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Robert Creeley

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Dale Smith

Space Suits:

the Empirical Tradition in Robert Creeley’s «A Day Book»

This piece is about 10 printed pages long.

Since his death in March 2004 at sunrise in Odessa, Texas, much has been written on Robert Creeley’s contribution to poetry and poetics. Testaments to his generosity, kind attention, and his ability to connect poets with one another have surfaced in articles in print and on the web, revealing the myriad ways in which this great American poet touched the lives of many. He was a remarkable man, contributing a persistent and able voice that will be evaluated for years to come. Right now, however, I want to look not at Creeley’s contribution to other poets, but to his understanding of the poem as a tool for communication. Creeley’s sense of the common place is seen in his use of the poem as a tool for the communication of individual experience, and through poetry he arrives at a consensual understanding of human relationships that comes from a philosophical affinity for empirical observation. Writing, for Creeley, was an active process that did not aim for representational product. Composition led him toward a greater self-engagement within the diverse environments he inhabited by giving shape to the impressions he received. Moreover, the emotive force and bearing he brought to composition made definitive arguments about the nature of his experience, the force of which invites others to compare their life experience with his. Through such associations a rich and contextual extension of meaning crosses from subjective experience toward a more cohesive communal exchange, providing depth and content for human participation in a world frequently manipulated by other political and social agendas. Creeley judged his experience carefully, and through its extension in narrative he invited others to consider their own experience with his. Surprisingly, perhaps, the skeptical philosophy of David Hume helps reveal a greater context in which to consider Creeley’s approach to poetry, for as with Hume, Creeley’s faith in consensus as a way to engage and understand the world gives meaning to experience by connecting the particular perceptions and feelings of an individual life with the common place acts and social interactions of every day.

Charles Bernstein recently noted Creeley’s significant rhetorical consideration of the poem as an active tool of communication rather than a representation that would work to objectify experience. This is significant because we have to see in Creeley’s work arguments rather than representations in order to understand the dynamic modernist composition he made. “Creeley’s first principle,” writes Bernstein, “is that you find out what you have to say in the process of saying it: poetry becomes a way of making not representing. This presents a stark challenge to an approach to poems that begins with ideas or sentiments or messages and then represents or approximates them in the poem. Composition (including editing and recomposing) becomes the active agency of the poem. Immediacy and immanence of expression precedes essence.” In another essay, Forrest Gander likewise stresses “the process of composition” in Creeley’s work, noting that “his poems are less ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’—as Wordsworth described his own project—than linguistic enactments of the emotional conflicts at work and war in any present movement of conscious awareness” (123). The focus for both Bernstein and Gander on Creeley’s compositional force suggests rhetorical preoccupations with the act of writing. One way to read his “linguistic enactments” is as a kind of rhetorical investment in the poem as a means to deliberate and extend arguments on behalf of his experience. Creeley’s poems have agency not because of their linguistic structure, however, but because of the arguments he makes on behalf of his experience and his desire to communicate that experience to others. Communication is stressed over objectification. He does not argue to validate his experience, but to show connective force in the world, inviting readers to compare the quotidian elements of our common existence and to act significantly on that awareness of ourselves as creatures of habit who engage the world through consensual relationships. Tom Clark in his study of Creeley and the American common place considers Creeley’s philosophical understanding of subjectivity as “a fable of the original divorce of subject from object, self from other, in mankind’s archaic fall from a primal world of wholeness.” Clark suggests too that by “the middle 1960s the poet’s uneasy relation with subjectivity had reached a point of exhaustion,” and that “he began to explore new serial modalities in both verse and prose” (69). Whether or not Creeley had reached some point of philosophical exhaustion, he does begin to explore other rhetorical possibilities in the poem as a way out of the “‘self-imprisoned paranoid’ attitude of Puritan introversion” by “expand[ing] the ground of his writing to include random, accidental, notational, and programmatic elements” (69-70). For Clark, the results of this shift in style “can be seen in Pieces, In London, Thirty Things, and Hello (poetry); and A Day Book, Presences, and Mabel: A Story (prose)” (70).

