creeley’s first trade collection, and it is not hard to see why. Sad and funny at once, with a trick ending, it undercuts the pretensions of high culture: what earlier poet would admit ‘I am/always talking,’ or suggest that his own verse exemplified mere ‘talk’? Better yet, ‘I Know a Man’ undercuts hip counterculture too: old and new art, Romantic despair and groovy enthusiasm, seem comically and equally irrelevant to the hurried American who just wants to get safely down the road.

Robert Hass, later the US poet laureate, called ‘I Know a Man’ ‘the poem of the decade’ (he meant the 1950s). ‘Drive, He Said’ became the title for a 1964 novel by Jeremy Larner, which in 1971 became a Jack Nicholson film; the same title later served an anthology of poems about cars, an episode of at least one television show, and at least a dozen magazine columns, including a recent New Yorker piece about congestion charging (‘Don’t Drive, He Said’). ‘I Know a Man’ is a poem about poetry’s impotence, and about artistic obsolescence, and a warning against pretension, addressed in particular to would-be Beatniks who wanted to talk the way it sounds. It is also the poem of a man with a very good ear, averse to big words, alert to colloquial speech, and uneasy, if not ashamed, of his art.

‘I Know a Man’ seems like a good introduction to the vast opus Creeley, who died in 2005, left behind: thousands of poems, dozens of essays and interviews, a bitter novel, a book of short stories, and hundreds of pages of hard-to-classify prose. Yet ‘I Know a Man’ also leaves out much of what made Creeley notable in each of the three phases of his career: his early focus on lust and shame, the diary-like verse-and-prose books of the 1970s, and the quiet achievements in his late poems of retrospect and solitude. We recognise Creeley’s poems first by what they leave out: he uses few long or rare words, no regular metres and almost no metaphors. The young Creeley aspired to write in Basic English: ‘he very nearly does,’ his friend Cid Corman wrote, except for the slang. Creeley kept for five decades a way of writing whose markers include parsimonious diction, strong enjambment, two to four-line stanzas and occasional rhyme. What changed over his career was not his language but the use he made of it, the attitudes and goals around which the small, clear crystals of his verse might form.

Born in 1926, Creeley grew up in ‘a small sort of farm town about 25 miles from Boston’ with his mother and sisters (his father died in 1930). ‘With five women in the house,’ he recalled, ‘I didn’t have a clue as to what men did.’ At the age of four, he lost an eye to infection: he wore an eyepatch, like a pirate, as a young man. Though he loathed Robert Frost – he liked to say so in interviews – the parallels between them are remarkable: both came from rural New England, whose ‘apparently laconic way of saying things’ (as Creeley put it) marked both men’s poems. Both attended Harvard, from which neither received a degree. Both liked to talk about American speech, and to say (correctly) that their poems captured that speech more than their peers’ poems could. Both achieved popularity despite the grim attitude in their best poems, and both discovered too late that their authorised biographers despised them. (In Creeley’s case, the culprit was Ekbert Faas, whose unwieldy tome stops halfway through the life of a poet he paints as a hostile philanderer.)

At a Harvard College full of incipient talent – his classmates included Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Donald Hall – Creeley felt discouraged and alone. ‘My eager thirst for knowledge, almost Jude-the-Obscurian in its innocence, was all but shut down by the sardonic stance of my elders,’ he recalled. He left college in 1944 for non-combatant service, driving ambulances in India and South-East Asia, then returned to Harvard but dropped out. ‘From 1946 to 1950,’ he remembered later, ‘I was frankly doing almost nothing else but sitting around listening to records.’ Creeley was also ‘smoking pot pretty continuously’ and drinking a lot; he got in fights, too, including one abortive dust-up with Jackson Pollock. Partly to escape urban temptation, Creeley, his wife, Ann, and their two young sons relocated in 1948 to a farm in New Hampshire, where he bred pigeons and poultry and tried to write. ‘I learned more about poetry as an actual activity from raising chickens,’ he said, ‘than I did from any professor.’

