Brian Seabolt


“The story has no time finally”:
Writing after Creeley

All human gestures are available to all human beings at any time.
—George Rochberg

Poi cominciò: Io dico, e non dimando,
quel che tu vuoli udir, perch' io l'ho visto
là 've s'appunta ogne ubi e ogne quando.
—Dante, Paradiso, xxix, 10 – 12


I used to listen to Parker's endless variations on “I Got Rhythm” and all the various times in which he'd play it, all the tempi, up, down, you name it. What fascinated me was that he'd write silences as actively as sounds, which of course they were.

Hearing of this loss—it was from Jonathan Minton, and I'd have preferred to hear it from no other—I felt inclined, as I conveyed to Jon, almost wholly toward silence. He hoped, well used to my relentless reference to the man and his work, I might put together some manner of acknowledgement for Word For/Word. That was something I was keen to do, though I wondered what such a silence would yield to excavation. It was hardly a void. As what stopped my voice was, rather, a surplus, I feared (as I do now) that any utterance could be only a monstrosity of my feeling. I'd never properly met him. But his work had for sixteen years had so critical and personal an importance to me that I dreaded the banality and prolixity I expected over the range of big and small journals: obligatory eulogy on un Grand Homme. Above all, I must have dreaded being party to it. The memory of such a man deserved more than we had means to offer. I realized the only aim would be effective use of silence, such as marked Robert Creeley's work from the outset, as it had that of his own model, Charlie Parker. If I fail, know anyway I gave it my level best to construct something, under the circumstances, of use to myself and, if it's not too hopeful, to others as well.

The story has no time finally. Its shape, if form can so be thought of, is a sphere, an egg of obdurate kind. The only possible reason for its experience is that it has, for itself, the fact of reality and the pressure. There, in short, is its form—no matter how random and broken that will seem. The old assumptions of beginning and end—those very neat assertions—have fallen away completely in a place where the only actuality is life, the only end (never realised) death, and the only value, what love can manage.

The ending reaches backward to touch everything. In this instant, it ceases to be ending: sequential time cowers and vanishes. Likewise, to approach the poem's field demands the reader plot the complete text, by foot, to know it almost as a cartographer, prior to thoroughgoing hunt for meaning. Only the closed poem would reveal itself serially.

Just having been made State Poet of New York for the years 1989-91, I look at what the governor, Mario Cuomo, says of me. “With courage and cunning he has made the discreet loneliness of the solitary individual into a universal experience.” People must love me for that.

Robert Creeley, who died last March 30, was the leading figure remaining of a generation, like all generations, transitional. After Olson's death in 1970, there was none better to look to. Even while no longer a practitioner of the uncharted, his mentality, with its emphasis on the open, placed him among friends— in company —where similar tolerance obtained. While European theorists were assembling a recipe for what eventually became Tel Quel (something of a French elder sibling to the language poetry movement), Olson and Creeley were epistling their own way toward something in certain regards similar, primarily in what it left behind, though more visceral, and something equipped to circumnavigate the cul-de-sac structuralism entailed clearly by the time of Derrida. Nevertheless, Creeley's output by the 1960s contributed to the gradual legitimacy of the experiments of Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Charles Bernstein, and, into the 1980s, a veritable crowd. I wonder if that element receives appropriate recognition. In his introductory speech at a 1989 symposium on Objectivism, Michael Palmer recalls: “In the summer of 1963, at the Vancouver Poetry Conference, Robert Creeley had asked whether I was familiar with Zukofsky's work. I answered that I'd read a very few things in the little magazines, but that they had not made an impression. He sent [a recording of Zukofsky reading from “A”] that winter. … Creeley had discovered Zukofsky through Robert Duncan in 1955. Duncan, by his testimony, had been reading him, whenever he could find the work, since 1937.” (In the meeting of paths, particularly those of Zukofsky and the language poets, Ludwig Wittgenstein looms as a kind of common ancestor.) And there was, had been, far more. Creeley's position in the development of the language poetry line and his resonance with the Objectivists, especially Zukofsky and Reznikoff, for both of whom he would provide loving introductions to posthumous publications, attests to a complexity and breadth accommodating older friendships and affinities with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and like company. This latter association, given the familiarity of its names and the accessibility of Beat in popular culture, has most often found its way into the obituaries. There was never want for close associates: Paul Blackburn, Robert Duncan, Cid Corman, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Graves, Edward Dorn, Rainer Gerhardt, Irving Layton—too many to list—populate Creeley's personal and vocational story.

