Prose from Poetry Magazine

Four Letters, 1950-1968

Edited by Rod Smith, Peter Baker, and Kaplan Harris

by Robert Creeley


Robert Creeley, Vancouver, July 1963, by Allen Ginsberg. © Allen Ginsberg Estate.

 

to larry eigner

littleton, new hampshire
[circa february,
1950]
monday

Dear Larry,

Your letter at hand, and much obliged. I’ll try to go into some of this, while there’s time. To begin with, ‘logic’ has this sense for me, applied to poetry, or most anything for that matter, this sense beyond its philosophic and/or academic, though the meanings overlap: Logic is the demonstration by a poem of its meaning. It is, in other words, simply the means by which a poem makes known its sense as opposed to its rhythm or its use of vowels or its visual aspect, if you will. But this is, at least for the most part, sophistry. And logic can be put as the direction of thought in a poem. So that a poem concerned with having the reader consider the plight of the bumblebee would in all probability run counter to its own logic, if  bumblebees weren’t mentioned. It’s an arbitrary use of  judgment to speak of a poem’s logic as though we had the right to determine it; better, it will be ours to appraise if we will, as we find it in the poem. It goes back to logos which would imply both word & reason, this from the dictionary.

About writing verse or anything else for that matter, I would say that you can find about any approach you might use condoned, encouraged, or as you will, somewhere. That is, a few years ago now Horace Gregory advised me, on the basis of a few minutes conversation, to set myself the work of writing in the strictest verse forms I could find, without making an attempt to express profundities, etc. I can’t say that I did that, but at least, I’ve worked in a variety of forms from time to time, with the logic that it would be to the point to have a technique capable enough to write in any form I might need for what I wanted to write; this to avoid being contained by a form, rather than having the form contain one’s thought, as an instrument of expression. On the other hand, the development of one’s thought and by this I mean no more than an apprehension of what is around us, how it relates, what one has to deal with, here, that seems no less important. And a too-ready grip of form allows for a kind of technical virtuosity that must always embarrass sincerity. Here, it is difficult to say what I mean by such a use of form without seeming to encourage slack or incompetent poetry, that suffers from lack of form, or from a lack of familiarity with verse forms and technique generally. It’s just that a preoccupation with form, a preoccupation that excludes the building of the form with the building of an idea’s expression in the mind, that makes the form dominate the sense (simply), isn’t good. Like virtuosity in general, it results in shallowness. I think this would be the best way of putting it, in terms of that analogy; with virtuosity in any field.

About rhyming: the mention of ‘Clementine’ with ‘time’, etc. This in spite of what the school may have told you is as good a rhyme as any, since it has its uses, like any, and they can be well used or misused. You will see what you’ve done is to depend on your vowel sounds for your sense of rhyme. The ‘i’ sound in each, and as is the case here, the consonants modify this sound. This is what’s called assonance. And is often used to avoid heaviness, a banging, sometimes got by an overuse of strict rhyme. For example, in Yeats:

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm.
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

Here, you see, assonance is used to keep off the ‘end’ of the poem, before it occurs, and so he saves the pure rhyme for his final one, i.e. lain & vain. And in this poem, for example, since it is a kind of questioning, and that sense of movement, query, it has its justification, for shifting, a little, as it goes. And the use of assonance has its effect. But in the case of a different intention, as would be almost all of Pope, for example, assonance would destroy the completeness of the couplets, and would in turn weaken the intended patness of the statements. For example, a little learning, etc., would not be an epigram in the sense that it is, a kind of circle, complete unto itself, if we found anything but spring or a word like it, in sound, rhyming with thing. So you see that assonance has its uses, but can also have its misuses. The latter often occur in relation to assonance in the line itself, that being, when a word in the line is made to rhyme in terms of vowel sounds with the end word, or a word in the following line, and so on. Often a poet, caught by the sound of a word he is using for a rhyme will use it unconsciously, its sound, that is, in a word following it, and unless it is conscious and deliberate and used with an apprehensible purpose it will irritate the reader’s ear. As usual, it will be the use which determines whether or not it is ‘right’, schools notwithstanding.