Before looking closely at Creeley’s work, I want to consider more carefully “the uneasy relation with subjectivity” Clark points out in Creeley’s philosophical understanding. Clark carefully introduces this problem in Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place by framing his discussion with a quote from Adorno:

What transcendentalism praised in creative subjectivity is the subject’s unconscious imprisonment in itself. Its every objective thought leaves the subject immersed like an armored beast in the shell it tries in vain to shed; the only difference is that to such animals it did not occur to brag of their captivity as freedom. (qtd in Clark 68-9)

This German romantic notion of the tragic alienation of self from the world is compelling as a way of reading the early work of Creeley, and he probably inherited this tragic tradition from the modernists he so admired and whose own reading of romanticism was shaped significantly by the occult attentions of the symbolists before them. But for the later Creeley of the 1960s and 70s, in whom Clark sees an inclusion of “random, accidental, notational, and programmatic elements,” the philosophical model seems to have shifted toward an empirical consideration that is pre- (or, really, proto-) romantic. I hesitate to suggest that Creeley is reviving somehow notions of enlightenment philosophy, but I do sense a fundamental movement away from concerns for the transcendent subject, replaced instead with a renewed interrogation of space and time—the fundamental aspects of experience and perception.

Rhetorically, Creeley stresses force in language over clarity. A 1953 essay says just this: “A sense of the Kinetic impels recognition of force. Force is, and therefore stays” (23). For Creeley, force is the emotive impact words leave on an audience. Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century statesman and orator, made a similar observation when speaking of the sublime in poetry, emphasizing the force of poetic language over any need for clarity[1]. For Burke, the sublime is not explicitly significant as a transcendent experience, but it induces a sense of awe or terror in the observer. Its expression comes through the rhetorical powers of the poet who uses amplification and powerful imagery to reveal a sublime object or experience. While this reveals an interesting correspondence, it does not really speak to the more pressing philosophical issues at hand for Creeley. What it shows is how the kinetic emphasis on “force” in writing has preoccupied the attentions of writers for quite some time, and that the kind of ocular stress on clarity that seems to typify enlightenment attitudes to philosophical and compositional methodologies may lead to the neglect of other uses of language and composition that Creeley favored. At any rate, this speculative diversion with Burke is meant only to increase our understanding of the range of Creeley’s understanding of writing, extending certain possible affinities beyond the romantic-modern inheritance of thought typically identified with him. Moreover, the problems that the enlightenment realized for human subjectivity remain central for Creeley, and in certain ways he absorbed those philosophical problems into the body of his work.

Although David Hume’s radical skepticism leaves that great Scottish thinker conservatively entrenched in culture’s customs and habits, his thought is echoed distantly in Creeley’s poetic work. For Hume, it is the “force and vivacity” of impressions and perceptions that constitute our experience. According to his system, “all reasonings are nothing but the effects of custom; and custom has no influence, but by inlivening the imagination, and giving us a strong conception of any object.” Moreover, he admits, “the open declaration of our sentiments is call’d the taking off the mask, as the secret intimation of our opinions is said to be the veiling of them” (1.3.13). For Hume, knowledge, judgment, and experience come from our emotional responses to impressions. Ultimately, no god secures meaning for us, and nothing presents itself to validate one experience over another. Self is a collection of impressions moderated by memory, reason, and sensation to deliver a kind of consistent self-image. “Thus it appears,” Hume writes, “that every kind of opinion or judgment, which amounts not to knowledge, is deriv’d entirely from the force and vivacity of the perception, and that these qualities constitute in the mind, what we call the belief of the existence of any object” (1.3.13). More troubling still in his philosophy is the loose thread that connects us to so-called reality, for we “have command over our mind to a certain degree, but beyond that lose all empire over it: And ‘tis evidently impossible to fix any precise bound to our authority, where we consult not experience” (1.3.14). For Hume, what can be imagined should be invested with as much concrete awareness as the impressions of so-called external “reality.” Whatever can be imagined is possible. This is both a wonderful (if you’re a poet, say), and a terrible proposition. Hume, in response to this, retreated into the customs and habits of his period, developing a vigorous conservative moral and social philosophy based on received traditions. His unflinching analysis of human understanding entrenched him morally in a social and political ethos that relied on custom to support standards of knowledge, thus overcoming the problems his metaphysical inquiries introduce to western philosophy. The inquiring nature of his thought is, however, an extraordinary presentation of our predicament in the world. For Hume, as with Locke before him, not even the mind retains innate or concrete structures to support our understanding. Thus, according to his insights, even language fails to offer a unifying presence that would join our impressions to the relations we make in communication. The divide between subjectivity and the world is complicated by the alien intrusion of words into that perceptive experience. This is the insight that Kant, Schelling, and others would note later in the 18th century, and it remains a common, if not obsessive, question for post-structuralism. Moreover, the self is not so much isolated as inchoate, potentially extensive. Our identification with human bodies is somewhat arbitrary in Hume’s system. Language is an extensive element that also provides a sense of coherence for the self in the narratives it creates through sensation, reason, imagination, and memory. Ultimately, however, Hume’s skepticism provides no basis for our understanding of anything accept the “force and vivacity” of our perceptions. It is this troubling skepticism that informs Creeley’s A Day Book.

