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Robert Creeley

in Conversation with Leonard Schwartz

24 November, 2003, transcribed by Angela Buck

The interview is a transcription of a radio interview that was originally conducted on 24 November 24, 2003, on “Cross-Cultural Poetics”, KAOS 89.3 FM, Olympia, Washington State, USA. The poems Robert Creeley reads during this interview are from his new collection, If I Were Writing This, published by New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, http://www.wwnorton.com/nd/, copyright © 2003 by Robert Creeley.
This piece is about eleven printed pages long.


LS:Born in 1926, Robert Creeley is the winner of a Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1999, a Lifetime Achievement Award conferred by the Before Columbus Foundation in 2000, and a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. From Black Mountain to wherever we are now, Creeley remains one of our most enduring and vital poets, “vital” spelled energetic and alive. His latest book just out this fall is If I Were Writing This from New Directions. I have him on the phone from Providence, Rhode Island where he is a distinguished professor at Brown University. Welcome, Robert.

RC: Thank you, Leonard. I hope the various beeps and gurgles (from the phone line) don’t throw us off.

LS: “Beeps and Gurgles” might make a good title for a new book.

RC: Yes, “and things that go bump in the night...”

LS: Many years ago you wrote that form is never more than an extension of content.

RC: (Laughs) I was really young then, Leonard.

LS: (Laughs) All these years later in your new book, If I Were Writing This, does that still seems true?

RC: Well, content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content. They sort of go together is the absolute point. It’s really hard to think of one without the other; in fact, I don’t think it’s possible. What I meant, whatever that means, is that what’s coming to be said — it’s like William Carlos Williams’ wonderful insistence, “How to get said what must be said...” — that need, that impulse, that demand, is what I would call the content’s finding a form for its own realization, recognition, substantiation.

LS: I’ve always taken that remark of yours as a call to particularism, that is to say, each poem demands its own form.

RC: Yeah, it’s so uniform!

LS: In that sense, you certainly can’t write by formula, only form. I wondered if you could read from your new book?

RC: Yeah. It’s a pleasure. Shall I read a sad occasion, a poem in the memory of Allen Ginsberg? I used a title of Walt Whitman’s, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which is itself a wonderful poem, a poem about sitting, listening to a lecture by someone who was obviously well-informed, saying things of real import, but the listener becomes restless, the man is talking about the heavens, and the restless man goes outside and looks at the sky, the heavens. And that’s sort of parallel to my sense of what Allen was doing.


When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer...

A bitter twitter,
flitter,
of birds
in evening’s
settling,
a reckoning
beckoning,
someone’s getting
some sad news,
the birds gone to nest,
to roost
in the darkness,
asking no improvident questions,
none singing,
no hark,
no lark,
nothing in the quiet dark.

Begun with like hypothesis,
arms, head, shoulders,
with body state
better soon than late,
better not wait,
better not be late,
breathe ease,
fall to knees
in posture of compliance,
obeisance,
accommodation
a motivation.

All systems must be imagination
which works,
albeit have quirks.

Add by the one
or by the none,
make it by either
or or.
Or say that after you
I go.
Or say you
follow me.
See what comes after
or before,
what
you had thought.

Many’s a twenty?
A three?
Is twenty-three
plenty?

A call to reason
then
in due season,
a proposal of heaven
at seven
in the evening,
a cup of tea, a sense
of recompense
for anyone works for a living,
getting and giving.

Does it seem mind’s all?
What’s it mean
to be inside
a circle, to fly
in the sky, dear bird?

Words scattered,
tattered,
yet
said
make it
all evident,
manifest.
No contest.
One’s one again.
It’s done.

Hurry on, friend.
There is no end
to desire,
to Blake’s fire,
to Beckett’s mire,
to any such whatever.

Old friend’s dead
in bed.

Old friends die.
Goodbye!

LS: So moving. How many years did you know Ginsberg?

