The rain falls on.
Acres of violets unfold.
Myrtle and forsythia follow.
The cardinals call to each other.
Echoes of delicate
I know something now
About subject, object, verb
And about one word that fails
For lack of substance.
Now people say He passed on
Instead of that … Unit
Of space subtracted by one.
It almost rhymes with earth.
What is a poet but a person
Who lives on the ground
Who laughs and listens
Without pretention of knowing
Anything, driven by the lyric’s
Quest for rest that never
(God willing) will be found?
Concord, kitchen table, 1966.
Corbetts, Creeley, a grandmother
And me. Sweater, glasses,
One wet eye.
Lots of laughter
Before and after. Every meeting
Rhymed and fluttered into meter.
The beat was the message.
Hope grant him the beat, the color, the speed of eternal dreaming, the home and human bed of Mount Auburn, friends to meet him, a sister and ancestors, and an earthly tinker to continue his walking for him.
DISTANCE IS TOO SMALL A MATTER TO BREAK THE BOND
I read For Love in my seventh grade English class in Buffalo in the 60s, never imagining that the poet whose work I fell in love with as a young girl would become an abiding friend, a real force in my life.
I’d just given birth to a second daughter after spending two years in Israel, and applied to the writing program at Buffalo because Robert Creeley taught there. The first day of class he walked in late wearing an old army jacket. I felt older than the other students, was paying a babysitter so I could be there, doubted in those first moments that I’d be coming back. When he started speaking it was about what he’d just heard on the car radio; he seemed amused, shy and aggressive at once. I was sure the class wasn’t for me. Then I must have started listening, resistances disappeared, and there was nothing I needed to hear more than the words he was speaking.
He used class time to read Williams, Olson, Duncan, Levertov, all new to me—and arranged for each of us to meet him individually to discuss our work. I’d handed in a notebook of fragments, reflections on my swollen body, sleepless nights, unfinished thoughts. When I walked into his office I expected him to say, these aren’t poems. Instead he looked at me and said, you look good to me. Not flirtatious, just direct, warm, human—affirming my life and giving me courage—saying yes to the poems, but moreso, yes to me.
It turned out he was going through a divorce and graciously accepted my invitation for dinner at our house which soon became a place he felt at home in, at ease with my husband Donald, and with our two small children underfoot. Of course I was deeply attracted to him, and he must have known how I felt from my meager poems. He loved the ‘big bashes’ my brothers held at our house with their friends and local bands. We celebrated his 50th birthday at one of them. At the end of another when we’d all had too much to drink and everyone had left but the five of us—Steve, Mike, Bob, Donald and I—we sat around the table, it was very late, very quiet, the girls asleep upstairs. Bob turned to Donald and suddenly uttered words so honest and direct that he clarified the air with them—acknowledging our connection, his friendship with Donald, his respect for the house, and, like the rare gentleman that he was, assuring that our relationship would endure. When Pen and Bob married, Donald and I were their witnesses before the judge; it was a double blessing and honor, to embrace these two friends of our heart, though the judge, seeing the two of them enter his chambers in scruffy clothes, assumed that we were the ones to be married.
I was preparing to leave for Israel in 1978. I was miserable, torn; it was then to console me that Robert said “distance is too small a matter to break the bond.” Letters back and forth, our occasional visits to Buffalo and Maine, his two visits to Jerusalem, his endless gestures of generosity and kindness proved his words true. He invited me to read with him when my first book was published; all the Creeley fans who came that day to the Tapas café in Cambridge were forced to listen to my poems first. I am stunned now thinking of my extraordinary luck in having him in my life, in the “extreme unction” of his wisdom and friendship. This October I was traveling with my son Udi, soon to finish his army service and interested in seeing some US schools. Bob picked us up at the Providence train station, youthful and energetic as ever. We stayed up late eating and drinking—Bob, Pen, Udi and I—as we watched a presidential debate on TV, we laughed, lamented the state of the world. It was a charmed visit.
Three weeks ago Wednesday I was driving home from Tel Aviv with Udi. I’d been debating whether to attend a poetry event that evening where I’d have to see someone who does not speak to me. A few years back it was Bob I’d turned to for insight and direction to get through the original crisis, and as always he was there for me, clear and true, cutting through the hurt and insecurity to what was essential. I told Udi how Bob had helped me through disappointments, frustrations. We talked about our wonderful visit a few months earlier. Later that night back in Jerusalem I received word of Robert’s death. It must have occurred at the time we were talking about him.
Here are two poems Robert Creeley wrote during his first visit to Jerusalem:
An old man doesn’t know
his disposition nor argue
its necessity. He sits
waiting, remembering at best
the other worlds of his desire.
Into this extreme unction
comes sun, comes any day of
the week, and he moves, accordingly.
DON & LINDA’S HOUSE
in, look out—
roses, the flowers
the common ground.
—Linda Stern Zisquit
Still sad a couple of weeks later at the passing of Robert Creeley, & reading the tributes, feeling much like many others, about the man & the poet, kindness generosity indeed, modesty, & a keenly lived life, with the sensitive lost eye that wept when it was talked about. Last meetings in Auckland in 1995—at our house, at a lunch at The Black Crow in town, & at a farewell party in Ponsonby.
Context: Coming from England, where American writing was unheard of in the 50s when I had been a student of Eng Lit. I was introduced to it in New Zealand in the early 70s by Wystan Curnow. By the middle of the decade I was enthusiastically reading Creeley & then heard him talk in a classroom & give a reading in Auckland, a big moment in my life. But didn’t get to meet him. In London in 1977–78, I had A Day Book in my hands day & night & was writing short wry Creeleyesque things.
By 1982 I was married to Judi Stout and traveled with her in Europe & then stayed in New York for a couple of months. I had written to Bob saying we’d like to visit him in Buffalo. But got a letter back saying he was on leave in Albuquerque and if we were coming that way … so we diverted & went to amazing N.M. Remembering Bob’s account of his own visit to Basil Bunting, we took with us as a gift the bottle of single malt that we’d bought in Scotland for this occasion. We went straight into a lunch party arranged for Jonathan Williams’ visit. Then likewise, invited to participate in whatever was going on, would we care to go next day to Taos?
With no sense of this being in any way risky, with the fairly calm older Bob Creeley, yes we’d like that. Just a warning from Pen, unnecessary as it turned out, to go steady on the beer at lunch-time. We got to Taos safely enough, intending to visit Larry Bell but he wasn’t home. There was six inches of mud in the streets. Bell’s secretary showed us round, after we’d taken off our shoes, & we looked at the expensive glass-treatment equipment he’d just purchased with a grant. I don’t recall having met before an artist with a secretary, or with equipment as high-tech & expensive as that before.
Fine and dry, but some snow still lying about near Santa Fe. The driving was careful and skillful, only two things on his mind, the death of his friend Max Finstein—‘the best con-man in the country’ in the poem ‘Oh Max’—& Walter Chappell’s request for him to write ‘something’ for a forthcoming book of Walter’s photos. I had the feeling that Bob felt he was being used & was not happy about it. But we talked—mainly he talked—with a few questions from me all the way to Taos & back—the aftermath of the death of Barnet Newman, hearing the dealers & critics talking the same day about how the prices would go up, about Black Mountain & Charles Olson [my curiosity prompting that] about schizophrenic offspring which was common ground, about the decline in the N.M. water-table, as the result of various overuse, watering golf-courses, about the condition of the pueblos,—for a long-time I remembered almost all this conversation in some detail, but never wrote it down and it’s faded. & like everyone else says, a friendship was formed that persisted for a long time.
There was just the one tricky moment. We had to stop off at Walter Chappell’s house, to settle the question of the ‘something’ to be written. It was in a remote place, at the foot of a red block of mountain, the oldest rocks in America, Bob told us. [The Sandia’s?] There was a plank bridge covered in snow that had to be crossed, in reverse. Judi & I got out & watched this nervy performance. Walter was making Krilian photos of plants, his ‘metaflora’ & made one while we were there, as a demonstration. Bob & Walter had a little to-ing and fro-ing, but eventually there was agreement, and the ‘something’ was eventually written.
The importance of Bob Creeley for writers in New Zealand is inestimable—many who had their sense of writing changed forever by his poems in the 60s, by his readings in 1976, his teaching Auckland University in 1995, and by many acts of generosity and friendship.
Almost fifty years ago Robert Creeley and I sat almost side by side at Harvard in a course on the eighteenth-century English novel. Not quite together, since the students were seated alphabetically and between us was one named Berlin. We never spoke—Creeley was much too forbidding-looking for me to attempt that, and perhaps I was too, but one of my keener lesser regrets is that we never sat down together and thrashed out the relative merits of Pamela and Joseph Andrews. At any rate, Creeley—we also participated in a poetry workshop where the future novelist John Hawkes was also a student—was a memorable presence on campus, though he didn’t stay there long. Later on when one heard of him one realized that one knew one was going to all along.
I don’t remember Creeley’s poems in the workshop and wish I could forget my own, but we may well have realized then that we were on opposite sides of the poetic fence: me so European and maximalist, influenced by Auden and Stevens; he so American, with perhaps an Asian conciseness gleaned from Pound, stemming obviously from the Pound-Williams tradition to which Olson’s presence would soon be added. Yet I’ve never been able to think of Creeley as a minimalist, which some have called him. If cramming as many possible things into the smallest space with no sign of strain or congestion is minimal, then maybe he is a minimalist. But what strikes me most about his poetry is a sense of richness and ripeness, beautifully contained in a vessel which was made to order by the circumstance of writing the poem. As he writes in “Some Place”:
I resolved it, I
found in my life a
center and secured it.
And lest we misinterpret his accuracy for pride, he adds farther on:
There is nothing I am
nothing not. A place
between, I am. I am
more than thought, less
No one, I think, has ever stated what it is to be a poet more cogently and, yes, more succinctly than Robert Creeley. But his succinctness is like the unfettered flashing of a diamond.
—John Ashbery, introducing Creeley in 1995 at the New School.
As ever, death. Whenever, where. But it’s
the drawn-together life we’re finally
muted by. Must stand, regard as whole
what was still partial still
under revision. So it felt, so we thought.
Then to hear sweep
the scythe on grass
still witherless and sweet
April 2 2005
Since time withdrew from your body we can see your mind as sheer expanse. Like a country read about, seen from a distance, visited. It’s without borders, nothingness making inroads. It contains the sun and the nothing new under it. There is nothing it is, nothing not. Its way is into form, as the body’s was out of the room, the door, the hat, the chair, the fact. It remains, and yet we lament the end of a world.
I am just one of the hundreds of poets Robert Creeley personally knew, personally touched and just one of thousands who were not poets, who took his poems in whole and deep. Within minutes of the fabulous Creeleys’ move to Providence I was going around saying, Dig it. I wondered if he stayed in my earshot much longer he would not go around saying, goddamnit. But he wasn’t profane, never anything but supremely gentle and graceful. He said lucid, significant things. He laughed readily. He quoted as if it were breathing—defining statements, words to live by—and the source could be a ballad, a relative, Pound, Olson, or literally, a passerby whose scrap of conversation he tuned in to. He absorbed the wisdom commonly available to humans and so aggressively ignored by most. He could instantly identify valuable information and give it shape and his very particular breath. He was a monologist who had become the ideally responsive listener. He was a compact, intense and all but omnipresent maker of poems whose command of a room was absolute whether he sat quietly in the background of the kitchen’s hubbub, hands folded across his lap or appeared in a crowded hall as if out of a cloud. The rivet in his direction was involuntary. If you wanted his approval you needn’t go begging, for not only did he never withhold, he volunteered it. He made his poetry livable, durable. He included us. You wanted to lean into him like a barn. Or draw your chair near his fire. You wanted to take his hand so everyone would see and would know, This is my friend. If Bob could make poetry his life, and he did, the rest of us doubters can be assured, poetry really matters. Oh man, we have to make good on what he gave us. We have to aim true to make our language bear up to his light.
—C. D. Wright
all that is lovely in words
even if gone to pieces
all that is lovely
gone, all of it, for love
lovely, the charm, as if
I were writing this,
all of it for love
now in pieces
all that is lovely
in life & death
lovely, and mirrors
all that was lovely
in a man
Just in the Morning
—in memoriam Robert Creeley, 1926-2005
There are no clouds.
Pink or purple, in a terrible wind
The locust flowers, having their own minds,
Hang on. Sun’s bright, March 30th,
Not a cloud in the sky.
But the ground is dark somehow, as though clouds were passing.
Absent or present, death slips beneath.
And above us?
Who’s to say there is no one
Already building a fire in the cabin
I can see from here, tilted awkwardly
On the mountaintop beside only one tree?
The wind seems not to reach that high.
The smoke from the chimney goes straight up.
A Minor—in memory of Robert Creeley
I enjoy the unfolding each time
Paying attention to the space one’s in
Its grammar emerging the minutia
I can’t make up everything
Pulls a scak or sack over one’s eyes
See what I mean? Torture
Becomes, as they say, problematic
I wished to tell someone but couldn’t
Until I found my way in
Once there, the idea became clearer
Their presence (those previously relocated)
Made possible its articulation
Putting the idea forward in their absence
It appeared incapable of an assertion
No context and therefore no content
A lack of gravity, or a greater gravity
Nothing could be made of it
Invariably I would attempt to toss it
(Discovering late that I had
Its portability taunted me)
An improvisation in which discipline
Each time I sat down to work
Needed to be counter-balanced
(Subverted) by freedom, to break off
When not needed, or could help
Understand when people
Didn’t understand the purpose in
Approaching the conclusion
To press out the last drop
Each time I had to relearn
They had been once beautiful, dangerous and
Unstable—in the wrong time and in
The wrong place
But because they were on all sides wrong
They were right for me
Words for RC
the only things
in the wind
and the sun
Heard him read a number of times, most significantly in an intimate setting at a workshop where the words came so quiet, so clear like an autumn day when the first leaves are falling. As Stein said of Matisse, “he was a great one”—now we can only go on as we are able, a tear welling over a slender smile.
Remembering Robert Creeley
Robert’s downright humility amidst extraordinary accomplishment was remarkable. He and his wife spoke with me at length—in the parking lot—after a reading at Brown one evening. I introduced myself as a Brown undergraduate, and we reminisced about Buffalo (my native city). He spoke to me as if I were an old friend, and invited me to visit his office later that week to continue our conversation.
Indeed, we met, and spent an hour throwing anecdotes about Buffalo’s festivals and nuanced streets—and it was his genuine interest in my experiences that expanded his role to include “mentor,” in addition to “professor.” I often wondered if he was aware of his own esteem!
Robert Creeley’s generosity will be dearly missed. Though his seminar was officially limited in enrollment to 20, he offered to admit the nearly 50 of us who compacted into the room—many students sitting quite literally on top of each other, the classroom door fully obstructed.
Professor Creeley sent out a personal note of condolence upon hearing of a death in my family. He offered to help me “in any way”—and meant it. He brought out the best in us: as writers, and as people.
Robert Creeley—you’re irreplaceable! May perpetual light shine upon you.
—Sean M. Rumschik
They say you died as the sun rose to greet the day
I made a photograph at 7:00 am
in the brilliant sunlight
just before going to bed
after sleeping on the couch
Maybe at the same time
maybe I went to sleep
when you did
maybe I caught the light
just as you kissed it
Please don’t fly away
I want to reach up
to grasp you
find a tether
to hold you to this earth
a while longer
Great rocks are weeping
returning their salt
to the sea
waves swirl and eddy
echoes of your wisdom
in the trees
The birds are calling
—For Robert Creeley
Susan Pease Porter
March 30, 2005
Robert Creeley (1926–2005)
Absolutely exemplary. Certainly these last ten years or so, a quality of sweetness, pleasure, and generosity. A life lived in and of words with absolute integrity. For me, personally, no more important poet, no one better able to show ways in words to make manifest the grace, pleasure, complexity, cadences, and play of mind at work.
I met Bob in the late 1970s, at a Black Mountain College celebration at Warren Wilson College. We spent a couple of days in conversation; I interviewed Bob; I listened to him read. Much of our time together I asked him for information on the three-line stanzas that he developed, and what relationship his writing had to similar modes in Williams. Great fun witnessing a packed auditorium at his reading, only to have Bob tell stories and follow out a range of thoughts for forty-five minutes to an hour before he read the first poem. Many left before he read. They missed a superb reading, one that was absolutely continuous with the talking that preceded it.
Yes, quite simply one of the greatest conversationalists of all time …
At the time of that Black Mountain event, I knew only parts of what Creeley had written—mainly Words and For Love. From then until now, I have grown more and more familiar with the range of his writing—the poetry, yes, but also the essays. In fact, when I got news of Bob’s declining health, I was reading a new essay of his on Whitman’s poetry of old age (in a special issue of Virginia Quarterly Review celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first Leaves of Grass).
In the mid-1990s, I gave a reading at Buffalo. Bob attended, and I had the pleasure of reading new poems (which became the book Days) which were very much based in what I had learned from his work. We spent the next morning, over pastry and coffee, sitting and talking, along with my good friend Yunte Huang. Bob’s generosity to Yunte is another story, but typical of Bob’s kindness to so many younger writers …
Here, at Alabama, I had the pleasure of hosting Bob for a reading a couple of years ago. Again, a packed house. A superb reading, though Bob had to sit for most of the reading, as he did for the conversation/discussion the following day. That particular visit enhanced by the presence of Donald Revell (in residence for the semester), another poet deeply steeped in Bob’s life and writing. And again, Bob made time for a morning of coffee, pastry, and conversation.
Last saw Bob at the Louis Zukofsky Centennial at Columbia this past fall. Some familiar anecdotes, and some unfamiliar.
I’ve been quite moved by the increasingly emotionally open work of Bob’s last couple of books—Life & Death and If I were writing this. He seemed able to circle back, to realize the importance and vitality of late 19th century verse—a family tradition of popular poetry—in his own practice. Or, to make of Keats’ work such a central thing.
We corresponded sporadically via e-mail. I would often send Bob a few poems, and his remarks were always appreciative. He blurbed a book of mine—an extended chapbook called As It Is (published by Mark Scroggins)—and was always supportive of my writing.
What Bob showed was the pleasure and work of making one’s way in a writing life. It is rather amazing to think of how many of us have learned from his example.
Yesterday, the day of Bob’s death, at the end of the day, I went with my son, Alan (16 years old), to Beulah Baptist Church—a black church on a hillside on the way home, a place that I’d often admired but where I’d never stopped. A modest graveyard with a cement angel of Memory leading the way up the dry, red clay hill. At the top of the hill, we walked around for a bit, sun streaming through the clouds. The wisteria now in bloom, we looked at the tombstones, stood beside one for “Pa Pa” Jones, and I read aloud several of Bob’s poems from Life & Death.
Earlier in the day I’d been in touch with several others to whom Bob had been so important—Charles Bernstein, Yunte Huang, Joel Kuszai, Don Revell, Claudia Keelan, Norman Fischer, Tyrone Williams. Even at the time of Bob’s death, it’s hard not to bear in mind his favorite closing in correspondence: “Onward.” Without Bob here to be the figure of Onward, we must take what we have learned from him and be, in our writing and friendship and conversation and correspondence, that no longer singular figure of Onward.
March 31, 2005
Here’s the e-mail I sent to Bob on Monday, March 28, 2005:
A gray cold day of spring break, giving way to sunny windy afternoon.
