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
(‘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,
(‘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.
‘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.’
I never met you afterward
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...
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
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?’
As I rode out one morning
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
‘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.
Sixty-two, sixty-three, I most remember
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...’
Do you remember the way we used to sing
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.
I’ll never forgive myself for the
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
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.
Jacket 21 — February 2003
This material is copyright © Tom Clark
and Jacket magazine 2003