The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley 
edited by Rod Smith, Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris.
California, 467 pp., £25, March 2020, 978 0 520 32483 1
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Logorrhoea:​ Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley were all afflicted with it. I only ever witnessed Duncan’s performances – free-form, extended, mostly improvised soliloquies. The one I remember best was at the poet Carl Rakosi’s house. It was many years ago, but I think he touched on Plato, Beethoven, Milton, Tom Thumb, Lysistrata, the genus Asterias (starfish) and the song ‘Penny Lane’. The larger conceptual point eluded me at the time. Olson, I’m told, would pontificate for hours on end – on his theory of Projective Verse, proprioception, Mayan glyphs, Alfred North Whitehead, a grab bag of poetic theorising. Six foot eight and wide of girth, he commanded a room. On one occasion in Berkeley, wind in his sails, he ranted on stage for more than four hours before Duncan walked out and the staff turned off the lights. Apparently Creeley would begin by making a statement or observation on which he proceeded to riff, taking it through all sorts of transmogrifications, before landing neatly back where he started – by which time it was probably the dead of night. Duncan joked easily about his loquaciousness. Creeley was not unaware of his own proclivities, but he wasn’t really given to jokes, even if his poems are often wry:

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.

‘I Know a Man’ was included in Creeley’s first major collection, For Love: Poems 1950-60, published in 1962. It sold more than forty thousand copies, a number almost unheard of for the work of a serious, sometimes difficult poet, with the exception of his fellow New Hampshiremen Robert Frost and e.e. cummings. Creeley’s work is characterised by a tortured self-examination, and an almost panicky need to engage with interior experience by enacting it syllable by syllable, as if any misstep will send the whole poem up in flames, and perhaps its maker too. This is the poem’s drama, and it hardly ever seems calculated or inauthentic. For Love is Creeley’s finest book. He would write many others, but none was a real advance on it. No American poet was more revered or influential than Creeley from the moment this collection appeared until his death in 2005, at least among readers interested in avant-garde or experimental verse, as opposed to more traditional or mainstream poets such as Robert Lowell, James Merrill and Richard Wilbur – the sorts likely to be published in the New Yorker and awarded Pulitzers. In those days, you were on one side or the other. Creeley was defiantly on The New American Poetry side, and his work figures prominently in that hugely influential anthology of 1960.

I met him a couple of times, briefly and inconsequentially. The second meeting was awkward. I’d given a reading at Cornell the evening before. Creeley was in the audience with his third wife, Penelope, who was doing a graduate degree there in environmental landscape design. A.R. Ammons, for many years the éminence grise at the school, asked me to visit his office the following morning. He invited Creeley too. Two of America’s finest and most celebrated poets were making quite a fuss over my reading and I was swiftly ascending towards Cloud Nine when Ammons turned to me and said in a soft, mock innocent voice: ‘August, what do you make of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets?’ Creeley was at the time professor of poetry at SUNY Buffalo and had turned the writing department there into the American centre for this sort of poetry. It’s not a subject I would usually have discussed with Archie, but he was intent on embarrassing Creeley for reasons of his own. I took a deep, conflicted breath and said: ‘Programmatic indeterminism is one great, big, circular drag in my book.’ Creeley didn’t show any disapproval or annoyance. Ammons showed just the slightest hint of a malicious smirk.

Creeley’s Selected Letters are almost uniformly uneventful and dreary. The problem isn’t the stylistic tics, the Pound and Olson-style abbreviations (‘sd’), ampersands and virgules, or his immoderate use of ‘damn’ and ‘goddamn’ (that was a ‘damn fine poem’ or a ‘goddamn swell evening’), but the unrelieved, self-involved tedium. It wasn’t that he had an uninteresting life: in fact, he had an adventurous and extraordinarily messy one. These letters show that he had an almost boundless capacity for friendship. But he could also be monstrous, particularly when drunk – and he was drunk a lot. He was a tormented man who enjoyed cultivating psychodramas, particularly with his wives (the first two at least) and lovers. If his partner wouldn’t join in, he’d ramp things up a notch. These episodes almost always ended violently, and were followed by profound abjection. This seems to be what his gift required and thrived on. The process is evident in poem after poem – see, for example, ‘Ballad of the Despairing Husband’ – and in a number of the letters. This one was written to his second wife, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, in 1972, probably during a flight (he commuted for some years from Bolinas, more than an hour north-west of San Francisco, to his teaching job at Buffalo).

