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Robert Creeley

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Donald Wellman

Creeley’s Ear

This piece is about 8 printed pages long.

Abstract: Robert Creeley’s prosody embodies his sense of our shared humanness. I will briefly identify aspects of  his method that he shares with Jack Kerouac. For instance, both Creeley and Kerouac discuss the influence of “bop” on their writing. Creeley speaks of “the four-square complex” of “bop” as a matrix for multiple prosodic measures. For Kerouac, “the evening out of the four-beat measure” in tenor lines by Charlie Parker, specifically, suggested perceptions of duration and accentuation. Integral to my argument are those aspects of Creeley’s poetry that share a “Beat” ethos, most importantly a rejection of revision and a trueness to feeling that avoids abstraction by adhering to felt perception, what Olson called “projective” or “proprioceptive” and what Kerouac (as early as 1953) referred to as “breath separations of the mind.” The value of Kerouac’s method, famously forms the substance of the first paragraph of Dr. Sax. “and don’t stop to think of words when you do stop, just stop to think of the picture better-and let your mind off yourself in this work.” Other aspects of a “Beat” ethos, shared by Creeley and Kerouac, are invented ritual (including drug use) and a questioning of gender that inflects language and personal lives. Confusion and identification on the part of the male with a variety of female positions challenges male securities. For Creeley, this complex of feelings is crucial to his interrogation of humanness in his last collection, If I Were Writing This. In part what I offer is a review of that volume. I am not a Kerouac scholar. I maybe a Kerouac character as a result of my own New England factory town multi-ethnic childhood of poverty, Catholicism, and cigar smoke.

Robert Creeley’s quality of attention to small complex things has been a constant of his poetry. His poems are not little machines like those to which William Carlos Williams aspired in the Preface to The Wedge. Instead they enact the physical presence of small glimmers like that “magnesium flash” presented in “The Way,” the first poem of If I Were Writing This:

There wasn’t choice if one had seen the light,
not of belief, but that soft blue glowing fusion
seemed to appear or disappear with thought,
a minute magnesium flash, a firefly’s illusion.

That “if” (in “if one had seen the light”) moves reality into a personally-marked subspace. In a tract of Puritanical religious origin to deny that light would be to deny the Lord. The light here is specifically not that “of belief.” Instead Creeley parodies such sensibilities. Still, as in a conversion illumination, there are no options (no ghost of choice because that word “choice” has been so eroded by our consumerist system). Consciousness for Creeley is simply factual (factually embodied), not discursive. It is composed of syllables and lines, measured by hesitation and ellipsis. Disjointed perception has always marked his prosody, sketching a syntax of attention, not exactly similar to Kerouac’s or Ginsberg’s, but akin to these in its insistence on proceeding without revision, in its concentrated bop ethos.

For Creeley, the poem has an independence. “I think I first felt a poem to be what might exist in words as primarily the fact of its own activity” (“Poems are a complex,” A Quick Graph 54). It is a means of discovery, a way of knowing:

What I have written I knew little of until I had written it. … writing is for me the most viable and open condition of possibility in the world. Things have happened there, as they have happened nowhere else.” (“I am given to write poems,” A Quick Graph 72).

His concentration runs counter to the perfectionism associated with revision:

For me it’s literally the time it takes to type or otherwise write it—because I do work in this fashion of simply sitting down and writing, usually without any process of revision. (Paris Review Interview 24)

It is possibly a strategy shared by those of us who lack stereoscopic vision, this desire for an accuracy associated with hesitant yet sure slowness of process, without revision but proceeding carefully so.

Bio fact: Damaged at two when a lump of coal shattered the side window of the car in which he was riding with his father; removed at five, after his father had passed. My left eye operated on to correct a wall-eyed condition, essentially doesn’t function in tandem with my right (Edelberg).

