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Robert Creeley

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Ruth Lepson

“It Is All a Rhythm”: Robert Creeley and Steve Lacy

This piece is about 8 printed pages long.

In response to my email asking if he wanted me to bring up anything in particular in my Contemporary American Poetry course, Bob sent this email on Jan. 27 ‘03:

Dear Old Friend!

You’ve got Steve Lacy there now at the New England Conservatory and he could sure tell students a thing or two about what I’m doing or trying to do.

What was it that Bob was doing? He was writing about a character called Robert Creeley in poems distant and intimate, numinous and existential, bits of thought-feeling-sound. He made the ordinary strange, endearing himself to his readers thereby, calling forth in us a yes of recognition. Every article or preposition is part of a sound and meaning cluster, jam-packed with intensity, with such subtlety of tone and inflection. Lyrical and innovative, he was happily and sadly living. He managed to be intellectual and emotional simultaneously, with an intuitive sense of sound — the sounds are right but you can’t dissect them.

Charles Altieri gives a psychological and philosophical analysis of Bob’s writing in “The Struggle with Absence: Robert Creeley and W.S. Merwin,” from Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s (Associated University Press, July, 1979):

Creeley’s poetic subject is… not consciousness in the world, but Robert Creeley trying to make sense of the world.

Creeley’s use of a very limited vocabulary and set of images is an attempt to create a personal speech. He wants to break through the merely phenomenal images provided in language by restating his essential experiences in a variety of closely related ways.

By accepting the gap between desire and fulfillment, Creeley makes it possible to see these voids as essential and even productive elements in the dialectic of experience. The silence or absence now exists within a form or rhythm and becomes an ‘interval.’

Creeley focuses on absolutely common terms like ‘here,’ ‘there,’ ‘the,’ ‘one,’… so obviously elements of man’s particular perception of the world; yet when taken as objects of reference, they also describe universal experiences….

Creeley’s dance is radically simple.… The dance is available to all because of the simplicity of its elements, both in reality and in the figures of the poem.

When Bob came to my class in 2004 he said he wanted forms that would let him go on talking rather than forms that would close it down. He wanted something “doggedly open till it came to say what it was wanting to say.” One thing he got from Williams, which he pointed to a series of poems by each, was the establishment of a pattern of half-rimes, sound links, throughout a stanza or several stanzas. He “uses assonantal rimes,” “tonal leading of vowels,” which comes from Pound as well as Williams. At the same time, when students asked specifically how he set up a poem: “I have no real knowledge of how I do this.” When on the way out of class a student asked him to ‘fess up, tell us really how he did it, he responded, “When you swim, you don’t think you control the ocean, do you?”

Or, from an interview he did with poet Celia Gilbert and me for The Boston Phoenix in 1972, “I think the break will occur depending on the nature of the person involved. I love irresolution because it has energy; Williams did also. The phrase for me breaks intuitively. If you break, for example, on a prepositional phrase and you have the energy going forward, it gives a push into the next line like a kick-off. It isn’t really intellectually defined, just impulsively.” “… when I was younger, I was much more defensive in writing and wanted each poem as contained a statement as I could make it… so manifest in its own condition that it would defy any argument against its own containment.… I depended on a very intensive, often anguished kind of occasion to speak.… in obvious ways I’m older, more relaxed, and not as fearful about not making it. In jazz, people fooling around, playing without having to make a decision about wrap-ups.”

Back to class: “One’s looking for a proposition and a suggestion.” “Like Tarzan, I’m looking for vines to hold in ‘Emptiness,’” in which, he says, he uses “run-over lines… pushing physically forward, leaning emotionally and physically as sound rhythm.” “How will it make the next move?” “Thinking” — for painter Alex Katz — was written in stanzas of three lines: “three doesn’t resolve, the form is provoking the movement… creates a loop.”

“The Rhythm,” the first poem of Bob’s that Steve Lacy heard and immediately took to, one of the poems that he set in Futurities.