I spoke with Joel Kuszai mid-day, and learned some of your health
difficulties. And then heard from Charles Bernstein, a more
optimistic version. I’m simply writing to let you know I’m thinking
of you. And thinking with you. Got in today’s mail the latest issue
of Virginia Quarterly Review—on Whitman, and your superb piece on
Whitman’s poetry of old age. When I read at the Walt Whitman Center
in Camden (several years ago, back when Alicia Askenase was in charge
of the reading series), I visited Walt Whitman’s house, and recognize
it in the last photos. For me, the determining feature of my early
years of writing poetry was to have an especially close relationship
with my four grandparents—all Russian Jews, all living close to
us. In the way that drugs & zen of the 1960s allowed it, I spent time
with them, in their decay mental & physical, with a mixture of love,
curiosity, and observation (rather than the disabling frustrations
that I saw in my parents’ relationship to their aging parents). My
poems began with telling their stories, my grandparents, and with
learning (or trying to learn) something of the phenomenology of
aging. And thus, yes, a reading of Williams’ later work and others,
including, eventually Oppen.
A rambling way, Bob, to say that you are on my mind these days, as
your poetry and your essays and correspondence will always be.
With much love,
And a poem, from several years ago, very much with Creeley in mind, from an ongoing work, Portions.
so the old
cabin leans “sit
up” i said
as if to
someone i said
it to you
i always do
if there were
no one else
if there were
only you i
would say “sit
up” & think
someone heard such
is my sense
the old cabin
leans what is
never passes away
you can’t hold on
my hands are dry
there’s a dead mouse in the kitchen
this rainy april day
the temperate disguises of the present
then slipshod into a black world in which
bob no longer bob
but he doesn’t care
‘I love the energy of irresolution,’
he ‘once’ said
in his inclusiveness, gently smoking,
smiling, joking, infinite bits
ready to be recalled
so where are they
atoms that fly out into the universe
you were already in—
reattaching to those not yet born?
where does everyone go?
and such a singular one
when you died
I stood outside
and felt you gone
and felt you here since
you were able to say
what we long to hear one
another say, each one,
one by one,
and art, then, had meaning
not a usual one
an actual one
that’s a thought
I had in my head
is the world empty
now you’re dead
or full, containing
all that one
can live in
or is that instead
WE GO TO OUR DEATHS IN SILENCE
Poetes, poein—maker, author, poet
We have a carpenter to build our homes, a farmer to grow our crops, a doctor to cure our
ills; we have a spinner to weave our cloth and a poet to make meaning from wood, beans,
and mulberry trees. Our poet says what needs to be said. Our homes are filled with his
books, our bellies with melodious delights, our singed imaginations sing, and our bodies
are adorned and warm.
A TIME ONE’S KEEPING
—For Robert Creeley
One day on in a world
Without you in it, two
Days on, three, your face
At the center of which
A mouth blows, four,
A brilliant cloud of words,
And, five, that hard naked
Fact death arrives, six,
Uninvited to the party
And, seven, this small
Dear world you loved
And which, eight, loved you
Back grows less specific
And becomes, nine, ten,
Some curious social edge
Of that imagined permission
And tomorrow and the next day
And the day after that and
Eleven, twelve, and so on
And on and on and etcetera
Thinking of Bob today, as I have been every day since March 30, I was leafing through his Chax chapbook YESTERDAYS (2002), when I came across these lines from the poem “Memory”:
I remember it was a urologist
told me how to strip the remaining pee
from my penis by using my finger’s
pressure just back of the balls,
the prostate, then bringing it forward
so that the last drops of it would go
into the toilet, not onto my clothes.
Still it’s of necessity an imperfect
solution. How stand at a public urinal
seeing to play with oneself? Yet
how not—if that’s what it takes not
to walk out, awkward, wide-legged, damp
from the crotch down? I cannot
believe age can be easy for anyone. On
Golden Pond may be a pleasant picture
of a lake and that general area of
New Hampshire, but it’s not true,
any of it. Please, don’t put, if
you can help it, your loved ones in
a care facility, they will only die there.
Everyone’s sick there. It’s why they’ve come
I don’t know now what will or
may happen to me. I don’t
feel any longer a simple person with
Could any poem of old age be more prescient, more tactful? It is a comfort to know that Bob did get his wish.
This past week I have remembered two gifts (among so many!) given me by Bob Creeley.
The first was in 1984. I was just finishing an undergrad degree in English at SUNY-Buffalo and had been accepted into the Creative Writing Program at CU-Boulder to start in the Fall. Before leaving, I was in the audience to see Bob do a reading at Central Park Grill in Buffalo. He arrived at the last poem of the evening, “Fort Collins Remembered,” and said, “This one’s dedicated to Ted Pelton, who’s just about to go out there.”
To be backed
down the road
by long view
of life’s imponderable
echo of time spent
car’s blown motor
town on edge of
bucks you’re lucky
It’s too much to say that the moment changed my life—but, perhaps, in some way, it did. It made me feel like I was somebody important—Creeley himself had called attention to me from the stage! I was 22 years old.
Next, 2001. I am back in Buffalo to live for the third time, entering a downtown cinema to see Once Upon a Time in the West as part of the UB Film Series, when who should enter at the same time but Bob. Penelope in New Zealand, he’s on his own for the week. We chit-chat on line to get a ticket. “Do you mind the company?” I finally ask him. “I’d like the company,” he says.
We sit through the movie, munching popcorn, wisecracking. At the climactic scene, where Henry Fonda has a noose around his neck and Charles Bronson, taunting, sticks a harmonica between his teeth, Creeley nudges me and says, “Bob Dylan.”
Afterwards, he says, “So many propositions.”
When I get home I write down everything.
“Words / now / forever” (“Oh Max”). Thanks, Bob—
I’ll miss you—
A spur of encouragement protects the mind from despairing and there is true redemption in it. For it occupies a seat in the sublime cycle. The spell of his life communicated itself to a thousand objects and the poems became their measure. His reciprocity was always treasured. His absence focuses his essence—the Power of words to hold us. Captive.
I was a student of Creeley’s at Buffalo in the Eighties, after doing undergrad degree at Storrs in the previous decade, including an Olson class with George Butterick, who brought Bob one time to read in a packed library lounge, probably two to three hundred students standing, sitting on tables and floor, the place literally jumping and Creeley quite casually perched on a long wooden library table. I’ll always remember the image of him hoisting a pitcher of water and taking a mighty slug, like Errol Flynn playing one of his pirate roles, and my being impressed with such a gesture in a somber old room with oil paintings of long-dead deans, and thinking: that, indeed, is a poet!
Many fond memories since, too many to recall. His many kindnesses, like the time I was worried about slacking off with school work during a big TA unionization drive, and Bob said not to worry, that I was one of the few people doing anything to help these days. Or the time he came to judge a “visible words” art exhibition at the school I teach at now, and noticed out of the corner of his eye a wonderful piece the judges had ignored, mostly due to its low-angle placement near a radiator. Or his gallant efforts time and time again to help me along. Or writing a blurb for my poetry book last winter, when he easily could have put me off. Most of all, the wry humor, the smile that could be no one else’s.
From one man, many worlds
one for each of us
and plenty to go around
orbit round this ol’ town
they call Parnassus, or Elysium,
or Birdland, I don’t know—
Pass along another song, Mister Bob,
the night’s still young
and there’s nowhere else
Robert Creeley has always had a strong influence on me. I loved his readings here in San Francisco. What makes him great is that he never repeated himself; he was always moving forward, always new. Here’s a poem I wrote ca. 1969—
at all ranges
and unbroken lines
is say something
on size, on
the poet who:
i.m. Robert Creeley
and is not
then it adheres
assumes your name
Robert Creeley †2005
I remember how his approval—of a poem, for instance—was to say simply (always simply) that it—the poem, whatever—was there; his expression of ultimate worth: There it is. He seemed to be painfully aware that our grasp of the world is uncertain, our own selves unclear. His solution was to move on, forward (“Drive, he said …”), Olson’s Figure of Outward. From tenuous circumstances and time’s indirections, he formed some remarkably solid poems. Look in his books: there they are.
I too lived in arcadia
in a house made of straw
a gutter world of kindness
The poet’s secret is
nothing to lose
How fierce the life
projects into a line
or is it the other way
rain falling upward
You couldn’t pay for
nights like this
Virgil on the wire
the brass of all these things
just walking up the stairs
Man, what dignity
to know who you are
and still live among us
of insufficient word, the world:
you owned it, owned as in
confessed, owned up, you said,
it’s me, said “I
know the man,”
said it is I, said it is me.
I was just a stupid kid,
when John Ciardi came to Tulane
to read a few poems. I wound up
at the event because he edited
some fancy magazine at the time
and I had the hots for the magazine.
But the man fooled us,
told us he was going to read us a poem
that none of us would understand,
that he didn’t understand,
and the only way to deal with it
was to resonate.
Resonate, I liked that word.
And then Ciardi started to read
something by still another guy
I’d never heard of,
stupid kid that I was.
He cleared his throat, began,
As I sd to my/friend,because I am always talking,-
John, I/sd …
I left the room stunned, inhaled the cool air,
sat on concrete steps and, I guess,
stupid kid that I was.
Yesterday I read the poem to a group of students,
said, you’re about to hear something
you’ll never understand …
I am one of the many who were moved profoundly by For Love, back in the ’60s, and by the many wonderful volumes of poetry that followed, also by the under-appreciated fiction. Each new volume was an event. We waited for it—the way we waited for a new Dylan album! His style influenced everything I wrote and thought. I went on to grad school at SUNY Buffalo in part because Creeley was there. As it happened, he wasn’t there every semester, and neither was I, so I didn’t actually get to meet him until I was a few years into the program—and by that time, my interests had changed. But I remember some classes I sat in on, a reading or two—and catching him in the hallway of that strange quonset hut that used to house the english dept back then and talking with him about who knows what? Wittgenstein, I think!
Years later, I was the books editor here in RI at the Providence Journal, and Creeley came to do a reading. I wrote an advance—interviewed him by phone. He was great—I had a tape going. And for part of the story, it’s probably in the Journal archives somewhere, I just quoted verbatim to give readers a sense of how this man thought and spoke. Nobody else spoke like him ever! We talked for a while after the reading, and it was obvious what a kind and generous man he was, how devoted to his craft, how interested in others. He sent me a really great post card afterwards, when he read the story I’d written. Very few writers take the time to do that.
I’m sorry I never heard him read in recent years, but the words live on.
That spring thing. The week that Robert died the weather changed here and the season seemed to go in reverse. On this 2000ft above sea-level exposed ridge in the North Pennine Hills, a slow spring reverts to snow blown in from the north.
I have known Creeley since I was 18 and he became a rock in my life, a loyal tender loving friend—a beautiful older brother.
On my rare trips to America Bob would always arrange a reading and be there to meet me at the station, or the airport, and would have the cheque to hand which he’d pass over a few minutes later as we drove to the venue or his home. The last time, in October 2004, was no exception, but when we came into the station concourse he was seated and took noticeably longer to rise and offer that warm brotherly hug of a greeting. His breathing was clearly a problem. It meant we had to walk more slowly and climbing stairs was visibly a problem for him. Brown University was my first reading on that trip and when we returned to the east coast five weeks later my son and I took the train out from Cambridge to Rhode Island to spend our last day in America with Robert and Penelope. As always the talk was of family, and mutual friends that I’d just seen in Buffalo, San Francisco, Boulder, Chicago, New York, back in the UK—and his pleasure at being able to teach until he was 83. Penny drove us out to the water’s edge and we ate a fish lunch then walked though autumnal woods. We talked of a strategy to get me back to the states so we could be closer and spend more time together. That was my hope. And he gave thought to how he might get to attend an ‘opera’ for which I was writing a libretto.
I first met him when he came to read at the Morden Tower in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1965, and came to love him. We spent that day with Basil Bunting at whose home I’d read Creeley’s poems and seen copies of The Black Mountain Review—but to meet the man and hear that distinct human voice deliver the poems with a tender humanity and humor opened up such vistas. And then to hear him and Bunting talk the talk and all of us getting drunk together over a few days was pure joy—an occasion that we happily repeated on many other occasions.
His next gig was at Durham University and I just wanted to hang out with him for as long as possible so we traveled together to Durham on a British Rail train. When my father died, a year before Creeley’s visit, I found an old watch amongst his meager possessions that I treasured—but I felt such a bonding with Bob that I gave it to him. He gave me his own copy of Desert Music by William Carlos Williams and on his return to America sent three books: the collected Walt Whitman, Olson’s The Maximus Poems and WCW’s Paterson in which he wrote—“‘right or wrong’ this is the ‘problem.’” Part of his inscription in the Whitman reads: “as Louis Zukofsky says—his Shil King-.” The Desert Music has “Creeley-’54” in Williams’s handwriting and in Bob’s “for Tom with all faith—and love for the world that happens.” You can’t help but love a world in which a Robert Creeley happens.
in the direction of what is ahead
towards the front
so as to advance or move on
One of Bob’s favorite words. When I was a student at the University of Buffalo, he invited me to take his graduate seminar on Olson. I was 20. I came in ready to prove myself but soon realized I didn’t have to. It was a class of conversation and story telling.
After finishing school, I moved to Japan to teach English. Bob sent me off with a list of Japanese and expat writers to be in touch with. He asked me if I would do him a favor and go visit his old pal Cid Corman. Cid would consistently remind me about two things: always answer letters within 24 hours and that when they originally met, Bob was a 23 year old chicken farmer in New Hampshire. Cid, himself, passed in March last year. One of the first things he ever gave to me were these three poems he wrote for Bob.
THREE FOR R.C.
by Cid Corman
I asked God
for the chance
some poems -
four or five -
to keep my
kind kind. I
have come to
this end and
make sense as
what God has
asked for too.
We are like
that. As if
the sun came
to the sky
to break word
of the day
day and ours.
Or is that
It isnt that I
came too soon or you
too late. The poem
and brings them nearer
the ultimate state
of being being:
human in nature.
Creeley has entered the roundhouse between conception & absence,
where the snake-knotted breasts dwell,
stone vehicle in which a life’s experience is
the grain in snake-knotted breasts,
“serpent skirt” they call her,
she wears her breasts knotted about her pubis,
the most intense layering we know, fugal roundhouse,
or mound trough, or moon flower, blessed instability:
he has left you
for a stability
standardized by air. Knotted about her pubis,
the black fangs in her breasts,
twisted about her pubis, no thought sharp enough to cut this suckling
sabrework, the child’s desire to penetrate the mother has come true, didn’t
he know that to have her was to die? No one has smashed her pinocchios,
no one has been able to induct her venom & piss it out before it
enters Okeanos, our binder, our earth
Nile of the anti-time in which we curl,
grub with a billion eyes,
—O everyman we are, as we reach
are not, atonal orifice, goodbye!
29 March 2005, zone of closure
He came to Madrid in 1992, invited by José Parreño and myself, to read at the Círculo de Bellas Artes. I remember what a huge deal it was for me—26 then—to meet him. He spent two days here, and we kept in touch until now. He was here later, for a talk, and earlier, as you all know, in Mallorca. During the big exhibit that the Nacional Museum of Modern Art in Madrid (Reina Sofia) did of Black Mountain College a few years ago, you got off the elevator and the first thing you saw was a fine copy of this fantastic picture Jonathan Williams did of him sailing in the coast of Mallorca. A young woman friend who was with me and did not know him at all exclaimed: “que tío más guapo” [What a good looking dude!]. Friends from Ardora, a small literary press,then published Life & Death in Spanish, translated by Alan Smith (who teaches at Boston College). Also, there is a portrait of him with Robert Duncan by Ronald Kitaj at another huge museum in Madrid, The Thyseen Collection. He was sweet, quick at responding, careful and loving. We shared a great friend, French photographer Bernard Plossu. Wrote some of the best and most penetrating love poems I have read. Adios, un abrazo, compañero.
Madrid, April 7th
Sonnet for Robert Creeley
Remembering again Robert Creeley,
and that in our group-remembering, albeit conjuring Robert Creeley,
He is survived by us, by our remembering, in addition, to and certainly not
excluding recordings, photographs, footage.
And the sad fact that the apple on the table’s not there,
becomes less sad while seeing and hearing that room again via
Some other sense of things—that the apple’s been eaten,
but is still there and in recognizable fashion—
Red and dangling in the interior air, Maine or Colorado
Friendship Road Waldoboro Lincoln School gymnasium
Or anywhere really, up or down, then or maybe earlier
this road that road this road that road—
in the end in the middle in the beginning
a warm conversation with a poet, a polite knowing man.
After hearing of Creeley’s passing, I ran into Anselm & Jane on the hill who had dinner with Bob just “good friday.” Last week’s test results showed the cancer he’s had traces of for the last ten years didn’t register. Not a threat. They all sighed with relief. But bronchitis in a 78 yr old songman ain’t a good thing, especially one with respiratory problems already. And worse still for a good son of New England to die in Odessa, Texas.
Spent some time last night in Creeley’s Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971 edited by Donald Allen, Four Seasons, 1973. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. And checked out Tom Clark’s Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place. A little off the beaten path of The Collected Essays which seem prerequisite. I enjoy these reads so much more than say his later verse, unless he was reading it to me. And while we won’t again witness the man’s hand running over his left ear, a cigarette in the other hand, a few pages in between, reading to us, there are great recordings out there of Robert Creeley’s “particularity.” The ones Paul Blackburn did, Naropa’s Audio Archive, surely Buffalo. Perhaps given the volume of work he produced, news of Robert Creeley’s death can be plausibly denied for quite a while. In fact, maybe we could organize the first Pan-american Denial Conference!
Got to pick up our woe and go.
Driving Home After the Creeley Reading
down puddled road
stubborn drops on
why we do it:
for the world
he gives us
the world we hope
we might give back
one old man in
his chair, his
heart and mind in
time, still strong
his hands and feet
a constant song
the road back
where one belongs
old friend so long
To the world, he was a great poet. To me, he was that as well as my professor. He offered a class here at Brown University entitled “That Old New American Poetry,” and I enrolled in it just this past fall, curious to learn from the poet who had undoubtedly shaped much of today’s modern poetry. I found him engaging, insightful, and incredibly personable. I’d visit his office to talk prose, poetry, and politics, and he was always willing to discuss and encourage my growing interests writing as well as the material he provided for class. I wrote a term paper on Denise Levertov’s poem, “Merritt Parkway,” and he loved it, and I couldn’t help but feel some sense of accomplishment in that one of America’s greatest poets had actually heard and listened and understood what I had to say in the way that I wanted to say it. As a student, that was all I could ask for. As a poet, it was all I could dream of. I was truly saddened to hear of his death, and I leave my best wishes with his family.
CREELEY’S LAST READING
I was at the reading which seems to have been Bob’s last, in the balcony of the University of Virginia bookstore in Charlottesville in late March. I had heard him at Orono in July, where he also told anecdotes, but this was different. For one thing, he had an oxygen tank on the floor at his feet and couldn’t use the podium—the tube just reached to his nose when he sat on a table with his blue-jeaned legs dangling youthfully down. The contrast between the spryness of his body (and mind) and his labored breathing through the tube was poignant. He said he had had to breathe through the tube since February. When I saw how much weaker he looked than he had in July, I was worried—it seemed as if the downward curve was pretty steep.