About Basic: it’s to the point to memorize the list. That is, you’ll do it anyhow if you use it. I don’t think one should let it be a limit in the sense that one should exclude other words from one’s speech, at least, not for a general rule. What Basic can serve is the purpose of  breaking down into unavoidably clear words what may confuse in the state of the language in which we find it; for example, Richards’ translations of Aristotle into Basic read with a wonderful clarity and openness of thought that all of Aristotle’s translators garbled. So where we can put Basic to work is in those cases where we are concerned with understanding the exact meaning of each word & phrase as we come to it. Now this, paradoxically enough, is not always the case in poetry, for example, nor in prose. Hart Crane can’t be read word for word. Meaning there depends on the color or, better, the sound of the words as much as it does their denotative sense. And in poetry generally, we’d destroy the connotative sense by translating into Basic. And to this, would be to destroy much of the poem’s intention. Anyhow, as a critical instrument, Basic has its uses, but like anything else, it needs care.

Would like very much to see you whenever you can get up. The farm, or as much of a farm as it is, at this point, doesn’t take much of my time. Just enough to keep me busy when I give up on writing, etc. We are building up a breeding flock of several varieties of poultry, or Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Leghorns, and Partridge Wyandottes in the big birds and then in the bantams, Partridge Wyandottes again, and the Reds, then Silkies. Also have geese and pigeons, and these last are Pigmy Pouters & Pensom Rollers. When 
I read on Cid’s program, my business in Boston was, simply, the Boston Poultry Show. The idea here is to build a good stock flock of birds for exhibition. And that’s what we’re doing. Here, the winters are too cold for commercial poultry to do very well, that is, eggs & broilers, etc. And the soil is about as bad in its own way as the winters, a kind of gravel. We have a fair-sized garden, but just for our own needs. And at the moment we’re negotiating for a milking goat, not having the capital for a cow at this point. As usual, it’s a question of survival. The poultry sells for good prices, anywhere up to $100, they tell me, for a good show bird, and about $25 and up for good Pigmies. And about $15 a pair for the Rollers, and a goose will get you $15 for meat, much less for show. So it’s one way of doing things. And it’s a lot of fun.

By way of other things, I’m 23 and have a wife and son, aged 2 and some, and here we all are, like they say. And would like to see you anytime.

And is ‘Wallace Stevens literally America’s greatest poet’? I don’t know, that is, these final judgments on my part would be irony. Not thinking much of that kind of criticism. But Stevens I like very much indeed. And Williams. And a few others. It’s hard to say.

So that would be it for now. And will hope to hear from you when you have the time.

all best,
bob

 

P.S. By way of the little magazines and WAKE, in particular. WAKE began in Harvard some years ago, now, and then about 2 years ago was taken out, at first to be subsidized by NEW DIRECTIONS, the publishing house, but that fell through, so it published a few sporadic issues, and has now settled down to publishing once or twice a year, depending when its editors, Villa, and Lawrence, are there to see to it. It prints a number of good things, this I’m obliged to say, by way of acknowledgement of their kindness to me, but there is no center, that is, everything thrown in altogether with no coherent editorial policy. And by way of contradicting Cid, though I haven’t seen a recent issue, POETRY is a kind of sloppy magazine in itself. That is, there is an awful lot of slop in it. By this I mean not much more than an antipathy to verse, removed only by a very little from the ‘moon’-‘June’ school. Cid tells me that Karl Shapiro is about or is editing it, and this to my mind, is the kiss of death. Cid and I, incidentally, disagree violently on this one issue. And I think you’d find better poetry in almost any other magazine, this for a general level, if you will, and not to deny that POETRY may print some very good work. But watch their minor poets, so-called, because that’s where they begin to smell. This, too, not to suggest they can’t make mistakes and print something very good. But it’s no rule. And having my own interest in these things, would say KENYON, for both prose & poetry, and then in a letter from William Carlos Williams about the magazine he says: ‘There are several new magazines, new little magazines on — not the market because they don’t sell — but circulating in the mails. Look up IMAGI especially and POETRY: NEW YORK, etc. etc.’ So perhaps you could try those.