Before the plane gets there, and all the confusion and nostalgia of just being there comes – what you’re doing does make sense to me. However literally the fact – it feels as if we’ve been resenting one another’s ‘reality’ for some time. My drunkenness and ugly violence is one obvious fact in any case … The phone calls really wipe me out – like instant changes of reality, as resonating as my drunken freaking out is obviously for you in much larger degree. Anyhow if a letter is possible, that would be great.

The somewhat halting, equivocating style is a hallmark of much of his poetry but rare in his letters, which typically deal with the very serious business of poetics in a way that isn’t interesting in the slightest.

Jack Kerouac, whom Creeley befriended on a memorable visit to San Francisco in 1956, described him as a mean, belligerent drunk who wanted ‘the world to narrow to a match flare’. Kerouac remembered Creeley’s ‘voice dropping an octave and becoming hoarse’, his one eye glittering (he’d lost the other in a childhood accident) as he spoiled for a drunken punch-up. For God’s sake, Kerouac told him, don’t get into any more fights. ‘Be a happy drunk like me.’ Creeley was attracted to Kerouac’s physical beauty, as well as his writing; Kerouac, in turn, was drawn to Creeley’s intensity, which he found ‘pure’. He wasn’t interested in Creeley’s poetry. After delivering him to his first reading in San Francisco, setting him up with a bottle of wine and pointing out all his friends in the audience, Kerouac took his leave. ‘Your poems are really sad,’ he told Creeley. ‘I don’t like to listen to you being in so much pain. I’ll be down at the bar.’

The first letter in this volume, from January 1945, is to his mother and sister. Creeley was nineteen and on his way to Burma with the American Field Service:

Remembering letters I wrote in prep school, even when at Harvard, I am afraid that you will think I am insincere, verbose, because of what has preceded this. Believe me, I am not; this is not a time for that, and it was then. If I appear to take myself too seriously now, it is because for the next year and a half I shall hardly be a ‘self’ at all.

Among Creeley’s early correspondents were Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams, who served, somewhat, as father figures. His actual father, a doctor, died when Creeley was four, after which the family’s fortunes took a serious downturn. Creeley first wrote to Williams in February 1950, soliciting work for a small magazine he was then editing.

Like​ most of the work in New American Poetry, Creeley’s verse comes directly out of Williams, who wanted to fashion an ‘American’ poetry that would make use of the diction and cadences of ordinary speech. His influence on Creeley is most evident in the poems’ line breaks: each one is an event. Both poets avoid metaphor, both abhor adjectives. For Creeley, any poem operates on a succession of hinges: syntax and line breaks create and release tension. The movement is halting, jittery, the sentences and clauses turn nervously back on themselves. The poems are asymmetric and highly torqued. More often than not the subject is conflicted love, as in ‘The Rain’:

even the hardness
of rain fallin
will have for me

something other than this,
something not so insistent –
and I to be locked in this

final uneasiness.
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.

Many of the poems bear the influence of the Elizabethan poet Thomas Campion, a favourite of Pound’s. Creeley learned from him how to employ irregular rhymes to surprising effect: ‘We both fell/I fell. You fell./In hell we will tell of it.’ He claimed to be

more influenced by Charley [sic] Parker, in my acts, than by any other man, living or dead. IF you will listen … you will see how the whole biz ties in – i.e. how, say, the whole sense of a loop, for a story, came in, and how, too, these senses of rhythm … got in … Bird makes Ez [Pound] look like a schoolboy, in point of rhythms.

This is from a letter written to Olson in 1953. Creeley had initiated the correspondence three years earlier while working on a chicken farm in New Hampshire to support his first wife, Ann, and their two small children. The letters between them fill ten thick volumes, published by Black Sparrow Press, and constitute a monument to bloviation: mutual flattery, poetry shoptalk, what they’re reading, who’s kosher, who’s not, theories of how a poem should work – all of it off-puttingly mannered and insular.

