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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Tom Clark

Double Take: Creeley’s New Poems

‘There exists a world where a man follows the road that, in the other world, his double did not take...’

— Blanqui, L’éternité par les astres

Author note: As was the case with our collaborative book Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place (New Directions, 1993), this essay evolved out of a series of exchanges: Creeley sent me his new and as-yet-to-be-published poems in manuscript via e-mail from his writer-in-residency villa at the Liguria Study Center in Bogliasco, Italy; I then wrote my responses to the poems from my somewhat less picturesque literary outpost by the freeway feeder in Berkeley, California. (The resulting ‘dialogue’ between poems and commentary first appeared in the Autumn 2002 issue of Bridge magazine.)

Imagine you are the poet. After all these years, it turns out the pure conversion of your thought into art seems destined never to occur. You know this is true, and yet, and yet — you remain you and your words will not cross that bridge between worlds until they come to it.

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

or even then and there it was what
had been started, even now
I no longer thought to wait,
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.

(‘If I were writing this...’)

Of this cunning contrivance — the language — Creeley has said, ‘It’s like an incredible inventive, manic, do-it-yourself plumber: Keep the water flowing but through such a wildly jerry-built contrivance... There’s no right way to say it. (‘But this is what there is to say!’)’

Whenever it’s sense,
look for what else is meant
in the underthought of language.
Words are apparent.

Seen light turns off
to be ambient luminescence,
there and sufficient.
No electricians.

(‘If I were writing this...’)

Creeley is not only a supreme master of common sense; he is a supreme master of the language of common sense. He has the gift of saying things which no one can misunderstand and no one can forget. His common sense is what its name implies, no private possession thrust upon the minds of others, but (this is the uncanny aspect) their own thoughts expressed for them. This is one of the secrets of the unique trust his words inspire. A purposive writer, he knows it is the purpose of a writer to be read. The jury — readers — give him their verdict because he always puts the issue on a basis they can understand.

Harry’s gone out for pizza.
Mabel’s home all alone.
Mother just left for Ibiza.
Give the old man a bone?

Remember when Barkis was willing?
When onions grew on the lawn?
When airplanes cost just a shilling?
Where have the good times gone?


‘In the commonplace I’ve got a location for my own mind or thinking,’ Creeley wrote in a letter to me ten years ago, about the direction of his late work toward a ‘common’ language. ‘I don’t want to be stuck in the solitary thing. The last thing I want is to be different.’

The oldest originating motives of poetry are remembered in its memorial function, keeping green the memory of time, words thus finally and poignantly making a forlorn last stand against ruin in the courage to say one lived these moments.

I never met you afterward
nor seemingly knew you before.
Our lives were interfolded,
wrapped like a present.

The odors, the tastes, the surfaces
of our bodies were the map —
the mind a distraction,
trying to keep up.

I could not compare you to anything.
You were not like rhubarb
or clean sheets — or, dear as it might be,
sudden rain in the street.

All those years ago, on the beach in Dover,
with that time so ominous,
and the couple so human,
pledging their faith to one another,

now again such a time seems here —
not to fear
death or what’s been so given —
to yield one’s own despair.


The echoing commonplaces in the ten-part sequence ‘Pictures’ run from old ballads to David Copperfield to ‘Dover Beach’ to Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the submerged histories of the subtexts flowing through the cycle like a subterranean river.

Death, be not proud...
Days be not done.
Air be not gone.
Head be not cowed.

Bird be not dead.
Thoughts be not fled.
Come back instead,
Heart’s hopeful wedding.

Face faint in mirror.
Why does it stay there?
What’s become
Of person who was here?

Gathering together into a sentence or line some piece of the common stock of wisdom or observation and applying it simply, directly and unanswerably (so nimble is the wit) to some immediate business at hand — is there anything that relieves the old argument of the poem so well?

I will sit here
till breeze, ambient,
enfolds me and I
lift away. I will

sit here as sun
warms my hands, my
body eases, and sounds
grow soft and intimate

in my ears. I will sit
here and the back of the house
behind me will at last
disappear. I will sit here.

How firm on one’s feet, on the solid ground of truth, one feels among life’s mysteries, in these supple, tenacious, tensile sentences. One thinks of the words of Thoreau in the Maine woods: ‘Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it — rocks, trees, the wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?’