We know that 50s jazz, i.e., Charlie Parker and others at the Hi-Hat on Boylston St. in Boston (Bob lived half a block away, near the Savoy) “taught” him how to write poetry. More specifically, in an interview for Teachers and Writers — Poets Chat, of Jan. 2001, “Jazz gave me an ideal sense of the possibilities of improvisation within an often very simple pattern.… ”

Steve emphasized, in an email responding to poems I’d written while listening to The Beat Suite, “I think it’s important for the music students to have a grasp on language structures,’ as such.” He told me that he had planned to offer a course in setting poetry to music at the Conservatory, which, sadly, never came to pass. “Lit jazz,” he called it, as in literature and lit up, too.

Terrific former-student percussionist Marc Riordan says that in part what he learned from Steve was to find an “equilibrium between me and him. It was like a give and take the whole time… to play with a lot of conviction, and to claim my space without forcing others out of it.” I think Steve managed that balance in Futurities. In Pierre Joris’ section of notes, “Project History,” for the Futurities booklet: “… what I am always after is a kind of consistency and a free form. Something that’s fixed and open. The way this works in Futurities is that there is room for improvisation, around the fixed part which is the song, the lyric. Each piece has an introduction, then comes the piece itself, then there’s a tag, a last phrase also repeated a couple of times. And then we return to the introduction — and that’s where the improvisation takes place, either group or solo improvisations. It’s a series of vamps, really, grooves to dance off — they take different forms among the twenty songs here — tango, waltzes, ballads.” But in moving into various musical genres in a kind of playful take-off of Bob’s poems, he departs from them — there’s a purity, a simplicity of form in Bob’s poetry, a consistency.

Both collaborated throughout their working lives. Bob often worked with visual artists, for instance, Jim Dine, Francesco Clemente, Susan Rothenberg, Marisol, Robert Indiana, Joe Brainard, Elsa Dorfman, Alex Katz — 50-some artists, as well as such musicians as Steve Swallow.

Steve set at least several poems by each of these poets: Marina Tsvetaeva, Kenneth White, Judith Malina, Osip Mandelstam, Manyô-Shû, Taslima Nasrin (an opera, The Game in Reverse, translated from the Bengali by Caroline Wright and others), Guilia Niccolai, Kurt Schwitters, Shitao, Mary Frazee, Brion Gysin, Anna Akhmatova, Marianne Alphant, William Burroughs, Jack Davis, and Anne Waldman, in English, French, German, Spanish, and other languages — and has set the words of dozens of others, not all of which have been performed. Maybe Irene Aebi will bring us some surprises among those settings--of Beckett, Braque, Char, Tom Clark, Celan, Cendrars, Dali, Richard Feynman (“Particles”), Buckminster Fuller, Gainsborough, Goethe, Kandinsky (“The New Moon”), Melville (“Art”), Raworth (“Absence,” “Situations,”), St. John of the Cross, Spicer, Supervieille, and Valery, not to mention those in The Beat Suite, which he gave me when it was newly released from Universal.
(Note from Steve Apr. 21 ‘03: “The Beat Suite just came out in Europe, will be released in the U.S. May 13.”) (And he generously left me a 4CD set, “Alles Lalula, Songs and Poeme,” LIDO, 2003, further evidence of his profound knowledge of the spectrum of sound from poetry to music, which includes, among many, Marinetti, Yeats, Stein, Pound, Arp, Chopin, Lennon/Ono, Beuys, Taj Mahal, Giorno, Cage, Meredith Monk, Cecil Taylor, and Baraka.)

Collaboration was as central to his project as to Creeley’s.

Some of their last collaborations were with/for each other.

Bill Corbett brought them and Irene Aebi to MIT in March 2004. (Later Bill was to hold a memorial reading for Bob at MIT). Bob, seeing Pierre Joris in the audience, remembered Joris taking him to meet Steve and Irene early on. Jazz, he said, had always been “an instruction, a relief, a joy, vivifying.… ”

As Steve explained: “We’re gonna do a few things from the show that we put together based on Bob’s work.” Twenty-three years or so ago, he told us, they were on radio together — Bob read a poem while Steve improvised ‘behind him,’ Steve decided to set it, and that grew into a dance theater piece with a couple dancing the life of a couple, with twenty love songs for nine musicians [the Steve Lacy Sextet with guitar, harp, and trombone added], which toured England, France, Belgium and Germany in the early 80’s and which his group recorded. Sometimes, Steve said, they do a few pieces from it and may do some the next night at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, and would now do some they hadn’t done in a long time.

