Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Creeley Collected

review by Mike Doyle

The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1975-2005. University of California Press, 2006.

Although accurate, this book’s title is slightly misleading. It covers only the last half of Creeley’s life as a poet. An earlier volume, The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945 -1975 (California, 1982) covers the first half. My hope is that, in time, California will issue the work as a two-volume set.

Easy enough to see the influence of William Carlos Williams in Creeley’s first important collection, For Love (1962). That aside, his original project seems to have been the finding of a voice, or more precisely a personal rhythm, a signature, as it happens one guided through a self-defining diffidence, - “we live as we can, each day another”. Early on, Creeley’s voice was turned in on itself. “One is/ too lonely”, says the voice in “The Riddle,” “one wants/ to stop there, at the edge of//conception”.

In his mid-twenties he wrote: “a man and his objects must both be present in [the poem]”, and: “things have to come in before they can go out” (CE, 464) In the same source, he states “the wish to transmit, free of imprecise ‘feeling.’” Except in playful word game pieces, his work from start to finish is permeated with feeling, and a strong desire not to falsify it. Hence his characteristic voice, tentative, groping, antic at times, suddenly vehement. He prefers enactment over description. Hence, in many poems the voice is there, in the midst of things, but the scene is not. In 1960, he declared: “I care what the poem says, only as a poem - I am no longer interested in the exterior attitude to which the poem may well point, as a signboard” (CE, 477). He sees “the poem” as his way of being in the world, something engaged in for its own sake. When true to himself, and thus his art, this engagement is, inescapably, with feeling. Further, he follows Louis Zukofsky (more so in the later phases of this volume than earlier) in seeing the range of poetry as “lower limit speech, upper limit music”. Of course, in speech you are speaking to someone and, by inference, speaking about something, but for Creeley, as for Zukofsky before him, this referential function is often secondary. Thus some early commentators found his work’s mise en scene skimpy

Back in the ’60s, a critic (I forget his name) declared, “There are two things to be said about Creeley’poems: they are short; they are not short enough.” Zukofsky, who [2] more and more would become Creeley’s touchstone, or reference point, had long ago instructed: “Don’t write, telegraph!” When we turn from the Creeley collections For Love (1962) and Words (1967) and lunge forward, so to speak, to the volume under consideration, I find myself simultaneously back in familiar territory and adrift in a strange land. The first section, “Hello: A Journal, February 29 - May 3, 1976”, opens with a sequence “Wellington, New Zealand”. Here I must briefly digress. Wellington is precisely the landfall I had made twenty-five years earlier, almost to the day, the place where I began my true life as a poet, just as tentatively as Creeley seems to have done, but in a greater muddle. “Wellington, New Zealand” (the poem) offers itself as minimalist drama. The speaker looks around, notes the scene; comes back next day. Looks around. "Where’s the world/one wants” (no question mark.) A few lines on: “Trees want/ to be still?/ Winds/ won’t let them?” So this is Wellington? A clue: Wellington’s ubiquitous epithet is “windy Wellington”, whether the trees want it or not. This sequence goes through 85 pages, nine countries. For the first fifty pages I know the places and know (or know of) some of the people. There is a good deal of terse description, mostly generic. At one point the poet Bill Manhire’s wife emerges at the airport in Wellington and thus we learn that Creeley has Glaswegian forebears. At another point, Dunedin (city) becomes a (musical) refrain. Long ago, a critic (perhaps the one I quoted above) characterized Creeley’s as “a poetry without any of the axiological signs which serve to hold it in the mind.” At this point, nearly fifty years after first finding his work, I still cherish much of it, but notwithstanding the fact that Wellington, and New Zealand in general, are areas of painful love for me, I found little in this sequence. There are moments to which a poet like Frank O’Hara, say, might have given a vivid urgency, but Creeley’s terse notations choke him off. For me, at least, the prose addendum on p91 offers more. Flash forward, though, to late in this book, “The Dogs of Auckland” (CP 502-509) you find some remarkable features: an uncharacteristic use of the long line, a sense of a country lived in, a people lived among, a celebration of friends, in contrast to remembering the beginning, when “I set to each morning …/ to learn “New Zealand…as if it were a book…”

In 1967-68 I was at Yale working on a study of Williams’s poetry, which from time to time took me to SUNY Buffalo, where Creeley was teaching. I relished his poems, got to know him a bit, at one time stayed with him and (as Americans say, his “then wife”) [3]Bobbie for a long weekend. I enjoyed not only the poems, but his distinctive syntax and voice in prose and speech. Last time I saw him, in the early “70s, we were at a conference on Imagism at East Lansing, went to one or two things together, including a wind-up party at the home of poet and scholar Jerry Mazzaro. Also present: James Wright, Louis Simpson. I had a conversation with Wright, each appreciating the fine New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, a friend and associate of mine, recently dead. Bob, typically, was broody, taken up with Louis Simpson, who he thought had snubbed him. It was not long after this that he made his first connection with New Zealand, where as far as I can gather he lived for most of the years covered by this volume. Ironically, this was when I lost touch with him (for “ideological” reasons not relevant here.).

