Poem Sampler

Everything Left to Say

Five Robert Creeley poems that deserve a wider audience.
PoetryFoundation.org asked critic and poet Charles Bernstein to recommend five poems by Robert Creeley to add to the archive.


A Token (from For Love)

My lady
fair with
arms, what

can I say to
you—words, words
as if all
worlds were there.

Are words ever able to convey all that we want to say, or all that we need to say? In the poems of For Love, written in the 1950s, Creeley turns the lyric love poem into a site of both existential anxiety and philosophical reflection.

The Warning (from For Love)

For love—I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.

Following William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky: short lines in which every word counts. Think about how much would be lost if this were written as two prose sentences. The rhythm and emotion comes from breaking the line in the middle of phrases (enjambment) in the first stanza, a jagged contrast to the phrasal line breaks in the second stanza. In For Love, Creeley has many unprecedented poems exploring male anger. The poem has 32 words in eight lines, two stanzas (not counting the title). This gloss says so much less in 94 words.

The Language (from Words)

Locate I
love you
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

love you


then what
is emptiness
for. To

fill, fill.
I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.

In Words, written in the early 1960s, Creeley turns each word, each phrase, each syllable on itself, as if inside them he will find an answer he cannot find in the world, only to realize that that words and world are intertwined, like the soul and the body. Or perhaps like lovers in a quarrel. Reference is always a relationship.

The Measure (from Words)

I cannot
move backward
or forward.
I am caught

in the time
as measure.
What we think
of we think of—

of no other reason
we think than
just to think—
each for himself.

What is the measure of the poem: words, phrases, metrical feet, lines, stanzas . . . or thought? Each line has its own separate gravity and yet connects, but with difficulty, to the next. We are caught in the between: in time, in a now we learn, each moment at a time, for ourselves only.

The Pattern (from Words)

As soon as
I speak, I
speaks. It

wants to
be free but
impassive lies

in the direction
of its
words. Let

x equal x, x
equals x. I

speak to
hear myself
speak? I

had not thought
that some-
thing had such

undone. It
was an idea
of mine.

Who speaks in a poem? Is it the author, as might be assumed in a traditional lyric poem (“I speak”)? In Creeley’s poetic algebra, the “I” of the poem speaks, and this is not identical to when “I speak.” In this literalizing turn of phrase, Creeley creates the now classic formulation of the poem as speaking itself: as an “it,” as the fact of its own activity, making its own time in the thickness of its thought.

All poems from The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975. Copyright 1992 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted with the permission of the University of California Press.

Originally Published: January 29th, 2007

Poet, essayist, theorist, and scholar Charles Bernstein was born in New York City in 1950. He is a foundational member and leading practitioner of Language poetry.  Bernstein was educated at the Bronx High School of Science and at Harvard University, where he studied philosophy with Stanley Cavell and wrote his...

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  1. January 28, 2007

    your words really moved me i dont really like peotry but i loved yours it really makes you think of everything in life i love what you write

  2. January 31, 2007
     Erica Reichert

    Five excellent choices.

  3. February 3, 2007

    It's great that you have these poems of Robert Creeley's. I remember teaching him back in the early 70's.

  4. February 22, 2007
     C. E. Chaffin

    To glorify Creeley's childish diction as something ineffable and sublime makes the emperor's new clothes appear solid. The man lacks metaphor and music. He is likely the most overrated post-modern poet extant. His simplicity is not a dodge; it is the simplicity of a second-rate mind. Why better minds continue to mine his shallowness is beyond me.

    C. E. Chaffin

    Editor, The Melic Review

  5. February 22, 2007
     Dave Grill

    The tension between simplicity and intellect, stripped down to the essentials of emotion and

    content. The poetry world misses Creely.

    Schwierig aber Belohnung.

  6. March 17, 2007
     Matthew Landis

    I wonder Mr. or Ms. Chaffin why it is that such a seemingly inconsequential or "second-rate" poet deserves such a scathing commentary? Surely, if Creely is the "over-rated" poet you paint him out to be, your own commentary contradicts the letter of your own assessment. If you felt the need to devote the time in the "Comments" section of an article on a website, then aren't you giving creedence to his importance? Would you even bother if he were as unimportant as you seem to think? Ultimately, while you may not have a taste for Creely's poetry, that is no excuse for employing unnecessary bitterness and resentment in your criticism of him. In fact, to call it criticism seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.

