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Robert Creeley

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Tosa Motokiyu et alia

From Words to Pieces: On Robert Creeley

[A tape-essay by Tosa Motokiyu, Ojiu Norinaga, and Okura Kyojin, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 1990, at Motokiyu’s apartment across the street from Billy Mitchell International Airport]

This piece was first published in the print magazine 26.
It is about 10 printed pages long.

By way of introduction

The following “tape essay” is one of six or seven similarly conceived pieces written by Tosa Motokiyu between 1990 and 1992. As has been public for nearly nine years now, “Tosa Motokiyu” is the pseudonym of the author of the Yasusada writings, and his translator-collaborators, “Okura Kyojin” and “Ojiu Norinaga,” are his fictional creations. Thus, to be clear, all text in the following “tape-essay” is by Motokiyu, including any notations of extraneous sounds or events interrupting the exchange between the three characters.

Unfortunately, a box of Motokiyu’s materials was lost in 1999; this text and “Renga and the New Sentence,” published in Aerial magazine in 1991 (the first-ever appearance of Yasusada-related materials), are two of only three “tape-essays” from the group that appear to have survived, although we are still hopeful some or all may yet turn up. The manuscript of this essay, in fact, only turned up very recently, after we believed it had been lost. [1] Other topics which were focus of some of the still-lost essays include Nishiwaki Junzaburo and “translation”; Charles Simic and American “surrealism”; Alan Davies and “Buddhist poetics”; Kitasono Katue and the Japanese “avant-garde”; Ogiwara Sensensui and “free-form haiku.” Also thought lost, but recently recovered, is a tape-essay on Kenneth Koch and the composition of “Frank O’Hara’s” ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’,” and which we are currently editing for publication. [2]

Like “Renga and the New Sentence,” then, we feel the following work exemplifies Motokiyu’s lively, humorous, and seriously idiosyncratic mind. Creeley, in fact, read this essay early on and liked it very much, speaking enthusiastically of it to different people and encouraging its publication (see, for example, Avery Burns’s remarks in the Fall, 2006 issue of 26). We are pleased to have recovered this and to present it now as a small tribute to Robert Creeley.

— Kent Johnson and Javier Alvarez
     September 30, 2006

[1] Through the poet Avery Burns, to whom, we had forgotten, a copy had been sent some fourteen years ago.
[2] The loss of this last essay had been particularly distressing, since Motokiyu presents there tantalizing “evidence” that the famous poem was actually written as a kind of “eternal gift” by Koch as tribute to O’Hara, after the latter’s death.

Tosa Motokiyu: [clearing of throat] Robert Creeley’s Words carries as epigraph a passage from William Carlos Williams’s poem “To Daphne and Virginia” [reads]:

              There is, in short,
a counter stress,
              born of the sexual shock,
                         which survives it
consonant with the moon,
                    to keep its own mind.

As well, in a note to the introduction to his Collected Poems, Robert Creeley states the following [reads]:

Insofar as the specific lines of these various poems are, in each case, the defining rhythmic unit, it is crucial that their integrity be recognized, else a false presumption of a poem’s underlying beat may well occur.

So both these quotes provide possible openings into Creeley’s prosody. [clearing of throat] In the first instance, an indication of his debt to Williams, and in [inaudible due to jet-sound] Olson’s idea of Projective Verse, and a fairly straight-forward clue from the author to the reader as to how the text may be approached.

Ojiu Norinaga: In “Williams and the Visualization of Poetry,” Marjorie Perloff compares Williams’s prosody in the first decade of the century with other verse of the period, showing how Williams’s particular brand of line-break is a radical departure from the line based on the noun phrase and normal speech pause —  which we find still in use at the time, incidentally, by Pound himself.

