Saturday, June 7, 2008

Life & Death by Robert Creeley


Robert Creeley provides a bridge between the modernist avant garde, seen for instance in the constellation of poets around Charles Olson and Black Mountain, and the Language poets' inquiry and experimentation. Creeley's connections are both personal and aesthetic. He maintained years of fruitful correspondence (now available across multiple published volumes from Black Sparrow Press) with Olson, and helped set up SUNY Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center with poet Charles Bernstein. Robert Creeley's poetry exhibits an undestanding of Olson's poetic theory while also taking much from Zukofsky's Objectivism. An extraordinarily generous and inviting writer in his later years, Creeley was also aware of, and sympathetic to, the work and theory of Bernstein, Silliman, Hejinian et al. But Creeley, of course, refuses tidy explanation.

Many of Creeley's poems present a lyricism of experience, but while lyric poetry is often the most conservative of poetic forms, his poetry is experimental and rigorously open. Creeley restlessly explores content and form, with particular attention to how sound turns meaning. Look at this excerpt from an earlier poem, "Anger": "A pit-/ which he recognizes,/ familiar, sees/ the use in, a hole/ for anger and/ fills it/ with himself…" The short line, muscularly broken, allows an emphasis for sound and meaning to interact. The caesuras provide further rhythmic pressure on the second and third lines provided above. He writes powerful work, and what is so impressive in his poetry is that it is often contingent upon what he leaves out. Though Creeley engages in philosophical doubt and questioning, he is always confidant in the ability of a poem to remain independent in and of itself. A poem retains its validity as its own entity.

"Life & Death" was published in 1998, less than ten years before the poet's death due to complications from pneumonia. The poems themselves date from the mid-to-late nineties. Many of them, such as "Histoire de Florida" and "The Dogs of Auckland," as well as the title sequence, are longer works. Line also extends to compliment these poems' greater lengths. The couplets of "The Dogs of Auckland" are composed of Whitmanian "breath" lines, though they do not sacrifice the mystery and vital tension so evident in Creeley's lineation. Even though the lines are longer than in earlier pieces, look at how the lineation still provides a tautness and resistance from easy closure: "Empty, vacant. Not the outside but in. What you thought was/ a place, you'd determined by talk…" Despite the long lines, Creeley still often ends on (and draws attention to) a word like "was"- what John Cage calls an "empty word." Perhaps these long lines retain their power in part from Creeley's awareness of the "projective field" of the page. The attention to the page itself is seen as he utilizes an open parantheses reminiscent of Olson when a line extends beyond the confines of the margin, as seen in a line such as "tree thick with fruit. And fences, backyards, neighbors surrounding,/ [in." The square bracket evokes a far different visual response than more rounded parentheses would.

Throughout "The Dogs of Auckland"'s narrative meditation, it is implicit that words exist as objects- not just linguistic artifacts, but sonic constructions. Creeley does this in a manner similar to that of a younger poet who herself takes much inspiration from Creeley, Rae Armantrout. Armantrout's linguistic lyricism comes to mind as he writes " "The Dogs of Auckland," who were there first walking along with their company." or "Not "The Dogs," but the Dogs of Auckland…" The interplay between these two statements, the first occurring in section five, the latter in section seven, is wonderful. But what is Creeley getting at here? The first of the two references indicates the poet is referring to the poem itself, of words or meanings instead of actual dogs, while the second of the two references seems to stress the physical actuality, one which fits into a narrative instead of simply linguistic self-awareness. The narrative and thematic resonance of the poem must be propelled, but never at the loss of one's awareness that this is a poem, that it is constructed out of words.

I was thrilled to find such deliberate and exciting linguistic play throughout. The poem "Signs" floored me, especially when Creeley warmly dissects each word into knotty syllables, "The. Bod. Ies. Han. Ds. God. S. Bough. T./ (Ic. An. Read.) Ston. Es. St. And. Sh. Out. T. Here." On one level, these syllabic segments are as much glossolalia as a Khlebnikov sound poem, but they are also discernable as clear words. Meaning and sound are intertwined, and any disorientation is simply due to the listener having not yet adjusted his ear. Creeley's ear is as attentive throughout "Life & Death" as it has ever been.

I have heard a couple people question the quality of Creeley's late period work, criticizing it for lapsing at times into sentimentality or turning away from the experimentation of his early work. While "Love & Death" didn't impress me in the way an early collection of Creeley's such as "For Love" or "Pieces" does, I found it a worthwhile read, whether one was new to Creeley, or had only read a handful of his poems in various anthologies. Yes, these are discernibly "late period" poems. The above-mentioned looseness is usual for a master towards the end of his career. The thematic undertones of the volume also signal it as a late work. Death and loss are present throughout the volume, as Creeley writes "what was resistance./ How come to this./ Wasn't body's package/ obvious limit…," but as is evident in this quote, and throughout, is that death and loss are referenced in relation to issues familiar to Creeley, such as mind and place - as if death itself wasn't already a familiar topic in his work. Creeley can, of course, be a dark poet, but never to a fault, as Creeley possesses a wonderfully Emersonian appreciation for smallness – life finds a way to continually surprise us. His daughter "…calls to say she is pregnant…" which leads to an absolutely stunning evocation of another great poet's reflection of the end of life (and one's life of writing), as he comments that "…that is a delicious sound-/ like the music Caliban hears/ sometimes in Prospero's cell/ surrounding him."

"Histoire de Florida" is the first work presented in the book, and its mixture of directness and stylistic diversity leaves one of the strongest impression in the entire volume, though the previously mentioned "Signs" or some of the shorter pieces such as "Echo's Arrow" are also remarkably strong. A passage towards the end of "Histoire de Florida" finds Creeley in (another) self-reflection, admonishing himself that he's "…left a lot out/ Being in doubt/ you left/ it out/ Your mother/ Aunt Bernice/ in Nokomis/ to the west…" before realizing "No one is one/ No one's alone/ No world's that small/ No life…." This passage echoes Creeley's earlier work, notice the severe enjambment, as he himself reflects on his work. This is all the more notable because of Creeley's loosening of line and extension of breath elsewhere in the book. The poet's reflexivity has not slackened though, as he still questions, himself, words and meaning itself, yet always with a self-awareness, as he gently critiques himself, thinking that it's "stupid to ask what things mean if it's only/ to doubt them." But it is just this very doubt that prevents the poems from slipping into sloppy sentimentality.

Life does not offer any resolute consolations, and physical termination comes "like kid on float/ of ice block sinking/ in pond the field had made/ from winter's melting snow." The mind is no condolence either as, like a block of ice, "so wisdom accumulated/ to disintegrate/ in conduits of brain/ in neural circuits faded." With such an awareness and acceptance of loss and impermanence, Creeley's gentle and occasionally sardonic celebrations of love offer a sad, but necessary respite, however temporary.

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