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About Robert Creeley (1926-2005)

I

Robert Creeley’s last book, If I were writing this (New Directions, 2003), begins with a “credo” poem, “The Way.” Given that Creeley’s particular “way” ended on March 30, 2005, with his death from pneumonia in a hospital in the obscure outpost of Odessa, Texas, at age 78, that credo poem is as good a place as any to start. “The Way,” and much of what follows, brings us up to date on Creeley’s position with respect to both being-in-the-world (as well as leaving it) and the subject of writing, which was inseparable from his life. “The Way” is a 20-line, 5-stanza, semi-rhymed, sonnet-like poem that moves with the elegance and swift concision characteristic of Creeley’s wonderfully substantial body of work. It opens like this:

Somewhere in all the time that’s passed
was a thing in mind that became the evidence,
the pleasure even in fact of being lost
so quickly, simply that what it was could never last.

The most that could be expected of that evanescent “thing in mind,” Creeley continues, is: “Only knowing was measure of what one could / make hold together for that moment’s recognition, / or else the world washed over like a flood / of meager useless truths, of hostile incoherence.” He sees that it is “Too late to know that knowing was its own reward / and that wisdom had at best a transient credit. / Whatever one did or didn’t do was what one could. / Better at last believe than think to question?” he asks. Not at all, Creeley replies:

There wasn’t choice if one had seen the light,
not of belief but of that soft, blue-glowing fusion
seemed to appear or disappear with thought,
a minute magnesium flash, a firefly’s illusion.

Best wonder at mind and let that flickering ambience
of wondering be the determining way you follow,
which leads itself from day to day into tomorrow,
finds all it ever finds is there by chance.

The older Creeley diligently, and to my mind, appropriately, registered “all the time that’s passed,” in a series of books over the last quarter-century or so: Later (1979), Mirrors (1983), Memory Gardens (1986), Windows (1990), Echoes (1994), and Life & Death (1998), as well as this last one. As the various titles suggest, the poems are, among other things, preoccupied with time, memory, mortality, and the objects — windows, mirrors, echoes — literally and emblematically involved in framing those concerns. Rightly so, I’d say. In a sense, what else is there to do as a writer?

Though his poems, like those of most good poets, are resistant to simple paraphrase (or else, why would poets bother to write poems?), one useful way to see Creeley is as a phenomenological poet. More useful, say, than pegging him, as is often done by critics, as a “lyric poet” or “minimalist” writer. That is, part of Creeley’s continuing attention — as is evident from the opening lines of “The Way” — is the precise registration of how the mind, through language and other means, including the “real-time” digressions of consciousness, engages the world and the experience of being in it. Such registering is inseparable from one’s being-in-the-world, as much of post-modern philosophical thought also argues.

I’ve long understood Creeley, since his early poems of the 1950s, as a poet with a strong philosophical intelligence. He presents an American, New England-bred, version of the Continental European existentialism in whose wake he came of age in the 1940s and 50s. The presentation of his philosophical position, as worked out over a number of years in company with, but distinct from, his friend and fellow poet, Charles Olson, is indirect, oblique, and paratactical — that is, one perception follows immediately upon the last — rather than argumentative. But it’s clear that Creeley’s views accord with philosopher Hilary Putnam’s dictum that “elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality’ that the very project of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers’ of something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start.” (Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face, Harvard, 1990.)

So, “in all the time that’s passed,” there “was a thing in mind.” “Thing” here might mean some conception, even a necessarily hazy conception, of how everything works. Most of us have such an idea. The experience of being in the world causes us to see that whatever conception we have of how everything works or manifests itself, is quickly and repeatedly lost. We ourselves are lost, or at least the question of “where we are” in place and time is not finally determinable once and for all. There is “the pleasure even… of being lost.” However we see the whole thing, we recognize that “what it was could never last.” Our perspective on, and conception of, reality, that “thing in mind,” cannot be permanent or final. Creeley goes on to say,

Only knowing was measure of what one could
make hold together for that moment’s recognition,
or else the world washed over like a flood
of meager useless truths, of hostile incoherence.

So, again, in dumbshow paraphrase, we only can know that what we know is what we can “make hold together for that moment’s recognition.” There may be an accumulation of what one knows, a wisdom, but in the existential sense, it is continually suborned to what one sees in the latest instant. It was the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who used the phrase “the instant and its eternity” as an explanation of one of the things that a work of art might investigate. The “moment’s recognition” can reconfigure everything you’ve known. Perhaps it very rarely does, but what we’re talking about is openness to the possibility. Otherwise, what you end up with is the dull perception of “meager useless truths” and “hostile incoherence.” Creeley long had a sharp sense that just outside our frail efforts to make sense of things, there’s incoherence, chaos, and it isn’t friendly.