This concern for the isolation of the subject from the world and from language (and from any other concrete identity of self) finds resonance in Creeley’s poetics, though it is inflected differently, with stress on the empirical British tradition of observation and relation of experience over the metaphysically abstract and psychologically scrutinizing continental traditions. Particularly by the late 1960s, Creeley is less concerned with the isolation of the individual within the totalizing collection of impressions on which experience is based, but on the ways consensus helps us negotiate the world through a kind of precarious trust in common words, places, and people. For Creeley, it is not the mind, but the quality of experience that gives coherent shape to our perceptions. Tradition, too, is not an authoritative force, but a contingent accumulation of shared assumptions by which poets work out their individual positions. “Tradition,” Creeley writes, “is an aspect of what anyone is now thinking—not what someone once thought. We make with what we have, and in this way anything is worth looking at. A tradition becomes inept when it blocks the necessary conclusion; it says we have felt nothing, it implies others have felt more” (23). Tradition, for Creeley (and unlike Hume), is a provisory thing that consists of the collective understanding of experience. There is a usefulness to it that, however, does not prescribe social values, but relates them through the common words and gestures we share. According to Creeley, it is not poetry’s job to describe tradition or experience, but to actualize its agency as a special kind of communication. “A poetry denies its end in any descriptive act,” he writes, “I mean any act which leaves the attention outside the poem. Our anger cannot exist usefully without its objects, but a description of them is also a perpetuation. There is that confusion—one wants the thing to act on, and yet hates it. Description does nothing, it includes the object—it neither hates nor loves” (23). Words for Creeley are forces that relate common experience—an experience only known in language. A description of objects necessarily betrays a fundamental misappropriation of things that in themselves are unknowable. Language approximates the presence of objects just as it comes close to showing the individual behind the words. Words mediate subject and object, and descriptions are theoretically impossible according to Creeley’s keen awareness of the problems of perception and experience. His attention is given to significant images and impressions, those that present themselves with “force and vivacity.” The most fundamental assumptions of experience, for Creeley, are questioned, including time and space. “In short there are two principles which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce either of them,” says Hume, anticipating problems Creeley will address, notably, in A Day Book,that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences (3.3.4). While this problem of eighteenth-century empirical perception may seem remote for us today, Creeley will re-investigate some of these problems in A Day Book and make use of narrative possibilities suggested by the problems Hume announced.

This part of my essay should be read as a kind of exploration or inquiry into the philosophical bedrock of Creeley’s use of the common place. Hume presents an attractive model for considering Creeley’s work from the late 1960s on. And while Hume’s answer to his own deep skepticism led him toward conservative social and political responses, we should not read Creeley’s formal arguments in the same way. He used poetry and prose to relate his experience and to communicate the emotional force behind it. Through this our common experiences could find expression and relief through so rigorous and nuanced explorations of individual life in words. Because it has not been significantly discussed, and because the journal, or day book, as a genre of epideictic self interrogation, offers itself as a loose and personal method of organization and composition, I want to look at Creeley’s 1972 publication, A Day Book, as an example of personal composition for a public readership that retains agency, making explicit arguments for the commonality of our experience, thereby possibly redeeming the isolated subject through meaningful contact with others. Creeley’s work here does not seek to represent events, sentiments, or emotions; nor does it seek to make words into a formal object for an audience to behold with mystic wonder. A Day Book relates certain perceptions, events, obsessions, and ideas in a man’s life from the volatile year 1968. By writing in prose, Creeley’s famously compact lines are, as Clark suggests above, loosened, more open to environmental intrusions coming from beyond the self. Moreover, unlike with more traditional prose narratives, the day book here is used formally, but loosely, following the days as they arrive; narrative constructed from impressions that are composed and arranged according to the particular moods, habits, obsessions, and projections of the writer.

Much of A Day Book relates sexual fantasies, philosophical meditations, mundane events, and close phenomenal perceptions of the environments the author inhabits. It is partially also a meditation on the function of narrative. “I know the condition of those around me, or rather think that I do” (2), he notes early in the book, reflecting on the separation between himself and others. He maintains an awareness of this distance throughout the book, as if language somehow comes between him and others, that philosophical chasm between self and other constantly occurring as part of the thread of narrative.