To judge by his letters, Creeley was oblivious to the world around him and the people who populated it. There are a few exceptions, such as this sighting of Picasso at a café in Aix-en-Provence:

One pleasure … I was gawking as usual, and saw a man sitting with his family, i.e. wife and two kids – table in front of one of the cafés. No one much around, they were the only ones at the tables. I looked at him, and was so hit by his eyes. I kept looking, and must have stared at him all the way by, and he also, looking right back at me. It was very fine, i.e. sudden quickness of it, man so placed, there, and crazy intensity of his eyes beyond any embarrassment, or any sense of staring me down, and myself naive enough, then, to look too without any nervousness – I guess because he allowed it.

Getting past, feel that I ‘knew’ him came stronger, as he was by us, etc. And then woke to who he was, i.e. Picasso. Beautiful, beautiful thing – absolutely.

Every so often life intrudes. In a letter to Ed and Helene Dorn, written from Albuquerque on 9 October 1961, Creeley warns: ‘I have to tell you of an impossibly tragic thing.’ His very young stepdaughter, the child of his second wife, Bobbie Louise, had been buried alive when a bank gave way while she was playing in a nearby arroyo. Her parents were too late to save her. (Years later, Bobbie Louise wrote a short story about a child who drowns in a swimming pool while the adults are otherwise engaged. It makes for unbearable reading.)

The Dorns are among a second tier of correspondents, along with Paul Blackburn, Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, Louis Zukofsky and Denise Levertov. There are nearly three hundred letters in this selection, the majority of them to men. Apart from Levertov, a regular correspondent, the only women he seems to have written to are his mother, and his second and third wives. There are none to Ann, his first wife, whom he treated abominably. I find this paucity of letters to women puzzling from a thrice-married homme à femmes whose primary theme is love.

Every so often Creeley sticks a recent poem into a letter and the effect is like a glittering atoll in a sea of worthless chatter. Given the life he led, full of brilliantly gifted and often impossible characters, it’s astonishing, and disappointing, that there is almost no description of personalities. Nor is there any real description of place, which is bizarre in a writer who took any opportunity to visit a new city – from Uppsala to Budapest, Tel Aviv to Milan. There is one conspicuous and delightful exception to this silence – though I’m probably biased, given my feelings about the place. San Francisco, Creeley wrote to Mitch Goodman in 1956, is

physically the most interesting and simple city to be in I ever knew. The architecture alone is enough to keep me occupied for months; and the city is made for walking around in. Neither job nor housing is anything like the problem in NYC – SF is still a ‘small town’ … There is an image that stays in my head, perversely enough, re SF; and that is, the way in streets sometimes four to six lanes wide, with 5 o’clock traffic, even so a whole mass of cars would stop (!), so that I could cross … And that would seem immense courtesy – which certainly it was and is – but somehow it bred, in me, a feeling that there was a hellish almost uncertainty being declared as well …

I do think SF would make an excellent ‘1st place’ to come back to … It’s a sociologist’s dream.

Spot on, and a great relief to see him beguiled with somewhere, if only this once.

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Vol. 43 No. 11 · 3 June 2021

Robert Creeley, about whom August Kleinzahler writes, was a close friend of mine and of my late husband, Tom Raworth, also a poet, for more than forty years (LRB, 20 May). We had a frequent and continuing correspondence with him. He may have been often drunk, and on occasion ‘mean’ and ‘belligerent’ as, according to Kleinzahler, Jack Kerouac described him. However, I would not suppose Kerouac to be an infallible source. Bob was a faithful, generous, funny, perceptive friend, always ready to offer help in time of need, and fun, yes, fun. What he never was, was ‘dreary’. Ever. As for his marital life, well, most marriages don’t stand up to close outside scrutiny – mine certainly would not have.

Val Raworth
Hove, East Sussex

I enjoyed August Kleinzahler’s review of the Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, but was surprised by the date of publication given. The paperback may have appeared in March 2020, but the appallingly edited book was issued originally in 2013, and reviewed by me in the Times Literary Supplement of 24 January 2014. My view of it wasn’t all that far removed from Kleinzahler’s. On the question of Creeley’s domestic violence, it elicited a letter from not one but two of his wives.

James Campbell
London W12

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