I believe in handing everything over. If I find anything of use, I try to get it as quickly as possible to whomever I consider might use it. Pass it on.

It is beside one name, however, that Creeley's sits best: Charles Olson. Indeed, it can be difficult to speak of one without unwittingly merging into the other. According to Creeley, even that famous dictum “form is never more than an extension of content” was an assumption both men had stated variously.

Olson had lifted that statement from a letter I had written him, and I'm sure it was my restatement of something that he had made clear to me. It's not at all a new idea. I find it in many people, prose writers as well as poets—Flaubert, for example. I would now almost amend the statement to say, “Form is what happens.” It's the fact of things in the world, however they are. So that form in that way is simply the presence of any thing.
                 ...  I felt that the way a thing was said would intimately declare what was being said, and so therefore, form was never more than an extension of what it was saying. The what of what was being said gained the how of what was being said, and the how (the mode) then became what I called “form.”

The ten-volume Complete Correspondence stands among the dearest sources of fact with respect not only to these two writers but to mid-century American literary thought at large.

Olson had told me years ago that the first imagined sign for self in such language as had record was a boat, and that made an adamant if harsh sense—much as Noah's ark did. The flood of seeming chaos had only one apparent agency for its signifying order, and that was oneself, that verifying agency without equal, because it was the one and only one for each of us.

It is apparent that for Creeley, born in 1926, the self remains a particularity, even if his view may stop short of outright collision with Barthes's mort de l'auteur . He goes on to qualify:

Now it is attractive to suspend a life as an afterthought, a well-earned pleasure of discretion and justifiable revision, just that one has lived long enough to see the time precedent as a cause of the present, a reward, as it were, for having lived long enough to know the value of such fact. … But it would be truly a fool who presumed any life to be simple consequence, or earned, or understood. It is the pleasure and authority of writing that it invents a life to live in the first place—as Walt Whitman so made one, or Daniel Defoe, or Samuel Beckett.

The view of text as progenitor of its writer's essence may relate to an early and consistent aversion to revision in the author's process, so-called. Such reluctance is generally dismissed as peculiarly Beat spontaneity (or laziness). But even Zukofsky had come to a like mistrust, preferring amendment over emendation.

It's difficult to qualify just what “creative opportunities and problems” are primary. Just that something does come to be said, is an opportunity of very great magnitude. Too, poetry as I've had experience of it is not, finally, at the service of other conditions or orders of information, however much it may serve them once it exists. Olson says that art is the only true twin life has—in that either is not to a “purpose” apart from the fact of themselves. They don't refer, so to speak. There's no excuse.
                 The “problems” occur when one loses his way in such possibility, muffs or misuses the nature of what's given. It is, again as Olson says, something as actual as wood, or fish, that one has to do with. It's not in the mind in some sense that one can now exercise a discretion upon it—thinking about it in some privileged way. To the contrary, there is a feeling that adamantly does insist one is being told something and had better get it right the first time, else there won't be another chance. One is told once . For this reason I find it hard ever to revise—“re-see”—just because the initial seeing has to be responded to with all the ability possible because I'm not given another chance. It's very like seeing someone you do respond to in the instant, and having thus the choice of going home and thinking about it, or making that response a manifest act. I agree with Robert Duncan that choice is recognition—not a debate between alternatives. So if one doesn't know “what to do,” given such circumstances, clearly there's nothing really to do.

One is not at liberty to revise life's increments. Whatever it was will have been such. What one can do is to make retrospective commentary, direct or otherwise, with potential to change the essence overall. So the development of the poet/person escapes a naïve sense of improvement, such as in the grotesque simplicity of a classic Bildungsroman. Each moment, each line, stands outside of time, much like the painter's single stroke or cluster that instantly transforms the picture's essence.

Olson—the way I so use him for measure here must emphasize how he was so much a brother to my own ways of thinking—would say that art is the only true twin life has. As I understood him, the point is there isn't any point, more than what being human itself can make. “No further than in itself.” I would love to think that living became a progress, a fact of something's having been gained. But Louis Zukofsky serves here to note the problem, just that the singular is (he quotes Wittgenstein) that point in space which is place for an argument. Whatever “it” can ever be known to be, the fact is, “the more so all have it…” In that respect no one goes anywhere alone, and no one survives to get there even. The door is endlessly being opened and closed.