The Creeley of those years modelled his verse on William Carlos Williams, his sensibility on recent jazz (he listened to Charlie Parker while composing) and his fiction on D.H. Lawrence, ‘my own mentor, finally the only one I can have’. Creeley later claimed that he picked up his sense of line from the mistaken assumption that Williams, when reading his own poems aloud, paused at every line end. But imitating Williams was not enough: like most young poets, Creeley needed an attentive, sympathetic reader with just a bit more experience than his own.

He found one. ‘It is really Charles Olson I must thank for whatever freedom I have as a poet,’ Creeley remembered, ‘and I would value him equally with Pound and Williams.’ Olson and Creeley began corresponding in 1950 – Williams seems to have put them in touch. Olson was then a former federal official, the author of a vivid book about Melville, not yet the theorist, impresario and cult figure of The Maximus Poems. The Olson-Creeley letters now comprise ten published volumes; Olson’s most famous formulation, ‘Form is never more than an extension of content,’ originated in a letter from that first year, when Olson had published one book of verse, Creeley none.

In 1951 the Creeleys decamped to rural France, where Robert and Ann could live cheaply, and then to Mallorca, where Creeley became tutor to Robert Graves’s children. While abroad, he co-founded small presses and little magazines – Divers Press (with Ann), Origin (with Corman), and then (with Olson) Black Mountain Review, named for Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Olson became rector and in 1954 brought Creeley to teach. Creeley, Olson and Corman would soon see themselves, with some justice, as part of a rising tide, an anti-academic neo-modernism in American letters, led in part by the journals they had helped to found. In 1955 Robert and Ann split up; in 1956 he left Black Mountain for New Mexico, where he taught in a boys’ school, married his second wife, Bobbie, and established a steady flow of poems and prose that continued for fifty years. For most of those years he made his home in Buffalo and taught at the state university, whose reputation as a haven for avant-garde writers he helped to create; he also undertook frequent, sometimes year-long trips to Europe, Australasia and the American West Coast.

Among all the poets of the American 1950s who wanted to learn from Williams, only Creeley had anything like Williams’s ear. He learned early (compare Williams’s ‘To a Poor Old Woman’) how to repeat and how to vary the simplest of phrases within a stanza: ‘Time we all went back home/or back,/to where it all was,/where it all was.’ Creeley often seems to have thought not in lines or sentences so much as in quatrains, which he called ‘both a semantic measure and a rhythmic measure’, and to which he gave remarkable aural finish: ‘Sun on the edges of leaves,/patterns of absent pleasure,/ all that it meant/now gathered together.’

Despite his acoustic gifts, Creeley in his twenties ‘thought that my work as a writer would be primarily in prose’. His stories pursue a stuttering interest in the repetitive monologues that take place deep inside his baffled protagonists’ heads: ‘I love you, he said, and echoed it in invariable silences saying, each time, I love you, but never feeling very much … He would have spoken, but couldn’t, and looking to his wife, wanted to push, then at her, to explain, but did not know what he wished explained.’ His 1963 novel, The Island, set on Mallorca, presents a marriage grinding its way to collapse. Both the author and his apparent stand-in, John, subscribe to a Lawrentian sense that men and women live in different worlds; John displays, too, the paralysing self-consciousness that in Lawrence and elsewhere afflicts men who cannot be masculine. Fighting insomnia, John contemplates ‘some necessity he never got the hang of, or the feel of, the place of. One wants to ask a simple question, do I do it right, is it enough.’

The young Creeley called his poems ‘signs of inadequate love’; their subjects were the subjects of his fiction. Those early poems portray quarrelsome lovers, stranded travellers, impoverished New Englanders (‘we are practical/– but winter is long & … there is never enough’), a failed violinist, and a whole cast of grim characters who cannot find their instincts in the authentic Lawrentian way. Creeley could be frank, like Lawrence, not only about sex and bodies, but about our shame and confusion around them. Probably no other serious English-language poet wrote multiple poems about urination. Nor had any other male poet before him written well about sanitary pads: ‘What should the young/man say, because he is buying/Modess?’

