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The Turn of the Thumbscrew
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:
To in to up
to over to inside
to outside to above
to which to you.
or part of a rural remembrance:
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