He read from the latest book, which includes numerous poems in heroic couplets. At one point he said, “the rhyme grows more obvious in these late poems—but it was always there; people just didn’t see it.” The poems are raw and honest and focus on life-death issues, and he spoke in the same vein between poems. It was very intense, direct, honest, almost childlike, the voice and the words of someone with nothing to lose. He said some very simple things that felt like the truest things one had heard in a long time, things like, “there has been so much war and pain during the last century. We need to learn how to be kind; kindness is what makes us human.” The audience was, I think, pretty much awed; there was deep silence. Afterwards I was so struck I was almost in tears, and many of those with whom I shared glances had the same stricken look. In retrospect, I recognize the feeling palpable in that place after his reading as the death-feeling, the same feeling there was in the house when my father was dying, that larger-than-life bitter flavor of simplicity and depth.
After the reading he signed books graciously for a long line of people. I waited till they were all through to speak with him; I had just moved to Maine, a place we loved in common and had talked about before, and I wanted to share that. He signed my books very carefully, deliberately placing a black dot in the upper-left hand box of four boxes in the publisher’s logo on one title page. Then we talked for a long time, me awkwardly half-kneeling in front of the book-table. We talked about Maine, and, since he was staying in Marfa, Texas, about the minimalist sculpture of my ex-brother-in-law Donald Judd. He was scathing about the inhumanity he saw in Judd’s metal boxes, how incongruous he felt they were in the desert landscape, and we both shared our visceral response at their lack of effort to harmonize or blend in. I asked him how he understood Judd’s intentions, and he said something very helpful, which cleared up a question that had burdened me for a long time: he said he thought of it as a belated Romantic attempt to assert human presence.
After we discussed various other things, we talked about how we would see each other in Maine in the summer. I remember feeling that it might not happen. We said goodbye, but I turned back on a very strong impulse to ask him about one more thing rather than putting it off: I asked him about Robert Duncan. He told me movingly about Duncan’s warmth, compassion—told about how once he had been walking with Duncan and telling him about problems with his marriage, and looked over to see tears on Duncan’s face. You would have liked him, he said. He looked tired. We touched hands again. “Till Maine,” he said.
I am now so glad I turned back. I’m also glad that last July in Orono, I spoke with him about something even more urgent I wanted to discuss before it was too late. I mentioned to him how people were continually quoting as a truism only the first half of his famous dictum, “Form is nothing more than an extension of content, and content nothing more than an extension of form.” He was very disturbed by this and said that the quote was not meaningful without both halves. I asked him if he would send me an email stating this so that I would have it in writing from him, and could quote it honestly/accurately, and he told me that in fact, he had just put it in writing in a recent interview. Soon after he sent me this email:
Now I hear you’ve taken the job, which is terrific for “our side.” Thinking of that “form” business, what I was thinking of then was this comment in interview with Leonard Schwartz:
It’s there pretty much at the beginning.
I can feel fall today, and somehow that’s a pleasure—just the sharpness of air and the extrardinary specificness of color. Ah well!
Again congratulations and all best,
This is the quote from the interview he was referring to:
RC: Well, content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content. They sort of go together is the absolute point. It’s really hard to think of one without the other; in fact, I don’t think it’s possible.
That’s it. Ah well!
I was lucky to grow up in a house where Creeley was often quoted—“She was the lovely stranger/ who married the forest ranger/ the duck and the dogs/ and never was seen again”—and first assimilated For Love, Words, Pieces as an adolescent, pulled from my parents’ shelves.
It was too early to understand the emotion of these poems of loving and hurting: “words full// of holes/ aching,” though I think I could follow “Speech/ is a mouth.” In any case, I was reciting Creeley’s poems to girls from the beginning.
I finally met Robert Creeley in Paris in ’93 or ’94, reading at the Village Voice Bookstore (where I pressed him for details on publishing Blackburn’s Proensa, as I was writing on it at the time, and he gratefully discussed the various history of Divers Press), saw him again at Allen Ginsberg’s funeral in ’97 at the Shambhala Center in NYC (and now instead of loving and hating grief appeared the major theme: the pain-stricken look on Creeley’s face moved me to write him a long letter), and came to study with him at SUNY Buffalo in ’98. (He’s more or less the reason I came to Buffalo—as he stuck his phone number in my pocket in Paris and suggested I give it a thought.) Creeley invited us right into that great family of his. He and his wife Penny (one of the most brilliant people ever) took a shine to my partner Isabelle, and her work, and bought several of her paintings. They have been great supporters (and, as noted many times over here, we were just two of literally hundreds the Creeleys personally touched). Creeley’s tangible acts of friendship never flagged. His putting me in touch with vital contemporaries like Ben Friedlander or Nick Lawrence, or introducing me to his own, were perhaps the most lasting of such acts.
Multiplying such acts by the number of poets for whom Creeley was similarly useful, one must ask: inside, around and beyond the company of words that have been with one’s care (for words), pretty much from the start, would one know half the poets one does without Creeley?
Along with colleagues here, such as Graham Foust, Linda Russo, Tim Shaner and others, I was lucky to attend Creeley’s last graduate seminar at SUNY Buffalo, titled Poetry’s Public, in the Spring of 1999. We read and discussed Eric Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, Robert von Hallberg’s American Poetry and Culture 1945-1980, Jack Spicer’s The House That Jack Built: Collected Lectures (ed. Peter Gizzi), Robert Duncan’s “The Truth and Life of Myth” and poetry by Hart Crane, Jack Spicer and John Wieners, amongst others.
Creeley told a lot of stories about the war, remembered flying in a military transport: “men, lads, boys—the whole trip sitting tidily in their seats in a Sterling bomber.” The war was on in Kosovo and there was a constant argument about poetry’s agency. Mostly, though, I remember being fascinated with Creeley’s phrases and speech patterns, as his stories unfolded, and I noted:
small local decisive books
in a classic uptown scene
the lobster, the sea, etc.
everyone’s having a good time
Stephen King’s Paterson
comes onstage to strip
an expressionist talker
clocked in at nine hours
a constant compaction
voice as an individual
making a proper part
in the linguistic drift
as a quondam teacher
McClure’s gopher tantrums
instinct action or enactment
old time distractions
men, lads, boys—the whole trip
sitting tidily in their seats
in a Sterling bomber
gave austere and abiding love
to places like factories
his rhythms are gross
lying under father’s piano
and put war away with time
—can yuppies be real?
I’ll never forget Creeley’s reading, for this seminar, of Hart Crane’s “Island Quarry”: “Square sheets—they saw the marble into/ Flat slabs there at the marble quarry/ At the turning of the road around the roots of the mountain …” Nor his reading of Ginsberg’s late poem “Five A.M.” (from the just-published Death & Fame), his voice breaking on the closing lines: “too heavy for this lightness lifts the brain into blue sky/ at May dawn when birds start singing on East 12th street—/ Where does it come from, where does it go forever?”
Though his presence on campus in the last couple of years was minimal, Creeley’s contact with students who sought him out—especially undergraduates—was extraordinary. It was hard to get him to come out for graduate student readings, but often Creeley would be seen at the reading of a 19 or 20 year-old protegé. He was especially supportive of the young (homegrown) Buffalo poets. (One of my favorite projects of his is the email correspondence he carried out with students at Buffalo’s City Honors High School, Day Book of a Virtual Poet.) Many students of mine recounted fruitful studies with him. Or I would meet people randomly that he had taught: a young waitress who told me she had done her senior thesis with Creeley, a bartender who had read Williams with Creeley in the seventies.
The word of Creeley’s I keep coming back to is “use”—when Creeley indicated he’d found one’s work “useful,” it was high praise … Creeley insisted on the use of poetry, as poetry … that it have meaning in life. The generosity and the quality of the tributes appearing here and elsewhere testify to that use.
My favorite Bob thing is an explanation he gave once about why he was a poet. It was something to the effect that one night I think when he was in college he found himself on some other street and he decided to live his life there.
I met Bob when I was ten seconds in New York and had just been reading For Love over and over. He was the perfect poet then and still is. He was reading at the West End bar and I think he had just come back from Australia and Pen was there too. I was so impressed that he had a cool young wife. I think her and I had the same worker caps on but this might just be my imagination. I just remembered we drank many mugs of beer and you could just talk to him. I could hardly understand what he was saying but I just loved it. I was very proud of the fact we had the same home town—that I grew up in the town he was born in at least and his dad had been a doctor at my local hospital. These things of course had occurred in entirely different times but it didn’t matter at all to either of us. Wonderfully he was pleased with these details too and doted on such facts as much as I did.
Everybody’s mentioning it, but Bob was so generous. To send your book to him (when you were a kid) and get a response was to be part of a jewel, because Creeley caught you and sent something back, a postcard, a word. Of course there’s no way to replace him but it just seems to occur to me to give back more and not get so weighed down by the day. I had not seen or spoken to Bob in more than a couple of years—he was here and I didn’t even know and had already been feeling foolish because he asked me back then for my bratty Robert Lowell poem for a piece he was writing for the Harvard Review and I was so happy that he had written that I forgot to respond. I just kept missing him and imagining going to like P-town this summer to say hello and hear him read and now no more. To see Bob Creeley was to encounter this guy with great silent laughing eyes. I remember him one night a million years ago reading at St. Mark’s and he was rambling on about the moon and women and oil spills and maybe we didn’t have to clean it up, maybe it’s okay. A poet can talk, I thought. He had the gift.
At Naropa University’s 6 April memorial for Robert Creeley:
When I think of our dear departed friend, colleague, mentor, teacher, Robert Creeley, three things in particular come to mind. The first is years ago now. I am a student, here, at Naropa. It is the Summer Writing Program. I have been assigned to assist Robert. Creeley. I feel like I have hit the jackpot, won the quick pick, blasted off: I’m Creeley’s assistant. This is the guy. I’ve lately been wrestling with the extraordinary prose, trying to imitate it, certainly, but mainly just doing my best to keep my head above water in the face of its high-octane nuance, its intricate subtlety, its flatout brilliance. I’m Creeley’s assistant. I do my best to assist. This doesn’t amount to much. Robert Creeley, the Creeley I encountered that week, was not a guy who needed a tremendous amount of assistance. In fact, characteristically, he almost immediately turned the tables on me: had me over to his apartment for breakfast, had me bring pastries and coffee and sat there with me in his pyjamas (Robert Creeley in his pyjamas!) and we talked, talked and talked, a conversation punctuated by Creeley asking what he could do to help me, what he could do to get me farther down the road I was just starting on. I don’t remember what I said. It doesn’t matter what I said. Simply by asking, Robert Creeley asking, he had just knocked me about 10 miles farther along.
The second is recent, year before last, again at Naropa before Bob’s yearly reading, his visit to this community. We were sitting together and chatting, about what he had in the works, the great late poetry, then about what I had, a new book, a copy of which I had in hand to give him, to put in his hands. He took it. Graciously. No doubt around the millionth such book put into his hands. Asked me questions about it. Admired the cover. The quality of the paper. Spoke about the good things Coffee House was doing. I responded by slipping into the easy posturing of self-deprecation. Said it was something he could read on the plane, buzz through, maybe he already had too much to carry, etc. He responded to this by looking me in the eye, still smiling but deadly serious, and saying, “Be serious,” this is your book, “Be serious,” this is what it’s all about.
The last is 10 years ago, Paris. I’ve been living there. I’ve just lost For Love on the metro. Now I’m reading Pieces. Everywhere I go I’ve got it. I go all over the place. I’m meant to be attending classes but instead I’m reading Pieces, digging it, getting my head blown off every time I open it. If you haven’t, check it out, read it. I open it on the Place Saint Michel, sitting on the edge of the fountain. It’s crowded, a lovely day in Spring, pigeons everywhere, the fountain playing behind me, occasionally I get splashed. Someone is going around interviewing people with a video camera. There are plenty of other people to interview. Still, he spots me.
Trying as hard as I can to vanish into Pieces, into Creeley’s complex patterns, his brain boggling textures, basically I’ve hardly got any head left. But no luck. The guy makes a beeline for me. He asks a slightly asinine question or two. But he’s not pushy and he has a kind, smart face and after the slightly asinine questions he asks me what I’m reading. Pieces, I say. C’est un livre de Robert Creeley. Ah, Creeley, he says. I look up at him, curious. Creeley, c’est un des grands, he says. Yeah, I think, yeah, I say to him then to myself, returning to Pieces when the interview is over, Robert Creeley, one of the greats.
for Robert Creeley
But also it was shared
in this vagrancy, the combination
of what was pirated
to be enough, owned
by all, a demand for it,
this urgent stowage kept for relief
News travels slow to this part of the world (Thailand), so I only found out about Creeley’s death today. I was just getting over the fact that Philip Lamantia has left the planet … They both in their own way were of significance to me. I first encountered Creeley’s “Daybook” in a Fresno, California bookshop in ’88 (I think). Didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but it was there to confound me into wanting to unravel the taut spiral of poetry …
Here’s a poem for Creeley:
We imagine what
might never be
in chapters of ruins
on a river isle
An era of speaking
of ash and ocean
space all too spaced
The wind all too winded
blows empty figures
letters and landscapes
seen in the snow
their hands joined
in a radii of sound
Two years ago, almost to the day,
we stood, Penelope, Bob and i
on St. Margaret Island in the
Danube halfway between
Pest and Buda, when
three cranes flew
our way, north
here, I sd, here
for us as greeting
here for your sake, Bob,
and yours, Penelope, and
mine, those cranes Bob still flying
Letter to Don & Claudia, the Day After Creeley’s Death
Do you remember? I came to you
utterly desolate, after driving
ten hours, and you took me in.
It was the first time I had met you,
Claudia, or was that earlier, in
Denver? You know how it is
about time. But now, waking
early from a bad dream, I think
of you both so sorrowful but
together with the kids, and I too
seeking the way to mourn.
There at the lake, watching for
that eagle which never came,
I thought of how things are held
together, and how they fall apart.
He understood that better than
anyone else in this business, and so
I went not to him (having gone to
him last night of course) but to
Williams, as he would have advised.
I read “The Crimson Cyclamen,”
seeing once again the impossible
construction, the balances, juggling,
the angles thrust through space-time,
spun perfect out of eye and ear, the
science of it that one must study while
opening oneself to the feel. Then,
more explicit in pathos but in every
way equal in the moves, the Elegy
for Lawrence, whom he loved nearly
as well. And it chilled me, for it was
just this season, “this / half cold half
season- / before trees are in leaf and
tufted grass stars / unevenly the bare
ground.” Don, you knew him much
better than I: it should come as no
surprise that I see now how long
his conversation was with death.
Yes, certainly, in “Mazatlán: Sea,”
that terrible gematria of “Four.” But
later, I mean Later, “Bresson’s Movies,”
“Still Too Young,” “Sad Advice”—a run
of them! and so on. More so even
than Bronk, who claimed never to
understand him, but whom Bob honored
nonetheless. And that was him, wasn’t
it? All those “ladies”! Truer for him than
for Duncan even, the young knight
errant, adopting a kind of beat
gentility that he made absolutely
his own. A company indeed, this
knightly band, aggressive in its de-
ference but utterly thoughtful as it
picks through things to find the
abstract music that we cannot live
without. My dears, this will be one
hell of a day, sleep deprived, running
from one errand to the next. I have a
student, deep into jazz, poetry and
philosophy, and we’re set to talk about
Mackey this afternoon. They don’t come
along like that too often now. The music,
he said. Thinking of you in the desert.
From Edge & Fold
(For Robert Creeley)
never less than present
and close to the rain
summer’s in a rush
to wet its lips again
something calls us home
through the dim evening
a pair of hedge clippers
for those of us who dream
the exhaustions of infinity
will never touch us now
only gods die and the poor
love it well
what has always been
remains to be seen
memory’s last station
too many travelers
Ah, here’s an oldie, from 1966? 67? the time we first met, in London. Sent it to him on a post card. He told me he liked it.
FOR THE SEA-
SONS AND DAUGHTERS
WE ALL ARE
sea the ships
there are lights
in the harbors.
see the lights
lead us on,
hold on take care
if and when.
I loved the poet. I loved the man. I’ll miss him the rest of my days.
Last April 2004 I wrote about Robert Creeley’s frank and robust collection, If I were writing this. The book is a moving engagement with friends, family (persons he has loved—both dead and alive), and fragments of literature as it lives on through more literature. Though elegiac in mode, the book is affirming in Creeley’s onward “do not go gently” way. At their most stirring the poems have an inviting gusto. In “Supper,” for instance, Creeley writes:
Days on the way,
lawn’s like a shorn head
and all the chairs are put away
again. Shovel it in.
Eat for strength, for health.
Eat for the hell of it, for
yourself, for country and your mother.
Eat what your little brother didn’t.
Be content with your lot
and all you got.
Be whatever they want.
Shovel it in.
At the time I was reading the new book, I found a passage from the introduction to Selected Writings of Charles Olson. Here Creeley writes: “We are not here involved with existentialism. Camus may speak of a world without appeal, but the system of discourse he makes use of is still demonstrably a closed one. What he seems most despairing about is that language cannot make sense of the world, that logic and classification do not lead to conclusions and value—but open only to the dilemma of experience itself.” For Creeley, physical experience offers its own guide for the perplexed. As he puts it toward the end of “Conversion to Her”:
One cannot say, Be as women,
be peaceful, then. The hole from
which we came
The one to which we go is real.
I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks with Robert Creeley in February; in a couple of conferences, in general conversations in the halls before and after our workshop. He was always ready to talk … about anything. And he could talk about anything. The first day of our workshop, I remember everyone in the room had that look on their faces that often reads: “wow he’s coming through the door any second what do we say what do we do I can’t wait this is so exciting …” Of course, when he came in he grabbed a seat, wiped his eyes, smiled, and immediately set off on a long talk about technology, computer and neat little speakers in check. After about forty minutes or so, he goes grinning, “So I guess we should talk about poetry …” I’ll never forget another comment he made up front: “I’ve always sort of despised that part of workshops that immediately says we have to find something wrong with the poems … etc., dig it. Let’s just talk.” I timidly stayed after the class was over to talk with him. I was, of course, nervous, and I’ll never really remember anything I said to him that day … though I think some brief discussion of “Paterson” came up. He was inviting to say the least, and the last day of the workshop (at a local art gallery) I remember him sitting on a couch while I stood listening. He looked up, patted the couch, and said “David, grab a seat.” Yet again about five or six of us were off on another half-hour talk about the seemingly insignificant things in life that really, when you think about, tend to matter the most. Those simple conversations were moving for me to say the least. I would think: here is a man whose mind is of an extraordinary intellectual caliber, who has seen more in the human experience than anyone I’ve ever met, and yet … we pretty much hold to common matters when talking. I’d ask and he’d tell me something about Ginsberg or Robert Duncan like I was his neighbor. And why not? The idea of hero worship played no part in Creeley’s daily mentality. Another day, he asked me to walk him to our classroom when an obviously intimidated fan approached him and asked, “Can I annoy you for a moment …?” We stopped and he sort of smiled, scratched his head, and suggested politely that the mention of “being annoyed” was the only thing that annoyed him. He didn’t want to be “worshipped,” he seemed merely to want hang out with people who liked to talk. And as much as I love everything he wrote, I love that trait just as much. I mean, let’s face it … there are lots of inflated egos when it comes to being a poet, especially one so well known, but not once did I see anything remotely egotistical in Creeley. It means much to keep one’s reputation from taking over amidst voices in constant praise to one who not only “made it,” but “changed it.” Part of his genius, I think, was remaining a poet who, quite simply, just loved poetry and the many things that play into it. An email he sent me a couple of weeks ago said: “I could sit in a bus station for hours just listening to people talk” … that’s poetry in itself, I think, and I got from him that poems don’t have to try to be great or ultimately profound … they just have to be words put down by someone who loves to put them down on a page.