RC: He said we’d met some date like 1949 or even perhaps the year before at a party of a friend I’d known through friends at Harvard — Allen apparently knew them through the same man who’d been at Columbia — Walter Adams. But I have no recollection, probably was dead drunk. At any case, I do remember dearly meeting him the first evening I had come to San Francisco, which would be 1955, no, 1956, a little less than a year after the great gallery reading that they’d all given. I had come to crash on the dear Edward Dorn’s family and, the very first night — Ed was working at the Greyhound bus station as a baggage clerk, as was Allen — when Ed went off to work at midnight, Allen came off work and came over to Ed’s place. We talked a good deal of the night and that was where I really date my active friendship with him, from that time, from that night.

LS: I think of you and Ginsberg as two of the major, maybe the two major poets of the fifties —

RC: We had a lot of “major poets” in those days!

LS: True. Well, those were the glory days, I think.

RC: (Laughs) Major Ginsberg. Major Creeley.

LS: (Laughs) Ginsberg is noted for the long line and the length of his breath, and yours for the short line and concision of expression. So you make an odd couple.

RC: Well, then of course, there was Charles Olson, you remember.

LS: I do remember Charles Olson. Well, not personally, never had the pleasure.

RC: He was terrific.

LS: Absolutely. There’s another aspect to your work that’s always fascinated me and it comes up in the new book, as well, If I Were Writing This. Robert Graves said a long time ago in his book, The White Goddess, that all religions are by definition, patriarchal and worship a male divinity figure, and that poetry is, by definition, matriarchal and worships a female divinity figure, for whom the best poets make us experience the revelation of. Does Graves and his book mean anything for you?

RC: Yeah. I remember knowing him happily in Mallorca. I came just after Bill Merwin had left, and the pleasant person who had taken over Bill’s job, Martin Seymour-Smith, he and I had connected, like they say, first as pen pals. And then myself and family had come to live in Mallorca on Martin’s and his wife Janet’s advice. So I happily met Graves not too long after. I remember Martin loaning me a copy of The White Goddess, that first edition with the version of the dedicatory poem which I really liked extraordinarily. It gets changed, sadly, from my point of view, in the second edition. That aspect is certainly part of [my] poem. It was Graves, too, I might add, who sooner or later, not altogether disparagingly, called me something like a “domestic poet confined by my household muse.”

LS: A domestic poet? Depends on what you’re doing at home, I think.

RC: Robert Duncan pointed out: who rules the hearth has an extraordinary amount of power, and the hearth — not just the three meals a day, but the sense of that presence and person — has been extraordinarily dear to me. The “violence and betrayal” I can probably do without.

Incidentally, I should tell you that the poem, “Conversion to Her,” was actually written as a complement to a substantial section of a recent large retrospective of the painter, Francesco Clemente, at the Guggenheim, so that title is actually the title used for this section of the show. Clemente chose, I think, five such divisions and he asked friends, in turn, to write or do something specifically for each in turn. So I, for example wrote this initial poem which in effect, is a response to his actual paintings. He wouldn’t have asked me if we didn’t share this as a common denominator. And then, in the same book, there is series called, “Clemente’s Images,” which are the entries I wrote for the twenty-five paintings he had in that part of the show. The point is, this tells you the circumstances that provoked the actual writing.

You’re quite right that it certainly all goes back to the insistent sense in Graves’ own concerns, the whole White Goddess, and that sense of — again I will take it from Williams — “the female principle of the world [which] is my appeal in the extremity to which I have come...” But here I’m actually thinking of the conversion of a male “principle” that would somehow be like that “female principle.”

LS: Virginia Woolf did suggest early on that the good writer has to have an androgynous mind, so certainly, for us, it would have to be a question of becoming women in order to write.

RC: Yes, I feel that. Shall I read that poem, then?

LS: Please.

RC: (reads)

Conversion to Her

Parts of each person,
Lumber of bodies,
Heads and legs
Inside the echoes —

I got here slowly
Coming out of my mother,
Herself in passage
Still wet with echoes —

Little things surrounding,
Little feet, little eyes,
Black particulars,
White disparities —

Who was I then?
What man had entered?
Was my own person
Passing pleasure?

