A recent Harriet entry by Olena Kalytiak Davis begins "As Mother Said" and soon enough mentions "driving." The combination reminds me that I've wanted to write something about Robert Creeley's famous poem, "I Know a Man." This particular moment in American history makes it all the more timely.
Robert Creeley in Bolinas, CA

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, -- John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.
I could sing on forever about the line breaks, syntax and spelling in this poem, but those qualities have been well-covered by others. I’ve been surprised, though, in some recent commentaries on “I Know a Man,” to find no mention of its sizzling political implications. Just as the ending of James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” I have wasted my life
, is in dialogue with the last line of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” You must change your life
, this Creeley poem about America is in dialogue with William Carlos Williams’ poem about America, “To Elsie.”
Williams’ poem considers (with, perhaps, racist and sexist imputations) the waywardness of an America whose denizens have been cut loose from their cultural and spiritual roots. It ends:
No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car
Creeley’s poem is speed-spoken by man so self-absorbed and unreflective that he can’t even bother to get the name of his friend right. Just alert enough to sense the spiritual darkness that “sur-/rounds us,” he responds as Americans often have, with the impulse to buy something—“a goddamn big car.”
The voice that ends Creeley’s poem with its command to “drive” and “look/ out where yr going,” retools Williams’ metaphor by putting a driver behind the wheel. To wit: we’re the ones steering the American dream, brothers and sisters, and it’s time to pay attention.

Originally Published: October 20th, 2008

Born in California’s Mojave Desert, poet Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, where he majored in geology. After earning an MA in literature from San Francisco State University, Gander moved to Mexico, then to Arkansas, where his poetry—informed by his knowledge of...

  1. October 20, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    >I could sing on forever about the line breaks, syntax and spelling in this poem...
    This is true. At a reading once, I heard Gander recite this poem from memory (along with four or five other Creeley poems, it was quite impressive). And then he went on for something like 45 minutes, in a rhapsodic sing-song voice, talking about the minute particulars of Creeley's line breaks, syntax, and spelling. By the time he was done, there were maybe five minutes left for the second reader.
    And I agree with all the sentiments above.
    Hey, FYI, in case some of you may be interested, there's an interesting exchange at the main page, under Andrew Joron's essay about "non-linear" poetry and water.

  2. October 20, 2008
     Don Share

    Just for fun, this is from the letters section of the London Review of Books, 6 March 2008:
    Stephen Burt’s account of Robert Creeley’s famous poem 'I Know a Man’ reminded me that once, at a time when Creeley and I both lived in Bolinas, Creeley in conversation bridled at the popular appropriation of his line 'drive, he sd’ (LRB, 21 February). As quoted, it misconstrued the poem, he said, explaining that the word 'drive’, which occurs at the beginning of the final stanza, was meant to finish the narrator’s musing at the end of the previous stanza: 'buy a goddamn big car// drive’. So that what followed shouldn’t be read, 'drive, he sd, for/christ’s sake, look/out where yr going,’ but rather: 'he sd, for/christ’s sake, look/out where yr going.’ It still puzzles me how so practised a grammarian as Creeley expected any but the former reading, in the absence of a semi-colon, dash or ellipsis after 'drive’.
    Aram Saroyan
    Los Angeles

  3. October 20, 2008
     Boyd Nielson

    One is left to wonder, especially perhaps at the moment, how this question of driver/driven is also connected to or a product of more ancient and at times more provocative modes of address. Consider for instance Bradstreet’s “Verses upon the Burning of Our House.” Or, say, Emerson’s essay The Poet, where (I was recently reminded) he says, “It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that, beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things, that, beside his privacy of power, as an individual man, there is a great public power, on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him…” Or, it may be, as Eugene Debs said in accepting his 1916 presidential nomination, “I have simply been commanded […] to perform a certain duty,” even while noting elsewhere that “The natural tendency of officials is to become bosses. They come to imagine that they are indispensable.”
    Kent notes the conversation in which he responds to Andrew Joron’s insightful comments on water. Wise thoughts on both sides. One dreams of a conversation on water that can account both for what Emerson calls the “ethereal tides” and, say, the act of washing dishes. Take for instance these verses from Parra (apologies for the bad line-spacing, entirely owing to my rudimentary HTML):
    EL VERDADERO PROBLEMA de la filosofía
    es quién lava los platos
    nada del otro mundo
    la verdad
    el transcuro del tiempo
    claro que sí
    pero primero quién lava los platos
    el que quiera lavarlos que lose lave
    chao pescao
    y tan enemigos como antes

  4. October 20, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    But I always thought Wright was concurring with WCW (though Dr. Bill perhaps wrangling with Rilke?):

    Any way you talk

    Any way you turn

    Any way you stand

    Any way you lie

    You have pissed your life

  5. October 21, 2008
     Forrest Gander

    Boyd, I've always loved that Parra poem; and by connecting it to the discussion of philosophy and water, you've clanged the bell over my head. Don (Share), why don't you translate those lines for those who can't decipher the Spanish. Will you?