During workshops I found myself jotting down some of the things that he’d say nonchalantly. Along with the common “Dig it,” “etc.,” and “Anyhow onward,” here are a few:
“Truth is a consensus.”
“I have no idea specifically what poetry is but it’s something like the ability to hear water in an empty pool.”
“The world is our physical lifetime.”
“Poetry is always a local art no matter how universal it is.”
“Try not to describe it, but if one can, somehow enter it.”
“There is no encompassing description …”
“Digression to me is the life of writing.”
“There is no ordaining faction for poets.”
“If you’re a poet you’ll be one come hell or high water.”
“Your earlier question about what to do when writing just don’t come is stay on the so-called job.”
Thank you RC. We miss you,
—David Howell, Wilmington NC
Call it the Creeley Concentrate.
“I’m just trying to be in my life!”
said with a chortling insistence at the Parish Hall doorway, St. Mark’s Poetry Project, probably 1970, the night Bob read with Jim Dine. The issue was whether or not to follow along to a late-night party in Brooklyn.
In the walkway of the Varsity Apartments, Boulder 1977, with Allen Ginsberg, Bob and Penelope—Allen proposes we all go on to dinner at a nearby restaurant. I make apologies, dinner with wife and kids in our “dorm” room is on the table. “Ah, you can eat with them anytime,” says Allen. Bob smiles, hand on Allen’s shoulder, consoling: “Don’t knock it.”
I only met Robert Creeley twice—once at a Jargon Society Board meeting at Buffalo, and once when he gave a reading here in North Carolina in conjunction with the In Company exhibition and catalog. During that time, a small handful of notes and emails crossed between us. My introduction to him at Buffalo was during a party after the Board meeting, and he kindly signed a number of books, including his UCal Selected which had just been published. Jonathan Williams introduced us and then left us to each other. We talked for only a short time and then others wanted to greet the master. Between our meetings Jargon published my book, Visions of Dame Kind, and other works came out. He always acknowledged them with a note of thanks, encouragement, and praise. When we met again in Greensboro in 2000 I didn’t have to introduce myself. To my surprise, he recognized me immediately, saluting me as if we were old friends.
Between 1991 and 2000, Cid Corman and I began corresponding. Anyone who knew Cid knew that he too, in a much different, but equally caring way took great pleasure in mentoring and sharing the life of poetry with others. Cid told me, at one point, of a serious financial situation in which he had found himself. I contacted Creeley and asked him if there was anything that could be done through the Academy of America Poets to help Cid. I don’t know if that’s where the help came from, but Cid confirmed to me that help did come from Creeley.
I say this not to draw attention to myself or my work, but to further demonstrate the intimacy with which Robert Creeley welcomed all those he met—all those who shared demon verse with him. Others have already praised his line, his cunning words, through which so many of us have not only learned to write, but also to live. Whenever I think of poetic models I think of these by Creeley: “candle ? / behind the eyes”—“the darkness sur- / rounds us, what / can we do against / it”—“I had wanted a quiet testament / and I had wanted, among other things, / a song. / That was to be / of a like monotony”, and—“If I had thought / one moment / to reorganize life / as a particular pattern, / to outwit distance, depth, / felt dark was myself / and looked out to me, I / presumed. It grew by itself.”
Robert Creeley, this poem’s for you.
In Memoriam: Robert Creeley
Beyond the old cornfield a train
Fox looks up—busy world
I lift my bucket to the wintry stars
Out falls emptiness and glass
Mind bears it all away
Disorder tastes of ripe cherries & wine
Which way to nowhere
Spring sun shows the easy way
Right up through the trees
—Jeffery Beam, Hillsborough, NC
XXIII In Memoriam Robert Creeley, March 30, 2005
When death arrives, the earth is always flat,
For there is an edge from which we fall,
Never to be seen again in sunlight. We may
Be glimpsed among the shadows of the moon,
But that is more from love’s insistence
That we populate the darkness with our ghosts.
You stated the inevitable, and the obvious,
When you addressed your Mother in a poem,
And told her you would follow, and now you have.
But that you said it has such resonance in feeling.
I grieve, but I take solace in the knowledge I will follow,
Travelling the same path into the dark. With each day,
We move closer to earth’s edge, from which
We must fall, but until we do, the moment is all.
In the spring of 1974 i took the all nite bus back to Buffalo from Port Authority … to defend my dissertation … it was a trip i had taken many times in the 5 yrs i spent as a grad student … i always tried to sit in the back 3 seats … where the motor hummed … but at least i could stretch out … wake/sleep/wake … 435 miles to … 2 long thwy hours out …
Bob had stayed with us the season before … on a wknd trip to the city … which surprised me … we were close … but I was a student … & he was Bob … so i asked if i could stay with him … & he agreed …
Dwntn Buf. at dawn … i had some breakfast … and waited for the Salvation Army to open … where i found for a quarter … a pretty good copy of a 1st ed. of Williams “Sour Grapes” & some other books … up main st to the olde campus … where Bob was teaching a class … in one of those Trailer outposts …
In his car … afterwards …i showed him the book … & i knew he wanted it … he took it up … and wedged it in the windshield visor like a talisman … and he started to talk … & talk … & talk … till we got to where he was livin’ … a plain clean working class apartment … where i’m sure he wrote the poem beginning “roof’s peak is eye” …
Bob talked … i listened & listened … at one point … he spotted a speck of dust … and got down and cleaned it … which surprised me … as it surprised me the next day when i woke and he was fiddling quite ably with the toaster … he asked me if i wanted some food … i sd “no“ … then sd i always say “no” … which means yes …
I finished the dissertation bizness … telling my advisor that i was too old (25) to rewrite it … and yes the footnotes were often wrong (i didn’t tell him i’d made them up) …he & bob both signed off on it … those were the magic mushroom years …
Back to Bob … and more talk … at one point abt the flowers in the room … then about how he was writing these new pieces … he showed me this chart … but that’s the one thing i didn’t listen to … i didn’t want to know HOW he did it … the phone rings … and he doesn’t skip a beat … it’s the same brilliant intricate endless paced conversation … it takes me at least 10 minutes to figure out he’s talkin’ to Bobbie …
We go to dinner downtown … in this genteel steakhouse … black uniformed waiters … outside the orbit of a grad student … we both order steak … he treats me …
& we go back & talk … & … & … &
I take the nite bus back … dawn at Port Authority … subway to downtown bkly … i lie on the couch for 2 days … my body’s immune system broken down … when i get over it … i’m free of something. …
twds the end …
we seemed to do best
by e-mail. …
we did a little
Re: Fwd Fwd Fwd …
let’s just learn to fly. just using our arms!
Love, Bob …
been practicin’ … at treetops … goin’ higher
Love, Harry …
Happy Landing …
Dig It. …
computer generated imagery …
Harry Nudel. …
Robert Creeley died today and I am beside myself. I was not a friend or mentee of Mr. Creeley but he did do many kindnesses for me a poetic nobody without the “right” pedigree he did not have to be generous but he was and it helped form me into a poet. I first met Bob in Dallas Texas at a reading, he signed my well worn copy of his New and Collected and said he would correspond with me. I send him a poem which he critiqued—I was being critiqued by Robert Creeley! this care for another human being the care for the little things made Robert Creeley a great poet and a great man. His words meant a lot to me as a younger poet. He wrote on the bottom of the page
“Make it New Yourself!”
Later when I started Chicagopostmodernpoetry.com Robert Creeley consented to be interviewed it took some time but he did the profile and completed it only a month before he died. He answered questions with care and with respect and his answers were meaningful and important I think.
In the end Creeley’s death is a break and a continuation with our poetic fathers and mothers. Creeley was mentored by some of the greatest poets our American Idiom has produced Pound, Olson, Williams, Cummings he was friends with some of our great poets Levertov, Duncan, and others and our great Artists like DeKooning, and Klein and he was a mentor to so many of our new dear poets like Lisa Jarnot, and Peter Gizzi, and so many others for whose work we are blessed and I mean blessed not fortunate.
Robert Creeley’s poetry was part of God’s singing.
—Raymond L Bianchi
For Robert Creeley
For many of us, there is one particular book or poet who turned our heads around, who excited us enough to realize that we could pursue our artistic instinct—for me, the poet is Robert Creeley, and the book is A Day Book. This was in 1979 in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was studying as an undergraduate. After reading nearly all of Creeley’s work, I quickly got serious. I wrote and rewrote the same handful of poems that, like Creeley, emphasized the subtely and discontinuity of thought and language.
Shortly after moving to New York City two year later, I heard Creeley read at a small gallery. After the reading, I stood in line patiently behind a few autograph seekers and then I approached him … my poetry rock star. I handed him an envelope with one poem in it, and said: I’m embarrassed to do this, but you’re the most important poet to me and … Creeley gracefully received the envelope and asked if I had included my address with it. I nodded that I had. A week later I received a beautiful letter from him, commenting on the poem. At the end of the letter he asked: “man, who taught you to write like this.” I wrote back (immediately): “you, of course.” He wrote back: “I had no idea.” This was the kind of humble contribution that defined the many years that we were in touch, the kind of quiet contribution and support that so many others have also articulated. Creeley’s great influence on me as a poet is overshadowed only by his even greater example of how to be a poet in the world. Below is the poem that I presented to him in 1981.
so. how so.
don’t or …
and still …
lay the sleeping
that I say this
is not love?
We were drinking. It was Oregon. Eugene in the mid 70s. He wasn’t one of those ugly drunks filled with hatred and disappointments. Still the stories were endless and circular. He was Creeley. I didn’t know what that meant then, what it meant to be Creeley. In some sad way appropriate to the time, we threw references to Bunting and Pound and Ginsberg around the table. I knew it was important to be Creeley. I felt responsible. I began to feel that I was with someone who had a dead aim on what mattered most. Later when I wanted to start a magazine, I wrote to him for help. When I was looking for work in academia, he offered to be helpful. When I wanted a sense of some one whose ears were tuned to the language that I heard and spoke and dreamed and sang in, he was there with words and understanding. Bob met my son at some early point in our friendship. Maybe somewhere in Maine, possibly for a fleeting five minutes in Harvard Square, or one evening in Henniker with Joel Oppenheimer. Always it startled me in a beautiful way, the mindful query and familial interest that he expressed in the health and happiness of a child who could only have made the briefest impression on the poet. That profoundly human generosity of concern is Creeley for me.
of it, comes
along, weighs down,
what are its thoughts
of him, its—the occasion
of a ruse, trick of
it ticks still
& still it ticks
“end of the line”
“a good run”
ticks the occasion
inside the life or
death of it
what is a man?
of his going out
what is it still ticks?
poesie & its denizens
& it’s time
battalions of those
not part but celebrate
let “it go slow/
world gone to hell
cruelty throughout the lands
heaven a line of poetry
as if it were perpetual
and now without you
can we too be
not lived through this time
lived with, lived
upon, lived among
so many bards in the bardo
what did you teach me?
your great satori?
what was it?
a breath away
April 5/05 Boulder
death anniversary of Allen Ginsberg
I translated Robert Creeley’s poems “Like They Say” and “The Wife” into Chinese in the seventies. Both poems were included in my bilingual book of poetry “Let the Feast Begin—My favorite English Poems” published in Taiwan sereral years ago. His poetry has been one of my great American influences.
In Memory of Robert Creeley
Spring is a bed
awaking from hibernation
you are about to yawn yet suddenly
you find your outstretched limbs
I first met Robert Creeley at a dinner party following a reading he gave at Bard during my senior year. I was, when introduced, quite intimidated by the man—thinking perhaps of Bradford Morrow’s describing him as a “wild cat” and of the nearly overflow-level crowd gathered at the reading—and said no more than three sentences to him, two of these most likely being “hello, nice to meet you” and “goodbye, nice to have met you.”
A friend of mine tried to make me feel better about the situation by reminding me that we were both headed to Brown and that once there I would have the opportunity to offer more in the way of conversation. At the start of the semester the Creative Writing department held a small gathering and introduction of new students (and new faculty) which I considered not attending because of an unshakable cold I had acquired some days before. I mention this only to convey how uncomfortable about the situation I was going in and how relieved I was upon departure. Somewhere during all my wandering around and sneezing on people I had the chance to sit down with Robert and talk, though I do not remember most of what we talked about because half of it we mumbled. His wife, Penelope, once commented on this, his mumbling, asking if in class it was ever hard to understand what he was saying and I told her that it was not, seeing as I also mumbled and could identify with him and this always meant a lot to me. Which is, of course, not to say that it ever seemed he did not know what he was talking about. It is just that I believe he was better in one-on-one situations, in for instance, our tutorial meetings each week, where he would talk briefly about my poems and then tell me stories for the remainder of the hour.
Someone once asked me—someone who wanted me to introduce them—what Robert was like and when I told them he was the most humble important person I had ever met, they scoffed and told me, in a general sense, that this was not surprising. I think this is probably wrong. Of everything, I most regret not having the opportunity to introduce more friends to this new friend I’d made. They would certainly have been surprised.
I met Robert Creeley thru e-mails, then later in person, invited him to participate in a letter press broadside journal, he was the quintessential professional. The simple act of acquiring a poem, publishing it took on amazing qualities. He will surely be missed, never ignored & will always inspire.
the meek shall inherit the roar 3-30-5
Forgot to read my horoscope, till after I hung out all day on the ladder, was told then to beware of nonsense. If it said conscience I would have fingered you, as dead. Clear your breath accentuate accent like if my grandfather was brilliant or if my father was his father, then we’d be related. No now you are gone, dishes after thanksgiving all the men leave the table; you & I help the women clear, wash dishes, glasses. I’m happy, songs in apron you are gone in the closet with all of my aunts. You that carpenter who dressed timber built an ark foothills of North Carolina, David & Moses hung around kibitzed then new came for a rest. Darkness sets it, we all run for cover you saunter to chair clear pipes set hill to psalm.
from A Book of Closings
All my best to you,
All my best to you,
Do write soon. I look forward very much to your letters.
Send as many poems as you can, very damn good,
All best & will write again soon.
All our best to you all,
All our best.
All our love to you all,
All our very best to you all,
Ok. Fuck that. All our love to you all, write soon.
All our love to you,
All our love to you,
All our love/
All our love to you both,
All our love,
Love to you all from Betty and me.
All my love,
All our love,
Con amore and much respecto,
All our dearest love to you all,
All the best to you Bob. Send me a photo.
Write soon, all our love to you all,
Yrs in Christ/
All my love to you all.
All my dearest love,
All my love.
Yr old friend when others etc. With love:
Love to all of you.
All our love.
All my love to you all,
All our love to you all,
All our love to you, and write soon.
All our love to you and Ann
Write soon, all our love.
Love from all of us,
All our love,
All our love.
Love to all.
All our love to you.
All our love to you all & write.
All our love to you all,
All I wanted to tell you was how much I enjoyed hearing from you, how good and lively the two BMR’s are and how much we here all love you and yours.
Write soon my angel. Love to all,
Love from us to you and yours,
All our love to you all & write soon,
Write when you have time. All our love to you.
Do write when you can. All our love.
Love from us all.
All our love, always.
All our love.
Ah yes, as always, all our love.
Best luck to you with it & all our love.
All our love to you & family,
Use your own good judgment.
All our warmest love to you.
All our warmest love to you & all good Mallorcans.
All our love to you and the family.
Write me a long letter. Miss hearing from you. All our love,
Thanks for the news on BMR.
I’ll write a descent letter soon, it’s a goddam thick time & I’m making it barely—but to hell, again with that. Write. All our love.
All our best love.
All our *love to you all,
*Viz that don’t get cut, no matter. My love and concern you’ll always have.
All my best to you all,
All our warmest love to you.
All our love. I.
All love as ever,
Love to you both,
“A Book of Closings” is a chronological arrangement of “closings” extracted from Irving Layton & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978, edited by Ekbert Faas and Sabrina Reed. On 25 January 2003, I was reading various odes, for whatever reason, when I became interested in the question of how poets say goodbye to one another in more congenial, or to put it differently, under the auspices of ordinary comings and goings. I know Bob was a marvelous friend, mentor and correspondent for so many of us, but “how to get said, what must be said” here? After reading this bit at the Small Publisher’s Fair in London this autumn past, it was Erica Van Horn’s very useful encouragement that inspired me to print “Closings” as a handset, unbound book at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanian in Kreutzberg.
Below, appears one of the last (cherished) letters I received from him in late January.
That wee book is a great pleasure. Moreover, it really gets the basic pattern of Irving’s and my rapport, i.e., how we both felt toward one another and how we ’came on,’ so to speak. He’s had a hard time the past years, Alzheimer’s and pretty alone in public facility. Leonard Cohen keeps tabs, I think—but the heyday, sadly, of Irving’s public authority seems now all too long ago. He could sing like a veritable bird—e.g., “The Madonna of the Magnificent.” Anyhow you did us proud.
Best as ever,
When I came home after hearing of this man’s death I found, still in the in-box, an old email from Robert Creeley. It was only personal, only information and consolation—nothing about the “business” of literature, only about life which had to be lived. I cannot say this with any grace, but I need to say, he was a person willing to help anyone, and he did, often. I never knew anyone more generous.
CREELEY’S BIRTHDAY DRIVE
Bob Creeley’s birthday parties were legendary, but nobody in their right mind would get in a car with Bob for his traditional birthday drive. Not even anybody in Bolinas, California, in the mid-seventies when being in your “right mind” was a matter of perspective. Which is why everyone laughed when Bob, his one good eye shining demonically, cast about for someone to drive with him from Bolinas to Stinson Beach and back, in honor of his 50-something birthday. Bob made his request about half way through the night, at a time when at least half the celebrants were safely beyond his reach, having curled up to snore on the beach or passed out on the floors that Bobbie was going to have a hell of a time restoring the next day or week. Bobbie Louise Hawkins, then Mrs. Creeley, was like a sturdy redwood in a storm at these events. Steadfast, heroic, hospitable, right there, but no man’s fool. And not all like a redwood, physically. More willowy, actually. Time, in those days, was also quite fluid. When Bob called for a driving companion, I was somewhat awake and I thought that it would be a great opportunity and honor for me, a young poet, to accompany the master on this unique journey. I felt chosen and utterly thrilled to get private time with the man who wrote, “I Know a Man,” a poem in which the line, “Drive, he sd,” famously occurs. All right then. I climbed into the passenger seat of something I don’t quite remember, except that it was old and huge and made a lot of noise, and with Bob at the wheel we hurled ourselves into the California night on the twisty black ribbon flung above the Pacific Ocean with the stars swirling all over it. Soon after launch, I knew with sudden certainty that Bob’s one good eye was closed and that he was not using the brake after flooring the gas pedal. We flew at unimaginable speeds over loopy ridges and through the stars and I also knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that this was the death ride that, I later found out, was Bob’s annual defiance of nature and fate. I also found out that the few people who had accepted this ride in the past and survived, had become secretly phobic about cars and many of them quit driving. I found these things out much later, but for the moment all I saw was the flashing brilliance of foam riding the crest of waves hundreds of feet below us and the piercing coldness of stars throwing themselves at us as we threw ourselves at them. I tried to think: “cosmic embrace,” but it wasn’t a comforting hug, no matter what my strenuously acquired California beliefs dictated. Except for this regression to elemental fears, nothing came of my intimacy with the great man. Bob didn’t utter a word until our space vehicle thudded to a merciful stop in Stinson Beach. I tumbled out weak-kneed, still holding, it appears, a flask half-full of whiskey. I handed it to him: “Well, happy birthday, Bob!” He took a huge swig, then said, “Ready to go back?” “Well, actually,” I mumbled apologetically, “I think that I’ll stay in Stinson tonight … visit a friend.” Creeley grinned. He knew and didn’t think to blame me. I’d been willing to risk my life with him for at least half the trip and that was more than any of his enlightened friends had been willing to do. I had promise. I may have even been the poet I thought I was. At least, that’s what I think he thought. On subsequent occasions, we were better friends, and it became unnecessary to go to all that trouble to prove anything. There will be many memoirs written about the poet, who passed away at the age of 78 on March 30th 2005, and I will add some of my own in time. But for now, look at my knuckles: they are white just from remembering.