With watchful attention comes persistence, turning over the facts of “humanness” as Creeley calls it in “En Familie,”

Must humanness be its own reward?
Is happiness this? (38)

“I got here slowly,” he writes in the next poem, “Conversion to Her,” a poem that examines the facts of birth and death in an almost anthropological manner, self-reflexive, participant and observer. Margaret Drewal has described a Yoruba ritual, related to the growing of a child into his or her head. Creeley does something similar:

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

Who was I then
What man had I entered? (40)

In the lines just cited, the feeling is that of being “inhabited,” a feeling that might better be understood by women than by most men. Creeley’s question embodies inversions. Towards the end of the poem he writes,

Covered with skin
one lives within. (42)

Through invention, he discovers words for the passage into manhood that reflect necessary rituals or measures. He probes the facts of gender and sexuality, exercising  powers of observation that sync with cycles of life, the meaning of humanness as if discovered or seen for the first time.

Coherence (1981): Creeley describes meeting a Lacandon Indian in southern Mexico who, unfamiliar with the ways of North Americans, was “absolutely alive in the moment of each instant” (135).

Aliveness is a concentration of experience; prosodically, if prosody is understood as a way of knowing, it is the pulse of time in its time.

Creeley is an epistemological poet always reaching with the finger of his mind to the edge of thought: “Birds sing still at the edges of hearing” (“For Anya” 57). Self-conscious and seemingly philosophical: “I think therefore I am self-conscious,” he writes in an implicit critique of Descartes’ way of mapping experiential space. Creeley, instead, pays attention to things as they impinge on the body. Creeley’s body can be so small, filtering among inter-spaces at the edges of things because his vision of space is not stereoscopic. He is paradoxically a contained poet;

The ‘outside’ is empty but vast, I think.
It’s everywhere around me and still there (57).

It was Creeley who provided the figure of  “outward” to Charles Olson.

The edge of thought is the inverse of the surface of things, a frequent insistence. In the poem, “Thinking,” “Thought feels the edges” exploring the edges of time, for instance “Now and again” insisting on the difference between these edges and edges in space. Edges are not essentially limits; in “Scholar Rocks” (10), they are “skin and surface.” There is a sense of under as well as beyond that shapes the spaces interrogated by Creeley’s mind.

In discovery we come upon ourselves. In the poem, “In silence this happens, in pain” from If I Were Writing This (41), he writes of birth from the point of view of the newborn, imagining personal transformation into womanhood, how it is that  a man becomes a woman:

Surrounding a vast space
seems boundless appetite

in which a man still lives
till he becomes a woman. (43)

Here humanness is completed, not as the Norman O. Brown rhyme from Freud of “womb” with “tomb” but instead as an image of the man contained within appetite.

Kerouac in one of the recordings says, “I keep falling in love with my mother.”

In “The Finger” from Pieces, the 1969 book that for many marks Creeley’s first and possibly deepest move into the forms of abstraction that are distinctively his, the boy entertains a woman who is also mother, Irish nursemaid, surrogate. Creeley was tripping according to Linda Wagner:

Sit by the fire.
I’ll dance a jig I learned
long before we were born
for you and you only then.

She was laughing, she was
laughing, at me,
and I danced, and
I danced.

Lovely, lovely woman, let
me sing, one to
one to one, and let
me follow. (CP 385-88).

A deep connection between Creeley and Kerouac is this haunting by a distant taunting, enfolding motherly presence:

I am sitting in my mother’s arms in a brown aura of gloom sent up by her bathrobe—it has cords hanging, like the cords in movies, bellrope for Catherine Empress, but brown, hanging around the bathrobe belt … . the brown, the color of life, the color of the brain, the gray brown brain, and the first color I noticed after the rainy grays of my first views of the world in the spectrum from the crib so dumb. (Doctor Sax 18)

The presence of a mother’s nakedness and her smells inevitably mark any two men, but it particularly in my view marks the prosody of Creeley and Kerouac. The prosody that I wish to probe is the rhythm of experienced physiological facts. That basis in physiology is another sharing (in addition to the rejection of revision) that Creeley shares with Kerouac.

For Creeley, the basis for perception, is best described of course in Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” (1950) where Olson writes,

“… always one perception must must must move, instanter, on the other” (17).

and Creeley provided the rationale for this practice in the phrase,

“form is never more than extension of content” (16).

