Robert Creeley: “Selected Poems, 1945-2005”

creeley.jpg The rhyme is after
all the repeated

— Robert Creeley, “For W.C.W.”

Black Mountain College, nestled in the mountains of eastern North Carolina, was small but thrived on its own terms for the 30 years it existed from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s. And thrives, perhaps, in memory because of the storied avant garde careers of teachers and students who took a turn there: Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Paul Goodman, as well as a cluster of poets that included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley (1926-2005). Creeley’s Selected Poems, 1945-2005 (University of California Press), edited by Benjamin Friedlander, has just been published, a microcosm of 60 years and some 60 volumes of work.

Creeley was inspired by jazz and abstract art and in fact collaborated with musicians, photographers and artists on various projects, a legacy of the communal atmosphere at Black Mountain. Creeley and other Black Mountain stalwarts were part of the “New American” poets anthologized by Donald Allen, but while they were associated with the Beats, they had their own clear path, a more reserved, austere form of verse that was innovative and experimental nonetheless.

One of my favorite Creeley poems is not included in Selected Poems, perhaps because it seems to be a shade romantic and sentimental. Here it is, “The Woman”:

I called her across the room,
could see that what she stood on
held her up, and now she came
as if she moved in time.

In time to what she moved,
her hands, her hair, her eyes, all things
by which I took her to be there
did come along.

It was not right or wrong
but signally despair, to be about
to speak to her
as if her substance shouted.

I read this poem in 1966 in a collection called For Love (1962),” and copied it out in my literary treasures notebook for Mrs. Wheeler’s senior English class. This was a different kind of love poem. No lips like cherries, cheeks like roses, hair like fine-spun gold – the verbal cornucopia that turned woman into an Acrimbaldo portrait. This was a real flesh and blood woman who stood across the room, held up, as it were, but not on a pedestal. The line break “what she stood on / held her up” still floors me. A simple, elegant poem, it tickles the mind and stirs the blood.

No frenzied yawp like the Beats. No “Wasteland” high seriousness. Just a lot of short or skinny poems with the quick-step line breaks that fold over and slither down the page like a snake. Compressed expression of compressed ideas. Another favorite from the same collection, “I Know a Man,” is in Selected Poems, and if you’ve seen a Creeley poem anthologized, this is it:

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.

The line breaks are clever, but more than that. They are essential to the way you think when you’re in the middle of one of his poems. It’s the inventiveness of thinking things in a new way by how they play for the eye and mind on the page as a rigorous, narrow focus on the particular. “Form is never more than an extension of content,” Creeley said.

Charles Olson called what they did “Projective Verse,” a kinetic thing, the poet’s energy transfered by way of the poem to the reader. The poem “is a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge.” The poet must compose in an open field, and follow the track of the poem. Olson, in the dedication to his own volume, Maximus Poems, called his friend Creeley “the Figure of Outward,” meaning an avatar of exploration, mutual exchange.

In an essential way the poems are not even poetic. These are poems that are “said.” They got much of this from William Carlos Williams. It’s an American inventiveness. The rhyme of thought is its “repeated insistence.” Some of it is found by chance in the flood of experience, that “flickering ambience,” the “moment’s recognition” “that what it was could never last” (“The Way”). The plays with words are infectious. Tom Clark called his biographical essay on Creeley Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place. But there is an emotional trigger in the poems, too. You see it and feel it at once. Mind tickled, blood stirred.

Selected Poems is a compressed object, a verbal Cornell box of surprises, intimacies. From the early poems, vigorous, confident, bold to document the “contrivance” in life, how “People don’t act / like they act / in real life / in real life” (“The Changes”), to the sober, practical, thoughts in late poems that editor Friedlander, in his discerning, respectful introduction, succinctly describes as “graceful, eloquent, and wise.” The elegiac of the common place.

They remind me of the late poems of Thomas Hardy. Not as dark, and not so much that they are like Hardy’s poems, but that I read them in the same mood. In these poems Creeley is not obsessed with mortality, but, with failing health, slightly curious about it in a mild way and matter of fact in accepting the passing moment. In an essay called “Reflections on Whitman in Age,” Creeley wrote: “In age one is oneself reflective, both of what it has been to live and of what that act has become as a resonance (I’d almost written a residence) in memory what it all meant, so to speak, what it felt like.” It is an “accumulation,” “the substance of a body, the history of such body in a particular time and place, the manifest of that locating ‘thing’ in the myriad ways in which it has engaged and been engaged by the world surrounding it.” What makes the observation sharp is the accumulation: the off-beat syntax, the play of chance in resonance /residence, and the startling use of “manifest” to serve as both the thing evident and the things summed up. There’s a lifetime of this in Selected Poems.

Creeley’s poems are personal, lyrical, capturing transient experience, the daily round, rounded daily. Thinking of the Earth, and the coming of his coming-to-ground-in-it, is to “think of nothing if one can / not think of it,” as he puts it in “To think . . .”:

World’s mind is afterall
an afterthought
of what was there before
and is there still.