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A Human Pledge

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Like the Renaissance coterie poets, Creeley constantly created small spaces of resonant silences and sounds, his stanzas working as "little rooms." A meditation on a kitchen, from 1974, is a good example:

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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Pier Paolo Pasolini was a force against the incoherence hiding in every hypocrisy.

The light in the morning
comes in the front windows,
leaving a lace-like pattern
on the table and floor.

   •

In the silence now
of this high square room
the clock's tick adjacent
seems to mark old time.

   •

Perpetually sweeping
this room, I want it
to be like it was.

Made up for the most part of five-word lines--isoverbalism (using a set number of words per line) was a technique Creeley often preferred--"Kitchen" also is built out of monosyllabic words. These come up against a second pattern of disyllabic and trisyllabic terms: morning, windows, leaving, pattern, silence, adjacent, perpetually, sweeping. The light literally "leaves" its leafy pattern in the room, marking out negative and positive space; the "now" of silence is broken by the ticking of a clock that ticks "old time," marking the present via the past; the I/eye that, like a lighthouse beam, sweeps the kitchen, has its own imprint, a perpetual, paradoxical and impossible desire for a specific moment to be restored.

"Caves," a beautiful late poem, begins:

So much of my childhood seems
to have been spent in rooms--
at least in memory, the shades

pulled down to make it darker, the
shaft of sunlight at the window's edge.
I could hear the bees then gathering

Creeley goes on to describe a country childhood of digging or finding caves, building little shacks out of trees and making teepeelike enclosures. All these forms of makeshift shelter from childhood lead, like the stanzas of a poem, and via the stanzas of the poem, to memories of playing as a child, to travel in the confined space of airplanes, and then to reflections on caves as places where the sound is before us and the "arched dark space" becomes a place of discovery. The whole poem rewrites the idealizing Platonic metaphor of the cave to replace it positively with a lived material experience of making and discovery.

Reading through Creeley's work reveals how much he was a domestic poet, but maybe it's more exact to notice a dynamic, which seems typical of the 1950s and '60s Beat culture in which his poetic sensibility was forged, between enclosure and escape. As he asks in one of his last poems, "En Famille," "what made one feel such desperation/to get away, get far from home, be gone from those/would know us even if they only saw our noses or our toes"? Friedlander notes that Creeley's 1978 book Hello is the record of a trip through eight countries in nine weeks, and that a decade later, during a sabbatical in Helsinki, Creeley traveled on reading tours to Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Poland, Russia, Latvia, Sweden and several other countries, returning frequently to read in the United States as well.

Dante's verses took for granted a practical knowledge of falconry; Sidney's a practical knowledge of dressage. Creeley's work, in turn, involves a fundamental experience of modernity--more often than not, someone else is driving the machine in which we're riding. He is the poet laureate of the back seat, that place of erotic encounter and unacknowledged legislation. To travel backward, from the late "Pictures": "Like sitting in back seat,/can't see what street/we're on or what the/one driving sees//or where we're going"; from "Some Afternoon": "Why not ride/with pleasure/and take oneself/as measure...the house, the road,/all go forward/in a huge/flash"; from "A Wicker Basket": "And she opens the door of her cadillac,/I step in back,/and we're gone. She turns me on"; and, most famously, from his often-anthologized "I Know a Man":

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 εt
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

In Creeley's final poems, he knew well where he was going both as a poet and as a mortal being, cognizant of old age and the body's failings but still loving and changing his work. Friedlander includes a selection that takes the reader in surprising new directions, including a luxurious homage to Wallace Stevens from the late 1990s, "Histoire de Florida." Creeley left many apostles; perhaps some of them will turn now to the tasks of fully editing and annotating his collected works in poetry and prose and producing a solid scholarly biography. Others will no doubt end up fighting over his legacy before sorting it all out. In the meantime, this Selected should continue to draw new readers to lines as remarkable as these, like a rough-hewn work song, from his 2003 "Supper": "Shovel it in./Then go away again./Then come back and/shovel it in.... I can no longer think of heaven/as any place I want to go,/not even dying. I want/to shovel it in.//I want to keep on eating,/drinking, thinking./I am ahead. I am not dead./Shovel it in."

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