It is here, near the close of the “Autobiography,” where Creeley approaches a view of self as construed , on variable terrain, admitting a social element to the malleability of a life. Yet, grounded in Williams's no ideas but in things, Creeley favors a participation among writer, text, and readership over the author's thoroughgoing demise.

Just so I distrusted fiction, feeling something “made-up” argued an intentional distortion of the “truth,” whatever that proved. I wanted to call such work “prose” simply. No doubt this feeling again echoes the Puritan aura of where I grew up, but also the fact that being told the truth, as I felt it, was the only location possible for me.

He is prepared, even, to dispute a reading that strays too far from what he calls the work's “actual impulse,” for example the title of Jeremy Larner's novel, Drive, He Said, from which Jack Nicholson later made a film of the same name.

One thing, the lovely paradox about the movie and everything else is that syntactically the line reads for me

why not, buy a goddamn big car,

and then

he sd, for
christ’s sake

… Yeah, it’s a misquote. The poem protects itself. It didn’t even get the syntax straight. Not that I made it simple for them. I like the impulse of “drive,” then “he said.” I could have said, period, you know

drive. He sd, for
christ’s sake

But he doesn’t really say “drive.” I think someone who reads it in the actual impulse will recognize that he isn’t saying drive, that’s the person who’s proposing, “why don’t we buy a great big car and drive”; it’s the “I” of the poem who is saying “why don’t we get out of here,” the car being one imagination of how to get from where we’re stuck, hopefully to someplace where we won’t be. It’s the friend who then comes into it, who says, “take it easy, look out where you’re going because you can’t get out of things by simply driving around.”

Creeley at this point seems in a medial position between reference, preconceived or not, and actuality, such as Olson's wood or fish. It may be characteristically academic to classify this tension as a conflict. But Creeley maintains indisputable effect throughout his career without displaying absolute loyalty to either camp. Conversely, much of what is so alive in Creeley's work is the interplay between his interest in reaching us through language and his devotion to the peculiar activity of words in themselves. There is ultimately in this work no need—and it would surely be a mistake—to accept one mode at the other's expense.

I remember Irving Layton, actually, when he and Charles finally met, he apparently said to Charles, ‘Well, I didn't think what you were doing had much to do with projective verse.' And Charles said, ‘I wrote that one day, Irving, and the next day I wrote something else!'

Neither Olson nor Creeley would be the first literary architect whose theory has by whatever measure outstripped his practice. Rather, this seems almost a general rule; one could make a parlor game of tallying in any such writer's work the outright breaches of his own most strident legislation. The manifesto, whatever its form, may be most purposeful in its potential to bridge, if not so far as to conceal, the gap between what one does and what one imagines oneself to be doing. It is no doubt a sign of health, evidence that the artist has not become simply a dogmatic factory.

In other words, poems are not referential, or at least not importantly so. They have ‘meaning' in that they do ‘exist through themselves.' I have no very clear sense of where they may come from, but I have felt them most evident when least assumed.

But one takes Creeley's point well enough. His use of the verb to refer is especially loyal to its etymology: to carry back .

We wanted to bring our terms of writing up to the actual poem we were writing. We didn't want to remember anything. We wanted to have the actual issue of the poem in the poem as we were writing it.

Additionally, his particular sense of reference appears to be married with his sense of subject, about which he also voices reservations.

I may make too much emphasis upon that, but I can't remember ever setting out to write a poem literally about something that I was conscious of before I began to write. Again I fall back on Williams' sense which I may misquote. … But in any case, Williams says, “The poet thinks with his poem. In that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity.”

                 In fact, I fall back on that sense of Olson's where—I think it's “Letter 15” in The Maximus Poems where it goes: “He sd, ‘You go all around the subject.' And I sd, ‘I didn't know it was a subject.'” You see, I don't know that poetry has “subjects” except as some sort of categorical reference which persons well distinct from the actual activity put upon poems for, I suppose, listing in library catalogs.

(The “he” of Olson's “Letter 15” turns out to have been a youthful Paul Blackburn.) Taking the term reference in a broader, more customary sense, we find in a considerable body of work only so much that is altogether “not referential.” Consummation of non-referential writing, obvious and rather late counterpart to the non-representational in the optic arts and atonality in music, would be the trophy of the generation after Creeley's.