In “The Way,” Creeley uses “knowing” to mean those insights, and he contrasts “knowing” favourably to accumulated “wisdom.” That flash of knowing, it turns out, “was its own reward,” not a step on the way to wisdom, whatever we may have thought at the time. As in an early poem, “The Awakening,” where Creeley recognizes the urgency of “moving at all… / because you must,” he reaffirms here that whatever attention one did or didn’t bring to those moments was simply what one was able to do at the time. So, he asks, is it “better at last” to have firm beliefs about how it all works rather than to constantly “think to question”?

Well, in fact, there wasn’t any choice, especially “if one had seen the light,” not the light of belief, which is here treated as the rigid result of wisdom, but a light that’s a “soft, blue-glowing fusion” which seems to “appear or disappear with thought.” It’s the light of “a minute magnesium flash,” like the ones that made photographs long ago, or better, “a firefly’s illusion.”

The coda of “The Way” is a gently rhymed and half-rhymed quatrain:

Best wonder at mind and let that flickering ambience
of wondering be the determining way you follow,
which leads itself from day to day into tomorrow,
finds all it ever finds is there by chance.

That firefly-like “flickering ambience” is the “determining way” that Creeley follows through time. What we discover by means of “The Way” is that whatever it is we find is contingent, conditional, “there by chance.” Creeley doesn’t propose a world outside of time and chance.

I’ve stuck with this first poem for so long because it is emblematic, as it stands at the opening of If I were writing this, and because Creeley’s vocabulary, syntax, and mode of seeing are dense, of high velocity, and not necessarily intended for lumpy exegesis. But I wanted to slow it down, just for a bit, so that there’s no mistaking that speed for mere flash of style, and no taking the density to conceal a private or coded understanding. After exegesis, there’s reading. Well, okay, maybe it’s the other way around.

The other reason for focusing the bulk of these reflections on Creeley’s poetry is because the obits, as others who actually know something about Creeley have observed in memorial remarks, are, almost predictably, so meager, to use Creeley’s word. As poet and professor Barrett Watten puts it, many of the death notices provide only “a sclerotic construction of literary narrative that anyone with the faintest understanding of his work would reject.” Most of the obits manage to get in the Black Mountain College connection and Charles Olson, others think Creeley’s poetry had something to do with the Beats because he was friends with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso. A few lines of Creeley are quoted, sort of at random, and the tendency is to pose the departed at some point a quarter-century ago, when presumably the bio-for-obit notes were dustily filed. Hence, my inclination to look at the poetry Creeley was writing in the here-and-now.     

What follows “The Way” are three dozen or so mostly brief poems, a few longer part-poems consisting of many quick flashes, some elegies, and two or three more prosey “memory” poems — one about being in Vancouver in the 1960s, another about Allen Ginsberg and aging, one about the death of his sister.

A crucial feature of Creeley’s writing is his particular sense of humour, “standing at a slight angle to the universe” (as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy). In part, it’s a very hip, jazz-inflected, pot-smoking kind of humour, in which the stoned observer discovers that everything can be funny. But Creeley’s wit goes deeper than that — it takes the form of ontological irony, the sense at every instant of recognizing the possible absurdity of our existence, a recognition of how odd it is that this — the world, ourselves, the ways language works — is. There’s a snort of muffled amusement, appearing usually in a flash, that informs much of Creeley’s writing.

“Drawn & Quartered,” a poem which offers 50 or so quatrain-length quick takes, is characteristic of Creeley’s wry wit and cosmic irony. Try this:

Hold still, lion!
I am trying
to paint you
while’s there time to.

I.e., before you eat me. Or this possible version of relationships:

Am I only material
for you to feel?
Is that all you see
when you look at me?

The “take” intentionally echoes children’s verses, suggesting that even as the occasions and the circumstances increasingly become as complex as adult life can make them, nonetheless, there’s still a sense in which it’s “as simple as that,” but the underlying available irony also allows you to mock your own hard-won simplicity. Sometimes, it sounds like Old Mother Goose, a little high:

Here I sit
meal on lap
come to eat
just like that!

