Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley


Friend I had in college told
me he had seen as kid out the
window in backyard of an
apartment in upscale Phila-
delphia the elder Yeats walking
and wondered if perhaps he
was composing a poem or else
in some way significantly thinking.
So later he described it, then
living in a pleasant yellowish
house off Harvard Square,
having rooms there, where,
visiting I recall quick sight of
John Berryman who had been
his teacher and was just leaving
as I'd come in, on a landing of
the stairs I'd just come up, the
only time and place I ever did. (Unpublished Poems)

The University of California Press has just issued two extremely large volumes of poetry by the late American poet Robert Creeley, essentially collecting all of his published poetry in The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1975-2005 and the reissued volume The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975. Reprinting his substantial output of work including For Love (1962), Pieces (1969), A Day Book (1972), Mirrors (1983), Life & Death (1998), If I were writing this (2003) and his posthumous On Earth (2006), the new volume also includes a short selection of unpublished poems, four small poems that were found in a folder after he died in Texas near the end of March, 2005. Very few poets see their substantial works, let alone their "complete" works collected into a volume or two in their lifetimes, and it reads as a testament to Creeley's strength and influence as a poet that his work has stood up over the years as well as it has, in volume after volume of reprint and reissue. Unfortunately, even though Creeley was overseeing the original production of the volume of more recent pieces, he didn’t live to see the final book. As his widow Penelope Creeley writes in the preface to the The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1975-2005 volume:

In the hospital in March 2005 ― on the last night of his life, as it turned out ― he asked for the hard drive of his computer, so that he could work the next day on the manuscript for this volume of poetry.

Now I can only guess what he might have done. We had talked about his writing a new preface. He had thought about what he wanted to say: These are my poems. I love them and stand by them.

In retrospect, I realize the courage such an act takes, the courage artists have every day to produce something out of the raw feelings and intimate perceptions of life, then to hold it up to public scrutiny. In reading these poems again, I hear Robert's voice, and I see the last twenty-seven years of my own life laid out, almost a diary. I think of the way I first saw this writing, just words on a page, a little distillation of a day, tender and vulnerable and fresh, a moment, untried, yet a whole world of
thought, life, and history in each. Those words, "This is my life's work. I love it and stand by it," are such an affirmation. To come to that moment, to say so clearly, without hesitation. To have that heart. Yes. Here it is. That heart.
In a blog entry I wrote the day after Robert Creeley died, I wrote: "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." Part of his strength, along with being a poet of the domestic, writing domestic matters, that domestic matters, Creeley's poems worked layers of deceptively simple language in his poems that read as though written in a single complicated exhalation on the page. How does one get to move so effortlessly in a few short lines?

First Rain

These retroactive small
instances of feeling

reach out for a common
ground in the wet

first rain of a faded
winter. Along the grey

iced sidewalk revealed
piles of dogshit, papers,

bits of old clothing, are
the human pledges,

call them, "We are here and
have been all the time." I

walk quickly. The wind
drives the rain, drenching

my coat, pants, blurs
my glasses, as I pass. (Mirrors)

One question through all of this, with the substantial biography that literary critic Ekbert Faas, who had written on Creeley and so many other writers for years, published a few years ago on the life of Robert Creeley up to the early 1970s, Robert Creeley: A Biography (Montreal QC: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001), will there be a subsequent volume that speaks to the rest of his life?

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