My body shrank,
Breath was constricted,
Head confounded,
Tongue muted.

I wouldn’t know you,
Self in old mirror.
I won’t please you
Crossing over.

Knife cuts through.
Things stick in holes.
Spit covers body.
Head’s left hanging.

Hole is in middle.
Little boy wants one.
Help him sing here
Helpless and wanting.

     *

My odor?
My name?
My flesh?
My shame?

My other
than you are,
my way out —
My door shut —

In silence this
happens, in pain

     *

Outside is empty


Inside is a house
of various size.

Covered with skin
one lives within.

Women are told
to let world unfold.

Men, to take it,
make or break it.

All’s true
except for you.

.

Being human, one wonders at the others,
men with their beards and anger,

women with their friends and pleasure —
and the children they engender together —

until the sky goes suddenly black and a monstrous thing
comes from nowhere upon them

in their secure slumbers, in their righteous undertakings,
shattering thought.

One cannot say, Be as women,
be peaceful, then. The hole from which we came

isn’t metaphysical.
The one to which we go is real.

Surrounding a vast space
seems boundless appetite

in which a man still lives
till he becomes a woman.

LS: Thank you Robert for that reading. What year did you write that?

RC: About three years ago, I think.

LS: I noticed there’s a kind of return to rhyme. I guess there’s always been some rhyme in your work, but this new book really contains quite a bit of it.

RC: Quite a bit, but either the cant or the pitch or the structure curiously muted it. But, yes, it’s there insistently.
As I look back over the veritable years, the quatrain has been probably been the sturdiest, most consistent measure I’ve used. It’s the most flexible for me, and it both secures and lets things continue. The quatrain is sort of an absolute invitation to rhyme. A great hero, in that way, would be Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

LS: Yes, I can certainly feel Coleridge in your writing and that ambition and the success of that ambition in terms of an imagination.

RC: One of Coleridge’s terrific quatrains is something like seven lines long! He could terrifically spin his wheels. When someone pointed it out to me, I couldn’t quite believe it. I thought it must be a typo or something, but there are several extended quatrains in “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”

LS: The famous Creeley concision is certainly here in this book as well. There’s a poem entitled, “John’s Song.” I wondered if you could read that for us.

RC: This is an homage, not an homage in the dull sense, but both a respect and an echo of John Taggart’s extraordinary means of writing. He spent a lot of time both listening and thinking as to how one could structure in terms of an actual music or echo, a physical overlay of that kind. And that’s been a preoccupation of his for a long time now. If one visits John at home, he has an exquisite sound system. So, for example, we sat down in this terrific room, and — wow, off you go! I love that way he paces, so a couple of years ago when friends in common were editing an issue of a magazine in his respect and asked for something, it’s what I came up with. There’s a sad information in the poem, but it’s certainly a respect of what John can do. I wish I could do it as well.

John’s Song
                  — for John Taggart

If ever there is
if ever, if ever
there is, if ever there is.

If ever there is
other than war, other
than where war was, if ever there is.

If ever there is
no war, no more war, no other than us
where war was, where it was.

No more war, dear brother,
no more, no more war
if ever there is.

LS: The poem of Taggart’s I think of when I read this is that extraordinary piece of his, “Twenty-one Times,” where he takes the word, “napalm,” which is such a beautiful word, “napalm,” such a beautiful word coming off the tongue, with such a horrific meaning, and he just runs it through the poem twenty-one times, so that the aestheticizing quality of language is displayed for us over and against what the content names or what the word names. Of course, now we’re in a similar situation to the one in which Taggart had to write napalm twenty-one times. What is your sense of it, Robert? What is one to do in this mine field of language that has been created for us by the [George W.] Bush administration?

RC: I do think that we have to keep active and keep insisting, keep the circle unbroken. I think it became hard after the war was underway to keep that particularity with the same energy. I remember Amiri Baraka and I were reading with others for U.N World Poetry Day at Baruch College in Manhattan. Simultaneous with that reading was advice from Bush’s administration that the war had begun.