The writer of this commonplace language is at once recognized as no fabricator of ornamental phrase, no victim of cloudy speculation, neither self-deceived nor the deceiver of others. Creeley’s dogged veracity, his instinctive fastidiousness, his seriousness of intent, and above all his steadfast refusal to stop thinking, feeling and remembering, bring to mind some ancient and exacting sense of the poet’s office. One thinks of, say, Ben Jonson, who, annotating the title page of Puttenham’s manual on verse, echoed the Psalmist, as the hart panteth after the water brooks, to hint of the element of religious wonder in the poet’s thirsty pursuit of the poem.

The thirsty hart in the forest’s heart is lost and found in a place of wonder.

As I rode out one morning
just at break of day
a pain came upon me
unexpectedly —

As I thought one day
not to think anymore,
I thought again,
caught, and could not stop —

Were I the horse I rode,
were I the bridge I crossed,
were I a tree
unable to move,

the lake would have
no reflections,
the sweet, soft air
no sounds.

So I hear, I see,
tell still the echoing story
of all that lives in a forest,
all that surrounds me.

The gradual encroaching of the surrounding darkness can look like the cold void, or the heart’s forest: ‘Mind’s ambience alters all,’ Creeley reminds us in ‘Pictures.’ Thus the double specter, that of old age masking that of death, which haunts these poems. It is met with a surprisingly relaxed courage, facing an unsettling unknown which eradicates identities and names.

...Please, don’t put, if
you can help it, your loved ones in
a care facility, they will only die there.
Everyone’s sick there. It’s why they’ve come.
I don’t know now what will or
may happen to me. I don’t
feel any longer a simple person with
a name. I am like a kid at his,
or her, first day of school. All new,
all surprising...


‘If one were to think constantly of death the business of life would stand still,’ Samuel Johnson proposed. ‘So let it,’ might be one reply.

To step away quietly from one’s name, a nimbus that clouds what it should elucidate, is a challenge to authorial survival. Was it Creeley of whom the saying went, on s’attend a voir un auteur et on trouve un homme? As he grows old, and, with age and an ‘authority’ of humanity, increasingly indifferent to criticism and confident in his vision of things, there comes an ease and familiarity, which, without diminishing the lucidity of the rhythmic phrasing or slackening the articulate binding force of the syntax, brings a new intimacy and indulgence. The writing grows more like talk. There is the tone of indifference to social judgment of someone who is talking among friends, knows the power of language and enjoys using it. Stylistic tact remains as a private stock, a reserve of good sense. And the content stays ‘basic’ — ‘natural to man,’ as Marx identified the common biological realm that precedes the social. The ease of this late Creeley manner more particularly takes the form of a redoubled directness in the old appeal to common experience, or that of those natural indulgences of old age, anecdote and autobiography.

Sixty-two, sixty-three, I most remember
As time W. C. Williams dies and we are
Back from a hard two years in Guatemala
Where the meager provision of being
Schoolmaster for the kids of the patrones
Of two coffee plantations has managed
Neither life nor money. Leslie dies in
Horror of bank giving way as she and her
Sister and their friends tunnel in to make
A cubby. We live in an old cement brick
Farmhouse already inside the city limits
Of Albuquerque. Or that has all really
Happened and we go to Vancouver where,
Thanks to friends Warren and Ellen Tallman,
I get a job teaching at the University of British
Columbia. It’s all a curious dream...
... I’ve quit my job
And we head back to Albuquerque
And I teach again at the university, and
Sometime just about then 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. Thirty-eight years later
I seem to myself still much the same,
Even if I am happier, I think, and older.


Too intelligent to speak without irony of self-improvement, Creeley in his honest hesitancy on this point recalls Blanqui’s ‘Eternity via the stars’ — ‘what we call progress is confined to each particular world and vanishes with it... The universe repeats itself endlessly and paws the ground in place. In infinity, eternity performs — imperturbably — the same routines...’

That the routines of the everyday can at times rob all commonplaces of their eloquence is acknowledged in the Puritan twist of ‘Generous Life,’ suggesting physical life to be profligate in its bounties and the mind ungrateful in its refusals:

Do you remember the way we used to sing
in church when we were young
and it was fun to bring your toys with you
and play with them while all the others sung?

My mind goes on its own particular way
and leaves my apparent body on its knees
to get up and walk as far as it can
if it still wants to and as it proves still able.

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.

Waiting one’s turn to go is the common undertow in many of Creeley’s new poems. There is a poignant centering of interest on the gradual meditative preparation of the inner life for its ending, the tale of the former tragedy of the ego relenting, the old scenes of conflict now revisited quietly and without much ceremony to mourn the victims, or to remove the ancient bloodied weapons from the field.