I recall, and it may be displacing to recall it, but it was right here, right out on the street, that I was talking to Robert Duncan, who'd come to a talk about Emily Dickinson I'd given in much the same manner as tonight. We were talking, and I was saying I had very specific commitments and loyalties to friends who were, quote, “language poets.” And I was saying, Robert, what do you think? And he said, “I can't—I'm moved by this or that person, but I can't finally buy it. I can't really accept it, because they have no story.” Well, he didn't really say all that. He just said, “They have no story.” And I knew what he meant—from our tradition, or our system, wherein the story figures really in like Graves' sense, when he says, There is one story and one story only / that will prove worth your telling. It could be the hierarchic, mythic story of a tribe's collective experience, thus, or it could be the imagination of significant values within the social group. It could be many things, but it's the common story.

In a mid-sixties “colloquy” with Linda W. Wagner (also source of the quotation before last, Wagner having just classified Creeley as “one of the few modern poets…to escape the charge of ‘all means and no matter'”), he addresses his disinclination entirely to forgo literary authority, with an important and characteristic qualification.

One knows in writing, I don't quite know how, but one knows what one needs and one takes it, without embarrassment and increasingly with a demand that's not to be gainsaid. So that there's no reason why one shouldn't write a true confession story. Again I'm thinking of Stendhal who wrote a brilliant true confession story, The Life of Henri Brulard, and equally something like Lucien Leuwen . Or there's a quote to the effect of Stendhal saying apropos Julien Sorel, “Julien Sorel, c'est moi.” Again, writing makes its own demands, its own articulations, and its own activity—so that to say, “Why, he's simply telling us the story of his life,” the very fact that he is telling of his life will be a decisive modification of what that life is. The life of the story will not so simply be the life of the man. The modifications occurring in the writing will be evident and will be significant.
                 … In other words, I've never felt that writing was fiction, that it was something made up about something. I've felt that it was direct evidence of the writer's engagement with his own feelings and with the possibilities words offered him.

In the same discussion he defines a sense of the line between the old humanist assumption of clean verbal expression and post-modernism's impossible leapfrog of signifiant and signifié . Wagner inquires how he might position T.S. Eliot's objective correlative in regard to his own poem, “The Immoral Proposition.” His response, waving aside Eliot's pretext, qualifies a notion of abstraction, something his immediate models (Williams and certainly Pound) had in their particular ways cautioned against—Pound had often enough seemed ready to dismiss anything he couldn't pick up and put in his mouth.

So what I would try to make clear here is that in a poem like “The Immoral Proposition,” I am involved in the substance of an emotion, with a very distinct content of feeling—which I hope is evident in the poem. A way of feeling in some circumstance that I feel to be substantive. I don't obviously claim for it a like substantiveness as, say, what a block of wood proposes, or a stone, but at the same time I feel that feeling is substantial and is literal and can be articulated; and I am working my way through its terms in that poem. Again, in a way I am feeling my way along as I am writing.
                 So if it's abstract, it's abstract in quite a different way than, say, those statutes of hope. I'm not trying to make emotion less substantial in the poem. I'm trying to articulate it and all I can feel in it, as I confront it in the writing. I'm not trying to summarize it nor to conclude it nor to take it away from its active environment. I'm really trying to gain the experience of that environment as I am writing. …
                 But, no, abstract means removed from its condition, removed from its own term—to drag it away, literally, as with a tractor. That kind of abstraction I've always felt a great uneasiness about … There's nowhere else for things to be except where they are, and if this is realized then much time is saved. Words are things too. If I say “I love you” or “I hate you,” each one of those words—I-love-you—is a thing. Words are things just as are all things—word, iron, apples—and therefore they have the possibility of their own existence.

Here we see in digest at least five elements of Creeley's mentality as writer (a title he often stated he preferred over poet): mistrust of abstraction in its primary lexical sense, admission of feeling as substance, belief in language as viable means to contain such substance, further belief in language itself as substance, and finally, with respect to practice, discovery of that viability during, rather than before (notes, outlines) or after (Donald Hall's = 99 rewrites, etc.), the writing process.

In any case, Delmore [Schwartz, at Harvard] wanted us to learn professional habits. He really required that we all do outlines of what we proposed to write. … Had to be a couple of pages to be serious and outline the basic action and the characters and the whole sense of the people, and you'd have a scaffold on which to build. So I remember I did it, and I can't remember what story it was, but I did a scene, about ten of us in the class, and handed it in. I was very flattered and pleased that, lo and behold, next meeting, he held up my outline. He thought this was great, read it to all the class, terrific. The next session, I'll look forward to the story, but it was like having told a joke: I couldn't do it. And I remember him saying, with real confusion, what happened, this is awful. I said, well, I felt I was now working to put the bricks up, I mean I just didn't feel any impulse in any of this stuff. I knew the answers; I just had nowhere to go. He said, that's extraordinary, it was such a great idea, and you obviously have just destroyed it. But early on I realized I could not outline and move through that pattern. It just wasn't the character of writing I could use. It had to be exploratory. It still does.