Some of the poems Bob chose to read are “War” (“this bitter abstract”);
“Paul,” for Paul Blackburn--”actually it was at Columbia [not NYU, which he had mentioned in the poem] but I can’t change it now… the rhythm”!; (“I’d have company of my own age” wishing Blackburn alive still); “Ground Zero” (“persist, go on, believe/dreams may be all we have/whatever one believe”); “John’s Song,” for John Taggert; a poem for Ginsberg (“I cannot believe age can be easy for anyone”; “I’m like a kid at his or her first day of school.… all of us finally unsure”; “time to push off” — a phrase suggestive of impending death and moving on, both.) All poems engaged in the world, politically and in friendship.

In “John’s Song,” these lines: “If ever there is/other than war.” Bob repeated “If ever there is” several times, a different word accented each time. “No more war” was emphasized through repetition, too, and the piece ended with “if ever there is,” angrily maybe.

Steve read and he and Irene did “Sad Advice,” “The House,” “Love Comes Quietly,” “Jack’s Blues,” from Futurities. Then the one Steve first improvised to when they met — ”The Rhythm” (“how it all began,” as Steve said) he improvised to again as Bob read it. They did the same for “For No Clear Reason,” “A Picture,” “A Piece,” “I Love You,” “Still Too Young,” (“and still too young to die”). “Old Song,” another piece they graced us with that night — ”I’m feeling ok in some small way”; “What’s still to say” — ends with “and love you.”… When Bob and Steve had lunch with my students before a class Bob came to, and they had caught up some, Steve told Bob he had to leave to teach. Bob took his hand and held it. “Love,” he said, and he just kept holding Steve’s hand. They were so cool they could be warm.

After Steve died, Irene put on Futurities — on Dec. 6, 2004 — with some Conservatory students of hers and of Steve. Here is Bob, introducing that performance:

“If you will think of what you are to hear tonight as transformation, we will hear two of those proverbial changes which poets and musicians endlessly depend upon so as to keep the life — of whatever it is we are fact of — going.

“It’s an old and persistent story, as Heraclitus puts it, ‘it rests by changing.’ So do we all. The seed then is what that emaculately generous and perceptive composer and musician, the late Steve Lacy, was able to make of my words, which in turn of course had been given by others. The poetry which has engaged me all my life is a poetry that is aspiring to become a music, just as John Keats’… ’Do I wake or sleep?’ That is not incidentally a metaphorical music any more than is William Carlos Williams’ Desert Music. Now the music bodies through, etc.

“To have one’s own words so sounded is a great great pleasure, a reassurance that all one had hoped for is possible. But the music is never, nor are the poems themselves, a fixed meaning, a grounded sense, something simply to be done with. All such art is an insistent beginning, and each of us comes to it — poets, musicians, all — so as to come again to possibility, a freshness, a veritable opening of the field.

“Tonight, Steve’s wonderful song cycle, Futurities, is given its first American performance, by persons most particular. The young, the determined, the immensely gifted musicians and students of the New England Conservatory of Music… with their own authority and occasion. Their emaculate and sympathetic advisor throughout and the singular companion of Steve Lacy’s life and music, the unique vocalist, Irene Aebi. One wants to say — and needs to — that without her, nothing.… ”

The talented, high energy, sensitive students to whom Steve (and to many, Bob) meant the world, as human beings, teachers, exemplary high energy artists.

Next day, Bob’s email: “… it was GREAT — that extraordinary energy they brought to it was so lovely, and were they ever pros — just wonderful. There was audience enough to make it for real and everyone really got how crucial Irene was to it all. For me it was delight — to hear how terrifically and complexly they could build on Steve’s structure, call it, and how much they could get out of the texts. There were four singers, two women, two men [Sunny Kim, Sean Wood, Emiliano Loconsolo, Panayota Chalulakou], and Irene. Then harp, guitar, piano, drums, vibraphone, bass, blocks one plays, [alto and] soprano saxes, trombone, whew! That particular hall suited it all — so a great great time was had by all indeed.” The instrumentalists deserve mention, too: Adam Roberts, Alec Spiegelman, Dan Blacksberg, Dan Tepfer, Ben MacDonald, Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, Mike Pfaff, Marilinda Garcia.