When the war actually started, there was a shock, and a loss of coherence, for a time. There were conflicting imaginations as to what now was either effective or even permitted — lots of sad confusion, which hasn’t, as yet, permitted the same energy. The confusion still very much effects senses as to how to successfully confront the administration with the obvious real questions which should be asked. So, I think, as a poet, one keeps using whatever public voice poetry can have, and it certainly can have one. Keep talking. As both a teacher and poet, I certainly try to do that. Brighten the corner where you are... At least demand that somebody turn on the light.

LS: Absolutely. Words are all we have.

RC: Yes, in fact, Bush is a bleak instance of how powerful language can be.

LS: That opens a whole series of questions I’d like to think about at some point with you, about the nature of repetition. On the one hand, in poetry, we have Gertrude Stein who is able to repeat something so many times, and yet it is always different. On the other end of the spectrum, the Bush administration strategy is repeat something over and over again until it becomes true.

RC: I know. Where have we heard that before? At least in my generation, it’s very familiar. I was visiting an old friend up in Toronto, the composer, Udo Kasamets, not too long ago, and he said he had lived under Stalin and then under Hitler, and the rhetorical means of the present administration were all too familiar.

LS: Does that mean that Taggart’s strategy of repetition is not going to work in this case?

RC: No, well, it’s not repetition used for that malevolent purpose. It’s a repetition that gathers and locates, and accumulates its securities, its effects. The point is that one can’t blame the means for the effects that it can be used to create.

LS: That’s a complicated question that we’re all working with at this point.

RC: Again, it’s very complicated for my generation simply because, thinking of Ezra Pound, for example, there’s the classic dilemma of his circumstance.

LS: I wonder if you could read the title poem of the new book, If I Were Writing This?

RC: Yes. Not to endlessly blab before, but this was actually written as the coda for a lecture given at the Skowhegan School of three or four years ago, the burden of which was: Is there any means to validate one’s art other than the gallery of the museum? People there would entertain the notion but didn’t really want to spend much time on it. Anyhow I ended with saying, given a poem, not just who’s writing it, but what is the authority that one presumes by even beginning to write or thinking to? For me, it was really like Lawrence’s sort of comfortably awkward way of putting it: not I but the wind that blows through me... Or Jack Spicer’s Martians, classically. So anyhow, if I were writing this:

If I Were Writing This...

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, though they were me.

     *

Once in, once out
Turn’s a roundabout
Seeing eyes get the nod

Or dog’s a mistaken god?
God’s a mistaken dog?

Gets you home on time
Rhymes with time on time

In time for two a “t”
begins and ends it.

     *

A blue grey edge.
Trees line it.
Green field finds it.
Eyes look.

     *

Let the aching heart take over.
Cry till eyes blur.
Be as big as you were.
Stir the pot.


     *


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.

Same sight,
shadows at the edge of light,
green field again
where hedgerow finds it.

Read these words then
And see the far trees,
hear the chittering of the birds,
share my ease and dependence.

LS: Such a successful poem even in terms of really even the political question we just discussed, the underthought of language is really what we have to maintain. And as you’ve mentioned, in terms of Jack Spicer, for whom the Martians write the poems, and he’s just taking down the dictation. Your poem states the ambiguity of whether the poem is writing me or I am writing the poem.

RC: I think Spicer’s quite right. One can characterize what’s coming through, so to speak, in a diversity of ways, but I think Jack’s is as apt and locating as any. The presumption that the ego is the primary driver of all that’s said is pretty naive.

LS: That’s an important kind of realization that not all poets make: there’s never just one way to write poetry.

RC:(Laughs) Leonard, it’s like that habit people have of saying, “Oh! I didn’t mean to say that!” Well, what did you mean to say?

LS:(Laughs) Right. Robert, this has been wonderful. It’s been great having you on, and I hope to have you again sometime very soon.

RC: Thank you, Leonard. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.



Leonard Schwartz’s most recent book is The Tower Of Diverse Shores (Talisman House, 2004).

Angela Buck is Communications Coordinator for Cross-Cultural Poetics. She has work forthcoming in the Gobshite Review.



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