After the sad news of Bob’s death at sunrise, I read his Kore to my young students last Wednesday and felt, as always, and knew they felt, the continuity and resonance of his poems—out of the deep past and as far as English poems will be read into the future. I remember him saying once, “People shouldn’t forget how to live, that is, to live.”
As I was walking
I came upon
the same road upon.
As I sat down
by chance to move
if and as I might,
light the wood was,
light and green,
and what I saw
before I had not seen.
It was a lady
by goat men
Her hair held earth.
Her eyes were dark.
A double flute
made her move.
where are you
take back the give
sound for its sake, it’s not
that we go back on old roads
to step on past
noontides and glyphs, mono-
logues of pace.
Acrostic Apologia IV
from & for Robert Creeley
And the Mexican
Down from the gate
Explicit, of the mind,
And the senses provoke it—
Lifted, or come,
Are all there is
Unable to say
Ridiculous. A weakness,
Then must I forever
Reach out for a common
Of love’s accident, this
Of being before the thought of it
Love has no other friends
In confusion of trust and dependence.
No doubt one day it will
Robert Creeley has been around all my life and these poems would not have been written were it not for him. And so I send them to you “with deep appreciation” for “this man, this inspiration.”
FEAST AND LAMENT
How your breasts, love,
fall in a rhythm also familiar,
neither tired nor so young they
push forward … I want you.
—Robert Creeley, Untitled Poem, in Pieces, Charles Scribner and Sons, NY, 1969
How can one write of touching,
electric current-like, but shouldn’t
put my hands on your cushions,
rising soft and full, long sleek legs
that lead everywhere into realms
of darkness where your hair adorns
a sanctuary, falling tight and loose,
even on your chest, where my eyes
have feasted these many long years.
And now I yet learn to love amidst a
still vigorous lust dancing in attendance
upon my age, my growing years, while
tongues lick my door and lap my sashes,
while flames leap lush and rank winds yammer.
24 November 1996
A NEW BOLDNESS
In 1953, the year that initiated the Kingdom of God on earth from a Baha’i perspective, the Black Mountain School of poetry was at its peak. The New York School based in Harvard University was just starting to gel. The Beat Generation of poets, centered at Columbia University, was developing a fresh fertility. San Francisco was on the edge of a poetry Renaissance that began in 1955. New American poetry had begun, at last, to show up in print. Ten volumes of New American poetry, five of them by just two poets, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, came out that year. The first had come out the year I was born—1944—and 19 books of this new poetry by 1953. These New American poets had very little contact with each other and there is in their poetry an overwhelming sense of despair and isolation. Many of them met for the first time at the end of the Ten Year Crusade in 1963 and 1965.
with thanks to Ron Silliman, “The Desert Modernism,” Electronic Poetry Review, 2002.
1953 was the biggest of years:
200 territories opened to the Faith—
by Armistice Day—in pursuance
of the spiritual conquest of the planet.
Little did they know, those poets,
with their own new life
that a prelude had begun,
a prelude to a mass conversion
that would revolutionize
the fortunes of this new Faith.
There was a new boldness
in the air, a collective force
that stood outside the stiffling
fifties. It was not rock-’n-roll,
nor was it that new poetry,
but a most wonderful & thrilling
motion … permeating the world.
—Ron Price, November 17th 2004
NOTE: permeating the world: from ’Abdu’l-Baha in God Passes By, p. 351.
remembering, this, of Creeley—
The sense of responsibility. I keep talking about it when anybody asks me. This story: when my first book came out, 1961, I sent it to Creeley. I had never met him, had heard him read, of course, his quiet voice was the loudest thing around. A few days later I got back a postcard from him, thanking me for the book and saying something decent about it, and then excusing himself for not saying more, because his little daughter had just died, that day, in an avalanche or cave-in. Dealing with that, he had the heart to spare, to help a young poet along, out of pure goodness, I guess, the sure Responsibility. From which I tried to learn, have never learned enough, that way so ‘natural’ with him, to take care, of the other. I still thank him. The day after he died I was writing something else and found it saying this:
nobody speaks any names at all
nobody says the name of the dying one
let one sit quietly beside one
letting one go.
Let there be a house
into which one comes to go
let there be one quiet one
to say what has never been said.
I think I was thinking not of how much he wrote, but how much his writing said.
No Wow, Bob
Even now it’s too late for beginnings.
Your orbit’s safe with me.
In many ways I’m healthier than ever.
Let ’em rally fiercely to have known you.
And say Bob if I had
if I had
had I known,
I’d say, Hasta, Guero,
no less remembering
the thing lost is not precisely you Bob.
Even thinking about you I think about us remembering
which you intended.
Like one of those East Texas weeds in ubiquity exalted
Over thirty years, I had the pleasure of spending four or five evenings with Robert Creeley when he’d come to Chicago, our former home, to read. The first time I met him I was extremely young, probably 20, and just beginning as a poet. What was standard despite one’s age was Creeley’s respect for the act of communicating about poetry with whomever he found himself—poets, professors, young people—he brought the best of himself into every situation and was a wonderful teacher in his low-key, thoughtful, exhilarating mode. I was so honored that he spoke to me in this way, and though I can’t remember a single word he said, I remember the effect—and have had the ability since to invoke his presence in a very personal way when I read his poems. Many years later, on his 65th birthday, he was reading for New American Writing in Chicago. When Paul Hoover and I went to dinner with him, he ordered a hamburger, fries, and chocolate cake at an upscale restaurant. We joked about birthday food being somehow unchanged as we go through life. And I think that my sorrow and even disbelief at his death has to do with that desire for immutability—that there would always be Robert Creeley and his hugely intelligent and moving engagement with life and poetry in our world. He’s still in our world—his poems are completely of it—but we all will miss him terribly.
What Gets Said
a scarf holds my breath through
walks against the wind’s grain
snow catches in filter woven there
is no place to avoid New England
when that’s where your there is
something returned to yet Buffalo
seems to not let us have you home
the snow the cold won’t let up
to obstacle the way we meet
and cherish the treat of such
company in which to dwell
is more than one can ask for
more than one deserves as if we
deserve anything another can provide
what one loves well remains the
rest is shadow in the corner of
a photograph we laughed about
the angle of the approach the
longing in an eye focused on going
such are such loves on the move
and one knows what comfort is
what the world has come to
be or offer the loyalty of, say,
animals, or friends, say, as in
how are you, my friend?
runs up from the heart to the
gullet no stopping the mouth
but to kiss a cheek goodbye it is
the need to say what you mean
The first time I met Bob, not on the page, but face to face, was when I was a student at the Summer Writing Program at Naropa in 1984. I signed up for the program principally in order to meet him. Bob was entirely generous and welcoming to me, but what I remember best about the week of his visit was one evening when he was on a panel. He was clearly a little drunk, and he began talking extemporaneously about writing, about words, what it all meant. I can’t remember exactly his phrasing, but at one point he said something like, “Words are the only things we have to speak with,” and then broke down in tears. It might sound flat or even trite now, but a lot of us were wiping our eyes on our shirtsleeves. There was something in his vulnerability and conviction that involved us all in the struggle with language and its meaning:
one wants it all—
About five years later, when I was living in Oklahoma, Bob came to give a weekend workshop. Most of the participants were rural schoolteachers. Bob greeted me by exclaiming, “When I saw your name on the roster, I wondered if that could be my old friend!” I reeled all weekend in the pleasure of being called Bob’s “old friend.” Meanwhile, my classmates introduced themselves by mostly admitting that they’d really wanted to be in the workshop taught by a local mystery writer, but had been bumped into the poetry class. Bob looked at me and winked. He sat by patiently when the workshop administrator instructed us that “Every poem must include who, what, where, when, and the weather.” Later, that evening, following a very competent but more conventional fiction writer’s reading, Creeley said he was moved by her work and so wanted to share from his own work in a manner that would correspond to her emotional engagement. His was a characteristically charitable assessment of another writer’s work. However, the reading that followed, which included his “rage” poem, was so passionate that it left me stunned. Getting up to read afterward, Philip Lopate chided the audience, “Do you know how fortunate you are to have heard the best poet this country has produced?”
Lopate’s admonishment recurs for me now. This loss feels very personal to me and it comforts me to realize how many people will feel similarly. I can so easily conjure the sound of Bob’s voice and the way his poems sat inside it, but I cannot reconcile myself to the fact of his passing. What comes to mind, if recontextualized, is Kenneth Patchen’s query: “What shall we do without us?”
This (For RC)
Of so many
And the birds
And the wildflowers
And the dead trees
From last year’s fire
This liquid skin
In my throat
This so many pointing
This little grass shack
This little black dot
This little white dove
This her voice
This line upon line
Upon a Bach organ
This seamless tapestry
In my throat
I bark my shin!
This perfect crystal
This lump of ice
When she comes home tonight
I will take her by the waist
And we will kiss
When a writer I admire passes away, I am drawn to the bookshelf to pick him up, to dust him off, to feel his weight, to turn the pages and wonder. Though as a reader I can completely separate from the man (I only dreamed of meeting him), we are acquaintances on the page, where I listen with a flashlight. His passing only weakens my idea of death. It is simple, and nothing: a technicality. For Master Creeley’s words are still breathing, his stanzas are still so vibrant—however “still” they may seem, now, to those who loved him. Ultimately, though we are grieving, his passing is nothing more than a mere tense shift: “Yet I loved, I love,” he writes, wrote.
“No one’s absent in mind None gone
Tell me the truth I want to say
Tell me all you know Will we live
or die As if the world were apart
and whatever tree seen were only here apparent
Answers, live and die. Believe.”
No one’s absent in mind, Mr. Creeley, as you taught us.
I want to begin by acknowledging our loss this week of Robert Creeley. Creeley was one of Duncan’s—in Robin Blaser’s terms—“great companions.” Here’s Duncan from The HD Book: “I very much wanted to be in the current when I was young. I did understand that there was a great impetus that would be important to me in the sense of having contemporaries—I wouldn’t have to cover everything in my own writing. I could be increasingly on my own, providing there was a Creeley also writing and people would be reading us together.” I can’t shake the sense of having lost a key part of the contemporary in Creeley, and find myself turning already, just three days after he died on Wednesday, to Pound’s notion that “all ages are contemporaneous,” or to Blake’s “authors are in eternity”—the contemporary seems to be becoming the past too quickly, but we will no doubt continue reading Creeley with his contemporaries, and as an eternally contemporary poet.
I’m thinking at this moment that the real lesson of Creeley—what he has shown us—is the importance of obsession in creation—a dedication to the poem as all-encompassing as Duncan’s ever was. Creeley shows us how far we can go in compression (it is much farther than we might have thought), how much can be mined out of the line, the stanza, the short poem. The same basic forms, dozens of books, decade after decade. It strikes me, now, that it was an Olsonian “saturation job”—what Olson attempted in his 14 years on Melville, Creeley did for over 50 years on the line, on the Poundian dictum “dichtung: condensare,” showing that small is indeed beautiful, and that poetry is economy, one of the most crucial resources of our “common good.”
A Salvage (for Robert Creeley)
It is an old
the woman who
takes a bear as
to the outside
that is you
that is not you
it is so the
say much is
century I go
out by the trash
cans for pretty
a phrase stolen
out of casualness
then the iconic goes
to douse the lights
I’m writer of
vehicles this evening
the words taking me
to the other
with pen and paper
glinting in her
—Steve Collis, from the opening of a one-day symposium on Robert Duncan, April 2, 2005.
ravens go to sleep
on bleak trees in the
back of beyond
ever far removed from the
taking you in for the night
return to other
elysian fields struck by
yet sharpening pencils
I Knew A Man: Bob’s Bob
I always felt I knew him before I met him, heard his voice in Bob’s easy voicing of his poems. Bob talking about a certain Japanese form that shapes the substance of the material, like reforming a shell to sound into another chamber. Bob talking about the way a poem can play along the various ways a poem can mean. In this case, the form of the moment of the laugh. Bob’s translation: “Spit up./ Look up./ Get wet.” The moment of the laugh is the moment of the poem enacting. That moment is married (Bob’s word, & now there is no other way to say this) in mind with the other Bob’s poem, “I Know A Man.”
I Know a Man
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
I hear this in Bob’s voice, which I’m sure was Creeley’s voice in the way my own is an amalgam of those I love. Of all the many anecdotes Bob told about Creeley & their poets’ friendship, the only trace of that island is Bob’s Japanese poem & Creeley’s lines. Look at them. How goddamn full they are in defiance of their Twiggy nature. Bob was later to claim that the “secret of (his) success” was that he always had, at least, “two & a half poetic ideas per line.” I remember Bob lingering over the other Bob’s lean lines, savoring the “rasa” within. Something delicious and ineffable.
I am sure I will check on my book shelves in the office and mourn the passing of Creeley’s books. I always give my favorites to students to read, not trusting they find what they need to read therein at the local bookstore. Some words just seem to need to be, and to be read by a certain someone at a certain time. Or, at least, this is as agreeable a plot as any. I used to own them all. Most bought used. The last, the book of photos, bought new & with his signature. Creeley’s books were always important to me. The early work especially. Words. Pieces. The bits of love. This poem, my favorite, always there, whispering into my grey matter, but it came to life, a lick of flame under Bob’s breath. This is why this first “showing” of my new books, the hard-bound first edition of all 5 books is called “DRIVE: The First Quartet.” My life, this poet’s life, blessed by breath, has been a constant looking “out where yr going.” I have always known this, since I first read that line at the gate of my gangly adolescence, when I spent my nights daring my death.
Another Bob, Bobbie Louise, would bring Bob often to Boulder. I like Bobbie so much, I would always imagine them young and together in wit & wine, it’s always a lovely love from this distance of time & circumstance. I brought the writer, Daryl Begay, as my “SMART” student, to his reading at the Boulder Theater one summer. He thrilled me with a reading of the old work. “Listen,” I was able to tell Daryl, and I counted out the trochees, dactyl & spondees like a conductor, “Listen to that music.” All the contrapuntals. “That’s jazz.” I say. “hear how he riffs off himself.” He honors his own music in the reading. I am so proud at my scansion, something I am normally not overtly interested in, but I finger the words in the air like the fine bead weavings that they are: such a casual masterpiece.
The first time I ever assert myself in the meeting, it is at the awards banquet for the Lila Wallace (’96?). I go up to him at his table and take the hand he offers standing up, curious to be under that eye & direct gaze. I tell him that I am a poet, and a former student of Bob’s … he interrupts me: “I know who you are. I like your poetry.” It is not the first time we have met, but it the first time I dared to talk to him directly. I know he knows how much pleasure he gives me with those words. It’s in the eyes, and the hands. I go back to my table.
The next time is also in NY, at the Online Poetry Classroom workshop. I am there as one of the poets for Colorado along with Aaron Abeyta. It’s the first time I fall ill with this stomach thing. I end up having to spend all night in emergency in some NYC ER. They lock me in a room with bullet-proof glass for my own “protection.” I share the room with a 93 year old former English teacher to kids in the Bronx who has broken her hip falling down & is without family or friends. We talk teaching through her moans & my dog-retching. She will die penniless, she says, but would do it again. I miss Eleni’s talk, as I am hospitalized, but manage to (miraculously!) stave the dry-heaves & nausea during Bob’s talk. He sympathizes with my illness, and smiles at me often while he talks—at least I fancy he did, there was that thing with his eye, don’t you know.
There are four types of men with 4 modes of operating: They ignore you. They sexualize you. They infantilize you. They treat you like a human being. Most men, and poets by extension, dwell densely in the former three categories, like clusters of flotsam. Of the 3, I prefer the former. Bob Creeley, like Bob Hass, was of the latter.
“If you have friends/ make sure yr/ good to them.”—lines from one of RCs poems heard from reading he did at the Kelly Writers House so ignore the linneation.
Here’s some notes from Creeley’s talk to teachers that July 17, 2001.
Poetry is “not what you’d like to have happen …, but what happens.”
And what I found most remarkable about his talk, his discussion of the various levels one keeps aloft (my word) in the poem, that contrapuntal logic, not just music, in the poem, the fugue of it’s happening:
There is an “upper limit,” the “music” of the poem and a “lower limit,” the “speech” of the poem. This from Zukofsky. His advice: “Listen to the sound that it makes.”
Not rely upon the nouns. “Things change by use and condition.” In the same way there is a upper & lower limit, there is a “playful and intense” range within the poem, simultaneous & interrelational.
It is the poet’s task (talent?) to “whet that particular pleasure, interest.” “You don’t have to get the history (in a poem), just the feeling inherent.” In order “to give it a particularity.”
He cited Wesling’s (?) The New Poetries. I was struck by his talking at length about this “particularity” the poem hones, the “particularity of the poet versus the singularity of science.” The poem presents a single case and this “single case is not useful to science.” The masterpiece of the poem with its Derrida stammer of awe at the end, the single masterpiece with its gong of knowing resonating for a lifetime in the end. I make a note in the margin about the “masterpiece” as this “poet’s particularity,” Heidegger’s “dwelling” in a word.
(Style?) as a matter of “to be in or out of its reading.”
And, “The world will appear/ as it always was.” (RC)
“I used to think of age/ as a lessening.” (RC) Now I hear that line as “a lessoning.” Robert Creeley’s life and work was a lessoning. He was not a teacher as much as he was, as so many good poets are, a living lesson. Lived in the way he broke the line.
“so now it’s for me.”—Robert Creeley, d. 3/30/05.
Thank you, Bob, for breathing into Bob.
“Home might be still
the happiest place on earth.”—RC
—Lorna Dee Cervantes
Robert Creeley in Conversation with Leonard Schwartz
24 November, 2003, transcribed by Angela Buck
Excerpt from a radio interview originally conducted on 24 November 24, 2003, on “Cross-Cultural Poetics,” KAOS 89.3 FM, Olympia, Washington State, USA. The poem Robert Creeley reads during this interview is from his new collection, If I Were Writing This, published by New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York. The rest of the interview can be read at: http://jacketmagazine.com/25/creeley-iv.html
I take Creeley’s insistence in the interview that we continue to demand that someone turn on the light to be his charge to us, at all levels of our lives in language. His generosity, his conversation, and his next poem will all be too painfully absent.