But Kerouac did not bow before Olson-guru as many others did. For Kerouac and Olson, for Creeley too, prosody enacts perception, “breath separations of the mind,” is how Kerouac put it.

Commenting on phrases from Kerouac’s  recordings like “gloom doom” or “hotshot freight trains,” Clark Coolidge hears “an incredible generative cycling.” Coolidge maps problems associated with registration of the line on the page … the long line terrifying and wonderful.” He develops his own rift on a four beat pattern of musical accentuation from Parker to Coleman citing the curves and spacing particular to Kerouac’s distinctive enunciation.

Bop, exposure to jazz like that of Dizzy Gillespie, is minimally another of the common denominators tying Creeley to Kerouac. Creeley alluded to the “four square complex” of bop as fundamental to his own rhythms at the time of his contributions to the Naked Poetry anthology. How his prosody keeps its own pulse playing with the interweave of silence and pause, registering its proprioceptive dimension, as enacted and experienced breath, the interweave of silence and pause, here with alliteration of the /s/ sound and assonance of /a/ and /an/ resolving into “green” and “down” with a rift on folksong themes (“derry down, down”)in a true bop weave of melody and sound :

Sun’s shadows aslant
across opening expansive
various green fields down

                          “Pictures for Pen” (5) (68)

We know that Creeley heard the mixed themes in the bop of Charlie Parker as well as its “four-square” patterns. Creeley deftly negotiates ego by ear. He spoke to me more than once of Derek Attridge’s investigations of English prosody, reflecting the intellectual seriousness of his inquiries into the subject. In quartets and tercets, marked with properties of rhyme, the lines trace a transmutation of self through levels of questioning, ear leading the mind.

The folding together of rhythm and thought that is Kerouac makes of him also an epistemological poet like Creeley, a poet of the pulse as a way of knowing. Here the weave of image and sound marks the divisions of prosodic and infectious verbal energy:

I am at the window in the parlor facing Sarah Avenue and its white sands dripping in the shower, from thick hot itchy stuffed furniture huge and bearlike for a reason they liked then but now called ‘overstuffed’ — looking at Sarah Avenue through the lace curtains and beaded windows, in the dank gloom by the vast blackness of the squareback piano and dark easy chairs and maw sofa and the brown paintings on wall depicting angels playing around a brown Virgin Mary and Child in a Brown Eternity of the Brown Saints —
                                                     (Doctor Sax 81)

In his Paris Review Interview, Kerouac says, “All of it is in my mind, naturally, except the language that is used at the time it is used.” Kerouac’s deep psychology centers on mother and on the apotheosis of Gerard, images associated with furniture and monotone religious prints, all enfolding. The language might meander in its descriptive gloom, but remains “brown” in its measuring of sound against figures of containment and flight. The language enacts perception and weaves perception’s edges as much as any finger of Creeley’s tracing the contours of mind, ear leading the mind through perceptions, tunnels of the single eye, the obsessed eye (Kerouac’s) of language making the old ‘overstuffed’ and brown forms present again.

There are important differences, deeply foundational of current poetry between Creeley and Kerouac. In the title poem of If I were writing this, Creeley insists that for him the attention must not allow itself to be mislead even by the rhythm in hand. He cautions not to let the words set their own pace with their own insistence on sense, instead he writes

look for what else is meant
in the underthought of language.
Words are apparent.”(86)

Apparencies include facts, the road and door or trees that line the edge of a meadow. The afterthought or underthought in If I were writing this specifically includes the child or woman or dying man, those that coexist in the space of you (within your inner self). For all his attentive care for detail, that may seem of a different order from Kerouac’s, there is no gainsaying that for both multiple presences inhabit phenomenological space.