Steve had died in June of 2004. Bob sent an email June 25: “Just back here — I must say Steve’s sad death sure overwrote that whole time. I had a lot of his music on an iPod and spent hours on the bus listening as we drove hither and yon, somehow a relief in every sense.… Apropos, I wrote St. Marks to see what they might be able to host come fall. I am certainly up for anything makes clear how much he got done, and how generously. Onward!”

And he did put together, with Anselm Berrigan, a memorial for Steve at St. Marks, held Jan. 19 2005. “I just want to honor Steve in some way specific, i.e., some people will probably just speak of their own relation with him, others may read work or play music particular to their friendship… all the poets were particularly agreeable to and/or suggested by Irene, i.e., Anne [Waldman], you, Jim Koller, Pierre Joris, Bill Corbett, me.” The list of participants grew to include John Giorno, artist Suzanne Frecon, dancer Douglas Dunn, bassist Juini Booth, trombonist/composer Roswell Rudd. “Finally no one needs feel he or she is there to do more than remember Steve in whatever way seems most comfortable and most true. This is not an evening committed simply to entertainment, etc., but there need be nothing somber or grim.” Then, “Lee Friedlander and Judith Malina have come in so it’s a great and various crew. Irene’s got her terrific spot in good shape with bright young guy from there… George Russell, and Douglas Dunn dancing. Stylish! Meanwhile, Roswell Rudd talking to Irene and not wanting just to close the evening with final ‘taps’ like ending, thinks to meld with audience and in that sense play around.” And he did get the room going; we became a high energy construct.

Finally, email on Jan. 20:

Dear friends of my heart,
    What a wondrous night you all put together from beginning to veritable end and around again and again — just so clear, so various, so active, so warm, so particular to Steve in all possible senses. For those I did not get chance to thank on the spot, I do now from the bottom of my heart. Onward!
            Love to one and all,

I quote this somewhat private email to show his lovingkindness, warmth, his deep love for Steve.

When Steve came to my Contemporary American Poetry class he talked about the whole scene, in New York and Paris, and how tight artists, musicians and poets were, then mentioned some aspects of his process. (He also sketched the history of Futurities, which he had envisioned as an opera but found too expensive for various institutions to mount.) Bob’s response to that information was characteristically enthusiastic, “It’s great that it all worked out with Steve. He’s an old time reader as well, going back to friendships with Anne Waldman and all. He always intimidates me with what he’s been reading!”

When you went to see Irene after Steve died you walked around to the side of the Pond Street house in Jamaica Plain, in through the garden gate. There you saw statues of Buddha, white wine at a small table, herbs in pots, students coming by — some talking of staging Futurities in New York. Since then Irene has moved to Belgium. Steve’s large collection of books is with her, as are his papers.

When you visit Bob’s family plot at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, you are shaded by a huge European beech and a thin Douglas fir, and you’re likely to see a basket of flowers or ferns or boxwood that Penelope has left there. When I visit the words that come to mind are ones from “Sad Advice,”: “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.” In my study Bob looks down at me from a picture Elsa Dorfman took of him, surrounded by an Art Deco frame. His one good eye seems to be staring, he seems to reminding me, “Get to work.” He remains the essential teacher for me, and anecdotally instructive, though I didn’t study in any formal way with him.

Steve was a master teacher, I had heard, and I saw and heard that for myself when he gave a concert with his students close to the end of his life, a lesson in improvisation, Feb. 24, ‘04, through a series called Sweet Sixteen. Steve gave the student musicians in his group a series of sixteen notes. He then conducted by holding up a certain number of fingers, letting the musicians know which notes to play, in various combinations and permutations, while a percussionist added another line, and sometimes Steve played soprano sax with them.

Both men demonstrated, lived, articulated what they created. Too, they made themselves part of a conversation, one reason they are central to poetry and to music.