Okura Kyojin: In Williams’s lineation, beginning in 19 [coughing]… beginning in 1916, there is a purposeful splintering of complete speech units, which recombine words in new, often strange clusters. The line is, of course, syntactically related to those above and below, but as the reader’s mind and eye move over the poem, caught by the charge of the sudden cuts and starts, the individual lines — and [clearing of throat] and very often individual words — begin to assume an autonomous energy of their own. So that [sound of furniture being moved about]

ON: There, is that better?

TM: Yes, I wonder if it’s been coming through, do you think?

ON: Yes, I think it’s been fine, yes… but put the mic[rophone] more in the middle…
Well, so… Creeley’s poem, “For W.C.W.,” is a lovely elegy to Williams as well as an explicit recognition of Creeley’s technical debt to him [reads]:

The rhyme is after
all the repeated

There, you say, and
there, and and

just so. And
what one wants is
what one wants,

yet complexly
as you
let it go,
I want
Then there is
I want.

TM: One is struck particularly by the second stanza, where so much attention is brought to bear on the sense and sound of that single syllable “and.” Here as well, I think, it’s instructive to go back to Olson and quote from his “Projective Verse” [reads]:

Let’s start from the smallest particle of all, the syllable. It is the king and pin of versification, what rules and holds together the lines, the larger forms — It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which… ” [inaudible due to helicopter-sound]

OK: … principle underlies quite a few of the poems in Words — where the text is scored with the intent of releasing the full “breath” of each particle of sound. Take for instance this passage from “Distance:”

Hadn’t I been
aching, for you,
seeing the

light there, such
shape as
it makes.

The bodies
fall, have
fallen, open.

Isn’t it such
a form one
wants, the warmth

as sun
light on you.
But what

were you, where,
one thought, I
was always

thinking. The
mind itself,
impulse, of form

last realized,
otherwise but

a stumbling
looking after, a

of light through
dust on
an indeterminate distance

TM: Ah…

ON: Ah…

OK: Well, you see, it’s interesting to find in Perloff’s study that Williams was personally acquainted with Alfred Stieglitz and a number of artists around the 291 Gallery, including the artists of the… the name, I can’t recall it…

ON: Arensberg Circle.

OK: Yes, Duchamp, Picabia, Man Ray and so on. She makes the case that Williams’s verbal experiments are directly influenced by Cubism and Dada in the visual arts… In a similar way, Creeley has been intensely interested in contemporary artistic and intellectual currents outside of literature throughout his career.

ON: Yes, and of great importance in this regard, I think, is his insistent, as he would say, attention to linguistic theory —  namely the work of Wittgenstein and those who have continued the implications of his thought, that is, consciousness as woven always into language, the resulting texture of it, and the resulting fact or idea, what should one say, of the tenuousness [inaudible due to jet-sound] indeterminacy of perception. Creeley has spoken at length in various interviews on his philosophical concerns, and of course these are directly relevant to the content and form of his poetry.

TM: Well, recalling Creeley’s introductory note I quoted earlier, consider the following random lines from different poems in Words. I wrote these down [reads]:

and hair, not telling
roots scream. And in eating
of remote skin, must touch
not thought of, is
got, didn’t I, and then
aching. Speech
road, a leaf of
matter we both lay
Frederick Sommer, a leg
roof form with
wound whereof
their definition — a hand
clouds of
trees beyond, a term
flower, a face, not
a graph of indeterminate

ON: [chuckling] It kind of sounds like a poem by Clark Coolidge!

OK: Or like haiku by Tomizawa Kakio of the “Roses” school!

ON: How does one go? “Withered reeds/ eyes/ in/ stuffing/ return.”

OK: One of my favorites by him is, “Man’s/ wisdom/ flicker-flicker / thus/ light-trap.” 1

TM: Well, the sense of affinity is not coincidental perhaps, for the reader is invited to partake of words here in a new way — in their forgotten sounds and possibilities of sense: The sense as in something broken-off; unearthed fragments bearing their own strange integrity and beauty, yet still quivering, so to speak, with the energy of a whole, lost form.

OK: That’s good…

TM: Thank you.