Creeley's “egg of obdurate kind” I take for a node, a sort of intricate thoroughfare where the past, more than simply meeting the present, becomes with it, through the dual agency of immediate perception and memory, an atemporal occasion, cast in written speech. This occurs both inside and outside of the frame: on the part no more of a fictive voice than of Robert Creeley, l'auteur vivant , as well as l'homme transformé . This atemporal occasion is sometimes, as in Russian Formalist theory, called synchrony. The preferred term in English for synchronic narrative seems to be tale , rather than story (as in “Three Fate Tales” or Tales Out of School) . In its complex and practical use, synchrony depends for its trove on a rich and probably lengthy diachrony. But even if diachrony precedes, in either sense, synchrony, in this art it is the latter that constitutes the payoff. By and large it is the Creeleyesque fact , in which time recoils, that asserts itself, with all, past or present, it can contain.

I remember Duncan, a lovely moment when we first met—he and Jess and Harry Jacobus had come to Mallorca. … We were standing in this trolley with all the people banging around us. I remember Robert—we were all standing holding onto the straps and he looked—turned to me at one point and says, “You're not interested in history, are you?” You know, and I kept saying, “Well, gee, I ought to be. And I want to be. But I guess I'm not. You know, I'd like to be but, no, that's probably true.” That history, as this form of experience, is truly not something I've been able to be articulate with, nor finally engaged by. So that art is, somehow, as Williams might say, the fact of something, but I did not have that alternative experience of it as an issue of time.

Little in the writing demonstrates a conscious involvement with duration, at least until some time in the eighties, as Creeley begins to observe himself becoming old. Forms that would lend themselves readily to such awareness, whether in prose, such as A Day Book, or in poetry, such as Hello: A Journal , give way, as ever, to the treatment of minute, particular instances that in effect forget or ignore time.

Still it does seem that terms such as “modern” and “postmodern” are habits of art history. One tends to use all that he can get hold of, and I don't know that one “time” is thus distinct from another, in the actual practice. Here is where one seems to be.

Even the “sense of increment, of accumulation” with which he opens the general introduction to The Collected Poems, 1945 – 1975 , seems to be nearly as surprising as it is “very dear” to him.

Here is
where there

A sense of place is at least ostensibly more present throughout the work. Creeley inhabited an impressive number of towns and cities, within and without the United States. Yet, whatever the locale or the adventure, the work itself remains busy enough within the exigencies of its own development.

I should have stayed put much more than I ever managed to, and I am once again, with patient family, weighing the choices of here and there. It is really the going that must be the point, and now, increasingly, that movement gets simply hard and distracting. One time in conversation with students at Cortland back in the '60s, Olson emphasized to the students how long it took to accomplish “a habit and a haunt,” a place so habituated by one's being there that it isn't even thought of as apart. In contrast, I've been such a tourist in the world despite I find a company much as a gypsy might—or so I'd like to think.

Year by year, the given work continues to function as a magnetic locus, housed in that famously singular retina, drawing together and finally particularizing the where and when of whatever its occasion. It resists a journalistic posture: that is, in terms either of journal (even when it claims to be) or of journalism.

One dilemma for me in the political context has been the insistent didacticism of attitude, the locked mind that enters almost immediately with any political statement, the insistent rhetoric which places the words in an extraordinarily locked condition. … I've done a lot—not a lot—I've put my own commitments on the line, I think, by holding draft cards and reading for the Resistance and I've had no intention not to state myself politically, but this hasn't entered my poetry. It's almost as if I've given so damn much to that idiot war I'm damned if I'm going to give it my experience of words.

A writer burdened with time and place would almost involuntarily have invested his politics in the work. By writing around so enormous a circumstance as the ongoing “idiot war” in Vietnam, Creeley demonstrates at a glance no more remarkable a disinterest in history than in the immediate present. But it may be more accurate to take his position with respect to both history and current events, all of a piece, as constituent of any given present: the occasion of writing, which in its particularity resists analysis (literally, cutting up), a kind of evocative verbal quark.