When Leslie comes he speaks, in his lecture, of the fact, to him, that prose has rejected the self image or the sorrows of Werther kind of fiction. I can feel that sentence just written pacing itself to some argument with him. What will I do without that possibility? But then who cares, in any sense at all. How the head winds itself in the pretension of its own reality. (2-3)

He recognizes a nostalgic tug toward a narrative possibility that represents characters and plot—that “sorrows of Werther kind of fiction”—but he is too adamantly devoted to the accuracy of perception and poetry’s particular force to fully buy it. The head’s “pretension of its own reality” interferes to disrupt the transcendent hope for narrative to accomplish in him what it could for Goethe in eighteenth-century Germany, regardless of its compelling possibility as a model of story telling. “Actively,” Creeley tells us, “the words provoke this patter of images.” Perhaps too, he suggests, “the imagination of time, or world of whatever creates its experience” (3). His preoccupation with philosophical concerns runs throughout A Day Book, insisting on a casual, but careful, investigation of his experience. He is troubled, however, by our isolation as subjects, referring at one point to the body as “These space suits we float in.”

What I always wanted, really, was one of those rigs you put on your back, a sort off jet power pack, like Buck Rogers had, that let him move then at various levels from the ground. Fuck in the air, I say… . (4)

The rather humorous image of jet-pack fucking is, nonetheless, suggestive of the problem Creeley faces in A Day Book, where he argues that life is an attempt “to recover coherence” (6). His obsession with space runs throughout the book, although it is a somewhat different inflection of the condition Olson makes so much of in his work[2]. Creeley’s sense of space is more intimate, close at hand, yet inwardly vast, despite the collapse of geographic distance. There is a temporal dimension that accompanies Creeley’s hesitant regard, for it provides a new kind of texture—an existential anxiety.

It’s night. Then it was morning, when I was writing here, at the same table, same Shelley-face, Shiva. What is that space comes between. It becomes for the time impossible to put in that place an actual time passage. Only bits and pieces, e.g., the apparently broken nose I now have, Alan’s leaving, Ed’s arrival with his girl, the flu, the car’s not starting day after day. (9)

The resolution to this problem of space and time arrives through narrative. Creeley does not have in mind any kind of planned, or mapped-out process. After all, “how do I know what I’m going to say before I’ve said it,” (10) he shrewdly asks of himself. Objectifying himself, he writes through the voice of the third person: “He simply liked the fact of writing, both in doing it and as it then became, the intimacy still possible at that moment, something just done and not as yet involved with other possible questions” (10). This self-reflective meditation on the process of composition helps identify for readers the purpose of this day book, distinguishing it from traditional narrative and from poetry. The words here are presented somewhat between the wandering threads of thought that compose an essay, and the deliberate relations of a formally reflective poetics. Rhetorically, A Day Book waivers between deliberative argumentation and epideictic vision, creating a peculiar work that formally embodies the particular empirical concerns of the author. This helps to form an ethos that argues for the centrality of one’s experience, but that shows too how our common acts make our social commitments possible. There is a kind of self-leveling at work, where the subjective position of the author is regulated by the continuous and sharp critical awareness he brings to himself. If one goal is to narrow the distance between himself and others, to enter more accurately and forcefully into the condition of things, composition helps organize the particulars of that experience of things, making them perceptible and humanly useful. Creeley thereby resists the explicit fictionalization of eventuality into narrative, opting instead to observe how narrative unavoidably registers impressions of experience that resist absorption into language and into the author’s “space suit.” Time and space then do not arrive in chronological sequence, but according to the “force and vivacity” of the impressions that are made on the awareness of the writer. Composition is arranged according to this intrusion of every day.