ON: Hmm… I brought along this remark from George Oppen, from a letter to Serge Faucherau, and printed in Ironwood 5, and it seems to be applicable here: [reads]:

The line sense, the line breaks, and the syntax are intended to control the order of disclosure upon which the poem depends —  And the tone, the intention, is often conveyed, of course, by the prosody.

TM: Yes, but in fact, it is in the Creeley of Pieces where the clearest comparison with Oppen may be drawn. It is not until Pieces where the grammetrics of line are separated-out, broken-off from, any attempt to… hold or surround attention and thought. I mean to containing thought’s movement inside a more or less extended emotional or… analogical frame.

OK: Did you say grammetrics? What’s that?

TM: It’s a term I picked up from the critic Laszlo Gefin, if I recall correctly: a conjoining of grammar and metrics. Grammatical elements function as the bases [inaudible section due to angry shouting from street] than traditional feet…

ON: I think I see what you mean. The primary difference is syntactic — there is in that book [inaudible, continuing shouting, something about God and salvation] most of the pieces are more loosely hinged, more porous to a diversity of semantic… semantic situations. Here for example from a poem I especially like, called “A Step” [reads]:

            come and go
          let them.

Having to —
what do I think
to say now.

Nothing but
comes and goes
in a moment.

… .


… .

The way into the form,
the way out of the room —

The door, the hat,
the chair, the fact.

… .

Sitting, waves on the beach,
or else clouds, in the sky,
a road, going by,
cars, a truck, animals, in crowds.

OK: Right, one could say that the line —  as the “definite [sic] rhythmic unit” has given way to a prosody of interfacing occasions. A much fuller movement, in more ways than one, from the paradigmatic to the syntagmatic, and thus an even more unpredictable topography of phrasal surprises.

ON: That’s interesting.

TM: Congratulations.

OK: Thank you.

ON: You’re welcome. Actually, interesting the idea of topography, because I just bought one of these old plastic maps for my son… [pulls-out from architectural portfolio a map of Himalayas where mountains are raised according to scale; TM and OK run fingers over it, feeling secretly, erotically, that they want to pop the mountains like bubble wrap, peel the remains like a scab or the old skin from a burn… ]

OK: Ah, a nice gift. Where did you buy it?

ON: At the State Street Bookstore in Ann Arbor last month. They have amazing things. Antiquarian books, particularly a fine collection of fly-fishing literature. And poetry, too. I almost purchased a first edition copy of Paterson, Book 1 but they wanted $195.

TM: And how much did the map cost? [sound of yapping dog]

OK: Look, this is K-9, the mountain Takahama (Takahama Hakyo; a friend of the three of us from Hiroshima. TM) died on.

TM: Did you see Komako when you were in Osaka?

OK: Yes, she is doing better, getting over it, but her son is 14 now and having a hard time of it. He has a very bad case of acne — suspended from school when I was there.

ON: Too bad…

OK: Yes, well to go back to the matter of a philosophical break between Words and Pieces, it’s important to note that… although, you know, Creeley himself acknowledges such a break beginning towards the end of Words itself… although he approaches this matter at the level of larger structure [sic]. This is from Charles Altieri’s wonderful book, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry:

Just toward the end of Words I had a sense of a use of poetry that would not always be the situation that I would want to call a wrap-up or a set piece, so that each poem becomes singularly complete… I found, okay, you read this poem and turned the page, here’s another poem, that kind of patterning really got very dull for me.

ON: Hmm… Because look… For example, there is a certain [inaudible] assumptions here. Such a critique might be extended out to the form of the book itself, inasmuch as the patterning of discrete “poems” is importantly driven by the specific manner in which texts are packaged… .

TM: Did you say “packaged”?