LS : The famous Creeley concision is certainly here in this book as well. There’s a poem entitled, “John’s Song.” I wondered if you could read that for us.
Robert Creeley: This is an homage, not an homage in the dull sense, but both a respect and an echo of John Taggart’s extraordinary means of writing. He spent a lot of time both listening and thinking as to how one could structure in terms of an actual music or echo, a physical overlay of that kind. And that’s been a preoccupation of his for a long time now. If one visits John at home, he has an exquisite sound system. So, for example, we sat down in this terrific room, and “wow,” off you go! I love that way he paces, so a couple of years ago when friends in common were editing an issue of a magazine in his respect and asked for something, it’s what I came up with. There’s a sad information in the poem, but it’s certainly a respect of what John can do. I wish I could do it as well.
for John Taggart
If ever there is
if ever, if ever
there is, if ever there is.
If ever there is
other than war, other
than where war was, if ever there is.
If ever there is
no war, no more war, no other than us
where war was, where it was.
No more war, dear brother,
no more, no more war
if ever there is.
LS: The poem of Taggart’s I think of when I read this is that extraordinary piece of his, “Twenty-one Times,” where he takes the word, “napalm,” which is such a beautiful word, “napalm,” such a beautiful word coming off the tongue, with such a horrific meaning, and he just runs it through the poem twenty-one times, so that the aestheticizing quality of language is displayed for us over and against what the content names or what the word names. Of course, now we’re in a similar situation to the one in which Taggart had to write napalm twenty-one times. What is your sense of it, Robert? What is one to do in this mine field of language that has been created for us by the [George W.] Bush administration?
RC: I do think that we have to keep active and keep insisting, keep the circle unbroken. I think it became hard after the war was underway to keep that particularity with the same energy. I remember Amiri Baraka and I were reading with others for U.N World Poetry Day at Baruch College in Manhattan. Simultaneous with that reading was advice from Bush’s administration that the war had begun.
When the war actually started, there was a shock, and a loss of coherence, for a time. There were conflicting imaginations as to what now was either effective or even permitted, lots of sad confusion, which hasn’t, as yet, permitted the same energy. The confusion still very much effects senses as to how to successfully confront the administration with the obvious real questions which should be asked. So, I think, as a poet, one keeps using whatever public voice poetry can have, and it certainly can have one. Keep talking. As both a teacher and poet, I certainly try to do that. Brighten the corner where you are … At least demand that somebody turn on the light.
for Robert Creeley
What you won’t see today:
juniper’s tough skein.
have grown syntax—
tassels and bells—
wings to be among.
The present is cupped
by a small effort
its muscular surround.
You’re left out.
Step through the mirror,
faint with the old desire.
Want it again,
never mind who’s the friend.
Say yes to the wasted
empty places. The guesses
Were as good as any.
I just found out that Robert Creeley died. I’d been working.
At some point in 1997, I began writing to him about questions I had about poetry. I began those letters Dear Mr. Robert Creeley. Then, because of an interview I did with him, and transcribing it, it became Dear Robert Creeley. It stayed that way until I asked him to write a little thing for my first and only book. He did so, happily. Which was thrilling, because I admired his work so much and who he was beyond the work. He did the blurb, a very nice gesture, and then he began signing his name Bob in e-mails. I think I wrote a few e-mails to him as Dear Bob, but I never felt comfortable doing so. During the middle of these name fluctuations, my girlfriend and I named our Great Dane, Creeley. I wrote to tell him, and he was very honored, as he said. He then related stories about his Great Danes when he was younger.
What I mean to say by this, is that he was always—and I mean always—respectful and polite and happy to help me, a person he hardly knew. In fact, just now I am remembering the night he read in Syracuse for the Raymond Carver Series, and some of us went to a room for informal chitchat before we went out to dinner. He was aware that I wanted to do an interview with him for Salt Hill, the literary magazine run by the graduate students in the MFA program at Syracuse University. He knew this, but he didn’t know who I was, until I left the room with him and Chris Kennedy, as we were going to a local restaurant, Over the Moon, now defunct. It was raining, as I remember it, and it was dark. Chris and Robert walked ahead of me, as I was entirely quiet and nervous about not making an ass out of myself. As I got near to Chris’s car, Creeley turned to me and said, “You must be James Wagner.” I said I was. He then did something that sums up my encounters with him. He moved from the side of the front seat passenger door, still standing outside, and came to the rear passenger side door and opened it for me. For me? I thought. (Who the hell am I?) I shyly said, “Thank you.” It relaxed me a great deal. We all got into the car, drove away in the rain, while I sat staring, dumbstruck, at the back of Creeley’s head.
It’s a sad day for American letters, and I’m getting sadder just writing this. He was an important—even crucial—figure for me, and I just want to make that known, make that existent.
Thank you for your life and work, and your example, Bob. Best as ever, and Onward!
I’m an MFA student here at Brown University and had the privilege of sitting in on one of Creeley’s classes last year, specifically the one about the Black Mountain School. I took pretty explicit notes a couple days, listening to Creeley go on as only he could go on, and ended up with a poem. What was amazing to me is that even though it really sounded like he was going away from whatever he was talking about, looking back at the notes, and then putting them together, everything connected.
Education and what does one need to know? A man misparks his car. It is
what you know maybe who you know where you’re from and born and shared.
A poem a page and a half a poem called “The Rose”. He really liked it. To
emphasize content and method, sorry. To emphasize method and not so much
Could not draw expected to fail. How can you tell the painting is finished?
When there is nothing more to do, to know that fact spells art.
A few students there were “Russian Icebergs.” I trained to avoid their
method. A sheet of butcher paper sat for a week, to study found art and
For love “one would be writing what one knows without even knowing it.”
Fifteen miles from somewhere, “Years later I’m still learning what she
Terrific sense bit a young man. He walked around the innings all afternoon
until the crisis seemed to open up. At odds and you know it hasn’t always
You know to walk in the woods, you can understand. There’s us at the gate
and perception conjoins, and intelligence. Why can’t it just disappear?
One can’t do both—create these things and mean what we say.
Reconfiguration? No, already out there. We were responsible.
My sadness about the death of this wonderful mentor and great poet and fine friend is all but inexpressible. All I can do is continue to read and meditate on the work, live by his wisdom and example when the moments arise, and remember Robert Creeley for one of the many honorable things he was: the most generous of men.
Bob Creeley was the first contributor to Conjunctions in the first issue, and contributed a poem in honor of James Laughlin, a generous occasional poem in tribute of an elder statesman back then, a man who’d given so much of his life to poetry. Robert is also a contributor to the current issue, Beyond Arcadia, in which, again with typical generosity, he introduces the work of a young poet. Generosity of spirit is the defining phrase for my dear friend and mentor Creeley. He bore his beliefs in an everyday way on his sleeve, in his every gesture. He was so inspiring.
A story. There are so many, but this is one of them. He was to give a reading in New York for an anniversary issue of Conjunctions, at the New School. A snowstorm blanketed the eastern states and his flight from Buffalo to New York was cancelled. What did he do? Did he telephone his regrets, cancel like so many of us might under the circumstances? He and Penelope got in their car and drove all day long through rough weather. He arrived just in time and read to an adoring and fortunate crowd from his poem “Pictures.” The fourth stanza:
If one looks back
or thinks to look
in that uselessly opaque direction
little enough’s ever there.
What is it one stares into,
thinks still to recover
as it all fades out—
I call to you brutally.
I remember the day we met
I remember how you sat, impatient
to get out.
Back is no direction …
Life is the river
we’ve carried with us.
These are only a few of the words that he, in his genius, assembled for a moment of truthsaying. They carry his spirit forth for the rest of us still in the river. He was a hero of mine. I adored Bob Creeley as a man and I embrace with humility what he’s left me, left all of us, as a poet.
As he himself once wrote, “Once started nothing stops.”
Bless you, Creeley.
Robert Creeley was what we mean when we put together words like “Major American Poet.”
Robert transcended groups of poets; transcended in his work and in his person, I think, even time; and in the end he was nothing if not SINGULAR—individuated mostly by carrying in his being the humanity of his being nothing special, or more special than any one, any thing, any other dog.
We were lucky at the Writing Seminars at Bennington to have him visit us twice in the last twelve years, once alone and once with Penny and their dog. Robert delivered stunning talks, which reminded me that real education is listening to a great mind wander. His did. His mind was so fine that it seldom lit upon a single thing, and his heart was a trembling that any one around him could feel.
We have tried at the Writing Seminars to do something akin to what Creeley and company brought to life at Black Mountain College. While he was at Bennington once, Robert told me we had done something of it. That meant everything to me, generationally.
“I Know a Man” is an inarguably great poem that will outlast all of us here now. Great to see it emblazoned in the window of Poet’s House here in New York. I’ve heard tell that Bill Murray paid to have it put there. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds just right for Creeley.
From a poem called “Four Days in Vermont”:
… last empty goodbye
Put hand on her head
good dog, good dog
feel her gone.
When Joanna Howard and I first arrived in Providence to teach at Brown, I had never met Creeley. We were both in such awe of him and his work that we had no idea how to approach him. In fact, he was the one who approached us when, at a party, he came up to introduce himself and tell us he’d read a piece we’d written on a friend of his, Ann Quin, and was touched by it. He was immediately wonderful and human and disarming. Since Bob and Pen arrived at Brown at the same time we did, we felt (and still feel) despite age and career differences, as if we were in the same position—in a new place, the new hires, trying to reestablish a social group—and we ended up doing a great deal with him and Pen. I remember, the week before classes began, Bob and I both sitting in a room where we had been told by the university that, as the new hires, we had to go to receive instruction on how to teach properly, both of us after about five minutes trying to figure out some polite way to get out of the room before the five hour session was over. We ended up spending a little time in Maine with them—both of them were terrific with my kids—where Bob one quiet evening let us read some of the letters Quin had sent to him, and they were wonderful to us when our car broke down and we ended up having to stay a little longer. Bob and Pen made the transition to the East coast much smoother for us than it would ever have been without them, and we remain dearly attached and grateful to both of them. We will both miss Bob tremendously.
Robert Creeley personally provided support for almost every poet I know. That support has now disappeared, and we must look elsewhere—to each other—hoping for something that can approach what he gave.
In terms of poetry, his was an exemplary career, not only in the extent of his production and longevity, but more importantly in his ability, while remaining within the scope of his favored concerns and modes, constantly to re-invent his poetic. I think that ability came from his involvement with modernism, though he went beyond Modernism. I’m thinking of the modernism of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, whom he loved, of the ability to rest completely in the present.
There is, particularly in his later poems, substantial forethought of death, to which the actual fact gives dramatic artistic closure. There is also memory. But the act of writing, it seems to me, always happened in the present.
Then there is the life lesson I take from Creeley—that a person’s true value is what he or she creates for others. That may be professionally, it may be through their work, or it may be equally through basic acts of kindness.
I was privileged once to give a reading with Robert Creeley. To introduce my reading, I said a few words about my poems and wanted to add something about my respect for Creeley. I said that he was a friend and a—I was going to say “mentor,” but he wouldn’t let me get that formal. He cut me off with “friend.” So that’s what he was—“a friend and—a friend.”
—Vincent Katz, from a reading at the Poetry Project, March 30, 2005
In 2000, I sent out an email to an undisclosed recipient list about the presidential election. I was stumping for Gore and encouraging people in key states to beware the Nader. I forget how I got names for the list, but it was bad form. The Aga Khan’s office sent me an auto-reply that, for its pith and diplomacy, was none too nice. Some people sent back emails that said REMOVE! Unsubscribe! I felt bad, especially since unsubscribe seemed like the very word I wanted to fight against. Do not absent yourself from the debate and all that. And then a few days later, Robert Creeley wrote me. I was floored. Robert Creeley in my inbox! He addressed me as Ms Maazel. He said he appreciated my efforts, but that he was voting for Nader. And so began one of the more moving email exchanges I’ve had since. We argued. I was caustic, he was gentle. I said he was helping to elect the enemy since Nader had no chance; he said he was voting his conscience, and that it felt good. That there comes a time when the conscience trumps fallout. He was speaking from the vantage of having spent his life producing work that talks to people. I was speaking from no vantage whatsoever. If I’m stupid now, I was even more stupid then, and yet there was Mr. Creeley, very much subscribed to his ethics, his heart, and, in some fashion, to me. And this was generosity itself. And also, it seems, what an artist is always wanting his work to do: to sign on, engage, give and receive. In the end, Creeley did not change my mind; he did something better.
I only met Creeley a couple of times. Heard him read maybe three times. Read a bunch of the poems in fits and starts. Many other people, most other people, have much more claim to his memory and his legacy. Still, I’m on the hunt for the examples of how to be a writer in the world, how to do this job without turning into some kind of self-righteous cardboard version of the cultured person, or one the other hand, without losing heart and/or withering up. I took to Creeley immediately, in my own way, upon encountering him. Because I’m thirsty for eminent people I can believe in unreservedly. A perfect historical example, for me, is Michel de Montaigne, whose curiosity and sense of wonder never wavered, and who found in the elucidation of himself lessons that have lasted five hundred years. Creeley was sort of the twentieth (or twenty-first) century Montaigne. Creeley was what Montaigne would have been if he ended up getting reborn, you know, in the Hindu sense (the concept is not so outlandish if you look at some of Creeley’s influences during the Black Mountain period, etc.), as an American poet who lived through WWII and the upheavals of the fifties, sixties, seventies. What never failed Creeley, the way it looks to this fan, was his elemental honesty. I keep thinking about his Writers at Work interview, where you can feel the vulnerability and the consideration in his point of view, his way of deflecting hagiography and attention, as in this passage where he tries to put down a line of questioning about Creeley acolytes, “Imitation is a way of gaining articulation. It is the way one learns, by having the intimate possibility of some master like Williams or Pound. Writing poems in those modes was a great instruction to me when I began to ‘feel’ what Williams was doing as well as ‘understand’ it. This imitative phase is a natural thing in artists … It is one way to learn, and it’s the way I would respect, coming as I do from a rural background where learning to plow is both watching someone else do it and then taking the handle of the plow.” And what about that amazing answer to the question about how long the poems take? “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. So that if it ‘goes’ or, rather, ‘comes’ in an opening way, it continues until it closes, and that’s usually when I stop. It’s awfully hard for me to give a sense of actual time because as I said earlier, I’m not sure of time in writing.” These answers, typed in by me, don’t capture the push and pull of the interviews, where you can feel the subject struggling with the apparatus of the dialogue, wanting to somehow give himself to the genuineness of his experience, and perhaps feeling that the apparatus is in the way. Inviting questions about his complicated early life, no matter how troubling, turning aside some of the more abstract questions about craft, even though they’d be easy enough to answer. A man first, a person who can say that human relationships are his only subject, that’s the writer I admire without reservation, the kind whose passing leaves a wound, the kind who cared less about the vicissitudes of literary culture than about who he was in the world. His was a kind of moral vision, I figure, and it led naturally to the amazing lines he wrote, e.g., “So that’s you, man,/or me. I make it as I can,/I pick up, I go/faster than they know/Out the door, the street like a night,/any night, and no one in sight.” I was working in Marfa, TX, where Creeley spent his last days, about a year ago. A profound place for me, a place of unremitting emptiness, just the kind of place Creeley described when articulating the poet’s locale, “that place where one is open, where a sense of defensiveness or insecurity and all the other complexes of response to place can be finally dropped.” Maybe he wasn’t there long, but Marfa already feels, in my recollection about that place, of Robert Creeley, human being.
I discovered Robert Creeley’s poetry by chance. While browsing the shelves at St. Mark’s Bookshop one evening, my eye was caught by the mild yellow color on the cover of his Collected Poems: 1945-1975. The photo of Creeley there depicts a weathered face, his right eye patiently gazing away from the camera. An inkling of the poet’s grace came over me as I inspected it, and variations on the mode of that feeling are what his work has produced in me over the years.
The first poem I read, and still one of my favorites, was “The Bird”:
What did you say to me
that I had not heard.
She said she saw
a small bird.
Where was it.
In a tree.
Ah, he said, I thought
you spoke to me.
I was immediately struck by Creeley’s sense of compression, his ability to evoke essences, the whatness of birds and trees, in so few words. And I was dumbstruck by the organic unity of his lines, the way they naturally converse with and complement one another. His poems aren’t made things at all: they are life itself. I am humbled by their breath.
My best memory of Robert is of after a reading I gave here at Brown of two of my Roger Pellett “translations” of his poems into Cambridge-school (i.e. Prynne-esque) “English.” First, I would read the original Creeley poems—“I Knew a Man” and “For love”—in my best American accent, and then the two inflated, baroque translations in a terrible parody of an English accent. I knew he was in the audience—didn’t have any idea what he would think.
I’ll never forget how, after all the readings were done and I was stumbling awkwardly toward the exit as one does after a reading (I’m always afraid of catching eyes with someone I might have bored for twenty minutes), the crowd parted (or seemed to part!) and there was Robert with arms extended, ready to embrace me—seemingly as a brother, or as a lost friend. I heard later that I had given him a good belly laugh, which meant the world to me though I always pretend to never believe it—it would be like a matchstick claiming to have impressed, however briefly, the sun with its “brightness.”
If this sounds like a corny metaphor, think that, when reading those Creeley poems, I never felt quite so “American,” even welcomed to the American language (even if, to myself, I invariably sank into an Eileen Myles accent when tripping over those crazy, but so accurate, enjambments—which is to say, still acting a bit). Creeley, I guess, found that language, and made it available for all of us, even, or especially, the bookish ones who would not welcome turning their heads up from their Herrick or Donne or whatever—he was literally a fount of language, and always available that way, and hence made writing for one’s time, simply and nobly, available.
Unfortunately, I never got to know him very well here at Brown—I’ve only been here since September—and I’ve always been much too shy to introduce myself to him on those many occasions when I went to see him read in New York. In fact, I was too shy to re-introduce myself even after the aforementioned hug, but was looking forward to the occasion when he and I (and Mike Gizzi and Mairead Byrne and the rest of the cadre of misfit poets here in Providence) would sit in rocking chairs on a front porch watching the light turn and hearing stories about Joel Oppenheimer and the chicken farm. It might be worth mentioning, in this regard, that the last time I saw him speak in New York was at the John Wieners memorial, where he conjured up the late poet so beautifully, honestly and effortlessly.
Appended to this is a very short poem I wrote that might sound a little bitter or pessimistic, but this is just an affect—I’m happily in love. I just wanted to have the glaringest spotlight on the pedestal where Robert rightly belongs!