One reason Hume so forcefully seems to inform A Day Book’s meditative enquiries into the nature of human experience is the skeptical presence of mind Creeley brings to his work. No transcendent purpose is apparent, the whole complex accumulation of continental thought from Kant to Heideggar seemingly abandoned. Self for Creeley is a collection of impressions, memories, obsessions, and fantasies. As with Hume, its fact acts as a kind of passage for the accumulations of experience. The self’s situation regarding others, however, brings significant consideration from both writers who, in their way, turn to an understanding of the common place as a way to negotiate the complex exchanges of every day. While Hume possessed a different notion of tradition that was rooted in a conservative ethos of custom and habit, Creeley’s acceptance of the common place is more radical because it argues for an accurate apprehension of experience, to be expressed in its own terms, rather than forming a prescriptive moral or political method in response. Poetry’s job, so to say, is to reveal the common relations from which a greater knowledge and renewal of life can arrive. His position is more disjunctive and transgresses social conditioning and the unconscious milieu in which the individual lives. What Hume and Creeley do share in common, however, is a regard for the emotions over reason as the basis for understanding. “Reason is,” said Hume, “and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (2.3.3). Moreover, he continues, “Reason or science is nothing but the comparing of ideas, and the discovery of their relations; and if the same relations have different characters, it must evidently follow, that those characters are not discover’d merely by reason” (3.1.2). The central argument to this skepticism is that feeling comes first—it is our first consideration on which everything else relies. The common experience of every day arrives through sensuous contact with it. Our impressions are first felt and then arranged to objectify and make use of the ideas we form based on our affinities for them. While Kant and others in the continental tradition work to preserve certain a priori faculties for the mind, Hume reads the world as a kind of passing flow of phenomena.

It is interesting that in the 1960s Creeley would be compelled to work from a position very much like Hume’s. One way to think about it though is to see Creeley’s work within the larger contextual environments of 1968 in US poetics. An infusion of Eastern religious and philosophical ideas had arrived and was central to many in the poetry communities of the time. Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder turned to Zen Buddhism for a method of spiritual and artistic practice, while since the 1950s Buddhism had been a central preoccupation for Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beats. The observation of phenomena—which include our thoughts—as they pass through a fragmented field of self in Zen, corresponds closely with Hume’s recognition of how the mind operates. Creeley may have been drawn to Hume over Buddhism, perhaps, because in that body of work he found a striking affinity that was rooted in a specifically western tradition. While close friends like Ginsberg could appropriate the methods of eastern religions to form a thriving spiritual practice, Creeley’s skeptical core moved more toward an empirical tradition in western thought that in many ways approximates the insights of Buddhism, but yet situates them within a western context. One could speculate more on Creeley’s affinity for this, but the extant biographical material on his life might yield clues enough. Let’s just say for now that his New England, protestant heritage registered with the Scottish enlightenment figure because at heart there is a shared skepticism regarding experience to which there are no solutions. Nirvana offers no option for him. Only the recognition and reshaping of the common place renews some hope in self-extension through words.

What emerges then in A Day Book reveals extraordinary insights to a poet in mid-career who is struggling to be responsible to experience and open to the emotional consequences of the ordering of it through composition. Through common experience we find cohesive, if constructed, meanings that give life definition and shape. “I think the most useful truth I’ve been given to acknowledge of others, as a man,” he writes, “is that in one’s own experience another’s is not necessarily denied nor increased.” Part of his ethos as a writer comes from these frank acknowledgments and the ease by which he encounters the uncertainties around him. He looks for the shared bonds that form between us to make the present into a habitable space.

Will it be that someday we come to some relation with those who make up our condition, humans, that will not argue their histories as all that they depend upon for relation—or else, more accurately, that what they do is more relevant to all their lives, one by one or all in all, than what they didn’t. I feel such trust in life, once I stop all that previous qualification—just that I know I’m alive, and witness it with such pleasure in others, we are here—I’m happy, in the most simplistic of senses. I’ve thought a lot, like they say, but more than that I’ve not found. (20)

This essential statement helps define the purpose of this small book, but it could also be applied to other work throughout his career. The reduction of individual “histories” removes a “previous qualification” that allows perception of experience to take place without the projection of those histories. Creeley offers this as a way of thinking about our experience of the world, though it leaves him, nonetheless, stuck in thought, never fully able to escape the “space suit.” “Try climbing out of that skin by your neat little agencies” (25), he argues, reminding himself and his audience of the limitations at stake. Moreover, “there is a curious mirror, when one reflects the other, and in that, other sees not one, but other as one” (27). The tension of entrapment can be redeemed only by the sensuous reception of experience:

As New England—odors, sounds, senses of wetness, ways streets move, trees, the movement of the ground, senses of distance, smells, tones of voices, light. One wants to, at last, be there beyond the intention in all senses, simply there. (30)