OK: Earth to Norinaga… Earth to Norinaga… do you read me? [extended laughter and clinking of sake cups in mock toast]

ON: No, come on now, look, why… what if “the book” were written on a scroll, or each text inscribed onto separate fascicles of a renga sheet, which might be folded and pulled-out accordion-like? The whole idea of “patterning,” then, as Creeley puts it, becomes more problematic… a more complex interfacement becomes possible.

TM: You mean to say, why take the bound form of the book for granted?

ON: Yes, Western poets — those living in the West and East [collective chuckling] — assume the “book” will be bound at the spine, and this assumption, by itself, impels its own cosmology of theoretical contexts… which must, of necessity, exclude a whole realm of epistemological options. I think Creeley gestures toward these possibilities.

OK: Ho! Robert Creeley with his books! Like a judo wrestler with a back-brace! [loud laughter]

TM: Or maybe

[Side of tape ends. Tape is re-started]

TM: You were talking about Creeley reading before we noticed that the tape had stopped.

OK: Yes, you know, I heard him read in San Francisco years ago, with John Wieners, and it is interesting to hear him, for one gets the distinct impression of a great charge of energy, almost bursting the seams of the poem: His voice trembles a lot, often seems on the verge of cracking where the line breaks; there is a very palpable tentativeness of speech. I should say… the sense is of an intense pressure backed up behind the poem.

ON: Perhaps it is useful to think of Creeley’s clipped line as [inaudible] his personal engagement to keep that emotion within bounds that are manageable — his art is that in the process, he bends and chisels those subconscious forces into song.

TM: I like that.

ON: Thank you.

OK: So in this case, “breath” is obviously not confined to the physiological, but expanded to encompass the working out — the scoring — of emotion. The question, it seems to me, is how do these two ideas about Creeley’s prosody fit together? On the one hand, that intellectual awareness and concern about the function of language and its indeterminate quality that you mentioned earlier, and on the other, the line — the “rhythmic unit” — as phrased or broken in emotion.

ON: Well, while at first glance they might seem irreconcilable — one being in the conscious, intellectual realm, the other in the realm of the subconscious — I think that they are really not — that is, that in Creeley, they do come together and form the mortar that make his poems so consistently cohere: For it is precisely within the ambiguities and limitations inherent in language [inaudible due to jet sound] emotion in its different forms and intensities resides . . . Put another way-our emotional world is intimately bound up with linguistic structures that frame and limit our communication with each other and the outer world.

OK: OK, but that’s perhaps a bit over-obvious…

ON: Well, then so is Lukacs!

TM: You mean Lacan…

ON: Oh, yes, I mean Lacan, from France… the guy who gave electroshock to Artaud and then murdered his wife. But what I mean is the way Creeley’s lines call attention to and question the common significance of words and their relationships — the way his line will often funnel our ear into the particular resonances of the words — is as rooted in the emotional and instinctual as in the intellect.

TM: OK, that’s well said, but I do believe it was Althusser, the great Marxist philosopher, who went insane and murdered his wife, not Lacan… In any case, so one might say that in Creeley’s case the intellectual concerns of the artist are in harmony with the deeper circumstances of his life: “Form as an extension… [coughing] Excuse me… ”Form as an extension of… [coughing] con… tent.” I have [loud coughing] get water…

ON: Are you all right?

OK: A piece of radish in the throat? Oh, someone, he is turning blue!

[gagging sounds]

[TM’s wife, Beatrice, running into room and shouting in Spanish]: Hit him on the back! Hit him

[tape is shut-off]


Note from page 5:

1. In fact, this is a haiku by Motokiyu himself. KJ, JA.

Marc Perdeau: ‘Facing the Sunrise (Tosa  Motokiyu)’, Dakar, May 1967;

Marc Perdeau: ‘Young Man Facing the Rising Sun (Tosa Motokiyu)’, Kyoto, May 1956; copyright © Marc Perdeau; photo courtesy Doshisha University 1957 Yearbook, Kyoto. You can read a poem by Marc Perdeau (writing as ‘Mark Pallas’) in Jacket 23.