A Human Pledge

A Human Pledge

The most important American love poet in living memory, Robert Creeley celebrated the body and its ambivalent desires with a touch as light as a song.


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.
Be wet
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.”

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:

Dam’s broke,
head’s a

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
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

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.”

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:

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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