 



 


 

to jonathan williams

san geronimo miramar
patalul, such.
guatemala, c.a.
january 5, 1960

Dear Dad,

Mr Henry Rago suh of Po-et-ry is a-dunnin’ me for proper enclosures of yr olde self-address-ed stamp-ed envelope, etc. Wow. But the poor devil probably has to account for every stamp to the Ladies, etc. Anyhow can you please send me, for the enclosed dollar bill 
6 15¢ air mail stamps. * Wow again — but it would be a great help, since he has 5 poems in hock there, and want to keep him good-
humored. He has taken 5 to date, for a new ‘group’ (the one shot a year club, I guess). Anyhow I sent him another po-em and said help was on the way. Ok.

Sort of  battered, Tuesday becomes the hump somehow, not Monday anymore. That’s a change at least. Bobbie’s in on the bed reading the Saturday Evening Post (me next etc). Ain’t we got culture    ... At least it’s not Harpers.

I got copy of Allen G/s record I’ve been trying to hear since Sunday, i.e., came after lights had gone off right current — Monday Ruth washes her clothes in her automatic washer so there is none that day, likewise Tuesday (tho did get a brief part this morning before they cut us), and on, and on. Ai yi. Pretty crazy, no.

Do you know address (and cost of Burrough’s Naked Lunch) of Olympia Press? I want to get it. I.e., what I’ve seen I like a lot, for its own sound, etc.

So what’s new in little old NY, etc. And do you remember the time we drove to NC  via Brooklyn. I don’t.

all love,
bob

* “Keep the change   . . .
                 — Old Saying —

 



Robert Creeley, June 1961, taken by R.M.


 

to ed dorn

san geronimo miramar
patalul, such.
guatemala, c.a.
january 19, 1961

Dear Ed,

I like that note you did, i.e., what you qualify as your relations to writing, and then that second paragraph, with culture as what men remember — that’s very clear — and likewise the last, with its question. So that seems done, like they say. It’s a goddamn curious question to begin with, in some ways — I think I, as you, would say what you do in that first sentence. The dullness is of course that for people who don’t see it that way, it makes no sense to say ‘there is that means which no other seems to provide for’; and for those who would, then I think it is the reassurance it is for me, hearing you say it. Voila.

Re desperation como se dice, I think we are beyond it in a weird way, i.e., this is simple ‘misery’ in Olson’s sense of accumulated wear and tear. The time goes very goddamn quickly, and we have almost no sense of   it, but as accumulation toward the end of, that’s the end of  it etc. Well, that’s good — having an end. Yet the weather now is crazy, as ever — our physical senses at least ought to be satisfied, and yet a restlessness sticks in both of us. I suppose I use the pot much too goddamn much as a welcome euphoria, at the end of so-called day. I’d go a little nutty without some handy unreality in which to hide. I don’t have the energy (or don’t feel it) to take off into something more substantial. Anyhow the anti-social aspects of said panacea make the closedness we live in more tolerable. We don’t go whooping around the house or anything, but it breaks the monotony a little, and is restful — makes — somehow with reliable continuity — a little difference to things felt and seen etc. I’m about out in any case and what I’ve grown this year is slow coming, and may not finally. I think that’s just as well too, if it turns out so. It gets a habit in the dull sense of, over and over — no need but the familiarity and that it does, in the sense described, relieve much in the present locked scene. So to hell with it in any case.