Repeatedly, for Creeley, there is both a celebratory astonishment in our simply being here, and a consciousness of the absurdity of being here, of existing. “Finally to have come / to where one had so long wanted to visit / and then to stand / there and look at it.” Equally there is the prospective absurdity, now realized, of not being here, of death. At least, in the absurdity of existence, we can make something of it, however banal or barely. So much of life is

Like sitting in back seat
can’t see what street
we’re on or what the
one driving sees

or where we’re going.
Waiting for what’s to happen,
can’t quite hear the conversation,
the big people, sitting up front

That the title of this book takes the odd grammatical form of a conditional, If I were writing this, requires comment, though I’ll try to refrain from a baroque perambulation about subjunctive moods, what-ifs, and the rest. My first response, upon seeing the title, is: “But you are writing this!”, so what’s going on? The title poem itself puts the phrase in quotes: “If I were writing this…”, a device, often used by instructors, to introduce some mild corrective. As in: “Well, if I were writing this, I think I’d put the description of x here, and save the comment by the mother for there…” etc. As it turns out, the poem is about the possibility of writing, and the apprehensions one feels of getting it all wrong, even as one does it:

If I were writing this
with prospect of encouragement
or had I begun some work
intended to be what it was

Eventually, amid the trepidation of beginning, he “had begun, had found”

myself in the time and place
writing words which I knew,
could say ring, dog, hat, car,
was rushing, it felt, to keep up

with the trembling impulse,
the connivance the words contrived
even themselves to be though
I wrote them, thought they were me.

Ah, to be in the moment where it feels like you’re rushing simply to keep up with the trembling impulse that generates the words of the poem. In one of the pieces of the poem called “Clemente’s Images” — the images of the painter Francesco Clemente, one of many visual artists with whom Creeley collaborated over a lifetime — it’s all a play on conditionals:

If small were big,
if then were now,

if here were there,
if find were found,

if mind were all there was,
would the animals still save us?

That is, if conditions were utterly otherwise, would we be in any less of a precarious situation in terms of our lives? Creeley frequently used the word “condition,” and the notion of the “conditional,” in his conversation and writing. He saw our situation as conditional both in the sense of “temporary” (whether an eternal instant or a mere lifetime), and our situation as conditional in the sense of being shaped by specific conditions, by our circumstances, and he emphasised the circumstances of relationships as much as those of time and place.

I particularly like the longer “memory” poems in this book, where Creeley allows himself to ramble, to let the telling be a bit baggy, where the echoed form is the “shaggy dog story.” Creeley’s poem titled “Memory” begins with a recollection of Allen Ginsberg’s recalling (in Kaddish, I think, or in one of Ginsberg’s “shroud” poems)

… his mother’s dream
about God, an old man, she says,
living across the river in
Palisades …

In his mother’s dream, she asks God, “How could you let the world get into such a mess?”, and then turning her waking attention to her son, Allen, she says that “he looks neglected / and there are yellow pee-stains / on his underpants.” It’s that recollection that produces the turn in the poem for Creeley:

… Hard to hear
God could not do any better
than any of us, just another old
man sitting on some bench or some
chair. I remember it was a urologist
told me to strip the remaining pee
from my penis by using my finger’s
pressure just back of the balls,
the prostate, then bringing it forward
so that the last drops of it would go
into the toilet, not onto my clothes.
Still it’s of necessity an imperfect
solution. How stand at a public urinal
seeming to play with oneself? Yet
how not — if that’s what it takes not
to walk out, awkward, wide-legged, damp
from the crotch down? I cannot
believe age can be easy for anyone . . .

The poem goes on from there, although on the occasion I heard Creeley read it, some of it was lost in the audience’s laughter accompanying the account of carrying out the urologist’s instructions. The great things in it are, first, simply following the unlikely connections that get you from one place to the next in the poem: a memory of Ginsberg who died in 1997; A.G.’s recalling of his mother’s dream of chastising an ineffectual God; his mother’s imagining the pee-stains on Allen’s underpants; and then the image of pee-stains staying sharply enough in mind so that even while reflecting on God as “just another old man,” there’s the abrupt leap that gets us to the urologist and the account that follows from there. Second, there’s the unflinching situation of, being an old man oneself, how not to pee on yourself, presented as both a self-deprecating comic antic and, more important, as a literal instance of, this is how it is, this is the situation in which we’ll do what we must “if that’s what it takes” not to walk out “damp from the crotch down.”

If I were writing this concludes with one last shot at it all:

Sit down , says generous life, and stay awhile!
although it’s irony that sets the table
and puts the meager food on broken dishes,
pours out the rancid wine and walks away.