One had the company.

Like any writer of value, Creeley's development was essentially lifelong. Tom Clark states, for instance: “By the middle 1960s the poet's uneasy relation with subjectivity had reached a point of exhaustion; in the late 1960s and early 1970s he began to explore new serial modalities in both verse and prose. Making what appears to have been a conscious effort first to relieve, then eventually to reverse, the ‘self-imprisoned paranoid' attitude of Puritan introversion which had produced the brilliant ordeal of his early work …, he expanded the ground of his writing to include random, accidental, notational, and programmatic elements.” This shift gradually leads to the sense of company that becomes a major leitmotif in the second half of Creeley's life and work, as well as the point of departure for Clark's book, Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place . As his gaze moves from inward to outward, Creeley himself seems to achieve a new kind of peace. Anecdotes of his youthful misbehavior have never been secret. We find him furnishing details of the famous Cedar Bar encounter with Jackson Pollock as early as 1967, and in a manner never defensive but at once giving room for a complexity, and even an ambiguity, that probably serves the honesty of the telling.

Oh yeah, a great meeting. Because he obviously was having, you know, intensively the same problem, with a vengeance. I'd been in the Cedars Bar talking with Franz Kline, and another friend of Kline's and Fielding Dawson probably was there. We were sitting over at a corner booth, and were talking and drinking in a kind of relaxed manner. But I, again, you know—very characteristic of me—I'd get all keyed up with the conversation and I'd start to run, get the beer, or whatever we were drinking, wasn't coming fast enough, so I'd, you know, I'd go back to the bar, have a quick drink, and return to the table and pick up the drink that now had come, and I was getting awfully lushed, and excited, and listening, so I was literally at the bar getting another drink, when the door swings open and in comes this very, you know, very solid man, very particular man, again, with this intensity. So he comes up to the bar, and almost immediately made some gesture that bugged me. Something like even where he put the glass on the bar, that kind of business where he was pushing me just by being there, and I was trying to reassert my place. So the next thing we knew we were swinging at each other. And I remember this guy John, one of the owners, just put his hand on the bar and vaulted, literally, right over the bar, so he's right between us, and said, like, “Okay, you guys,” and he started pushing at both of us, whereupon, without even thinking, we both zeroed in on him, and he said, like, “Come on now, cut it out.” Then he said, “Do you guys know each other?” And so he introduced us, and I was—God! It was Jackson Pollock! So I was showing pictures of my children and he was saying “I'm their godfather.” Instantly affable, you know. We were instantly very friendly. And he was very good to me.
                 No, in those days, I remember, in the Cedars, I had a big wooden handled clasp knife, that in moments of frustration and rage—I mean I never stuck anybody with it, but it was, like I'd get that knife, you know, and I don't think I tried to scare people with it, but it was like, when all else failed, that knife was…not simply in the sense I was going to kill somebody, like a gun, but I loved that knife. You could carve things with it, make things and so on. And so, I'd apparently been flourishing it in the bar at some point, and I remember he took it away from me, John did, and he kept it and said, you know, like, “You're not going to have this knife for two weeks.” And then he finally said, “Look, you can't come in here any more,” and I said, like, “What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?” So he would finally admit me if I drank ginger ale only. Because I used to stand out front and look in the window. And then he would let me come in and sit, as long as I was a good boy and drank only ginger ale. And finally he let me have the knife back, because that knife was very, very—I've still got one like it.

Ekbert Faas's unfortunate 2001 biography of Creeley savors such transgressions, one after another: infidelities, cliquishness, the reactive and vicious temper, heavy drinking, etc. Laying aside serious problems of style—the text is cast in a ridiculous, stilted voice, sometimes in apparent mimicry of Creeley's own, and inexplicably saturated with exclamation points—the great shortcoming of Faas's book is that it confines itself to the first half of the subject's life. It is, for the reader, more than simply disconcerting to come to a halt in the account at outset of the 1970s (Faas wraps up the last three decades in a few paragraphs, straining to excuse the narratio interrupta by dismissing the older Creeley as a trite has-been). Most significantly, in stopping here Faas neglects the aesthetic and personal transformation that Clark's book, published in 1993, took for its principal matter. One suspects the effect is deliberate, especially as the last word goes to Creeley's first wife, Ann MacKinnon, in a long series of excerpts from her 1944 diary. Early on Creeley did demonstrate a mild prejudice against Canadians. This took the form mainly of criticizing Irving Layton in letters to Olson for being “so damned provincial.” Are we to view the biographer's pettiness as a patriotic reflex? In any event, had Faas expressed his intentions openly, characterizing the work as half a biography, all of this might have been slightly more forgivable. Instead, Robert Creeley: A Biography offers little but an amendment to a cliché: those who can't do, teach; those who can't do or teach, on the other hand, will have to settle for injuring those who can.