Partly it is the curious hanging between what seems everything going my way, like they say, and fears re a job next year, e.g. I am waiting to hear now from Texas, it is pretty definite we could not do this again and keep sane, Bunker writes the job there looks now not too possible, the one I tried at UNM is out now, and so on, i.e., that’s about it. We’ll have, by saving here and perhaps from some advance on books of poems, enough to get us through the summer ok. Anyhow that way I fall back a little to previous fears like, partly, those in SF, what the hell to do etc. Not really — however. It would be a little goddamn faux naïf to claim trembling, etc. Much more, a kind of anger that always one gets hung with this impasse of use, no matter what else is going on. It’s an irony that what we do in this world to ‘make a living’ has finally such a painfully corrosive relation to what we might otherwise be said to ‘do’. But I god knows said that ad nauseam this summer. Ah well. Anyhow I can’t at the moment see how to use such things as Scribner’s acceptance of the poems, and now as well a favorable report on first five chapters of the novel — so that that will probably be ok also, as I can get it done etc — I mean that this is politics also, and I would like to use such ‘gains’ for what they seem to be usable for, beyond the work and results they are — 
already settled long ago in my own mind and with people as yourself 
I would take sight from etc. I feel like I’ve got a whole bunch of saving stamps and trying to find where to get my prizes etc. Perhaps there aren’t any — that I can take at least. But I hope for example that 
I can lever myself  into some teaching  job with same, yet it seems that doesn’t really make it, too fearsome or something to them — however respectful they seem to be. I just don’t know at present. But things continue to break in that respect. I heard from Eberhart at Library of Congress they would like tape of a reading — god knows that seems new to me. What I really would hope was the use of such things is freedom from such as your boss, or mine for that matter — despite he is more human. I want less of  that continual business of having to dance in the shadow of some problematic character, so as to hide my own ‘personality’ — i.e., moving in what area they leave hidden behind themselves, in the performance of my duties etc. As at that boys’ school, shifting and turning with problematic Wilburn god knows, whose hang-up at times meant he had to twist a few screws to prove his own capabilities. Here I feel at times a slight tendency, or wish, to wipe one’s arse with the ‘poet’, however politely, just to make clear you don’t have to take that pansy shit etc etc. Or else it’s like being put in an umbrella stand, for the look of the thing somehow. Anyhow to be out of that — just getting older making the earlier ‘flexibility’ and nod to authorities more a headache etc a pain in the ass too often. I find myself speaking up to people half my age, not quite, but clearly younger, simply out of that training of self-effacing anonymity that has let me work simply at all, at all. Well    ...

Anyhow I’m not writing anything at present. I’ve got some so-called jobs, as review of Olson for YUGEN which will be good, and note also on Burroughs, again good. I wrote Poetry to see if I can review your book when it is out — I’ll let you know what they say. Nims is present editor there, and is so far good natured. They haven’t as yet used that other, but I think he might agree. Otherwise will review it somewhere at least — i.e., I am very goddamn happy it is coming now, and would like to say why. Ok.

I don’t see much goddamn else — as this ‘deep image’. Wow. Dennie wrote first letter in months enclosing notes re her own putting down of same. It really seems a vague and softly sloppy red herring to me. Again your note cuts way past that sort of hopefulness to my mind. Thank you for that OUTBURST connection — I sent them a poem. I liked the look of their flyer. I still don’t see any magazine of much goddamn coherence, but here and there makes it in the meantime I guess. LeRoi wrote he hopes to make ‘critical’ base now for YUGEN, if he can get money to continue. Have you been hearing anything from Olson? I haven’t in some time now, weather-wise. Have you seen anything re his Maximus?

So, we’ll get there. We are really counting the days at this point. It’s not at least at all impossible. But sans friends as yourselves, the world (yet) is pretty goddamn flat after all. Write please anytime you can, send poems as you can too. I don’t see anything I like here, i.e., very little in mags now I can see. Etc. Wow. Pues. WRITE!

all our love to you all,
bob

 

P.S. Have you seen Larry Eigner’s book — On My Eyes — strange nervous business, with (finally) to my sense great clarity.

