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Before the Elections: The Darkness Surrounds Us
A recent Harriet entry by Olena Kalytiak Davis begins “As Mother Said” and soon enough mentions “driving.” The combination reminds me that I’ve wanted to write something about Robert Creeley’s famous poem, “I Know a Man.” This particular moment in American history makes it all the more timely.
Robert Creeley in Bolinas, CA
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 could sing on forever about the line breaks, syntax and spelling in this poem, but those qualities have been well-covered by others. I’ve been surprised, though, in some recent commentaries on “I Know a Man,” to find no mention of its sizzling political implications. Just as the ending of James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” I have wasted my life , is in dialogue with the last line of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” You must change your life , this Creeley poem about America is in dialogue with William Carlos Williams’ poem about America, “To Elsie.”
Williams’ poem considers (with, perhaps, racist and sexist imputations) the waywardness of an America whose denizens have been cut loose from their cultural and spiritual roots. It ends:
and adjust, no one to drive the car
Creeley’s poem is speed-spoken by man so self-absorbed and unreflective that he can’t even bother to get the name of his friend right. Just alert enough to sense the spiritual darkness that “sur-/rounds us,” he responds as Americans often have, with the impulse to buy something—“a goddamn big car.”
The voice that ends Creeley’s poem with its command to “drive” and “look/ out where yr going,” retools Williams’ metaphor by putting a driver behind the wheel. To wit: we’re the ones steering the American dream, brothers and sisters, and it’s time to pay attention.