The early critical take on Creeley, when it was negative, said his work was without images, or that the images were pulverized, without rhyme [except parodistic], without constants in its rhythmic behaviour, but it may be retorted that, like Whitman, and Williams (or, for that matter, Pound) Creeley was into creating his own aesthetic. A respected critic, M. L. Rosenthal, in The New Poets (1967), felt that this search of Creeley’s for a new rhythm and a new persona too often made for a “blocking presence.” Rosenthal is not ungenerous to Creeley’s talent, rating some of his work, “lovely or touching or at least alive with wit.” More to the point, he observes: “Its essential rhythm is of self-ironic reverie, momentarily self-forgetting and then catching itself up short.” This points forward to much in the later work where the poem’s speaker is in the midst of a little drama with himself, an unspecified character who tends to exude self-deprecation, loneliness, bemusement, tentativeness. For all his inwardness, there is much gesturing outward, to the world at large, though the pointing, so to speak, is cryptic. Take, in passing from “Waiting for a Bus En Frente de la Iglesia” (one way or t’other, ironic title): “Here’s the church,/ here’s the tower, the wall,/ chopped off. Open// the door - no/ people. This is/ age, long time gone,// like town gate sits/ at intersection/ across - just facade leading nowhere”.(CP, 110). The italics are Creeley’s, for unspoken irony. In twelve terse three-line stanzas there’s one external reference, undetailed: “you can read/ all about it!” Otherwise an isolated figure (approached by an old dog) is doing what the title says, until the bus: “now starts up,/ and we’re on,/ and we’re gone”. There is a lack of “direct sensuous apprehension”, instead there’s feeling, in which case the absence of an [4]exclamation point after “gone” conveys its own feeling. The speaker here, and in numerous poems, places himself in a “waiting” or “isolated” scene, observing others or aware of their absence or non-existence, yet everywhere the reader may come upon warm feeling towards absent or remembered friends. Creeley’s seems to have been a life experienced predominantly through temperament rather than intellect, that temperament being largely solipsistic.

Throughout this collection, cleaving tight to his own voice Creeley also beckons to many poets of the tradition, in “Versions - After Hardy”, for example, summing up in his own voice and measure the great Hardy retrospective love poems of 1912-1913, these encapsulations in effect endorsing Hardy’s stoical pessimism. In another poem, the speaker says, “Now I am one, inexorably/ in this body, in this time” (CP 194). This “one” relates not to holism, but to its virtual opposite, Blake’s “single vision”, or containment, as in a prison. These few examples, in a brief discussion, could be extended and elaborated manifold.

The short poems in the “Memory Gardens” section remind one of Creeley’s prolific associate, the late Cid Corman. Both poets tend to write within cooing distance of generalization, but more often than not Creeley’s poems relate to something doing “on the ground”, though the incident, usually ironic, may be in his own psyche: “I’ll win the way/ I always do/ by being gone/ when they come.// When they look, they’ll see/ nothing of me/ and where I am/ they’ll not know.// This, I thought, is my way/ and right or wrong/ it’s me. Being dead, then,/ I’ll have won completely”. Where Creeley typically is fragmented and struggling, Corman, writing on the same scale is holistic, often bland.

An occasional problem with Creeley (as with Corman) – his portentousness, can drop close to Hallmark, as in “Heaven” (CP,133). For a poet as glancing, as cryptic,1200 pages is a heap of collected poems. Perhaps some culling would be in order, with (in the Creeley spirit!) the definite article omitted from the title.

Creeley’s is undoubtedly a voice of distinction. In that sense, he is his own man. That voice is reticent, involuted, terse, self-aware, essentially monosyllabic, with a pervasive dry wit, a rueful deadpan humour (v. CP 142, “Thanks”). It lives in a world not without companions, but essentially lonely, not without range but foreshortened and inward turning: “What would it be/ like walking off/ by oneself down// that path in the/ classic woods the light/ lift of breeze softness// of this early evening and/ you want some time/ to yourself to think// of it all again/ and again an/ empty ending?” (CP 350)

The general level of work throughout is high. Until the last third of the text, few [5]poems extend to the 100-plus lines of “Helsinki Window”, or “The Dogs of Auckland”, so Creeley is not your typical poet of anthology pieces. He should be assessed by his whole range, the whole galley of his work: “Seemingly never until one’s dead/ is there possible measure - // but of what then or for what/ other than the same plagues// attended the living with misunderstanding/ and wanted a compromise as pledge// one could care for any of them/ heaven knows, if that’s where one goes” (CP 241). For Love (title of his first significant book) – early and late, that is what he sought, at times in blessed quotidian moments finding it. Late in this collection, see several “valentines” and avowals along the way, in a country where the waters spiral down the opposite way, he may have found something close to what he sought.

Mike Doyle is a poet, critic, biographer, and editor. He is a professor of English at the University of Victoria, B.C. His many books include Trout Spawning at Lardeau River and William Carlos Williams and the American Poem.