I would mistake my own experience of poetry if I were to propose it as something merely intentional, and what men may imagine, either as worlds or poems, is not simply a purpose either may satisfy.

With the shift from inward to outward comes a loosening of Creeley's already qualified sense of the writer's authority. The interpretive compromise between text and reader widens as his concern comes more centrally to embrace others. But the embrace is equally a challenge, an invitation to shared exploration: a sympathy.

In writing I'm telling something to myself, curiously, that I didn't have the knowledge of previously. One time, again some years ago, Franz Kline was being questioned—not with hostility but with intensity, by another friend—and finally he said, “Well, look, if I paint what you know, then that will simply bore you. If I paint what I know, it will be boring to myself. Therefore I paint what I don't know.” And I write what I don't know, in that sense.
                  Communication, then, is a word one would have to spend much time defining. One question I have—doesn't all speech imply that one is speaking with what is known, is possible of discovery? “Can you tell someone something he doesn't know?” has always been a question in my own mind. And if it is true that you cannot tell someone something “new,” then the act of reading is the act of reading with someone. And I feel that when people read my poems most sympathetically, they are reading with me as I am writing with them. So communication this way is mutual feeling with someone, not a didactic process of information.

There are levels of habit. A margin of these levels we call style. What perseveres over a life's development is a timbre beyond style: the deepest habitual levels are immoveable and unchanging. On account of their depth (or maybe rather their extreme nearness), the mature practitioner will have had to learn to employ them, and never without difficulty.

When I got some poems of Olson's, I remember writing back, in a sort of glib fashion one has at twenty-two or twenty-three or whatever age I was, that this man was simply looking for a language, and, wow, I got a beautiful letter from Olson saying, “What do you mean?” Not just mad, but just saying, “Come on, let's talk about this,” and that started the correspondence. Well, he was tremendously articulate and clear apropos my own work and he started to show me where habits and attitudes toward the line were really not only blocking the particular intensity that I was working for, but he showed me how the whole way of speech was not true to the way I was thinking.

Creeley in fact conveyed the rejection through Vincent Ferrini, who had first referred Olson, knowing Creeley to be gathering material for a new magazine. The judgment more precisely ran: “To tell the truth, I'm rather put off by Mr. Olson's language which doesn't seem to come to any kind of positive diction.” He complained that the unknown was “looking around for a language, and the result is a loss of force.” In riposte, Olson wasted no time and pulled no punches. He wrote to Creeley directly, in what was already his accustomed Poundish dialect: “my dear robert creeley; so Bill W. too says, write creeley, he has ideas and wants to use 'em so what do i do? so i write so ferrini sends creeley a lovely liquid thing and creeley says, he's a boll weevil, olson, just a lookin' for a lang, just a lookin' nuts, and i says, creeley, you're off yer trolley; a man god damn well has to come up with his own lang., syntax and song both, but also each poem under hand has its own language, which is variant of same. …” It is difficult to imagine any editor today treating such an effusion as other than sore sportsmanship. Creeley possessed instinct enough to hold ego in check (Olson's reference to Williams no doubt played a role as well). With some research, including discovery of Call Me Ishmael , he must have realized he had stumbled on a master. This of course began the voluminous four-year correspondence. Olson would have his “figure of outward.” And Creeley would begin in earnest to find his language.

Charles Olson makes a lovely point, that “we do what we know before we know what we do,” and that really is the delight in writing, that much happens one has no conscious information of until it is there, in the words. I'm not thinking here of some do-it-yourself psychoanalysis—that's of no interest to me—but a deeper fact of revelation I feel very actual in writing, a realization, reification, of what is.
                  The tradition to which I relate comes, as Robert Duncan would say, “from a well deeper than time.” It's not yesterday's news one is concerned with. However one thinks to qualify it, the fact of being a poet teaches one that it is not an ego-centered occupation but a trust one had really no thought to undertake. But there it was. Suddenly. One morning. With the birds. I'm trying to say that poetry comes from a tradition far more complex and rooted in the human condition than any one “time” can define. Better to consider Konrad Lorenz's sense of tradition as he speaks of it in his book On Aggression —the intuitive economy of human experience, biological and environmental in this case.