For Robert Creeley
March 30, 2005
Someone who managed to love and be loved
I first encountered Creeley when I was twenty years old, living in the East Village, at the start of the Saint Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry Project in 1966, going to workshops offered by Joel Oppenheimer. Although only a few years older than Joel, Creeley had been Joel’s teacher at Black Mountain College, along with Charles Olson. Joel pounded these writers into us the way a boxing trainer would throw a heavy ball into a stomach to make it firmer. He wanted our minds to be firmer with reading Robert Creeley. Frankly, I didn’t get it at first. I am not sure where or when I did get it, but I know it was some time later, and I believe it happened hearing Creeley read at one of the Wednesday night readings at Saint Mark’s Church. I have heard some people say that listening to him read was painful; but I was not one of those whingers. To me straight away, he was the best reader I ever heard, and poems that did not make sense on the page suddenly made eminent sense out loud and on the hoof, as actors say, who try to make sense of a line of dramatic poetry by Shakespeare. Out loud and on the hoof Creeley was da man!
Poets are known by their words but also by their influence. I think of a short poem like “I Know a Man,” lovely in its spokenness, drunken in its rhythms, jagged like a broken beer bottle, and how many writers borrowed from it to make their works richer. Gilbert Sorrentino borrowed from the second stanza, and came out with the title of his first book of poems, The Darkness Surrounds Us. Jeremy Larner borrowed from the fourth and last stanza, and came off with the title for his novel, Drive, He Said. How many of us, thinking we had found the holy grail, wrote poems in those rhythms, only to realize we were borrowing from Robert Creeley, not once or twice, but once again. Those rhythms were jazzy and improvisational, spontaneous bop prosody if ever there was such a thing. His own speech was filled with these rhythms, and he kept that hipster language of the jazz world until the end, employing the word “like” in the oddest, most perfect ways, not as a link between two words to create metaphor, but as a way to punctuate his spoken sentences, the way others might use a comma. Besides the reach of his enormous influence I will forever admire Creeley’s ability to acknowledge the writers who influenced him and the grace with which he was so willing to acknowledge younger writers. I learned from Robert Creeley that generosity is also a literary value, too.
A number of years ago I was teaching at Princeton University, and invariably when a writer came to the campus, some faculty member threw a party. Such was the case when Creeley appeared there. Afterward, surrounded by friends, admirers, and sycophants, he broke away from this group of influential academics and asked me, upon hearing my name, if I were the author of … He mentioned a book of essays I had published, and since I had quoted from some of his own poetry in writing about several of the writers, I had been in a brief correspondence with him. Even in terms of permissions to quote work, he was generous, and he had allowed me a range of quotations beyond his publisher’s restrictions. Now he told me how much he admired the essays. I still remember those faces around him, looking at me, wondering who I was and what was this book of essays that Bob Creeley was enthusing over. “Like, like,” he said, “it was great, man.” That generosity of spirit was with Robert Creeley until the end. I’ll miss him, just the way I still miss Joel Oppenheimer, and how I miss Cubby Selby, who died last year. Creeley was the real deal, and yet he was ever present, available, right there. He never seemed unapproachable, the after-life of a living legend; rather he was always the latest phase, the newest invention of a living legend. He was every inch a great poet. How lucky we all were to know him.
ON THE ROAD W/O LUGGAGE
Now it’s mostly the rest of us
Persisting somehow in our own ways
Before sunset the birds fly freely
Just for the sake of it, before roosting for the night—
Chimney smoke at dawn merges with bluing sky
It was 2000 & I was enrolled in The School of the Art Institute of Chicago & Robert Creeley was coming to read. I got to pick up him from the airport (when you were still allowed at the gates). Somewhere down the highway, just past North Avenue, I realized that Robert fucking Creeley is sitting in my car, not as a great american poet, not as one of my heroes, but some old dude that’s discussing the merits of MC Paul Barman with me. Top five moment of my life. Not only a poetic model, but a model for how to be an artist, a creator, in the most generous ways possible.
University of Denver
You are as the man as
We wander as lost as
your eye and
But we are all as
We are as outraged as
you are as
sad as you
as we are
here in darkness
but going as
This world was poorer already
In memoriam: Robert Creeley
You’re already too much
missed. (The world
has lost more already,
It’s already been
a week. Tidings
of magpies gather
in greening fields.
It’s Spring now
and daylight has been
saved. So drive back
in your big goddamn
still a lost hour
out there somewhere
If you have ever been to Buffalo, where Bob lived for decades, surely you understand why he was a beloved and important poet. It is quite possibly the bleakest of all the rust-belt cities, certainly the bleakest of the several where I have lived. What are words for if not to find something helpful in that?
That Bob’s poetry was close to a kind of music or speech is clear enough, a cliche really. But I never really felt that was the point. Why then bother to play real music? It is the thoughts which count, more like keeping them one step ahead of his darkest thoughts. And a syntactical killer instinct to dispel any poise.
Bob was also a true friend, always in it together. The six years I knew him are a damn-near blank otherwise. But he poured a good drink for me when I was down, more than once, and he didn’t care to argue when I said poetry is dead. A true friend.
The tremor many know who have heard Bob read--that was real, and it pulled you in. It was worse than despair, though. You have to wonder if he got to heaven.
Endings minus one
Not that you want to dwell
beyond the sea, or even across
the dial, especially when bags on little
shoulders guide in the middle through
thud of door into wet yellow
leaves blown into unacknowledged
corners of concrete waiting
in the saddle of sunset smooches, back
in the double crossed exit lurks
in dark alleys and around burdens
of unintentional flourish’s promise
takes you home by the surest
route through bits and pieces
of what’s left us
medulla’s final capitulation, last
laboured air unwilling millennia
relinquish to waiting silence we
fill our ears against, pumping
endless tonic chords into
sun’s staggering adventure or even
noise to signal ratio has to pass
for apocalyptic pleasure’s no go
is no more sentence than judged
fit to stand trial by fire
leaks, right at that crack where
earth and sky part on the last
morning, nothing more final
than beginning each moment
of light’s sudden shaft through
all that space as the stranger
of whatever options you can marshal
against it comes up
It comes up
but that’s not the end
of evasive application’s trajection
smears edges’ unbearable
proposition into less definite
beginnings which name no other
opening than offering another
occasion to sing it
The first and only time I heard Creeley read was at the 20th anniversary Conjunctions reading at the New School in January 2002. After a few opening remarks, Bradford Morrow announced that Penelope Creeley had called him that morning saying that the Buffalo airport had been shut down due to a major snow storm but that she and Creeley were getting in the car and would do their best to make it to the reading in time. Just as Morrow finished, a young man seated in the row in front of me (Creeley’s son, it turned out) shouted out, cell phone in hand, “He’s on Thirtieth Street!” About half an hour into the reading, Creeley slipped in through the rear of the auditorium and then, at a break between readers, walked to the front to sit with the others gathered to read that evening: Robert Coover, Ann Lauterbach, John Edgar Wideman, Rick Moody, and Joyce Carol Oates. Creeley, who concluded that night’s celebration, read all the poems he had ever published in Conjunctions. As I had never heard the man read before, I had no real idea what to expect. What I do know is that by the time Creeley finished I was totally floored. A friend’s comment perhaps best sums up Creeley’s performance—his power, his presence. As Creeley concluded reading “Four Days in Vermont” (I think), my friend turned to me and said, “It’s like being in a fucking Cezanne!” I’m sure I had to get back up to school that night to do homework and finish papers, but after the reading all I was able to do was walk around Manhattan in the rain.
I don’t know why I took several months to write Creeley a thank you letter for driving through a blizzard that night to make it down for the reading. I guess—as just a college freshman, a “fan”—I felt intimidated by the notion of the man—“Creeley the Great,” or whatever. But once I did get a proper thank you sent out, I received a response in less than a week. On a small pre-stamped postcard, he wrote, “Thank you for your letter. One keeps the faith as best one can—neither piously nor politically. The company I’ve had as a poet has been so terrific—Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Dorn, Louis Zukofsky, and on and on. So it matters to stand up and be counted.”
For Robert Creeley, 1926-2005
What a strange place for
Bob to pass in … that desert palace
in the panhandle,
the Great Permian Basin, ancient sea bed
a billion years old
“Bob was quite certain this was the end of the road –
barely able to breathe
even on strong oxygen,
racked by coughing fits. We said goodbye.”
He just had this way,
as straight as the daylight, honest & sensitive,
Over & out
Helluva town to get lost in too—
which I did once,
left behind by a bus.
than me in Odessa
But hitching through once on a truck wrecker,
we stopped, I got out, & down at my feet
was a mold of a clam shell,
millions of years old. I still have it.
Creeley’s nearly last words:
Time to go.”
with one hand over
your missing eye
punching out each word in a static crawl
more like Miles cool
than Bird-hot bop
who was I to him
but he recognized me
eight years after we met
It’s when I can’t sleep that
these crazy ideas come to my head
like the death that crept into your poetry, late
but had always looked over your shoulder like
that damned bird in a photograph I saw of you
in a college anthology, 1976,
death in your poem for Max Finstein,
killed in a plane
death grimly smiling
like it knew your “occasion
of its particular agency”
the jazz in your head was the
into the crawl space of void
defying death in the bar fights of youth
& the women you balled, defying death
when you called out
“‘drive,’ he sd,
‘for christ’s sake
look out where you’re going’”
a poetry I did not like,
not knowing how a bad edit job
can kill a poet
(“still life with anthologist”)
but later dug, hearing your sound
your abstract take on the concrete
& clipped New England speech
of the absolute new
& your picture of Lancelot:
“you are in a wood
on a horse, bleeding
the story is true”
†The quoted words near the beginning are from Anselm Hollo & the “nearly last words” were reported by Reed Bye.
It’s been lovely to read the gathering remembrances. I am sure many of us each have, at least, one or two: There is the person. There is person at what age you first heard him read publicly and/or first read one particular poem in print. First encountered him socially or not; then there is the question of what work was important, most influential on one’s own.
I remember Creeley once say of language, “no one owns it”—which made him a champion of others in practice, as well as leery of those invested in hierarchical claims. His loyalty was clearly to the art of words, the art of their use. And those spaces in-between. Perhaps similar to Giacometti’s sculptures, one is always aware of the negative (perhaps anxious) space that surrounds the work, the poem’s material—that something is being made (constructed), hard and not gratuitous.
And yet there is the loving ’charm’—where ’charm’ means song—and the devotion is constant—yet the outcome may—as with, say, Miles Davis—not resemble song in any familiar or predictable sense. His awareness and use of the evidence, the things seen and heard in the world assure a breach, one that brings the ear and eye up short, mesmerized. And the love of delivering it, making it public, “a gift, for love.”
And beyond or with the work who can ever forget his social presence—a magnetism that brought people up to their best, everyone, in my experience, immediate and alert to each word in the air. A place honored where the poem became as valid as any door through which one may enter to receive a particular gift, where no place else could be more interesting to live and abide.
I look forward to hearing more stories. And staying with his work.
I—as I am sure of most of us—will miss him dearly.
i never told you about
the time i went to a girlfriend’s
house and her mother
said, “so you’re
the Creeley expert …
explain to me what the
hell this is about.” she
was holding an
of a book of yours
that you had handed
a NYC high school
the undergrad seminar
where we read
Paul Auster and
you told us about how
you came to know him—
a fan letter after reading
The New York Trilogy?
you didn’t know
why writers should
complain so about writing.
“if it’s painful,
don’t do it. do
something else.” simple.
i was too shy
to speak up in
your Olson seminar (i
was too shy to
show up) and i asked
Jen for summations
and dutifully read very
important books as
just the same, you and i
met somehow, in a
down to earth folksy way,
in the way you met
so many of us, and you
were generous at
like how you
told me about naropa
and a note
in the mail
the next day.
and i admired
that won’t start.
and now i think
is a truth, a
who where and
how a body
and it’s useful,
truly, this little
all the time.
the mower a lump
in your yard,
as we spoke,
it was a gift.
april 15, 2005
You Got a Song, Man
For Robert Creeley (1926–2005)
You told me the son of Acton’s town nurse
would never cross the border
into Concord, where the Revolution
left great houses standing on Main Street.
Yet we crossed into Concord, walking
through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
to greet Thoreau, his stone
stamped with the word Henry
jutting like a gray thumbnail
down the path from Emerson
and his boulder of granite.
We remembered Henry’s night in jail,
refusing tax for the Mexican War,
and I could see you hunched with him,
loaning Henry a cigarette, explaining
the perpetual wink of your eye
lost after the windshield
burst in your boyhood face.
When Emerson arrived, bail in hand,
to ask what you and Henry
were doing in there, you would say:
You got a song, man, sing it.
You got a bell, man, ring it.
You hurried off to Henry in his cell
before the trees could bring their flowers
back to Sleepy Hollow.
You sent your last letter months ago
about the poems you could not write,
no words to sing when the president swears
that God breathes the psalms of armies in his ear,
and flags twirl by the millions
to fascinate us like dogs at the dinner table.
You apologized for what you could not say,
as if the words were missing teeth
you searched for with your tongue,
and then a poem flashed across the page,
breaking news of music interrupting news of war:
You got a song, man, sing it.
You got a bell, man, ring it.
Today you died two thousand miles from Sleepy Hollow,
somewhere near the border with Mexico,
the map Thoreau wandered only in jailhouse sleep.
Your lungs folded their wings in a land of drought
and barbed wire, boxcars swaying like drunks at 3 AM
and unexplained lights hovering in the desert.
You said: There’s a lot of places out there, friend,
so you would go, smuggling a suitcase of words
across every border carved by the heel
of mapmakers and conquerors, because
you had an all-night conversation with the world,
hearing the beat of unsung poems in every voice,
visiting the haunted rooms in every face.
Drive, you said, because poets must
bring the news to the next town:
You got a song, man, sing it.
You got a bell, man, ring it.
His voice whistles in my ear, that intense, incantory whistle at the back of it, as if pleading against the wind, and the shy glance downward—the weight of what he was speaking, bent his imposing lank frame with it like a dousing rod to his inspiration. I can’t summon back in memory the first time I met Robert Creeley. It must have been during one of the meetings on reforming the English curriculum that the novelist, John Hawkes, and his mentor, Albert J. Guerard (mine as well), were arranging in the middle of the 1960s. I have a shadowy sense of Bob at one of those gatherings, as Hawkes drew writers like Susan Sontag, Denise Levertov, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, Anne Sexton, together to talk about how to change the way literature was taught. I know exactly, though, when he drew me toward him in a friendship that would change my work. It was in the wake of my mother’s death, in 1967. For months I was going around in circles, unable to shake the grief. I must have said something to Bob, in conversation at a lunch discovering that we were both from Massachusetts, betrayed the state of confusion and fear spinning in my head. With the extravagant generosity that characterized him (to quote Yeats whom Creeley speaks as one of his influences), “A kind/ that is not natural in an age like this”), Bob invited me to come and spend a few days with him in Buffalo, where he had begun to teach. He was married to Bobbie, at the time, and she was a gracious hostess to a guest whom neither of them knew, relatively, a kid, who on a mad instinct decided to follow up on an invitation he couldn’t quite believe in, come to Buffalo for a few days, parking himself in their house. I followed Bob around, talking, non-stop, only slowly appreciating the way his observations imposed on me the responsibility to stop and listen.
I knew nothing about Black Mountain, Charles Olson, or Robert Creeley’s poetry. I just felt his authority in the silences, and an aura of decorum and danger, which made his company compelling. The house they had in Buffalo in the 1960s, I recall as large, handsome, but it was the surfaces that stick with me. They reflected Bob’s sense of order, the simplicity that he cultivated, a backdrop to the half-whispered, intense conversation, which I had to come close to catch, then revolve two or three times, to understand. The voice was bacchic, wild, and sent one in a different direction. I admired the almost profligate attitude he had toward time, spending long hours with me rather than at his desk (almost a shock when he broke off at one point to go upstairs), and I left Buffalo, with sense of having tapped a source of inexhaustible, tonic thought. Bobbie was part of this too—she extended herself in a way that brought you into their family. I felt some calm returning to me when I headed back to New York City.
I had no idea why he found me interesting, and yet as I talked about my childhood on Dorchester’s Blue Hill Avenue, my mother, he shared details about his own, and I felt the pull that his family, his father, his own boyhood, had on him. Yes we had both gone to Harvard, but that wasn’t what we shared. It was rather a sense of a neglected Bay State, a backyard Commonwealth that didn’t get into the writing of its popular writers, like John Updike’s, or poets like Lowell, and certainly eluded the acknowledged masters of an earlier New England, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Only in the journals of Thoreau was there familiar ground for me—the overt, against-the-grain sympathies, and the rubbing up against that rough side of the New England lumber. In conversation with Creeley and particularly in his prose, I felt that kinship. I, however, was writing an ornate, rhetorical, half-cartoon English, while he, when I read his poems, was the master of a prose that was its direct opposite, spare, economical almost to a point of invisibility. How was it then that Edward Dahlberg would be one of the writers whom he most admired, and a source of common appreciation when through Fanny Howe, another close friend of Bob’s, I began to assimilate Dahlberg and see a different way to write about my experience? Somewhere in the winter or spring of 1968 (my dates are hazy), Bob and Bobbie came over to the apartment I shared with a painter, Susan Wick, on East 13th Street, between A and B, the writer Richard Brautigan in tow for a party. I remember Bobbie and Brautigan in furious conversation, and a word that Bob had made me conscious of, slipping into the tool belt of my critical vocabulary, handy at all moments, “particular,” voiced over and over by Bobbie. I wasn’t impressed though by Brautigan who seemed to be straining to be intellectual, and the contrast with Bob’s grasp of the abstract in conversation was striking. Brautigan bored me, but Bob had a strange, sure sense of the mysterious, that was riddling rather than vague.
One other memory from that time remains vivid. Bob was reading in Manhattan, either up at City College where I was running a lecture series, or somewhere else. We were out drinking late, possibly at the Cedar Tavern. He needed a place for the night and I suggested he stay at my tiny studio across 13th Street from the apartment I shared with Susan. In the morning I went to collect him for breakfast and saw that lanky frame squeezed into my tiny three-and-a-half-foot bathtub, under the kitchen cabinets. It struck me, the good humor with which he had settled into my cramped, crumbling apartment for the night and now, his knees drawn up almost to his chin, soaped the long limbed body that hardly fit in its tiny tub.
In the summer of 1968 I met Edward Dahlberg in Dublin. I walked the beach with him and talked about the circle of writers who I knew admired him, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley—though Dahlberg, as one would expect, was dyspeptic, no one he thought had paid him sufficient attention, love. He recalled a detail I record in the memoir I published in The Massachusetts Review. “The white-haired colossus next to me muttered darkly, then grudgingly admitted that Creeley had once struck his wife for being disrespectful to Edward Dahlberg, an act that smacked of the gauntlet of literature and was owed at least a token of gratitude.” (It was his first “wife,” not Bobbie and I don’t vouch for the accuracy of Dahlberg’s manic self-regard. Still when I asked Charlotte, his oldest daughter at Robert’s funeral whether Bob had hit her mother, the corners of her mouth puckered with the poignant humor in which she eulogized him, “They hit each other.” Her mother had told her Bob was dead, and it was only at eleven years old, receiving a letter from him, that Charlotte realized it was not so. ) As I reflect now, in the wake of hearing the children of his three marriages speak their affection from the rostrum of the chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery, that word “respect” echoes back and recalls the quiet courtesy that he extended to me and others—an extreme form of love. The paradox of that courtly manner and his rage held one hypnotized, but also the affection with which he pulled one close.
