1. Home
  2. Features
  3. Articles
  4. Everything Left to Say by Charles Bernstein
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
soft
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
some-
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

I
love you

again,

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
also
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.

Related

  • 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...

Poem Sampler

Everything Left to Say

Five Robert Creeley poems that deserve a wider audience

Related

  • 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...

Other Information