Hero of the Local: Robert Creeley and the Persistence of American Poetry
On March 30, 2005, as the sun rose across the mountain tops surrounding the highland plains of Marfa, in southwestern Texas, Robert Creeley died, surrounded by his wife, Penelope, and two youngest children, William and Hannah, who had arrived at the regional hospital in Odessa, just in time to see him through the dawn. The poet who made the struggle for breath a central part of postwar American poetry, who turned the wheeze and gasp and the stutter and the feint into an exquisite art of intimate articulation, had struggled for his own breath throughout March. In e-mail messages he sent to dozens of his friends during his last weeks, Creeley spoke of living off “champagne” bottles of pure oxygen and even sent pictures by e-mail in which he looked dapper as ever, with an infusion tube darting across his face like an upside-down mustache. Creeley also sent out pictures of the mountain views of Marfa, where he was staying on an arts residency. This quintessential poet of New England, born in Acton, Massachusetts, and whose ashes are interred at Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, died a sojourner in the American West, near the border of Mexico, in a scene that evokes nothing if not the climax of a John Ford film.
Creeley, who was born in 1926, was active right up to his last weeks, both writing poems and giving readings. His last appearances in New York were at the Cue Art Foundation gallery on January 19, 2005, and the next day at a memorial celebration for the saxophone jazz innovator Steve Lacy at the Poetry Project of St. Mark’s Church. Creeley’s connection with artists and musicians was longstanding, going back to his days at Black Mountain College in the 1950s. Indeed, Creeley was a prodigious collaborator, working with visual artists such as Susan Rothenberg, Francesco Clemente, Robert Indiana, R. B. Kitaj, Alex Katz, Archie Rand, Elsa Dorfman, Marisol, Jim Dine, and many others.
At Cue, Creeley remarked at how often he appeared at memorial services; he no doubt felt himself to be one of the last left standing from his generation of poets. But his reading was as vivid and particular as ever and there was no sign of what was to come, though anyone who has read Creeley’s poems of the last two decades will not miss the intimations of mortality that appear, like pointillist dots of grass in a Seurat painting.
Creeley’s final talk and reading was one month later, on March 19, at the University of Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson. But perhaps of more significance, for Creeley, was Edgar Allan Poe’s ever-lit dorm room on the edge of the campus, a spectral reminder of the black soul that possesses the poetry of this too often dark land, a darkness that Creeley did not so much dwell within as engage in an ongoing, often defiant, conversation. (He wrote his only libretto based on Poe’s Ligeia.)
Creeley had come to Charlottesville as part of a Walt Whitman celebration and one of his last essays was on Whitman’s late poems. The foundations of American poetry are often said to rest of two radically different approaches: Whitman’s expansive, sexually explicit, and exuberant verse and Emily Dickinson’s philosophical, hermetic, introspective poems. One measure of the genius of Creeley’s poetry is that he synthesizes these two directions—outward and inward—by creating a body of work that has at its heart a formal paradox. Call it quantum poetics.
This quantum poetics is nowhere more evident than in Creeley’s radical use of the linebreak. Creeley reimagined the poetic line as a means of registering microtonal inflections. His achievement, in this respect, is just the opposite of the “minimalism” that was often used to mischaracterize his work. Creeley’s exquisitely precise lines measure the pressure of reality through their articulation of emotional rupture or turbulence. Breaking every two or three words, his lines also—and in contrast—can be read as materializing the language (making it linguistically concrete, heard as words as much as for what the words might mean). What from one perspective is an extremely fragmenting prosody is, from another, a highly charged music of felt intensities. The experience is one of rhythmically charged, exhilarating oscillation, as waves of thought break into particles of sound. While this achievement is present in his earliest work, it reaches its initial height in two collections, Words (1967) and Pieces (1969).
Creeley’s poetry is as much about enunciation as instance of it; here again the bifurcation of being in and beside reveals a dynamic conflict at the level of form. With Words and Pieces, he began a process of bracketing the “I” so that the poems treat the “I” as a third person (“As soon as / I speak, I speaks”): the direct expressive voice of the poet yields to the articulation of voicings in the poem.
Creeley’s earlier poems, collected in For Love: Poems 1950-1960 explored regions of male sexuality, aggression, anger, frustration, futility, loss, and disorientation (as well as tenderness and love) in a way rarely, if ever, articulated in American poetry. Creeley’s poems of this period didn’t try to cast the darker part of male consciousness in a positive light: his interest was not in a moral discourse that condemned or condoned but in an active poetry of thinking and encountering. The result, startling in the context of the 1950s, was a form of men (to reverse Creeley’s title A Form of Women) that expressed weakness and uncertainty and linked it, contingently, to violence and love, eros and disaffection. Creeley’s often gloriously stuttering poetry of the 1950s used many of the trappings of lyric poetry, but he played outside the tune, as surely as Charlie Parker, only to come back around to it again, making it strange and familiar at the same time.