Creeley was not always ashamed: the perfect casualness of sexual joy has rarely been as ably captured as in ‘A Wicker Basket,’ in which sudden rhyme and hip lingo show a fleeting ease:

Out the door, the street like a night,
any night, and no one in sight,
but then, well, there she is,
old friend Liz –

And she opens the door of her cadillac,
I step in back,
and we’re gone.
She turns me on –

To mock such words, such attitudes, Creeley suggests (‘certainly/they are laughing at me’ while ‘I make it’) is to miss all the world’s fun.

But ‘A Wicker Basket’ is an exception. Usually the early Creeley’s pace is slower, his tone less confident, his women hard to please and his men baffled. He wrote a ‘Ballad of the Despairing Husband’, a ‘song of the sleeping wife’, ‘who wouldn’t even hear you if you asked her’, and a horrifying poem that opens: ‘Let me say (in anger) that since the day we were married/we have never had a towel/where anyone could find it.’ His men are not just post coitum triste but sad or anomic ante coitum too: ‘It/hurts/to live/like this,/meat/sliced/walking.’

If you want to know whether you will like Creeley’s early poetry, a better test than ‘I Know a Man’ lies in the closing stanzas of ‘The Rain’:

Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
Be wet
with a decent happiness.

The passage gathers almost all the qualities that typify Creeley up through the late 1960s, and by which he sometimes excels: irregular line lengths, regular stanzas, restricted diction, intermittent medievalising (note the echo of ‘Western wind’), only the simplest sensory detail, and a genuine attempt at tenderness, with resentment underneath.

With For Love and Words (1967) – his ninth and 11th books of poetry but his first and second from a trade press – Creeley deserved, and received, attention as a maker of spare free verse and as a poet of modern sexual love. Yet by the time he got that attention he was already abandoning those goals. ‘Tonight let me go/at last out of whatever/mind I thought to have,’ he prayed in Words, ‘and all the habits of it.’ It is a very 1960s prayer. ‘Sometime in the mid-1960s,’ Creeley recalled, ‘I grew inexorably bored with the tidy containment of clusters of words on single pieces of paper called “poems”.’

What else was a poet to write? Not more narrative fiction: perhaps a series of unfinished texts, ‘pieces’ if you will, whose vagueness testified to the inadequacy of all representation. ‘Composed in a journal as daily writing,’ the still controversial Pieces (1968) reflects its times as much as it reflects its author. It reflects, too, a kind of fatigue common to the period: ‘I was so damned tired of trusting my own opinion as to whether or not this was a good piece of poetry or a bad piece of poetry,’ Creeley remembered. For years he all but gave up on writing distinct and individual poems: instead he wrote stanzas, sentences, phrases and then pages, series, books. Often those pages explore not what we mean and how we feel, but what it is to expel sound from the larynx, to have a body, to stand in a room: ‘What a day/it is – what//one of many days’; ‘Where it is/was and/will be never/ only here.’

Creeley collaborated, then and later, with many prominent visual artists, most of them quasi-Pop or figurative: Robert Indiana, Jim Dine, R.B. Kitaj, Marisol. Yet his middle-period writings, with their stark and almost featureless units, now seem to place him closer to Minimalism – to Donald Judd, for example, with his sets of identical boxes. A few Creeley poems might almost be reviews of Judd’s sculptures: ‘Singular,/singular,/ one/by one’; ‘This/and that, that/ one, this/ and that.’ The Creeley of these years declared war on ‘the damn function of simile, always a displacement of what is happening’, adding ‘I hate the metaphors.’ As paint, for some painters, must be always and only paint, metal stand for nothing except metal, Creeley’s words had to be always and only themselves.

