Sustenance and abandonment
The release in paperback this month of If I Were Writing This, the final book of poems Robert Creeley saw into print before his death in 2005, provides a good opportunity to think about his late work.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I’m tempted to say that Creeley’s adult writing life conveniently falls into four neat, roughly chronologically equivalent periods: (i) the lyrical love poems from 1950 into the early ’60s, collected in For Love: Poems 1950–1960; (ii) the conceptual experiments stretching from the mid-’60s to mid-’70s; (iii) the more settled work from the late ’70s to about 1990 (that these first three phases each overlapped with different marriages, sets of children, and lifestyles is no coincidence); (iv) and the late work from the early ’90s until 2005. That’s five-plus decades divided into four-dozen-or-so-year periods. Interesting.
I’m guessing that for many readers, their favorite poetry is from the initial stage (“Creeley’s best work came early,” August Kleinzahler opined in a review for the New York Times). For myself, it tends to be the second and fourth. Creeley’s “day books” from the later ’60s and early ’70s remain unsurpassed in their combination of seemingly off-hand experimentation, their conceptual art-induced collapse between life and art, and their formal parallel to the turbulent ’60s, including its drug use (remembering that what’s now called “the ’60s” extends from circa 1964–74). The full impact of these “day books” doesn’t come across in the uniformity of the big University of California Press Collecteds; it’s best to see them in their original versions. By “seemingly off-hand” I mean incredibly difficult to duplicate, and very little of the post-Black Mountain avant-garde comes close to what Creeley achieved during this decade, despite sharing similar aims. Robert Grenier’s handwritten poems might be approximate, but they’ve been consistently turned into their opposite—rarefied objects, fawned over mostly by grad students, and now shown in art galleries.
In comparison with phase two (bearing with my quasi-structuralist analysis here), Creeley’s late work seems utterly conventional: simple and directly expressed sentiments; lots of rhyming, including some of the most obvious end rhymes encountered since the birth of hip-hop; a generally uncomplicated self-oriented view. But again, “seems” is the key word here. For my tastes (others will disagree), Creeley’s least interesting decade as a poet may be the ’80s. I’m sure it was difficult for him to wrestle with his own legacy, as well as to witness the rise of an entirely new and separate—from him—generation of non-mainstream poets (i.e., the Language Poets), with whom he slowly commenced to dance.
But something happened in the early ’90s to spark a resurgence in Creeley’s poetry. I have my own theories that involve the formation of the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo where Creeley had taught since the ’60s, and the productive challenges and motivating conflicts that situation provided. I’d point to Creeley’s mid-’90s long poem (for him) “Histoire de Florida” (to my ear a very Ed Dorn sounding title) as not only the work that got him out of what in retrospect looks a little bit like a writing rut, but one of the most important poems he ever wrote. It can be found in Life and Death (1998), the key book in phase four of Creeley’s writing life, and probably one of the best volumes he published during his lifetime. And that’s saying something.
The ghostly quality to many of the poems in If I Were Writing This is signaled right away in its title. The book contains poems for departed friends and family (his sister), two for his wife, along with poems for his children as they grow toward adulthood. All of Creeley’s familiar motifs return: doorways, empty houses, conversation, his face in the mirror, love, memory, being pulled toward or away from something or someone, bodies that provide both bliss and discomfort. Here’s the last poem in the book:
It would be difficult to describe this as hard-won wisdom earned at the end of a very full life, even if this isn’t officially Creeley’s last poem—those were collected in On Earth (2006). Instead, there’s a nearly amoral vision articulated here that’s traveled a long way from the implied—if not always realized—ethics of For Love. It may be easier to express this in relationship to food as opposed to other human beings—the bare animality of sustenance and abandonment, which in fact drove Creeley’s work, sometimes fiercely, from the beginning.
Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...