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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage
Robert Creeley

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Charles Alexander

Robert Creeley: The Speech that Seeks Company (two brief notes)

This piece is about 3 printed pages long.

1. Feeling the Way Outside To the End

Robert Creeley writes, in “The Pattern,” that “As soon as / I speak, I / speaks.” He thereby registers, at once, the act of being a self, and of being outside oneself, or “beside oneself.” Particularly, in speech, which I take here to be the performative act of language that includes poetry, one is speaking, and one is spoken. The complications of being human are immense, and no one registers this fact more specifically, or more emotionally, than Robert Creeley. He embraces much of the theory and philosophy of the last century (and continuing) that calls into question our individuality, who we are, and what we are. Yet he does so not so much by thinking it (though he can do this, too), as by feeling it, and feeling it in relation to others or to THE other, as in “In London,” where he writes

You WILL never be here
again, you will never

see again what you now see –
you, the euphemistic

I speaks always, always
wanting a you to be here.

By registering this fact of human incompleteness (as well as overload) as an emotional fact, he takes a lead from Pound’s dictum, “Only emotion endures.” Yet because the feeling is found in the tension of the line, in the breaks, in what Creeley has called “finding one’s measure,” in his “ability to make every edge of the sound in words articulate,” he discovers (for in his way, to write IS to discover) that emotion, in poetry, as his elder Louis Zukofsky said, “is a matter of cadence” or of the “total articulation of the sound of the poem.”

In recent poems, such as those in Yesterdays, the concern with the person causes Creeley to look back, at past years, past friends, past selves, and ask of “Face faint in mirror. / Why does it stay there? / What’s become / of person who was here?” He still, in other words, shares with us a wonder at the moment, a wonder at the fact of being, at what happens.

2. Outward is Here

24 years ago, at an important entry point for me into life with poetry, I was privileged to spend a week at a festival in honor of Charles Olson, in the company, for breakfast and lunch just about each day of the week, a well as other times, of Robert Creeley. If one’s entry into poetry is, even in part, through Creeley, then before one exits, there’s likely to be substantial encounter with others, including Olson, Duncan, Dorn, Zukofsky, H.D., Dickinson, Wyatt, philosophers such as Wittgenstein – because this is a poetry that seeks meaning as relation, a speech that seeks company, and in taking us through poetry and more, Creeley brings a world, and truly becomes, what Olson called him, the “figure of outward.” Yet he also brings us back to ourselves, as he writes at the end of Yesterdays,

Because it’s when
all thoughts occur
to say again
we’re where we were.

The world’s ears and minds have tended to see Creeley as alone, private, possibly driving into the darkness with an other, but generally one that doesn’t quite emerge as an individual, whether it be the companion in the automobile in “I Know a Man,” or the woman in bed in “The Whip” who is a “flat // sleeping thing” that registers against the speaker and whose raising of a hand to his back reclaims him from his speculative loneliness. No, usually we think of the voice in Creeley’s poems as maintaining, often barely, its space in the world of things blown around and through it.

But who could this solitary man possibly be? The Bob Creeley I knew (and I met him late, in terms of his life, in 1978) was gregarious, and nearly always in company with others, often happily so. Have we read his poems in error? Or perhaps we have read one side of them, because he brings us inside the skin, inside the senses as they respond; and we have not read where the eyes looked, to what the response was, where the reach might lead us. It might lead us to see many poems as invitations, as in the exquisite “Time,” where the poem discovers “Moment to / moment” that any instant in time contains past, present, and future, and is therefore paradoxical. If one’s time “is drawing to / some close,” it is doing so minutely, in the language, so that it “is” for a brief moment merely existing, it “is drawing” i.e. life is action, and it “is drawing to,” or is moving from some point to another, and each new other point is, in a sense, a “close,” but no more than it is an opening, i.e. a “waterfall that would // flow backward / if it could. It / can?” So time and person are in some sense out of time, precisely by being in time. And this is how we read Creeley, making sense of a very individualistic and seemingly paradoxical experience of world, body, place, time. But perhaps, equally important to this poem, is its earlier invitation, “Let’s // walk today.” Let us walk together. The “I” can only have its experience among others.

Take the beginning of Creeley’s early short story, “3 Fate Tales.”

I put it this way. That I am, say, myself, that this, or this feel, you can’t have, or from that man or this, me, you can’t take it. And what I would do, with any of this, is beyond you, and mine. But for this time, yours too.

The “I,” “I am,” “myself,” “I would do,” would seem to dominate. But then the end, where it is all “yours too.” There is always a “yours too” in Creeley’s work, and perhaps the consistent specificity of the “you” is the reader.

In later work the social comes perhaps more strongly to the forefront, as in “Place,” where the “empty landscape” does not offer what is needed, but encloses the speaker in himself, where he “can’t make love a way out.” Instead he craves “my love in company.” So that even when that poem, in Later, is followed by

Simple things
one wants to say
like, what’s the day
like, out there—
who am I
and where.

the context makes us see that speech is being spoken to someone, to us, who constitute the “out there,” without which the “who” that I am is not possible. Creeley may be the “figure of outward,” but for him, the outward is here; it is us.