Pieces and its sequelae also recall drug culture, more important to the arts in those years than to poetry in English before or since. In the right chemically-enhanced frame of mind, even such banal couplets as ‘Walking/and talking.//Thinking/and drinking,’ such openings as ‘There is love only/as love is’ can seem to disgorge infinite wisdom. If the poems of the 1950s show the theorising, technique-oriented influence of Olson, those of the 1970s reflect frequent parties with famous hosts and guests, none more so than Allen Ginsberg, repeatedly named. It’s no surprise to discover, in A Day Book (1970-72), a poem entitled ‘On Acid’, nor to discover within it a mantra: ‘End, end, end, end, end, end.’ Creeley called one of his first minimal poems, ‘A Piece’, ‘central to all possibilities of statement’; that poem read: ‘One and/one, two,/three.’ If you like that, you’ll love – well, almost anything.

Yet the man who wrote ‘A Piece’ wrote, in the same years, genuine, memorable, almost equally minimal poems. One is ‘The Farm’: ‘Tips of celery/clouds of//grass – one/ day I’ll go away.’ Another is ‘Xmas Poem: Bolinas’, set in the California town where Creeley and other countercultural writers (Tom Clark, Aram Saroyan, Ted Berrigan) then lived:

All around
the snow
don’t fall.

Come Christmas
we’ll get high
and go find it.

It’s misleading to call Creeley ‘experimental’, as if other poets served as his control group; it’s useful, though, to see his career as an experiment in how little a poet can say outright, how few techniques and how few words a poet can use and still end up with durable poems. His middle period, with its tiny non-poems (‘Wigmore/dry gin/kid’), is in this view a useful negative result: it showed what happens if you give up too much, and it enabled him to learn, in Later (1978) and after, what was just enough.

Creeley’s work after 1978 reflects his intercontinental travels, his consciousness of his own advancing age, and his more settled life with his New Zealand-born third wife, Penelope (Pen). (Creeley’s style also helped to shape such New Zealand poets as Bill Manhire and Ian Wedde.) The later poems are more traditional than their predecessors, in their sounds and in their goals. They rhyme more often. They have recognisable closure. Few are so short as to pose conceptual puzzles about what a poem is. When they are bad they are prosy or repetitive, not insubstantial or nonsensical. They never sound like Olson (much less like Ginsberg), and at their best they recall Thomas Hardy: they are, in the end, mostly poems of old age.

Devoted to stripped-down, quiet effects so early, Creeley seems to have prepared for most of his youth to write about feeling old. At just 60, he published a poem called ‘Lost’: the ‘here and now of all’, he mused, gave him the choice ‘to look back to see the long distance/or to go forward, having only lost.’ Old age is, for Creeley, solitary, melancholy and surprisingly reminiscent of childhood: it is, he wrote in 2003,

Like sitting in back seat,
can’t see what street
we’re on or what the
one driving sees

or where we’re going.
Waiting for what’s to happen
can’t quite hear the conversation,
the big people, sitting up front.

Creeley’s last essay (collected, with last poems, in On Earth) considers Whitman’s late, short poems of ebb tides and declines: ‘Daily, it would seem, the persons one has lived with go, leaving an inexorable emptiness.’ His own late poems make peace with their purported inconsequence, their unshowy, unhurried manner revealing a late style that knows all too well how late it is: ‘Amazing what mind makes/out of its little pictures,’ one page concludes, ‘the squiggles and dots,/not to mention the words.’

The early Creeley rarely depicted landscapes; the late Creeley does, but with an odd simplification. Almost all their sites – Helsinki, Berlin, Auckland, Massachusetts – look alike, and all their colours are muted or sad: a ‘grey/iced sidewalk’, ‘yellow/light with low sun … against far-up pale sky’, ‘sheen of water at evening’, ‘snow, day old, like thin curdled milk’. Even in tropical East Asia, the poems find the same ‘faint dusky light/at sunset’, the same matt off-whites and greys. The colours Creeley saw everywhere in the world brought, in their subtle variations, a visual correlative for the subtle effects in his palette of small words.

