A Human Pledge
The most important American love poet in living memory, and certainly one of the most important American poets tout court, Robert Creeley was born in 1926 and raised in eastern Massachusetts. His early life was marked by two devastating losses: the death of his father in 1930 and the removal of his left eye the year after, when he was 5. In 1944 Creeley left his studies at Harvard to drive an ambulance in Burma, and at war's end he returned to Cambridge. Then, in 1947, just before graduating, he dropped out, married Ann MacKinnon, tried raising chickens on a New Hampshire farm and eventually went to Mallorca, where he and MacKinnon started a small literary press. There he found the vocations of writing, traveling, editing and, eventually, teaching that he would follow the remainder of his rambling, rambunctious and often difficult life--a life that included two more marriages, raising children, the accidental death of a young daughter and periods of settling in New Mexico, Bolinas, Buffalo and Providence. Throughout these years, he journeyed around the world to read his poems and stories and pursued collaborations with a range of artists, from Jim Dine and Francesco Clemente to the legendary jazz soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Creeley died during a sojourn on a fellowship in Marfa, Texas, in March 2005.
Abridged from his last poems and the two volumes of Collected Poems published in 2006--the first extending from 1945 to 1975, the second from 1975 to 2005--this Selected Poems began as a project by Creeley and his former student Ben Friedlander and was finished by Friedlander after Creeley's unexpected death. Friedlander has updated the poet's earlier Selected Poems of 1991 by including more than thirty poems from four later books. Creeley famously wrote in his first Collected Poems, published in 1982, that he felt his poems were all of a piece and he would omit none of them so as not to "miss the factual life they had either made manifest or engendered." Readers new to Creeley, or simply those who want a more portable edition, will therefore welcome this new sampling.
Because Creeley was a friend of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac, he was often identified as being part of the Beat generation. Yet his main early poetic influences were, to put them in historical order, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan--the last two forming his immediate company at Black Mountain College, where he taught in 1954 and 1955. Just as important is the fact that their influences were often some of his. Creeley's early poetry shows a Poundian affinity for the troubadours and poets of the dolce stil nuovo, but his love of what might be called an English American English--the New England speech patterns that were his native legacy--can clearly be heard in his echoes of Campion, Herrick and Anglo-American ballad and song traditions. The spareness of Creeley's poems is Puritan as much as '70s Minimalist, and perhaps only a Puritan could celebrate the body and its ambivalent desires quite as well as he does. His well-known mantra "Form is never more than an extension of content," which he honed in his extensive early correspondence with Olson on issues of form and line, can be viewed not only as the outcome of a Modernist rebellion against Victorian meters and narrative structures but also as a late-twentieth-century version of the concept of organic form, which reaches from German Romanticism to Coleridge's lectures on Shakespeare to the New Criticism of the 1950s.
Often on the margins of social life, Creeley was at the exact center of a poetic tradition that stretched from the twelfth century to the present. But unlike other twentieth-century poets who wore their learning heavily, Creeley had a touch as light as a song, a touch that could only come from internalizing the whole tradition and letting it come naturally to him. Here is a proclamation from his early poem "Heroes":
In all those stories the hero
is beyond himself into the next
thing, be it those labors
of Hercules, or Aeneas going into death.
I thought the instant of the one humanness
in Virgil's plan of it
was that it was of course human enough to die,
yet to come back, as he said, hoc opus, hic labor est.
That was the Cumaean Sibyl speaking.
This is Robert Creeley, and Virgil
is dead now two thousand years, yet Hercules
and the Aeneid, yet all that industrious wis-
dom lives in the way the mountains
and the desert are waiting
for the heroes, and death also
can still propose the old labors.
Or we could turn to "First Rain," from his 1983 book Mirrors. There are few poems that revise the metaphysical tradition, the eighteenth-century descriptive poem and the romantic notion of "emotion recollected in tranquility" as elegantly as this one:
These retroactive small
instances of feeling
reach out for a common
ground in the wet
first rain of a faded
winter. Along the grey
iced sidewalk revealed
piles of dogshit, papers,
bits of old clothing, are
the human pledges,
call them, "We are here and
have been all the time." I
walk quickly. The wind
drives the rain, drenching
my coat, pants, blurs
my glasses, as I pass.
"Feeling" that might "reach out for a common/ground." This is an exact description of the lyric task, and Creeley's accounts are always exacting, his "retroactive small/instances" setting the scale of attention from the very start. At the poem's outset, and later with "common," "wet," "faded" and "grey," Creeley ends lines on simple, otherwise infrequent, adjectives, noting the quality of something, its appearance, before announcing its essence. Every line break is a small adjustment of perception--or perhaps one that is not so small: the pieces of debris along the sidewalk are "human pledges" at first mention, but then we learn we should "call them" that; the work of the poem will be to make this calling a common ground. These are not only free-verse enjambments but also ways of making the temporal sequence of lines count as transformations. In the line "drives the rain, drenching," "drenching" serves as a predicate adjective or simply an intransitive verb, but by the next line and stanza, "drenching" acquires its two objects, "coat" and "pants," and seems to be finished until the new verb, "blurs," finds its object--paradoxically the instrument of seeing, "my glasses."
Indeed, the whole poem relies on two antithetical words at line endings: first "revealed," which is not located syntactically until we see it modifies the verb "are," and then "blurs," which seems to perform its action in one direction while the speaker disappears behind its screen. The relation between things revealed and things blurred becomes an exact description of the experience of a "first rain," a rain renewed by a promised return of winter and what we call another kind of promise--the human pledge.
Twenty years earlier Creeley had written another lyric on rain, simply called "The Rain," first published in these pages in 1959 and then in his 1962 book For Love. In that poem, rain also persistently recalls the speaker to himself: "What am I to myself/that must be remembered,/insisted upon/so often?" But then, strikingly, he turns to address his lover directly:
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.
with a decent happiness.
From the poem's beginning, Creeley already is trying out a play of words at line endings as he also works through brilliant transformations of diction. Nothing so simple as the pun on "Be wet" here, and nothing so ironically complex as "the semi-/lust of intentional indifference," a phrase that could have been lifted from Henry James. For Love created a sensation when it appeared, and the pleasure and intensity offered by its poems still holds: indeed, many critics continue to subscribe to a legend that views this book as paramount, with the rest of Creeley's career amounting to a falling off.
The Collected Poems and this new Selected should challenge that view. The poems show a consistent set of themes and concerns as well as a range of changes in form, yet all the while there is one life and one voice joining the whole. Nearly all of Creeley's poems take place in the here and now, and his basic form, though there are important variations, is a string of quatrains as square and carefully joined as a piece of Shaker carpentry. There are no dramatic monologues, no elaborately constructed fictions. The metaphors come from everyday experience and therefore sometimes seem all the more surreal: his infamous lines in "The Warning"--"For love--I would/split open your head and put/a candle in/behind the eyes"--modulates its own threat, self-consciously insisting on the value of symbolic exchange: "Love is dead in us/if we forget/the virtues of an amulet/and quick surprise."