[Note in left margin by Bobbie Creeley (Bobbie Louise Hawkins)]
I’m reading Spock re 6 & 7 year olds — Leslie fed one of the mice to the cat across the street — well not quite — but carried them both over (wasn’t supposed to go without permission — etc) then, in the room with the cat put them on the windowsill having decided to return home by climbing through the window (!) Cried because the cat chose hers (fattest). One incident from a week of them — oh well, hell. I hope you are all well — Love Bobbie

 


 

to louis zukofsky

box 567
placitas, n.m. 87043
september 7, 1968

Dear Louis,

I’m very sorry about the long silence, the more so after the very happy time with you both in Buffalo. Things then went on, it seems, very quickly — and then we had the move back here, and then summer like they say — so, here we are. It’s good, finally, to be back. This country is very relieving and puts us back in ourselves in a happy, useful manner. Terms of people I find a little bland and self-protecting, after the east, but the point I guess is we have our own concerns and occupations, and it’s a fine place to be thus at work. I’ll be teaching at the university here, which I don’t particularly look forward to at this point, but again, the house is great, one can stay absorbed by the place for a long time indeed, and I don’t think either Bobbie or I were aware how exhausted we were by all the rushing about we’d been involved with.

That was a lovely issue of poetry (Poetry!), and I was fascinated by Rudens (and for an innocent, ignorant question: is that Plautus? It has the feel of it, or god knows that was what I was trying to experience, like they say, in so-called Latin B, like, at Harvard    ...    ) That Voice, and the tags of song, weaving in and out are lovely. Anyhow — wow! It was a lovely and altogether horrific threesome to be a part of, though I wish my own ‘part’ might have sounded more in voice, somehow.

Apropos: I’ve finished or come to the ‘to be continued’ place of, a sort of sequence I’ve called Pieces, and it’s been a very useful opening for me. I’d got awfully boxed in by senses of poems as ‘A Poem’ — which all too quickly argues ‘The Poem’ — and also had begun to dislike the enclosure of two or three lines on a pristine page solely, etc. So anyhow — these simply ‘run on’ with minimal typographical break, in a form that really lets them come and go, meld and/or join, as occasion proves. There are some longer ones included, though I’ve let them fall as they do in the continuity of the writing, e.g., “The Finger” and another slightly longer one called “Numbers” — und so weiter. The point is, I’m happy — and so would like to dedicate the book to you if that’s not a presumption, and to say no more than, “For Louis Zukofsky,” i.e., no flourishes this time, nor prefatory notes, but simply to begin as the first one does:

As real as thinking
wonders created
by the possibility—

forms. A period
at the end of a sentence
which

began it was
into a present,
a presence

saying
something
as it goes.

Which ain’t the greatest, like, but is so much the fact of so much you’ve made clear to me, no matter I may well have learned the lesson badly. Ok. But please don’t hesitate to say no, if for any reason it would be an awkward occasion for you. Happily, Scribners will publish it, just when I’m not as yet clear — but again, I’ve wanted to say thank you in a non-leaning manner for a very long time, and hopefully, possibly, this can be one way.

I had a note from Stuart Montgomery yesterday, mentioning among little else indeed, that a second operation on Basil Bunting’s eyes had been successful — so his sight will be much improved I take it. Also, that he has another year’s employment at Newcastle, which also is good news for him.

Write please as there is time. I’m quite sure I’ll be in the east at some point during the coming months, and will get there to see you. For once I’ll insist it not be so hectic I end up vaguely in Times Square. Ok. Meantime I hope all’s well indeed.

our love to you both,
bob

 


Editors' Notes

to larry eigner [ca. february 1950]

Horace Gregory
Poet, translator, and critic.

“One had a lovely face”
W.B. Yeats, “Memory,” The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919.