In a recent, belated elegy for Paul Blackburn, Creeley’s abiding theme of a ‘Puritan’ self-dissociation discloses a cruelty of consciousness as the original sin to which the flesh is heir. A vigilance that invites trouble — or, if it isn’t available, invents it — appears in that earliest Double of this poet’s writing: overcompensating, overcapable, the Mind, that is the wound and the knife.

I’ll never forgive myself for the
violence propelled me at sad Paul
Blackburn, pushed in turn by both
our hopeless wives who were spitting
venom at one another in the heaven
we’d got ourselves to, Mallorca, mid-fifties,
where one could live for peanuts while
writing great works and looking at the
constant blue sea, etc. Why did I fight such
surrogate battles of existence with such
a specific friend as he was for sure?...
I wish
he were here now, we could go on talking...


Of the late elegiac pieces, the most powerful, ‘Emptiness,’ commemorates the poet’s sister, Helen, who like him had moved in later years back to their family’s ancestral Maine locales. Creeley indicated — in a book we worked on together about The Genius of the American Common Place — that he’d studied the history of the concept and found that genius loci, a kind of immanent presence, ‘presumably local to the fact of place, and to the speech habits and patterns thereof, does seem about right in my case. It’s that language one imbibes with ma’s milk, as Olson used to put it. My mother’s people were all Maine people, they had specific ways of saying things, they spoke with a particular humor. It was a way of speaking I learned from my increasingly single parent, and my grandparents, and my uncles. The ways I place the world were thus given a form from early on. And in emotional moments I now find I increasingly return to that language that’s particularly local to my childhood and to the place where I was brought up.’  Thus that which is mourned in ‘Emptiness’ is not merely a beloved sibling but a way of life and the way of language — ‘an exquisite frame of words’ — that has defined and here memorializes it. Much is to be lost, yet by the end the poem’s lightly-touching mother wit and stabilizing laconic restraint have rescued much, as well.

The emptiness up the field where
the barn sits still like an ark, an old
presence I look up there to see, sun
setting, sky gone a vivid streaking of
reds and oranges, a sunset off over the
skirt of woods where my sister’s barn sits
up the field with all her determined stuff,
all she brought and put in it, all her
pictures, her pots, her particular books
and icons — so empty, it seems, quickly
emptied of everything there was in it, like
herself the last time in the hospital bed had
been put to face out the big window back of
tv, so one could look out, see down there,
over the field, trees of our place, the house,
woods beyond going off toward Warren, the sight,
she’d say with such emphasis, I’m where I
want to be! — could ever Maine be more loved,
more wanted, all our history trailing back
through its desperation, our small people, small
provision, where the poor folk came from like
us, to Massachusetts, to a world where poverty
was a class, like Mrs. Peavey told our mother
she’d never felt poor before, not till she was
given charity by the women of the Women’s
Club, her family their annual recipient — empty,
empty, running on empty, on nothing, on heart,
on bits and pieces of elegance, on an exquisite frame
of words, on each and every memory she ever had,
on the same will as our mother’s, the pinched privacy
of empty purse, the large show of pleasure, of out there
everything, come in, come in — she lay there so still,
she had gone into herself, face gone then but for echo
of way she had looked, no longer saw or heard, no more
of any human want, no one wanted. Go away,
she might have been saying, I’m busy today. Go away.
Hence then to be cremated, to reach the end and be done.

Creeley has written in another late poem (from ‘Sonnets’) of the habits and fears that had long kept him apart from what he calls ‘common cause’ (‘just stupid / preoccupation common / fear of being overly hurt / by the brutal exigencies...’). In our book on the common he explained what he’d meant: ‘did one begin with an initial intent to help share in the common ills and exposures of other people? Was there some initial commitment to the needs and fact of others? And did one recognize that one was living in a common world that was having its absolute necessities quite apart from how one thought of them and/or how one responded to them — that the world insistently was the case?’  A sense we’re in the presence of ‘initial commitment’ to the world’s insistent facts provides much of the extraordinary pertinence of this new writing of Creeley’s, which I take to represent a bright flag snapping in a Down East gale, revealing an immanent spirit of poetry still animating and aerating the scene with its true colors.

Tom Clark Tom Clark is the author of numerous volumes of poetry as well as of several critical biographies of writers. He teaches writing on the Core Faculty in Poetics at the New College of California in San Francisco, and lives in Berkeley.

You can read Tom Clark’s biography, a detailed bibliography, a statement on poetics and a list of live links to all his pieces in Jacket magazine here, at Jacket’s Author Notes page.

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