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A Human Pledge

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Creeley's control over enjambment between lines and across stanzas often made for just such a poetry of quick surprise. Some of this derives from observations that are mundane and startling at once: a memory of spilling mustard on himself at a baseball game; a picture of a young man buying sanitary napkins, "Modess," for his lover; a woman who pees in a sink after making love. At other times, it's the imagery of the poem's language, as in "Morning," a three-line description of what sounds to me like a hangover:

About the Author

Susan Stewart
Susan Stewart
Susan Stewart is the author, most recently, of Red Rover, a book of poems, and The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on...

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Learning to mourn with Susan Howe, Gertrude Schnackenberg, Anne Carson and C.D. Wright.

Dam's broke,
head's a
waterfall.

The line breaks, word count, syllable count and stresses do a monumental amount of work in a minimal amount of space as they jam, fall and fuse.

In his conversation, and in many of his poems, Creeley had a habit of moving between the first-person "I" and the impersonal "one." A 1986 poem, "Massachusetts May," for instance, starts out "Month one was born in" and a few lines later shifts to the particular "sweet May of my boyhood." A number of the powerful short lyrics, written near the end of his life and published in his posthumous collection On Earth (2006), also rely on this contrast. Here's the title poem:

One's here
and there is still elsewhere
along some road to hell
where all is well--

or heaven
even
where all the saints still wait
and guard the golden gate.

That's all it takes for Creeley to write a "road not taken" poem--the extraordinary amount of resonance between here and there, between still, hell, all, well, all and still, between heaven and even, and between guard, golden and gate is both omnipresent and barely there, a visible and invisible architecture of letters and sounds. It is no disparagement of the work to consider to what extent the loss of an eye made Creeley a particular, even unique, poet--one who had to turn his head to scan the whole view, and so one for whom perception was always exaggeratedly temporal; one who could apprehend at once clarity and occlusion, and who was particularly aware of the sources and resonances of sound. His "one" was both universal and the unique quality of his I/eye.

Nevertheless, Creeley's speakers, and Creeley speaking, are almost always talking to a specific "you," a you often addressed by his or her proper name. There are poems like "The Rain" that involve an intimate and plaintive address to a lover, and there are many others that are in the genre of the lover's complaint--addressed to a third party, reader or voyeur:

My old lady is a goof at heart,
she tells me she loves me, we'll never part--

but what a goofed up chick will tell to a man
is best written in wind εt water εt sand.

These lines are from "Stomping with Catullus," and the use of typographical and diacritical marks and abbreviations throughout the early poems, constantly setting up a tension between the spoken aspect of language and its notation, is a practice borrowed from Pound and Zukofsky especially. Creeley never drops it--if anything he becomes more and more conscious of the subtle orchestration that punctuation, abbreviations, italics and other features of printing can give to the poem on the page.

At times, as in many of the erotic poems for his second wife, Bobbie Hawkins, Creeley's immediacy makes the language flatten to a form of "filler": "He/loves, his mind/is occupied, his//hands move/writing words/which come/into his head." But then "The Act of Love," from A Day Book (1972), like so many of his poems, begins to develop as a mind revising itself, questioning its desires and its relation to physical desire, until the speaker reaches the final paradoxical insight: "all these/senses do/commingle, so/that in your very/arms I still/can think of you." The poems of this period, from the onset of the 1960s into the mid-'70s, are remarkable for their depictions of erotic rage, anger, tension, shot nerves and suffering.

You did it,
and didn't want to,

and it was simple.
You were not involved,

even if your head was cut off,
or each finger

twisted
from its shape until it broke,

and you screamed too
with the other, in pleasure.

Even so, Creeley constantly shifts his tone. His often anthologized "Ballad of the Despairing Husband" is both comic and whatever is the opposite of self-congratulatory. Said husband's wife proclaims:

And I will wear what dresses I choose!
And I will dance, and what's to lose!
I'm free of you, you little prick,
and I'm the one to make it stick.

Some of the most complex and developed poems here are reflections and elegies dedicated to women relatives: his grandmother ("The Teachings"); his mother ("For My Mother: Genevieve Jules Creeley April 8, 1887-October 7,1972"; "Mother's Voice"); his Aunt Berenice ("I Love You"); the family housekeeper of his childhood ("Theresa's Friends"); his infant daughter Hannah ("H's"); his sister Helen ("Emptiness"). This last poem is an elegy assembled from images of an empty field with a barn in it--his sister's barn, then an account of his sister's possessions filling the barn, and then an account of her loss of such worldly goods, until describing the final loss of her person. It all happens swiftly, relentlessly, one line laid down after another, each full of emotion and yet truly emptied of mere sentiment. A late poem, "Pictures," for Penelope Highton, to whom Creeley was married for the last three decades of his life, is both a declaration of love and a kind of ubi sunt meditation that resolves to continue to hear, see and tell "all that lives in a forest,/all that surrounds me."

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