“About Basic”
Basic English, a simplified system of writing with an English vocabulary of  850 words, based on various rules governing word order. Two main proponents of  Basic English were C.K. Ogden (1889–1957) and I.A. Richards (1893–1979), cf. Richards’ Basic English and Its Uses (W.W. Norton, 1943). Creeley and Leed discussed asking contributors of prose essays to The Lititz Review to write them in Basic English. 

“When I read on Cid’s program”
Cid Corman’s radio show “This Is Poetry” on wmex in Boston.

“letter from William Carlos Williams”
Williams’s letter to Creeley, 2/23/50.

 
to jonathan williams 1/5/1960

“Mr Henry Rago suh of Po-et-ry”
Poet and editor of Poetry 1955–1969.

“I got copy of Allen G/s record”
Allen Ginsberg, Howl, lp (Fantasy Records, 1959).

to ed dorn 1/19/61

“Anyhow I can’t at the moment see how to use such things as Scribner’s acceptance of the poems, and now as well a favorable report on first five chapters of the novel” Creeley’s For Love: Poems 1950 – 1960 (Scribner’s, 1962) and The Island (Scribner’s, 1963).

“I like that note you did”
Dorn’s Note for the Paterson Society (Paterson Society, 12/6/1960).

“I heard from Eberhart at Library of Congress”
Richard Eberhart, Library of Congress Consultant in Poetry from 1959–1961.

“Nims is present editor there”
John Frederick Nims, visiting editor of Poetry from October 1960 to September 1961.

“I don’t see much goddamn else — as this ‘deep image’”
See Dorn’s response to Creeley, dated 1/23/61: “Deep images, better, deep sounds, come mostly from the rectum.”

“OUTBURST connection”
Magazine edited by poet Tom Raworth from 1961–1963. The first issue features Creeley, “A New Testament: William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch,” Outburst 1 (1961), n.p.

 
to louis zukofsky 9/7/68

“lovely issue of poetry (Poetry!)”
Poetry 112 (August 1968) was devoted to long selections by Zukofsky (297–322), Charles Tomlinson (323–330), and Creeley (331–336).

Originally Published: October 1, 2013

COMMENTS (2)

On October 10, 2013 at 8:50pm Jennifer Bartlett wrote:
Thank you for posting these letters. I just had a few questions about the
Eigner letter. There is no source or permissions listed here. Is this letter
from the Dodd LE Collection? Also, I recall that, in those early Creeley
letters, he used a number of abbreviations, for example Yr. instead of
Your. Has this letter been maintained in its original form or was it
edited for clarity? I can not tell from the notes. Also, how did you derive
the month of February? As Creeley did not date any of these early letters
to Larry, it would be interesting to mention that Larry usually dated
them himself with a handwritten note. With so little information about
Eigner, it is difficult to make much sense of this letter out of context -
in relationship to the very very brief (very) mentoring role RC took in
terms of LE poems, the influence of IA Richard's Basic English on
Creeley and the history of the Littitz Review. Also, the dynamics of the
relationship - which were complex. Are there permissions to print this
letter? It might be good for Poetry (Harriet) to list that!

On October 15, 2013 at 8:35pm Rod Smith wrote:
All rights were of course secured. These being through the Creeley
estate and The University of California Press. Yes, the original is in
the Dodd at Storrs. The letter was not edited for clarity. No
abbreviations were omitted. The February date was Eigner's, no
envelope survives. The notes section at the end of this selection
provides some information on Basic English. That is your opinion that
the letter does not make sense, not a statement of fact. We are
presenting primary documents in a trade publication. The
introduction is brief because a brief introduction is what was
requested, and what was called for.

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

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Once known primarily for his association with the group called the “Black Mountain Poets,” at the time of his death in 2005, Robert Creeley was widely recognized as one of the most important and influential American poets of the twentieth century. His poetry is noted for both its concision and emotional power. Albert Mobilio, writing in the Voice Literary Supplement, observed: “Creeley has shaped his own audience. The much . . .

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