So averse early to any English tradition, the late Creeley names or quotes Chaucer, Wyatt and Wordsworth, and even writes his own ‘Versions’ of Hardy’s ‘The Voice’: ‘Why would she come to him,/come to him,/in such disguise.’ Such a poem means not to outdo its model but to transcribe Hardy’s melancholy into Creeley’s new American metric, almost as a musician might transcribe a piano score for woodwind or strings. Creeley’s late simplicities, like Hardy’s, revoke old hopes and offer few replacements:

Were you counting the days
from now till then

to what end,
what to discover,

which wasn’t known
over and over?

The stoic warning completes itself with ‘known’, but the poem does not end till the half-rhyme ‘discover’ and ‘over’, as if Creeley were only restating, once more, what life says to us in its last half, again and again.

It is a consolation to see, amid all the late grey poems of advancing years, flashes of comedy about straight male desire, that subject in which the earlier, more self-serious Creeley specialised: the boy called ‘Bozo’, for example, grew up to ‘see … all/he’d wanted to, aged four,//looking up under skirts,/wearing ochre-trim western shirts.’ But mostly the poems are sad. The 1950s Creeley seems to have been hard to handle: often drunk or stoned, a skirt-chaser (in the language of the time), with frequent, extreme ups and downs. Such reports sit oddly with the many prose tributes – and the spate of elegies – that honour the older Creeley not just as a poet but as a colleague and friend: the change in his poetic aims perhaps reflected a changed personality too.

Creeley’s quiet poems demand that we read them slowly, even when they appear brief and simple. Taken too fast, or too many at a time, his poems (and there are a lot of them – almost 1400 pages in the two-volume Collected) can sound cramped, monotonous and repetitive. Read at leisure, the best poems are subtle, musically gifted, memorably terse. Such an oeuvre places unusual pressure on the editor of a posthumous selection: Ben Friedlander has done it right. His Selected Poems represents all Creeley’s periods and everything Creeley did well: For Love rightly dominates the early going, and every late volume gets at least some space, while the prose-and-verse journals and collaborations (such as A Day Book) are mined for what gems they hold. Friedlander’s introduction emphasises the continuity of Creeley’s efforts, making a case on behalf of the work as a whole. Only the table of contents indicates which poems came from what volume; the poems themselves appear as a continuous stream, which rightly draws the focus away from books and phases and towards individual poems – I had never noticed how good ‘People’ was, for example, until Friedlander reframed it here.

Creeley said that he and Olson were trying ‘not only to realise themselves’ in their poems ‘but to realise the potentiality and extension of words as a physical event in the world’. He, and his allies, believed for a while that modern poems could express without representing, that figurative language only got in the way. This belief led at its worst to a literature as limited and unwieldy as the language of objects in Swift’s Laputa, where only a kettle itself can signify ‘kettle’. Yet this unsustainable (if not anti-intellectual) attitude let Creeley focus as few modern poets have on sound, which is to say on the sound of speech: on the ways intonation and rhythm carry attitude and emotion, and on how to put those ways down on the page.

To say this is to make Creeley sound much like Frost, who said he could hear ‘the sound of sense’ in ‘voices behind a door that cuts off the words’. And to listen to Creeley at his best is to listen, often uncomfortably, to men and women speaking behind closed doors, to hear what they say to themselves and to each other when they do not know what else to do. Creeley arrived – he wanted to arrive – as part of an anti-Frostian, anti-traditional, wing of American verse: Olson, and Black Mountain, and postwar jazz, helped him develop his sense of line, his sparse, even teasing placement of words on a page. And yet Creeley now seems to belong to a much older and nearly continuous enterprise. He dedicated Collected Poems 1975-2005 ‘with love, for Herrick and Zukofsky’: affiliation with late-modern innovators, such as Louis Zukofsky and Olson, first got Creeley noticed, but his likeness to earlier makers of lyric poems – to Herrick, Housman, Hardy, Gurney, Frost – will help his verse endure. Few poets have had their reception more affected by the wind of the times, which at one point seemed to blow right in Creeley’s direction. Yet we read not a zeitgeist but a book of poems, and behind the poems a man: shy at the core, aggressive in the beginning, melancholy at the end. Few writers have done more with fewer words.