Thursday, March 31, 2005

Robert Creeley, 1926-2005

Since the American poet Robert Creeley died yesterday in Texas, there has been a flurry of activity over email lists and on blogs, with much being said and so much more that will still be said. One of our most important poets, Robert Creeley influenced innumerable writers not just in North America, but around the world.

His is a work that I have had a hard time not dipping into again and again, every few months going back into the deceptive ease in which he wrote. The clarity of a few lines saying volumes.

One of the groups he did impact on was the Tish group in the early 1960s out of Vancouver, through his participation in the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963 set up by Warren Tallman, as Creeley, along with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Allan Ginsberg opened up a whole new range of influence to young and younger poets Fred Wah, Phyllis Webb, Daphne Marlatt, Frank Davey, William Hawkins, Roy Kiyooka and so many others. As George Bowering wrote in his collection Craft Slices (Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1985), "In the late sixties Creeley’s poems became tiny fragments of perception held while he was being hurried through too many fast experiences in and out of the world." More recently, during an email interview I’ve been conducting, Bowering wrote, "I am replying to you on the day that Robert Creeley died. He was our best poet, and by our I mean no quibble. He was writing poems even now."

Part of what made Creeley’s influence impressive was due to the length of it, the breadth and the line of the writing that he had been doing for decades and kept doing, as well as the stories of his mentorship to younger writers everywhere, including Bowering and Barry McKinnon and perhaps hundreds of others. Not only through the work he had done, but the work he continued to do, such as in the collection If I were writing this that appeared in late 2003 with New Directions:


If I were writing this
with prospect of encouragement
or had I begun some work
intended to be what it was

or even then and there it was what
had been started, even now
I no longer thought to wait,
had begun, had found

myself in the time and place
writing words which I knew,
could say ring, dog, hat, car,
was rushing, it felt, to keep up

with the trembling impulse,
the connivance the words contrived
even themselves to be though
I wrote them, thought they were me.

Talking recently of the scene in Prince George, an old logging town half up the province of British Columbia, poet Rob Budde says, "The influences that are more predominant here than in Winnipeg are Creeley (he’s everywhere – came up a few times for pivotal, influential readings), Spicer (via Stanley), Bowering (for some reason I can’t remember Bowering ever reading in Winnipeg), Fawcett (although that’s love/hate)." His influence was pervasive.

In 1975, in just one of many times he wrote on Robert Creeley, the late Vancouver teacher and writer Warren Tallman wrote:

Wakening from this dream I sensed it was telling me that Creeley is the least abstract of poets, most given to the natural symbol, and for this reason singular, a necessary condition for the defining mind. What can we many know, except by way of that one. True as it is that his early poems owe debts to Pound, Williams, Zukofsky and Olson, it is even truer that from the first they are singularly his own. For instance, 1953, "The Crow":

The crow in the cage in the dining-room
hates me, because I will not feed him.

And I have left nothing behind in leaving
because I killed him.

And because I hit him over the head with a stick
there is nothing I laugh at.

Sickness is the hatred of a repentance
knowing there is nothing he wants.

Because crows are in physical nature, they can be natural in the mind via a lore that we all more or less share: as the crow flies; crow-bait; scarecrow; tough old bird; crow’s nest, and of course blackness, and caw, caw, caw. Cages and dining-rooms are also natural in the mind and carry their own lore, also shared. Because crow / cage / dining-room are natural, readers will realize that Creeley is providing an off-play, a variation on ordinary experience. In dining-rooms we expect the usual: meal, husband, wife, kids, friends, a family gathering. And though there very well might be a canary, lovebirds, parakeets, even a parrot, the crow is an unlikely pet, odd. Yet odd as the symbols are in the first couplet, there is odder to come in the second and third, as we learn that he has killed the crow with a stick and left the house, leaving nothing, behind, a total breakup of whatever relationships were in the house – a terrible emptiness and isolation. It’s almost as though while he was in the house there was just himself at the table and the crow in the cage, a lock-in contention. And just because it is the dining-room, one is turned to the most natural lore, story, the man who refuses to eat crow. This is the crow in our minds, black, common, a pest, harsh-voiced, qwa, qwa, qwa, tough, unpalatable. No man wants to eat crow, especially in his own house – swallow his words.

– Warren Tallman, In The Midst. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1992.

In 2000, during another of my Creeley phases, I started reading his poems to my daughter (then nine) during our Saturdays wandering around Ottawa, hoping that if she cared for poetry at all, she might be intrigued by his use of simple language; a simple language doing complex things. She had to admit that she liked it.

Long called the poet of the domestic, it was Creeley who helped me realize you don’t need complicated words to express complex ideas, but instead, a better understanding of simple language. That was before I started giving my daughter copies of his poetry collections. That was before we discovered that she was almost completely blind in one eye. Look, I wanted to tell her, this man had only one working eye and see what he accomplished.

Next year he would have turned eighty. Rumours of volumes of Collected Poems slated to appear. A tribute in Australia’s Jacket magazine. Wondering if Ekbert Faas has been working at all on a second volume of his Robert Creeley: A Biography, the first of which that only covered his first forty years.

Even though I wasn’t fortunate enough to have met Robert Creeley, or even to have heard him read (when he read a few years ago at Carleton University in Ottawa, I was reading in Winnipeg), I did get a response to a package of chapbooks I had sent him, a postcard of Arshile Gorky’s "The Liver is the Cock’s Comb" that I keep on the bulletin board beside my writing desk.

Dear Rob McLennan

Thanks for the great SWATCH of terrific works! George [Bowering] really stood / stands by you – and you are getting the words out in excellent spirits! Onward!

All best

And what can I end with. All that I have, which seems never enough, a poem. Not necessarily a poem written for him, but from him, written a few years ago and included in the unpublished manuscript ruins (a book of absences (the third in the paper hotel trilogy), that itself begins with a Creeley quote: Were there a fire, / it would burn now.

creeley said (sd)

"The fire is the center."
everything explodes outward.

i am the oldest one in my body,
& of these gardens we inhabit.

slick words stick to my mouth,
& old jokes cleave, rapunzel.

& nothing left but brockwell slang,
which isnt slang at all,


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