  7. March 27, 2007
     Pekka Oskari

    M. Landis, I




    redo now


    C. E. Chaffin


  8. June 16, 2007

    it's really nicce... here seen such a site before... it remember my school days.. when i read the DAFFODILS WRITTEN BY WILLAMS....

  9. October 7, 2007

    "Comments that contain offensive or abusive language will be edited or deleted."

    This doesn't mix with poetry. Leave people to say what they want. Do it or I'll

    split open your head and put
    a candle in
    behind the eyes.

    or at least think about it - because I love you.

  10. December 20, 2007

    you could write more about these poems because some students like me could need it

  11. December 23, 2007
     Andrew Burke

    One of the best ways to appreciate Creeley is to hear him read. There is a wonderful CD with Creeley reading (short pieces) to music by Steve Swallow. He speaks to me as I drive - a cretain lyric irony there.

    I once had the honour of reading with him in Perth, Western Australia. He was a very generous man with his time and ideas.

  12. December 27, 2007
     Kenneth Sherwood

    Readers who haven't come through poets like WC Williams or Louis Zukofsky may find the short lines and abrupt rhythms a bit puzzling. Thinking about the role of rhythm in jazz, or the pattern of footfall patter as one walks and thinks are two ways. Or listen to recordings of the Creeley reading poems at Pennsound: http://writing.upenn.edu/penns...

  13. January 25, 2008
     karin stark

    I appreciate the commentary about these poems. I love two of Creeley's poems I studied many years ago in college and was hoping to find here--"Rain" and "The Flower." I think the use of rhythm and definition of words in reference to the poems (especially in "Rain) is amazing--and I can hear the rain falling and see the flowers backoning me to choose them to pick in these poems...

  14. July 4, 2008
     david lucito

    its traffics blurred racket, just not booped

    out like kerouac. its condensed into a

    whoosh for the peace come of

    communication. one of the greats.

  15. August 31, 2008
     Terence K

    I mentored with Creeley at UB in the

    mid to late 90s. As already

    mentioned here, he was open &

    generous & honest--very admirable (&

    uncommon) traits within the halls of


    Bernstein picks gems, but I always

    loved Bob's:


    You have to reach

    Out more it's

    Farther away from

    You it's here


    It's a great poem to whip out at a

    party. Jot it down and pass it from

    person to person and hear how they

    each person enunciates those

    existential lines. You'll find each

    person breathe their own life into the


    Thanks Bob!!


    P.S. If you like Bob's recordings,

    check out the double CD "Rockdrill 1

    & 2" by Caranet Press. www.carcanet.co.uk

  16. November 16, 2008
     Peter Levitt

    as with most of RC's poems, the five above carry a human sensibility, and a willingness that lasted through his life to ask what makes a human, that marked the man. His breath carries each syllable, even as each syllable carries the drive to know. His definitive clarity, or the move to it through the act of language, is here apparent. As to his 'ear' - man, get with it. If you can't hear the music in RC's poetry see a cardiologist right away; something's missing.

    Wonderful choices - proof that part of the man's generosity and human feeling can be found in his willingness to write at all.

  17. January 15, 2009
     Bill Syylvester

    Charles Bernstein has made a beautiful selection of Creeley's poems. There is an underly "movement" in these and many Creeley poems, as in

    A Piece

    One and

    one, two


    I once asked Creeley, "How about..."

    I moved my left index finger down "one" and the right index down "one" moved them both up "two", and repeated silently all three motions left down, right down, both up "three"


    Bill Sylvester

  18. April 16, 2009

    can die

  19. September 15, 2009
     Bill Sylvester

    A Piece

    One and
    one, two,
    three. CP 1945-75 p.332

    HEARING PURCELL... (A Piece)

    Knowing what
    knowing is, (one and...)

    think less
    of your life as labor (one

    pain's increase
    thought's random torture, (two)

    grow with intent.
    Simply live (three)

    Robert Creeley for Jean and Bill
    with much love BOB Buffalo 3/20/79
    (Framed poster in our computer room)