Prose from Poetry Magazine

Four Letters, 1950-1968: Introduction

Letters that made things happen

These four letters, to Larry Eigner, Jonathan Williams, Ed Dorn, and Louis Zukofsky, with additional images from the Poetry archives and the estate of Allen Ginsberg, represent a small selection from The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, forthcoming from the University of California Press in January of 2014. The volume has been in preparation since 2003 and will range across sixty years of correspondence, including faxes and e-mail from his later years.

In the introduction he wrote for The Selected Poems of George Oppen, Creeley invoked W.H. Auden’s famous statement, from his elegy to W.B. Yeats, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Whatever one may think of that sentiment, and Creeley quickly complicates it, it’s clear that in his letters he made things happen on a number of levels — personal, poetic, pragmatic.

An astonishingly prolific correspondent, particularly in the fifties, but throughout his life — Creeley intensely documented the evolution of his poetics, which was a matter for him of “the complex, this instant” — his place and the people occupying him, always.

Each of these four letters makes mention of Poetry and tracks something of Creeley’s relation to, and opinion of, the magazine. The first letter, from the twenty-three-year-old Creeley to the twenty-two-year-old Larry Eigner, finds the young Creeley in a somewhat teacherly mode. His early correspondence with Eigner often carried this tone though he quickly came to see him as a peer — publishing Eigner’s first book, From the Sustaining Air, on his Divers Press in 1953. This letter dates from the time of Creeley’s first correspondence with William Carlos Williams. He would first write Charles Olson in April of that year.

The letters to Jonathan Williams and Ed Dorn date from Creeley’s time in Guatemala. He had moved there, with Bobbie Louise Hawkins (then Bobbie Creeley) and their children, to take a job as a tutor on a finca — an arrangement that would allow time to write. While in Guatemala Creeley’s A Form of Women appeared to very favorable notice, he was included in Donald M. Allen’s seminal The New American Poetry 1945–1960, and Scribner’s accepted For Love for publication. It would be more accurate to say “his star rose” than “his star was rising.” The final letter of this selection, to Louis Zukofsky, is celebratory of Poetry cxii, no. 5, which featured the two of them. We have appended a selection of notes clarifying names, referenced publications, etc., to the end of this selection.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2013

Rod Smith is the author of Deed (University of Iowa Press, 2007) and nine other books of poems. He edits the journal Aerial, publishes Edge Books, and manages Bridge Street Books in Washington DC.

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