Marjorie Perloff in “After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries,” illustrates the crucial ways in which Creeley’s word-based prosody varies from both free-verse and other metered and non-metered verse forms. First she perceptively qualifies “free verse” as the form that through its predictable and now standard practices of “ Perception, discovery, reaction … strives toward mimesis of individual feelings, as that feeling is generated by sights, sounds, smells, and memories.” She indicates that Creeley’s “foursquare” jazz-based pattern appears first in poems like “A Form of Women” and “A Sight.” The method also references the number of words in a line as in “Anger.” The shift from line to line she writes is neither governed by an “image pattern” nor is it linear. Instead the lines are marked by multiple ambiguities of syntax and perception. She cites “the consistent detachment of words from their larger phrasal and clausal environment—a practice that goes beyond … enjambment.” For Perloff, Creeley is first among those who occupy the ground explored by language poets and by the “linguistically innovative” women  poets in the anthology, Out of Everywhere. The non-linear nature of these poetries is succinctly stated by Johanna Drucker as a “refusing to stay in line,’ creating instead a poetic field in which all lines are tangential to the whole” (Frank 181). Creeley then is a source of those who have imagined a non-linear poetry, one that proceeds by means other than mapping an image cluster or miming the feelings of voice; a prosody that instead uses units more abstract than lines in its attention to words and words in connection. Today acknowledge Jack Kerouac as persuasively one among those sources, along with distant aunts like Gertrude Stein.*

I want to close by giving you a poem of mine that in some odd way was originally inspired by Kerouac’s allusion to the cords of his mother’s bathroom. It has a deliberate measure derived I think from Creeley in its individual lines, it has an opacity that some might associate with the “language-centered” poetry of the 1980s. Its bop swing of synthesis is a blend of these sources. It illustrates better than logic some of what I have tried to explain in this talk:

A Seaside Seat

at home sweet dreams clothe inversely
dooryard blooms of steeple bush
hack the heart’s arrow arc
never to realize homespun here
now contending garments
reside upon seated rocks
no place like holding close
apron cord’s pendulum varies
as apple pie squared mere gnomon
intercourse cobble compenetrans
the bull’s horn eye rolls
down the alley bow-wowing his
master’s voice in heated rooms
light strikes aslant yellow jacketing
a one-note dance blue bells
the common American harebell

A draft of the above was presented in Lowell, Ma., Jack Kerouac Conference, October 7, 2005.

Works Cited

Attridge, Derek. Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Berg, Stephen and Robert Mezey. Naked Poetry. New York and Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1969.

Coolidge, Clark. “Kerouac.” 1995. April 9, 2006.

Creeley, Robert. Collected Poems. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Creeley, Robert. “[Entirely There].” Coherence. Ed. Donald Wellman. O.ARS, 1981: 133-35.

Creeley, Robert. If I Were Writing This. New York: New Directions, 2003.

Creeley, Robert. Interview. Lewis MacAdams and Linda Wagner-Martin. The Art of Poetry. 10. The Paris Review. 44 (1968): 8-34. April 10, 2006. The DNA of Literature: The Complete Paris Review Interviews.

Creeley, Robert. A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and Essays. San Francisco: Four Seasons, 1970.

Drewal, Margaret. Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency. Bloomington: Indiana, 1992.

Drucker, Johanna. “The Visual line.” Frank. 180-81.

Edelberg, Cynthia Dubin. “Creeley’s Early Life and Career.” 1966. April 9, 2006. Modern American Poetry: Robert Creeley’s Life and Career.

Frank, Robert and Henry Sayre. The Line in Poetry. Urbana and London: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Kerouac, Jack Doctor Sax. New York: Grove, 1988.

Kerouac, Jack. Interviewed by Ted Berrigan. The Art of Fiction. 41. The Paris Review. 43 (1968): 1-49. April 9, 2006. The DNA of Literature: The Complete Paris Review Interviews.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966.

O’Sullivan, Maggie. Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK. London: Reality Street, 1996.

Perloff, Marjorie. “After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries.” 1998. April 9, 2006.

Rosenberg, Jim. “A Prosody of Space / Non-Linear Time.” Post–Modern Culture. 2000. April 9, 2006.

Wellman, Donald. Fields. Kenosha: Light and Dust, 1995.