 

II

I saw quite a bit of Creeley in Bolinas, California in the late-1960s, I think it was, or the beginning of the ’70s, when he and his wife, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who I also liked very much, were living there. Creeley and I went for walks, on the Bolinas beach, and eventually to Smiley’s bar and bait shop, one of the few indoor public gathering places in that town just north of San Francisco. A group of artists had moved in a few years previously, and established a sort of community among the local residents, and somehow Bob and Bobbie and their children — I never got the exact story — had temporarily lodged here. Our conversations were easy, there were drinks at Smiley’s, great meals in Bobbie’s farmhouse-sized kitchen, the kids in and out, etc.

I don’t remember the particulars, but somewhere during one of our walks from the beach back to Smiley’s, I asked something on the order of, “Why Bolinas?” and Creeley had offered an account of his relation to the place, which led me to wryly remark, “Bolinas and me, huh?” Bob laughed, repeated the phrase, “Bolinas and me.” However indirectly, that conversation had some small part in a poem of that title in Creeley’s A Day Book, quite a good poem, which he kindly dedicated to me.

We stayed friends, however distantly, ever since, and on each subsequent occasion, even years apart, the conversation was resumed as if there had been no interruption. Several other people, in various memorial reminiscences about Creeley, have remarked on the immediacy and presence he brought to conversations. For me, the sense of him was constantly accessible in my mind, since I have an almost exact imprint of Creeley’s voice and of his handling of the poetic line in my brain. I not only continued to read those slim New Directions-published volumes of his poems as they appeared, every few years, but I also retained a high regard for his prose, especially his novel of the early 1960s, The Island, a book of domestic disruption, hard drinking, and the particulars of Mallorca seen through the eyes of the American foreigners who are the protagonists of the story. I’d learned, by heart, a brief poem of Creeley’s from his book, For Love, which I carried about in my mind like a talisman, and frequently recited:

The Warning

For love — I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise

The last time I saw Creeley was in September 2003 at an historic literary occasion in Vancouver, Canada. Creeley had briefly lived in Vancouver in the early 1960s, while teaching at the University of British Columbia and finishing his novel, The Island (he has a very good poem about the experience in If I were writing this). On this rare occasion, he and his long-time friend, Vancouver poet Robin Blaser, the two of them respectively 77 and 78 years old, read together at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, and the several hundred people who filled the theatre, many of them old friends of one or both of the poets, were conscious that this was very likely a one-time-only, last-time-ever, event. Creeley had written the introduction for Blaser’s collected poems, The Holy Forest (1993), and though he had written dozens of such introductions for friends over the years, this one was notably astute and affectionate in his understanding of Blaser’s place in the “company” of poets, and of Blaser’s poetics.

The reading was perfectly fine, both very old friends were in good form, and Creeley got to read his new Vancouver poem in Vancouver itself. It’s a poem that recalls a particular “yesterday” marked by both the “freshness” of the young Vancouverites and the “faded Edwardian sitcom” of early 1960s middle-class life in western Canada. “Sometime just about then,” he says, “I must have / Seen myself as others see or saw me, / Even like in a mirror, but could not quite / Accept either their reassuring friendship / Or their equally locating anger. Selfish / Empty, I kept at it.” Nearly four decades later, Creeley reports, “I seem to myself still much the same, / Even if I am happier, I think, and older.”

In the old days, the after-reading party would have taken place after the reading and run well into the night, but taking account of the age of both poets and the advancing decrepitude of a good chunk of the rest of us, the post-reading get-together was held early the next evening at the house of old friends. Creeley was sitting on a living room sofa, receiving friends and various students. I positioned myself on his one-eyed good side. I explained, semi-apologetically, that I’d been thinking about certain old poems of his, and wanted to ask him some leaden-footed questions about the literal meaning of some lines of a well-known poem. The poem was “The Immoral Proposition,” written circa 1952. Without hesitation or fumbling about, Creeley recited it on the spot:

If you never do anything for anyone else
you are spared the tragedy of human relation-

ships. If quietly and like another time
there is the passage of an unexpected thing:

to look at it is more
than it was. God knows

nothing is competent nothing is
all there is. The unsure

egotist is not
good for himself.

Then we went over it, line by line, but the exegetical exercise promptly, comically, bogged down.

I asked, “Now, Bob, what does ‘another time’ mean here?” and Bob replied, “Well, ‘like another time’.”

Ploddingly, doggedly, I asked, “Then what does it mean to say that ‘to look at it is more / than it was’? ‘It’ is ‘the passage of’ the ‘unexpected thing,’ right?”

“Uh-mmm,” Bob said.

“So to look at the unexpected thing –”

“– ‘is more than it was,’” Bob said. I.e., what it means is what it says. Well, then, let’s leave it at that. And we did. “God knows / nothing is competent,” certainly not myself at that moment. But then again, “nothing is / all there is.”

 

Berlin, April 5, 2005

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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