Of third-wave modernists poets (those born in the two decades following 1910), Creeley was one of the greatest champions of the New American Poetry (from the Beats to Black Mountain, New York School to San Francisco Renaissance), and, with Jerome Rothenberg, one of the most consistent adversaries of Official Verse Culture. He took his charge from Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Louis Zukofsky, each of whom offered a specific model of poetics that he transformed into a powerfully resilient core that remains central to contemporary practice. Creeley’s enormous public energy on behalf of other poets in his essays, prefaces, encomiums, and through his many decades of teaching at SUNY-Buffalo (where Susan Howe and I worked with him for fourteen years), all stem from a set of poetic principles that he often reiterated and elaborated in “quick graphs”—as he called an early set of essays that formed the basis of an activist approach to poetics that remains a bulwark against poetic uniformitarianism and complacency.
Creeley’s poetics were not designed to generate a specific type of poetry, either stylistically or formally. They are pro-vocative rather than proscriptive. And they fomented an approach to poetry that remains the antithesis of neatly laundered poems of the poet laureates and Pulitzers, indeed of the poems promoted by such venues of bountiful poetic disinformation as The New York Times and the Academy of American Poetry (whose recent signature event for national poetry month was a gala featuring many celebrity actors but virtually no poets).
Let me make a quick graph of my own.
Creeley’s first principle is that you find out what you have to say in the process of saying it: poetry becomes a way of making not representing. This presents a stark challenge to an approach to poems that begins with ideas or sentiments or messages and then represents or approximates them in the poem. Composition (including editing and recomposing) becomes the active agency of the poem. Immediacy and immanence of expression precedes essence.
A couple of great one-liners underscore the concept. The first was picked up by Charles Olson in “Projective Verse,” an essay which remains central to U.S. poetry mid-twentieth-century: “form is never more than an extension of content.” But Creeley’s corollary is the ringer: “content is never more than an extension of form.”
The other one-line koan for the poetics of process is an answer Creeley gave to a question from an audience member after a reading—“Is that a real poem, or did you just make it up?”
He just made it up.
By the same token, a poem is not a summary of something thought but an arc of thinking. This is the temporal dimension of poetry, in which words move in time; in this sense, poetry is allied not to the visual arts but music and film.
Creeley’s next principle follows on the first, not like the night follows the day but like one foot follows another when walking: poetry is not made of ideas but words.
Creeley was not without his don’ts, especially: never write in generalities if a particular, a detail, a specificity would do. Not “the tree” nor “the father” nor “the poet” nor “the right” nor “the tradition” nor “the conventional,” but particular instantiations of any of these. (And yes, Matilda, even abstractions can be given concrete form.) The poet best averts universal truths in favor of the non-generalizable specifics of form and rhythm and vocabulary. (This is what Gertrude Stein called insistence.)
Creeley’s equal emphasis on both the particular and the common is another one of his paradoxes: for it is the particular within the common that is the obscure object of his desire and frequent frustration. The common is not one thing (or one idea) believed by all but a shared space in which our individual differences converge without disappearing. A commons is a place of dispute and provisional agreements, a convention not a conversion, a particular place not a universal claim. In Creeley’s prosody, we count by ones: a serial order in which the contingency of the next is honored and each word (nouns no more than prepositions) carries its own weight. This is a poetics not of subordination but of the sublimity of the modular and the local. Each part doing its part against an horizon of a whole that never arrives.
For Creeley, a poem is the fact of its own activity: it exists in itself and for itself so that we can relate to it not just as “expression” but as enactment. This is not so much an objectification of the poem as a placing of the poem in the world as a thing requiring not mute appreciation but active response.
Of course, American poetry has never been, and could never be, Dickinson versus Whitman. There is always the x factor (poetry that combines the Dickinsonian and Whitmanian)—call it by the name of Poe, or Crane, or Loy, or Williams, or Stein, or Blaser, or Rich, or Scalapino. Or Creeley.
A few days after Creeley’s death, Charles Alexander spoke of Robert Creeley as our poetic “connective tissue.” So many poets had an intimate relation with Creeley; he had a way of connecting with each of us in particular and, through that connection with him, to a company of poets in the U.S. and around the world.
In his quick graphs, Creeley also connected us to a set of poets who constitute a living past for our art. From this perspective, Creeley is not only one of the major innovators of postwar poetry, he is one of the great American poets. As he vanishes from our everyday life, where, for me as for so many others, he was a palpable presence in an ongoing conversation, Creeley joins that company of poets who have invented and reinvented the conversation of American poetry over the past two hundred and more years. If he can no longer be our companion in the way he has been—for many of us for our entire lives as poets—his companionship is inscribed in the words he wrote in his poems and essays and letters.
Charles Bernstein’s most recent books are Pitch of Poetry (2016) and Recalculating (2013), both from the University of Chicago Press. He is the co-editor, with Tracie Morris, of The Best American Experimental Writing 2016 (Wesleyan University Press, 2017). He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is co-director of PennSound.