The language Creeley found took literary mannerism as anathema. But with so intimate a sense of the material, he wouldn't have missed the intricacy of the problem. Signs cluster into cliché almost as we produce them. To command a truly unmannered speech would presumably involve reinventing the language with every particle of utterance. Creeley went by another route. As had others before him, such as Mallarmé and Henry James, he essentially formulated a personal mannerism. He became known, then, for an eccentric syntax applied to a progression of thought fluid enough until punctuated by jolts and halts. The result was a mode impossible to skim. Not all found the approach smooth going. Ekbert Faas relates: “Larry Eigner … attacked his prose for its cleverness and screwy grammar, wondering whether Creeley actually talked like he wrote” (regrettably, Faas provides neither a direct quotation nor a source). In any case, for those who caught on it was a tour de force. Creeley also collected a limited palette of words which he used repeatedly in all of his writings, often in the least customary places: curious, fact, finally, given, happily, like (as adj.), literal, momently, occasion, possibility, situation, so, specific, such, and others. He had in the general breach of orthodox style affinity with Henry James, about whom he seldom spoke, though to the degree the one was given to condensation the other had been to explosion. A passage from Ezra Pound's 1918 essay on James touches on more than one similarity, even as addressed in the present essay. “The victim and the votary of the ‘scene,' he had no very great narrative sense, or at the least, he attained the narrative faculty but ad aspera, through very great striving. [ ¶ ] It is impossible to speak accurately of ‘his style,' for he passed through several styles which differ greatly one from another; but in his last, most complicated and elaborate, he is capable of great concision; and if, in it, the single sentence is apt to turn and perform evolutions for almost pages at a time, he nevertheless manages to say on one page more than many a more direct author would convey only in the course of a chapter.” In Creeley, by contrast, it is in a reticence, a brevity, and a sobriety—what he would with irony characterize as a typically Puritan asceticism—where lies complexity and, where it is present, difficulty. Whether in short or long lines (that Creeley made a career of writing tiny poems is sheer myth: he utilized every measure and every mode, including occasional rhyme, expedient to the work at hand), it is a matter of reducing language to a simplicity just dense enough to bear meaning. He has taken it, even in a purely American manner, without Cid Corman's reliance on Japanese models, to a reductive extreme. It is as unique as it is sublime. Few writers of the past century have served as mentor for so many. But there is nothing else like this work anywhere.

Duncan told me that during the last painful months before Jaime d'Angulo died, he got paradoxically cheerful letters from Jane Harrison, in which she said things like, “Soon you'll be with them all, Homer, Hesiod, possibly even the gods themselves!” You believe a world or have none.

Harrison presumably has in mind a paradiso, which we may or may not ourselves imagine. But even lacking the catafalque of belief, her remark makes no preclusion of afterlife on earth. The story has no time finally. Having read this far, one notes, among the numerous quotations that constitute the body of the tribute, few passages from the poetry or aesthetic prose itself. It was the man that died, a loss for those who knew him: family, friends, colleagues, students. Even for those who count themselves only readers, it is the end of something: of an accumulation and a development. The result, however, is intact. The story without “beginning and end—those very neat assertions,” the “egg of obdurate kind,” began, well before Robert Creeley, with “such language as had record,” and even well before. It began the instant a mere semiological system elevated itself to the status of song . Let's count it fair that the carrion beetles of academia have already begun their work, and will persist and finish, as always, with glimmering white bones. After all, everybody has got to make a living. But the academic has only semiotics: no song. What Robert Creeley made— made, mind you, à la Williams—stands already in the grand conversation, outside of time, not to be annulled or undone. If he takes his place with Homer and Hesiod, with Pound and Williams, with Zukofsky and Olson, he takes it here.

Heroes, as they say, are not simply grandiose pretensions of person nor echoes of some lost measure only. They are the imagined possibility of whatever makes the potential of a life seem just that—what Kataj recalls cannily in his echo of Pound in the series of three prints A Site: “working on the life vouchsafed.” How one discovers that “material” is what so-called “heroes” can provide means to know, else reflect as sun on water.

Or, as offered in response to a young man who in the early 1990s had sent the writer he most admired a sample of his own work, eager for advice or judgment:

So it is.


Ann Arbor, Michigan
Summer 2005