This ongoing argument with himself illustrates the dilemma of the book. Although we are trapped in “space suits,” unable to experience the other, the facts our senses convey restore a shared sense of the urgency of life. We are making it up as we go, but what we make up is contingent on the feelings we bring to our perceptions. “Where do they come from, where do they go,” asks Creeley. “Lovely the round and around of it, over and over and over” (37). And later, as if to answer, he says: “Always from lovely nowhere.” This “lovely nowhere” stands out from Olson’s insistence on particulars of place, but those particulars preoccupy Creeley less than the intimate relations of self to points of perception in time. He is careful, too, “of that curiously awkward and false psychology, i.e., that proposes a must be followed by b—but so often misplaces what might be called the ‘terms’” (43). The echoes of Hume return, “Like Olson’s report from Whorf of Hopi sense: what’s happening over there cannot be accepted as happening at the same time as what’s happening here. Space is a time modifier” (48). For Creeley, as for Hume, subjective relations extend to the most basic understanding of ourselves. No assumption should remain untested. “Something proposed in time and space,” Creeley notes, “but not as a consequence, rather a point of time. But time and space may well be subjective impressions, like they say” (60). Creeley works from a position of extraordinary isolation, making his insistence on the common place that much more profound. Our condition strands us “In time. But ‘myself’ am system of an endlessly proliferating consequence” (64). In the proliferation of that consequence the contour of experience receives its own impression. And common encounters with it create a human bond, even if, in earnest and keen awareness, we remain isolated in ourselves. This deeply skeptical reduction presents itself in A Day Book along with a kind of delight for the shared impressions and ideas that compose a day. Creeley wants to redeem the extreme difficulties of subjectivity by showing his audience a sympathetic notion of experience, and through a kind of consensual and provisory approach to it, we may find humanly decent ways to live.

As I have been thinking of Creeley in this context, that poem of Robert Frost returns and I hear that awful refrain: “Good fences make good neighbors.” I hear in that cold Yankee regard for otherness something not altogether alien from Creeley’s ethos. For Creeley, that fence is a given, and the neighbors may be good or not, the problem is still the inescapable fact of that fence. But Frost’s poem too is sympathetic to the situation, and the common act of labor helps ameliorate the harsher conditions that exist between people. There is physically something to do, together, which seems too to be Creeley’s acknowledgement, that we take part in life by way of its particular and unique presentations. Creeley’s affinity for Hume’s skepticism finds hope in shared opportunities that arise in the course of daily life. The quotidian presents itself as an adventure of sorts that can be engaged with “force and vivacity.” Despite the extreme isolation of subjectivity, hope remains in our communal acts. A Day Book argues for this consensus to restore meaning for the lonely and separate self. He addresses a problem of great magnitude with humility and a completely frank sympathy for our subjective isolation. Finally, it is the force of narrative to reveal the experiences that matter most. In this sense, his compositions make arguments for our human connectedness and transpersonal drives to participate in the creation of our worlds. Creeley’s work argues for the force of individual perception and extension as the central rhetorical act of subjective experience. Our capacity to feel gives definition to experience. Creeley’s great power as a writer is to make us reflect upon the profoundly disturbing nature of our existence, while also sympathetically offering ways to reach one another from within those distances we inhabit. Creeley’s persuasive claims on behalf of the common place answers this situation by forming narratives that are arguments for how and what we feel to be “true” and “real”—an ultimate test of poetry.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. “Hero of the Local: Robert Creeley and the Persistence of American Poetry.” The Brooklyn Rail (May 2005). 26 Aug. 2006 <>.

Clark, Tom. Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place. New York: New Directions, 1993.

Creeley, Robert. A Day Book. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972.

———. “To Define.” A Quick Graph: Collected Notes & Essays. Ed. Donald Allen. Writing Writing 22. San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970. 23-24.

Gander, Forrest. “The King Is Dead. Long Live the King!” A Faithful Existence. New York: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005. 123-130.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. 1739. Ed. Ernest C. Mossner. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Olson, Charles. “Call Me Ishmael.” Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 1-105.


[1] Aristotle, for instance, in the Rhetoric stressed clarity in good speech while Plato relied on dialectic reasoning—a kind of clarifying and reductive process—to gain access to truth. This visually suggestive metaphor remains central in discussions of writing throughout the rhetorical tradition. Many of the Sophists, such as Gorgias of Leontini, however, stressed force in language as well, noting its qualities of amplification, prosody, and other formal elements. Rhetoricians of the Second Sophistic, like Longinus, also emphasized language’s aural and prosodic force in persuasive contexts. See George Kennedy’s Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

[2] See Call Me Ishmael for Olson’s articulation of the problem of space. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now,” he opens forcefully. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

Dale Smith is a poet and scholar in the division of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin.