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The Turn of the Thumbscrew

By D.A. Powell

The late William Talcott, editor of Thumbscrew Press, quite infrequently published a magazine called Carbuncle. The magazine was mostly devoted to poetry, along with artwork by poet Mark Neville, and the occasional interview and review.
One of the most provocative pieces of prose I’ve ever read appeared in Carbuncle #3, in 1991. It was a scathing review of a reading by Robert Creeley. Certainly the tone is critical and perhaps even, at times, mean. But the last line of it has stayed with me.
It doesn’t have to be about Creeley. It describes a feeling that so many of us might have had at a poetry reading, at one time or another. Good to remind ourselves that no poet should rest on his or her laurels, and that young poets need for older poets either to inspire them or to encourage them, but they rarely need to be bored (despite recent claims that poetry doesn’t need to make any bid for the attention of the reader).


Here is the review, in its entirety:
Creeley Crawlies: Robert Creeley at the California College of Arts & Crafts, 7 November 1990, written by Vincent Farnsworth, Scott Stampfli, Julianne Leigh, and Owen Hill
Robert Creeley is one of our best poets, but he sure is into some boring shit now.
The night started insufferably enough with Michael McClure READING an introduction asserting either (hard to tell) Creeley’s Greatness or McClure’s Greatness or the Greatness of mythologizing your own past while you’re still young enough to live off it.
So then Creeley came on. It didn’t seem that bad at first, because of that 10-15 minute lag time where you wonder Is It Me before you realize This Guy Is Being Really Dull. It became apparent Creeley didn’t even need the audience, since he was chuckling over his own cleverness and he never looked up to see his lengthy nostalgic meanderings between poems were whiffling right by the restless art students in the packed lecture hall. Maybe if he’d followed thru in that direction—of a fading star riding the revival circuit—and read some of his Greatest Hits, like “If You” or “The Finger,” we would have cared more about those old days McClure dripped about when he and his friends were excited and exciting in their (once) refreshing use of bebop rhythms. Instead people escaped the room right in front of Creeley as he went Hee Hee That Was Kindof Fun I Think I’ll Read It Again and then read stuff smelling suspiciously like it had been touched by his richer and more powerful new friends, the Language Poets. Stuff sounding like this:
    &#160  To in to up
    &#160  to over to inside
    &#160  to outside to above
    &#160  to which to you.
or part of a rural remembrance:
    &#160 cats rats
    &#160 swallows follow
    &#160 sun sunk
    &#160 dog log
Blah! The language people rarely live up to even the low altitude of their own ideas, and lots of the more boring stuff of this evening seemed hogtied by some concept like, Words mean so much they don’t mean anything anymore.
The most real part of the evening occurred with a cameo appearance by some Art Drunk who, after arriving very late and swaying in the doorway for a couple minutes before finding a seat, finally couldn’t take it anymore and yelled “You’re a fucking wimp!” Creeley thought he said “Talking wind,” and said Well that’s what poetry is, talking wind. “You’re a fucking wimp!” the drunk repeated before moderator man went over to have a talk with him. Drunk Critic lasted maybe 15 more minutes, till Creeley started on a long explanation of an upcoming poem about Wordsworth’s sister (?), when Drunkman shambled out the exit with a loud “FUCK WORDSWORTH!,” cueing (appreciative?) laughter in the crowd. Give me a triple shot of that stuff.
Of course it’s easy to be negative, and to be glib about it. The night had its moments and its poems, and Creeley actually seemed a little sad more often than arrogant. Aging and the past seem to preoccupy him as he sat there uncomfortably, smoothing down his hair. But it’s hard to be gentle when poetry is smothered in front of you at what might have been for some their first exposure to a Poet Great. It made you want to stand up yelling POETRY IS NOT BORING or WHERE IS THE PASSION or to run out the door into the street yelling I WANT TO LIVE.
—from Carbuncle, issue 3, 1991

Comments (21)

  • On June 26, 2008 at 10:09 am Doodle wrote:

    Always a good & fair point. On the other hand, what have Vincent Farnsworth, Scott Stampfli, Julianne Leigh, and Owen Hill done for poetry lately?

  • On June 26, 2008 at 10:51 am Daniel Flynn wrote:

    I want to live! Indeed – Like little nine year old Miles, hugged in the Governess’s arms in Henry James’s famous ghost story, I often look up to those older poets on stage, at podium, reading glasses downward, hoping to see that devil, Peter Quint standing there, making my world alive and something to experience with at least a bit of fear.

  • On June 26, 2008 at 11:10 am Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Creeley was very important to me as a reader and as a writer of poetry early on, but his work lost power as he went along, and in the end there were many Creeley poems that could work as text for greeting cards. Sad.
    If you want a poet who began as strong as Creeley and stayed strong until the end, check out Cid Corman. Creeley sneered at Corman’s work behind his back, while happily letting Corman publish him regularly in Origin. (PoBiz careerism ain’t something new.) Anyway, Corman’s work has been hard to find for some time, but The Next One Thousand Years: The Selected Poems of Cid Corman is just out from Longhouse Publishers (see http://www.longhousepoetry.com/ ), so it’s now easy to read Corman’s work alongside Creeley’s and discover which poet makes you want to “run out the door into the street yelling I WANT TO LIVE.”

  • On June 26, 2008 at 2:36 pm dwayne wrote:

    I read an interview Etheridge Knight did with Charles Rowell in Callaloo and he gave this antecdote about asking another disguished poet (Donald Hall) if he’d rather publish books or travel giving readings. Etheridge said that the poet responding, without thinking, publish of course. Etheridge realized that his idea of poetry was a little different, in that he’d rather travel and give readings than publish books. He recognized the value of books, but, valued the interaction of readings and the actual spreading the word that readings accomplish more. I think that view forces poets to consider if their poems are boring or more to the point if there is anything inherently of value in hermeticism. And I wonder why poets in America don’t seem to be able to draw crowds in the thousands or even hundreds, which isn’t that large, when writers in other cultures seem to be able to or when Star Jones is able to here. And the idea that the public isn’t able to appreciate poetry or is shallow or whatever just doesn’t seem to aim at broadening poetry’s reach.

  • On June 26, 2008 at 8:43 pm Matt wrote:

    Again with this “accessibility” thing? I think Harriet is starting to look like one of those rotating pie display cases at diners–around and around we go, and everything just gets stale.

  • On June 27, 2008 at 8:59 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    It made you want to stand up yelling POETRY IS NOT BORING or WHERE IS THE PASSION or to run out the door into the street yelling I WANT TO LIVE.
    Yeah!

  • On June 27, 2008 at 9:33 am elle wrote:

    It’s probably just me, but I keep wondering why it took 4 writers to write this short review?
    And when and where they entered?

  • On June 27, 2008 at 11:01 am D. A. Powell wrote:

    The essential argument of the review was not “accessibility.” “BORING” is not merely the provence of the inaccessible, though I can see where one might be quick to jump to that assumption. And “accessible” doesn’t preclude difficult. Take Gertrude Stein–very accessible, but often difficult.
    Steve Benson’s work can be difficult, but often quite entertaining. Stephen Rodefer is often difficult but never boring. Neither is inaccessible. Reducing a review of any sort to a simile about pies is both boring and accessible, but it’s at heart a lazy form of argument, a kind of mental bumpersticker.

  • On June 27, 2008 at 2:45 pm Dwayne wrote:

    Reginald Shepherd has an excellent essay in the Writer’s Chronicle, maybe two issues ago, “On Difficulty in Poetry,” in which he deals with poetry that is difficult and how that differs from poetry that is boring. D.A. has pointed out how Matt’s comment was both boring and accessible, and I wish some others would think about the substance of the review, not who wrote it, not why they wrote it. It’s almost like the responses are contrary just because it appears disagreement is a sign of intelligence as opposed to investigation. Whatever the case, Shepherd, in his essay, talks about obscure poetry and how the lack of clarity in a poem is what ruins it. I think, most times when someone has referred to “accessibility” it would better serve the discussion to give them the benefit of the doubt and think maybe, just maybe they refer to the clarity of the idea, or experience the poem is trying to express.
    With all that said, the review came off as flip at times and as an attack, rather than a thoughtful critique.

  • On June 28, 2008 at 12:16 pm Lucia wrote:

    These criticisms of Creeley seem apt to me, but the smarmy tone of the review undermines its validity.

  • On June 28, 2008 at 4:10 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    At least since Cicero, the use of invective & sarcasm, insult & verbal injury, has been understood as a particularly useful rhetorical strategy. Without it, Dr. Johnson, Randall Jarrell, Adorno, Marx, Coleridge, Eliot, Pound, Chomsky — just to name the first few that occur to me — wouldn’t be the critics we cherish. Read Eliot Weinberger’s takedown of Seidel in Sulfur sometime — or Chomsky’s of Skinner — spectacular. Of course the invective should be to some purpose, not gratuitous — of course it should illumine rather than overshadow. But to oppose a certain polemical bitter wit for its own sake is banal — it is to oppose criticism itself.

  • On June 28, 2008 at 6:43 pm Jonathan David Jackson wrote:

    D. A. Powell: Your response in the comments (“BORING” is not merely the province of the inaccessible, though I can see where one might be quick to jump to that assumption. And “accessible” doesn’t preclude difficult. Take Gertrude Stein–very accessible, but often difficult”) was extremely apt, as usual. Spot-on.