  6. October 23, 2008

    >Creeley’s poem is speed-spoken by man so self-absorbed and unreflective that he can’t even >bother to get the name of his friend right.
    I always thought this was speed-smartass-obfuscation--a kind of pose about a pose--rather than getting the name wrong...

  7. October 23, 2008
     Don Share

    Ah, you've laid down the gantlet, Forrest (whatever a gantlet is)!
    Here's a loose version of the Parra poem:
    THE REAL PROBLEM in philosophy
    is who does the dishes
    nothing supernatural
    the truth
    the passage of time
    but above all: who does the dishes
    whoever wants to do them, do them
    catch you later
    then we’re back to square one being enemies

  8. October 24, 2008
     Desmond Swords

    The truth is, s/he is about to appear with us, and i aint sayin s/he was the biggest, brightest, cleverest person to seer for the Macroom Achill Bohola sage who knew how Bob was hangin, in the hammock swingin back in '52 when we got on the mountain and projected breath beyond the line Zukker kovsky called and William carlos showed Wordy when strollin through a Cumbrian bog daddio. no ! no ! no ! i aint gonna say ppl aint gonna hate yer for us s/he is and i aint whinin, i aint cryin, aint gonna stop the hope that's gonna blow man. hell no !!
    and the source of it is Segais, the poetry of imbas, Finn McCool, Cuchulainn and the man from Ahcil Macroom Bohola, sure tis only O BAM! A man whose gonna sing it, the truth of waht s/he seeded, so c'mon all yah 'n sing along, O'Leary, O'Reilly, O'Hare and O'Hara, there's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama...and s/he has dreamed of tir na og, and we have trod the long hard road on which the ppl trodden down have known, and i aint gonna lie, aint gonna say there's WMD and william morris dreamt Yeats was just a hashish pill poppin spacer daddio, jack 'n al are with me now, Lord sbove us aint no earthly sir ir princess of the gra agus siochain - Mister, but communing with Bob in the personae of tweed in a fisherman's grey eye and white of Olwengin river, the jagged green grass at the base of Maumturk and grim blue sky above na Beanna Beola, i have seen the promised land, and s/he aint gonna malke it happen unless you vote for who you know is the best poet goin. O'Leary, O'Reilly, O'Hare and O'Hara, there's no one as Irish as Desmond 'O'BAM ability of Bohola Achill and Macroom...
    have a gander, get happy and not feel fear just coz they wannit, the crooks and politicians who lie for a livin. Go ! go to this link and Oh Believe A Masterson from Achill from Bunacurry and Desmond from Macroom, can hit the heights of Bob and Bill on the blokes blog guardian, Ovid Yeats, Slags from the Book Blog, Scrown Arm instead the disenfrenchised who had nuffin all their lives,
    grow up Bob!!!

  9. October 25, 2008
     Tony Green

    I know a man
    1. At any moment, it's timely to be reminded: 'the darkness surrounds us' - but any appropriation of that to current economic financiall and political woes squeezes out the bald existential statement in it: so making it all occasion for wringing of hands and talk-back-radio moralistic attitudinizing. Or, you might say, for a New Critical reading.
    2. The friend's name - not necessarily forgotten, rather it can be that it's an irrelevance to the poem, so it's just plain John.
    3.Given the speaker's statement 'the darkness surrounds us', the friend just doesn't 'get' the recklessness.
    4. all those comma, line-breaks, verse-breaks & 'sd' [twice] & famously //drive, he sd, for/ doesn't really do what the writer wanted it to, unless the reading of the poem takes 'the darkness surrounds us' with some existential weight.

  10. October 25, 2008

    >2. The friend's name - not necessarily forgotten, rather it can be that it's an irrelevance to the
    >poem, so it's just plain John.
    Okay, yeah, I think that's it. But it's an irrelevance related to the speaker's personality--I mean it's the (pleasing) bluster in the speaker that makes it irrelevant, not (or not entirely) the meaning of what he's saying.