Not surprisingly, when the New England Conservatory held a memorial concert for Steve — Oct. 12 ’04 — included were several of his “word- settings,” as he called them: of Melville’s “Art,” Ozaki Koyo’s “Tina’s Tune,” Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Le Jardin” (with Irene Aebi singing, accompanied on piano by Daniel Tepfer), Pessoa’s “Longing,” Brion Gysin’s “Somebody Special,” and Bob’s, “Love Comes Quietly” and “Mind’s Heart,” both from Futurities.

“Lyrics were sort of petering out in the fifties.… I guess it’s my job to bring them back,” Steve said in response to Pierre Joris.

“A poem is said again and again and if it is said enough times it becomes a song. That’s the way I find the music.… ” “The Creeley poems were so chiseled.” “The thing that struck me was the subject matter.” “When I had a dozen of them I thought, oh, something is going on here.… One of them Creeley sent me on a postcard [“Sad Advice”]. That became… the curtain raiser: ‘If it isn’t fun, don’t do it.’” “I thought, well, someday maybe these songs will become standards. And the title came to me: Future Standards… that became Futurities,..a more malleable word, easier to say, more fun. Over the next year I started orchestrating them.… these decisions are all around my normal group.”

Pierre Joris asks: “Why then a dance performance, rather than a stage play with the singer up on the boards?”

“These words why sing them?… Because they are food for thought. If you give a whole evening over to information about love, it starts to look like a service of sorts.… this was a sort of marriage.… in jazz, and the idea of the altar came to me. So I asked Kenneth Noland to make an altar… I thought it would be great on stage… he made this beautiful object that changes colors as the lights hit it. I had given him the words… that’s the focus.” “… these lyrics… are already dancing, they are all about dance, about movement, rhythms: coming together, going apart, being born, dying, the movement is suggested in them. I boiled down each lyric to a phrase and gave it to the dancers, like ‘make love,’ ‘fool around,’ ‘keep it alive,’ ‘who gets in trouble?’ ‘it must mean something!’, ‘grow old together.’”

Louise Myers, a writing professor and musician, in her article for Jazz Education Journal (vol. 37 #2), “Remembering Steve Lacy as a Teacher,”
quotes The Man: “‘Take a limited subject, and spend an unlimited time on it, until it opens up.’” From his book Findings, she quotes again, “‘… eventually finding your own style by getting to the bottom of someone else’s.’” “He practiced a variety of intervals in a variety of combinations, so that his mind would never become fixed on patterned sequences.… ” From Findings again, “Rhythm is all and everywhere.” “… and later [he] added, ‘Get it to your head, then in your blood, in the body, from your heart.’” You can hear echoes of Creeley throughout.

In a most helpful session, wonderful trombonist Dan Blacksberg, who played in Irene’s presentation of Futurities, talked about what he thinks Steve was doing with the poems. I had wanted to talk about the text painting in a few of the pieces, most especially “Sad Advice” and “The Rhythm,” the most complex of the poems. But we found that it wasn’t possible, that so much of both the poems and the songs is intuitive that to try to show a one-to-one correspondence between technique and meaning in the poem and in the song would be artificial and limiting.

“He’s giving a platform to the poems. Any time the singer isn’t singing it’s improvisational, that is, only in the last section of each piece. There aren’t a lot of different things going on. It’s a suite, not a group of separate songs. His melodic shapes make the words live. He’s so accommodating to the text, having no agenda of his own. But he’s continually confounding because sometimes you can see the text painting and sometimes you can’t. Evoking the lyrical quality, he’s referencing the idea of future standards. Part of improvising on these tunes is to preserve mood in the solo or to comment on the piece. When Steve improvises he sticks to the same mode as the melody. His information was clear — the melody and mood were always clear. This is Steve’s mature compositional style — free jazz and all the art he knows.”

Much of this method does, however, parallel, in a general sense, Bob’s project. As Altieri wrote, Creeley’s writing centers on “common terms,” a consciously “limited vocabulary and set of images,” and “restates his experiences in a variety of closely related ways.” No wonder the musical settings fit — as Steve said, a “radically simple” dance.