  • On June 29, 2008 at 12:17 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Point well taken about how older poets should continue to inspire–and interesting to see that the younger poet would have liked to hear Creeley’s “greatest hits” rather than less consequential but newer work.
    Just for the record, I heard Creeley just months before he died–fourteen years later, in a small crowd in a bookstore at the VA Festival of the Book–and it was a wonderful reading, mostly moving new work from his last book (much of it in iambic pentameter!) and a few greatest hits. He mused generously and shared his insights sensitively with the audience. Just for the record.

  • On June 29, 2008 at 12:26 pm unreliable narrator wrote:

    Well, at least these multiple authors do have some awareness of their ethos-undermining tone: “Of course it’s easy to be negative, and to be glib about it”; for as I’m sure they, and we, know all too well, every writer has those days—some of us more often than not‚—wherein every single word we write or speak aloud makes those around us yearn to bolt from the room whilst screeching life-affirming bumper-sticker slogans. I’m just, as the kids today say, sayin’.
    That last line will stay with me now, too. Though it also makes me think of Vogon poetry.

  • On June 29, 2008 at 4:56 pm Ms Baroque wrote:

    Oh my God, I love that: “some Art Drunk” (some of my best friends are Art Drunks…). I’m just thinking when I might be able to use it. And the last line? It’ll stay with me too.

  • On June 30, 2008 at 10:41 am Doodle wrote:

    Isn’t it against the law to shout FUCK WORDSWORTH in a crowded place??

  • On July 5, 2008 at 8:03 pm Owen Hill wrote:

    Amazing, how long text stays around after the context melts away.
    A little context—this first appeared in a three-page copy shop zine.
    The aesthetic was low-fi punk. We would have taken “at times even
    mean” as a compliment, at the time. I remembered feeling squeamish
    when William offered to reprint the piece—it was sort of written to be
    destroyed. But we went for it, in that old punk spirit of “what the hell!”
    Poets play their cards pretty close to the vest now, so this kind of anger
    probably seems dated. I think it has a place, though—that “kill the father
    (mother, too!)” spirit is important in the arts—keeps us from getting co-opted.
    The difficult/accessable question doesn’t apply here—our little group was reading
    Mina Loy, Neidecker, Berrigan, Trakl, Brecht—not exactly Billy Collins types. That
    You’re Not Smart Enough To Understand the Difficult has always been a red herring,
    anyway—and we weren’t attacking Creeley for being difficult, we just felt he’d fallen
    asleep at the wheel.
    As a postscript, though, I have to add—I saw Creeley at New College a little later
    that year and he put the lie to everything we’d written—gave a truly great reading.
    And McClure is doing some of his best work now—at Seventy-something, his brain’s
    on fire and he has all the chops.
    Well, we were young.

  • On July 6, 2008 at 3:19 am VINCENT FARNSWORTH wrote:

    Hey! Am I famous yet? To answer various questions above—
    If memory serves, multiple authors because of the “integrity” thing. I remember I based the cute little text on the post-reading discussion with all those folks and so thought it right to include them. Maybe to spread the blame around too.
    For years I ran a poetry journal called JEJUNE: america eats its young (back issues available, operators are standing by) and organized many poetry readings over the years but I don’t feel that poetry must have something “done for” it (assuming it isn’t “done for” already).
    Creeley reportedly described the review as “mean-spirited” when Tom Clark showed it to him and I would concede that now. When Creeley came to Prague years later he gave a beautiful reading in a cafe, so maybe he just wasn’t an auditorium poet. Still as noted by others his work at that time was indeed lackluster at best so the kick in the pants was necessary, even if it came from a young whippersnapper.
    Well at least some line of mine proved to be unforgettable by someone — too bad it wasn’t in a poem.

  • On July 6, 2008 at 8:33 am Don Share wrote:

    Hey, Owen, welcome and thanks for this great postscript!
    I always thought the prose piece that accompanied On Earth as well as the way Creeley read his late poems helped put them into perspective, even into relief. The trajectory of his work is not only interesting but poignant – in his case, and arguably also O’Hara’s, it doesn’t quite do simply to break a life’s work into halves and pit one part against the other. Just my opinion!

  • On July 10, 2008 at 1:08 pm Owen Hill wrote:

    Haven’t read the prose piece but I’ll look into it.
    And I agree, it’s too easy to break things into early work/late work.
    I think that’s especially true for O’Hara. The recent New York Times
    review of the his selected (Logan, I think) fell into that trap. Am I
    the only one who likes O’Hara’s later poems? They read like linguistic
    waterfalls, Little Elegy for Antonio Machado is a beautiful poem, and
    it doesn’t read “early” or “late”. Just a damn good poem. .
    and thank you for the welcome, Don.

  • On May 22, 2009 at 9:13 pm scott stampfli wrote:

    Regarding our review of Mr. C in 1990: Creely was helpful to me as a kid learning about word structure- but as a poet or person evolves into a healthy being one realizes the value of life force and poetry as an active natural way of living and helping the world move Further- and yeah- Still an Art Drunk after all these years…!


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, June 25th, 2008 by D.A. Powell.