In 1969, I returned to London on a free ticket from the husband of a close friend, Judith Taylor. I would spend almost two months in England, Ireland and Scotland, on a motorcycle. Bob had told me he would be reading at Festival Hall, coming to London at the beginning of my stay. We promised to get together. In 1968, when I visited London I had a list of writers to meet, and houses where I could get free meals, pressed on me by a writer who lived across the hall from me on East 13th Street, Marvin Cohen. (That list had brought me through Alistair Reid and Tony Kerrigan, to Dahlberg.) This summer, Marvin was in London too, and he arranged for us to meet the agent, Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Ted Hughes. She promised that if we could get Creeley to agree to read with us when he was in London, she could set up an evening for the three of us at (what I think was called) the ICA, the Institute for Contemporary Arts, a small but posh auditorium in one of London’s most elegant districts.
What follows is one of the most embarrassing moments in my life. I like to repeat it as a cautionary tale to students when speaking about the dangers of performing. Bob was happy to oblige me, though he wasn’t that familiar with Marvin Cohen at the time. I was briefly a professional actor, and held an Equity card. I was used to performing my cartoons. The audience that came to hear Robert Creeley at the ICA was not going to be receptive either to the prose of my first book, Thou Worm Jacob, and its cartoon exaggeration, nor to an overly dramatic presentation of its decrepit speakers, my caricature of Yiddish-accented English. I was cautioned to read for twenty minutes. I foolishly ignored this stricture and tried to read for forty. Marvin Cohen read first, very clever, gnomic pieces, and he got a warm share of applause, but then he sat on the lip of the stage, fiddling with his hearing aid, which was distracting. The audience had come to hear Bob, and they quickly grew impatient with me, laughing at Marvin’s unintentional comedy. A professor from Buffalo’s English Department, Al Cook, who evidently knew my work and disliked it, cried out, fifteen minutes or so into my reading, “I can’t stand Mark Mirsky. Let’s get out of here!”
Michael Hamburger, a distinguished translator of German, who was a friend of Bob’s sitting beside the professor, answered, “No, I want to stay.” All of this in the relatively small theatre echoed loudly. I began to read in a rush of terror, feeling as if my own words were turning into nonsense but recklessly going on and on until the end of the selection I had chosen. Bob had been hoping that Calder and Boyers might be interested in my book, but I was shunned after the reading like a pariah. It was doubly humiliating because so many luminaries of the Art world were buzzing around us, Jim Dines, Kitaj (was Jasper Johns there—one of the “greats” befriended Marvin) and I felt like a fool though Bob still loyally took me hither and thither in London. (A week later I would read in a bar with Ted Berrigan from my novel of political caricature, Proceedings of the Rabble, and happily get a better reception.)
I was witness to several “scenes” in Bob’s train through London with regard to which I still can’t repress either a smile or my subsequent sense of sadness. An old friend of Bob’s, the novelist Ann Quin, was circling about him during this trip. She was striking, pale, brilliant red lipstick on full lips, her jet-black hair about her shoulders in a black pageboy, sharp, Irish features, and the body of a voluptuous young model. I don’t know what her story was with Bob, but at a picnic in a green square with eight or nine guests, she took the can of beer in her hand and from about four feet away on the grass, hurled it at him. Her aim was off, and it struck Michael Hamburger instead. I can still hear Hamburger’s high, thin voice, incredulous, asking, “What did I do?”
Bob was reading with Ted Hughes, and I think, Auden, at that grand theatre by the Thames, Festival Hall during that season’s poetry festival. Ann and I for some reason came late. In the massive lobby, bewhiskered guards in costume—I seem to remember the distinctive medieval costumes of the Tower of London—did they have pikes or I am imagining it? I remember uniforms and rows of military medals. Very imposing. The reading had begun and one of the guards, a handsome, strapping, paternal figure, motioned us into a small foyer between the main lobby and the vaulting hall itself. We were asked not to push into the hall until applause signaled that one of the poets had concluded and another was about to begin. There were two huge gleaming nickel chrome cuspidors, filled with sand, of a kind that mostly harbored cigarette butts but were originally spittoons. As the foyer’s leather doors, studded with brass nails, closed, leaving us alone, Ann suddenly hoisted herself up on one of these spittoons, lifted her dress and “went to the bathroom.” I looked away, afraid we were going to be hauled off to the Tower. The applause broke out before anyone else joined us in and we pushed into the hall to hear Bob read. As I glanced back, I saw two long turds sitting in the sand. Some years later, Ann walked into the sea.
To be next to Bob was to go along on unexpected “trips”; also to observe the world in a sharp, unexpected light. In one of the journeys we took together, looking for possible places to live in Maine, we stayed one night in a strange hotel for lumberjacks and traveling salesmen up near the border of Maine and New Brunswick. There was an exotic dancer there, “Little Egypt,” and Bob’s laughter at the crazy, “found” poetry of her poster still tickles me. His lips would draw back in amusement whenever he recalled it.
It was in the summer of 1970, that I came closest to Bob. The painter I had been in love with, Susan, had left me in June and I was once again going around myself in a whirl of nightmares, unable to sleep, shaking myself out of dreams in which, as if I were a child of three or four, an abyss yawned beneath the bed, threatening in another moment to swallow me up forever. I had taken an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for July and August, afraid that I was going to flip out, and wanting to be near my father and sister who were living in Boston, if that happened. Bob and Bobbie had taken what Elsa Dorfman, his close friend, describes as “a stone castle” as a summer rental on the Massachusetts coast, north of Boston. Again Bob invited me to come up and see him, when I poured out my troubles, and I found myself going up to swim with him in the cold ocean, repeatedly, calmed by his concern and the conversation. In the middle of the summer, I met a young Norwegian girl, whom I would marry nine years later. She grasped Creeley’s poetry immediately, as if it were an echo of her own imagination, that bare-boned direct speech that the sagas catch. It was one of the ropes that tied us together, and Bob’s appreciation of her helped confirm my own. Later when she went back to Norway, we talked about love, how strange it was, and I remember Bob recounting his first meeting with Bobbie, how just the conversation floated him into another dimension, so that the need for anything else was at that moment unnecessary. He was at such times, an elder brother, wiser, understanding the same dream life. I admired his reckless courage and in particular recall the time he, Elsa Dorfman, and I set out to meet Charles Olson.
It was late afternoon—Olson lived in Gloucester. There was some trepidation on Elsa’s part. Later I would understand that for Bob too, this was a trip that had an undercurrent of anxiety that would send it off the tracks in an unanticipated direction. We were supposed to just drive from Cambridge, where Elsa lived, to Gloucester. It was a trip I suppose of an hour, an hour and a half, depending on traffic. We would just knock on Olson’s door. I don’t think anyone had called ahead. When we got to Gloucester though, we didn’t go directly to Olson’s but to Helène Dorn’s, the first wife of Bob’s fellow poet from Black Mountain, Ed Dorn. I didn’t know her, though I was familiar with Ed Dorn’s writing because the anthology, New American Story, that Bob had assembled included one of his stories. We began drinking in Helène’s kitchen, where a young, recently discharged Marine with a buzz cut was at the table. Right away you could feel the tension between Helène and Bob. Instead of visiting Olson, the decision was made to go to a restaurant for a meal. I was just along for the ride, and not quite sure what was happening. It was a good restaurant, obviously not the most expensive one (we were now out of Gloucester and in the nearby, but much more upscale, Manchester), but specializing in seafood, and filled with customers dressed in their best suits and dresses, wearing ties. We were about eight or ten, and they prepared a table that consisted of two that had been pushed together. At the next table there was a middle-aged couple, obviously out for their one big night on the town, to whom the atmosphere of decorum was important. If they were working-class, this was an evening on which they wanted to be something else. Our table was raucous and several of our party already inebriated. The obscenities flew and the man at the next table leaned over and asked us to “watch our language.” Something gleamed in Helène’s eye, as she regarded Bob, if to say, “Are you going to let him talk to you that way?” Bob, responded gallantly, by turning to the side, and inquiring in a quiet and amiable voice, of the man, with a single obscenity, good-naturedly, almost ironically, inserted, what the … problem was?
It escalated, with Helène and the Marine egging Bob on. The couple at the next table got more agitated. The manager of the restaurant was called over. He asked us to quiet down and of course we all (I have to admit I probably got carried away by the spirit of 1776) boisterously responded, the air salted down the length of our two tables with language calculated to drive the patrons on all sides bananas. We grew more jovial as the couple waxed red faced with fury. Four state troopers filed in with riding boots, leather jackets, elaborate belts, formal as Franco’s Guardia Civilia in full dress. They deployed against the back wall of the restaurant, at parade rest, staring straight ahead as if on guard at the Governor’s mansion, not in a local lobster joint. One last time the manager sang out, “Will you quiet down?”
Bob rose. The obscenity was almost an afterthought to his merry call, “Why … are you getting so excited?” His exact words escape me, swallowed in the exultant shout he let out when the four of them came for him, yanked Bob from our table, slammed him up against that wall where they had stood a moment ago, thrusting his wrists in handcuffs, as he cried to the astounded dining hall: “But I love the fucking state of Massachusetts.”
That wild, let’s-face-each-other dare, get down and dirty, I would feel from him at other times, say having a few more drinks that he ought to, walking into a polite Harvard Square restaurant and tavern, grabbing a chair, letting it swing behind him, just to have the occasion to rub up against some one, face them. That evening had for me a stranger denouement. Helène and her Marine guard were content to let Bob stay a day or two in jail. I, however, called my father, a former Massachusetts State Representative with the sense of humor only hardened political figures develop and tickled by the tale which reached him at about two in the morning. “Manchester-by-the-Sea,” my father intoned, laughing at the socially elite location of Creeley’s incaceration. Happily Dad knew a local judge well enough to rouse him out of bed at that hour and the latter ordered the police to release Bob. We went to collect him at about four in the morning.
“That man used the most fff… terrible language.” The heavyset police captain, whose ruddy face and accent betrayed that he was no stranger to foul weather, struggled to contain himself from bursting into the same obscenities that had landed Bob in his jail. “If it wasn’t for your father,” he growled, looking at me bitterly out of the corner of his eye, “he wouldn’t be getting out of here so easy. You tell him that, and to watch his fff… ugly mouth.”
When we went back to the cells to collect him, Bob was standing there, smiling at us from between the bars, doing the breath exercises that Allen Ginsberg favored, “Ah ooom, Ah ooom,” their echo rolling back from the end of the corridor. Unaccustomed to jails, I was taken aback at his good humor. We got into a car, and after stopping for a cup of coffee, rolled down the highway to Boston. As we passed one town, Bob said to me, “Kerouac’s living there, in Lynn, over the Cleaners. We could drop in on him.”
“Yes,” I cried, having been cheated of Olson, but somehow we never did turn off the highway. Instead I found myself down in Plymouth, staying at a house when a far-too-intelligent German Shepherd tugged my blanket away around nine p.m., and insisted that I take him for a walk. Was he the companion of a young Harvard professor—Peter, who had run with a tribe of baboons in Africa for a year and spoke the language of animals? Charlotte muttered darkly about him at the funeral, and said Peter claimed to have sprung her father from jail, when Bob missed his first meeting with her at the preparatory school where she was waiting to see him.
When I visited Bob in Bolinas later, I watched him flounder for that abrasive embrace. I drove out to see him during a trip to California with a former student of mine who had graduated from Stanford and was writing about Gary Snyder. She was anxious to meet Bob and of course I wanted to say hello since I was passing through San Francisco close by. He must have been having a rough time because Bobbie warned us that it wouldn’t be wise to stay in the house, but that we should come back after supper for breakfast. When we went out to a bar after our meal together, Bob tried to start a fight with two or three people at the bar. Everyone knew him, loved him, and simply slid away. He ended up knocking himself up badly on a pool table in the middle of room.
In the morning, we trundled up the hill to join him with Bobbie over orange juice, eggs, and toast. “Who hit me?” he asked. He was feeling the bruise on the side of his head.
“No one,” the three of us chorused.
“You fell,” Bobbie remarked and Bob looked around for confirmation, receiving it, sighed, disappointed of an opponent.
On the other hand, in London, where we were sitting in one of those masterpieces of the city’s eighteenth-century Palladian architecture, the garden apartment of an older woman whose guest Bob was, I watched him fend off an obnoxious assault with that graciousness which was the other side of his temperament. The husband of his hostess, evidently in exile from the flat, entered and tried to pick a quarrel. Bob laughed good-naturedly even as this character pressed him obnoxiously. The husband got down on his hands and knees as if he were a dog, snapping. He asked abruptly about Bob’s injured eye, as it to mock it but Bob refused to get upset. Faced with the distressed, the “Insulted and Injured,” he never took umbrage or gave it. At his funeral, Sarah, the child of Bobbie and Bob, told an anecdote about her father engaging one of her schoolmates in a long conversation. “Please don’t talk to that turkey!” she whispered as she tugged him away.
“Sarah, we’re all turkeys,” Bob protested.
He understood however, what was just gobble-gobble. He told me how one night at the end of a poetry workshop he was teaching at a college in San Francisco, the class went out to a bar for a final party. By two in the morning, most of the students had headed home but one young man remained on his coat tails and they continued drinking until a fight broke out and the police came. Both were thrown in jail. As they sat across from each other, shaking off the fumes, waiting for dawn, the young poet said in an aggrieved voice. “You know, man, the trouble with the course you taught was, I never really felt I got close to you on a basic level.”
“In a cell, four in the morning, staring at each other. What did he want?” The gleam in Bob’s eye was mischievous as his voice rose in its keen of inquiry. For nakedness of sight was exactly what one felt from him.
There are many sagas in the years I knew him. I would seek him out in Maine in the fairy-tale house that he and Pen built in Maine, the boulders arranged at the entrance speaking to me of their common sense of the landscape’s poetry. One passed by them as through a portal which ennobled everyone who came to see them. At the end of a long lane, I would park my motorcycle (often wandering up and down the route until I finally recognized the discreet dirt track that led to the house, set far back off the road on which traffic passed), and find myself once again at home. He gave me a copy of that book of e-mails that he passed back and forth between his students, which is really a primer of neglected American poetry from the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, one of the most valuable and unique volumes I know. It gave me the courage to try to expend myself the same way with my students in correspondence. I heard him complain about his isolation in Buffalo, and we commiserated about an academic life surrounded by too many fellow members of a faculty who are finally, boring. I felt leaving that house, as I did when I first went to see him in Buffalo. After a night at his table I would get back on the bike in the morning, and ride off ennobled again in my title to tilt.
Not everyone, of course, felt that way about him. Donald Barthelme, whom I admired and with whom I founded the magazine Fiction, did not appreciate Creeley’s poetry, though why was never quite clear to me. It was painful to feel Donald’s condescension when I published Bob’s prose in the magazine. It was never quite so cruel, though, as that of Roger Angell, the editor at The New Yorker, who in many ways was Donald’s mentor. Roger was (and still is) the quintessential Harvard man of a certain period, hair meticulously combed, suit and tie with the touch of modesty that bespeaks the glass of fashion. Roger had a lethal irony that I could never penetrate when I met him at Donald’s parties. After not seeing Roger for some seven or eight years ago, we arrived at the entry way to Donald’s 113 West 11th Street apartment and, trying to break the ice, I complimented Roger on how well he looked, exactly as I had seen him when I first met him, I quoted Bob’s lines,
“How wise age is—
and was mocked with, Roger’s dry riposte.
“Yes. Isn’t that shit?”
The anecdote somehow speaks to the division between two literary worlds, both derived perhaps from New England, but staking out different territories. As I review that moment, and the lines I memorized, I feel the romance and youth in Bob’s poetry, reaching for wisdom. Bob himself never seemed to get old. Roger, though pickled in an elegant middle age, I felt was born old and “wise.”
Robert Creeley’s hold on me was in part his clash with the polite, ironic establishment he was so often, despite his own elegance of manner, in opposition to. Roger Angell in his dedication to baseball and its “boys of summer” seemed to stretch from his sophisticated bench towards a muscular, graceful, flawless youth. Robert, who never really aged, despite troubled knees & lungs, reached from a perennial, awkward youth toward a wisdom slightly out of whack. In Bob’s penultimate baseball moment, he gets mustard spilled on him.
The one damn time (7th inning)
standing up to get a hot dog someone spills
mustard all over me.
For all of us at Creeley’s table, the fun brimmed, winking from his cup.
(Going back to the poem, “Rain (2),” in which the two lines I cited speak the final chorus, perhaps I was unfair to Bob, quoting them out of context. They echo the sadness that has gone before, shouting names in an empty house, images blurred in the wet windows. They are not so much a praise of age, but a tongue-in-cheek prayer for wisdom.)
He often spoke of his childhood in West Acton, the scruffy, hard pan, subsistence world of poverty that banded Boston in its exterior towns though the 30s. (I still witnessed it on drives down Route One to my uncles in Providence in the 1940s, farmhouses that were little more than weathered shacks, surrounded by collapsing chicken coops.) How singular is his description of this in my memory. “Kids in West Acton went hunting, but not for sport. The shot deer during the winter to eat, and they counted each bullet. Wasting a single bullet was a crime.” That stuck with me, the way he seemed to squint down a gun barrel, speaking of a Massachusetts he had observed through his own eyes and the town’s kids, pinched, grim, but with the knack of accuracy. There was some calculation of the mathematical in his poetry, which evokes Alfred North Whitehead’s line, “Style is the most austere of qualities.”
That restlessness. Why did he go to Texas? I asked Elsa, as we sat together, in our own quiet keening over his memory, that week after his death, since he was having so much trouble breathing, and she recited his verses back to me, an authority to which there was no appeal. “You know his lines, ‘Elsewhere, elsewhere…’” I went back to the collection on my shelf to find it, and there it was in that early book, To Love.
Over and over I have used Robert Creeley’s story “Mr. Blue” in my graduate and undergraduate writing classes. It has seemed to me the best way to wrench students into being aware of how language is the message of the medium of fiction. Bob’s introduction to New American Story is so brilliant that again and again I find myself quoting his refitting of the painter Franz Kline’s answer to the question of what to paint. Robert Creeley did not write many stories, but I consider his remark about the shape of a story to be my own credo, and though I am uncomfortable with the mechanical language of the writing workshop (as a child of Dahlberg, who bludgeoned me once on that subject) still it is an invaluable “tool” to speaking, what one can say about the “craft.” I am not the one to speak of his poetry. I began, again, just a few years ago, to write verses, but I was too much in awe of Bob to send him any, since I was so unsure myself of their value. I remember him remarking, in the middle of another conversation, how much he had liked my use of several lines of William Carlos Williams in the novella, A Brooklyn Golem, and I glowed from head to toe. As his verses flew in over the last week from Russell Banks, Charles Bernstein, others in my mailbox (sitting in our makeshift shiva, the formal week of Jewish mourning, at Elsa Dorfman’s table in her Cambridge house, as she recited to explain his final wanderlust that “Elsewhere, elsewhere”) his gnomic magic reasserted itself over and over. Recalling those severe interiors and Robert’s sense of order, yet his wild outbreaks and ecstatic reachings, I wonder if he was not the spirit of Shaker New England, concealing but barely, an almost intolerable intensity in its formal simplicities.
I looked to him to live forever, I guess, or at least beyond me, as if those craggy limbs would walk on, walk on. With his loss, it seems as if an important part of the landscape I walked as an American has crumbled into the sea.
—Mark Jay Mirsky