Robert Creeley 1950–1965 (and Sonnet #12)

Robert Creeley, Poems 1950–1965 (Marion Boyars 1967)

First things first: If you’re a student looking for help with an essay or if you love Robert Creeley’s poetry and are looking for a like-minded spirit, stop, turn back, you are going the wrong way. I don’t pretend to have anything sensible to say. This is largely a blog post about my ignorance.

Robert Creeley is held in very high esteem by them that know about these things. I think he might be a poet’s poet. A quick google produces a number of learned and instructive articles, in which I learned much, including that this UK publication seems to be Creeley’s first US trade book, For Love, plus an extra five years worth of poems. Creeley makes a commanding appearance in Ron Mann’s 1982 movie Poetry in Motion. Robert Adamson lectured about him recently, and evidently he was a major influence on a generation of Australian poets. I know all this, because as I made my way through this book I felt at a loss, and was casting around for guidance. Sadly, asking for guidance on how to read a poet is like asking to have a joke explained. I could kind of see what people were saying but I was like the person who sort of understands the explanation but still doesn’t laugh at the joke.

I found a lot of mentions of Charles Olson (another gap in my general education), and when I looked Olson up on Wikipedia I found:

Olson called for a poetic meter [Wikipedia uses US spelling] based on the poet’s breathing and an open construction based on sound and the linking of perceptions rather than syntax and logic.

Ah, I was doing it wrong. I had to stop needing conventional syntax and use my ears more. In an excellent article in the London Review of Books, Stephen Burt says:

Creeley’s quiet poems demand that we read them slowly, even when they appear brief and simple. Taken too fast, or too many at a time, his poems … can sound cramped, monotonous and repetitive. Read at leisure, the best poems are subtle, musically gifted, memorably terse.

I had been finding the poems cramped, monotonous and repetitive, so clearly I was doing it wrong, again. I slowed right down, and read just a couple of poems at a time. That’s not to say I slavishly submitted my faculties to Burt. He describes ‘The Crisis’ as horrifying, and quotes its opening lines:

Let me say (in anger) that since the day we were married
we have never had a towel
where anyone could find it,
the fact.

Now this was one of the few poems that had actually spoken to me at the time I read Burt’s article, and I wasn’t horrified. Maybe it was possible to write those lines without self-mockery in the 1950s, but I read them as obviously ironic, an oblique apology from the poet for losing his temper.

Then there’s a Paris Review interview published in 1968, just a couple of years after this book:

INTERVIEWER: How long does the writing of a poem take for you?
CREELEY: For me, it’s literally the time it takes to type or otherwise write it – because I do work in this fashion of simply sitting down and writing, usually without any process of revision. So that if it goes – or, rather, comes – in an opening way, it continues until it closes, and that’s usually when I stop. […] I’ll come into the room and sit and begin working simply because I feel like it. I’ll start writing and fooling around, like they say, and something will start to cohere; I’ll begin following it as it occurs. It may lead to its own conclusion, complete its own entity.[…] Of course, I have no idea how much time it takes to write a poem in the sense of how much time it takes to accumulate the possibilities of which the poem is the articulation.

Another way I’d been doing it wrong! No wonder I was floundering. I tend to read poems as if they’re carefully wrought, deeply considered utterances, but according to the man himself his are something quite different, something much more risky and of the moment. I took this with a grain of salt, but I did take it.

I can’t say I’d come to love Creeley’s poetry in general by the end of the book. But it kept me reading to the end. Round about 1960, either he or I had a turning point, and I was enjoying a lot. Look at ‘Love Comes Quietly’:

Love comes quietly,
finally, drops
about me, on me,
in the old ways.

What did I know
thinking myself
able to go
alone all the way.

With this poem, I no longer felt that I was reading this collection because it was good for me. Creeley here seems to have a moment’s respite from the intense, punishing self-consciousness that characterises the poetry generally. But if something was different in the poetry, something had changed in me too. Suddenly I could hear the music: ‘quietly’ ‘finally’ ‘about me’ ‘on me’ / ‘know’ ‘go’ ‘alone’ / ‘old ways’ ‘alone all the way’. Such short lines and so much happening in the sound of them – as well as in the sense. Any number of other poems were singing to me from then on.

A handful of longer poems towards the end of the collection are just marvellous: ‘The World’, about a lover’s grief; ‘The Women’, an amazing attempt to articulate feelings about sex and the object of sexual desire; ‘Anger’, about anger;  ‘Something’, which starts – unpromisingly you might think – with a lover’s embarrassment at having a pee in his presence.

My warning at the start of this blog entry still stands, and I especially don’t get what’s going on in some of the poems with very short lines. But I’m glad to have made this poet’s acquaintance.

And now, because it’s November, a sonnet of sorts. This is not a parody of Creeley – in my wildest dreams I couldn’t bring off  his way with rhyme, so I’ve stuck to my usual rhyme scheme. But there are some quotations, and because his lines are characteristically very short, I’ve cut mine down:

Sonnet 12: Evening
I speak, I
think I think
it asks my-
self to drink.
Position is where you
put it. I care too
little, I smoke
no joke,
therefore I am not
in attitude perplexing
a man so vexing
to flex or rot.
Woman so addressed
is easily depressed.

2 responses to “Robert Creeley 1950–1965 (and Sonnet #12)

  1. Great post! I don’t know anything about Creeley, but after reading this post I am intrigued! Thanks for sharing your research as well! I think that the sound of a poem is very important.


    • I’m glad I didn’t just make him sound off-putting, Rhiannon. This might not be the best book to start with – I just picked it up in a secondhand shop. But a selection from it could be great


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