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Robert Creeley

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Margaret Konkol

Creeley in Age:

Negative Poetics in Robert Creeley’s Late Work

This piece is about 5 printed pages long.

– All one is, is a body. So it is that which speaks first.

Most everyone in the poetry world can claim some sort of acquaintance with Robert Creeley. He gave thousands of public readings, mentored aspiring poets, advised dissertations, led seminars at SUNY Buffalo and Brown University, supported small press publications and endorsed fledgling projects. I can’t claim any such acquaintance. No, I met Creeley late, very late––at his last public reading and talk on March 19th 2005, at the University of Virginia. During the eleventh annual Festival of the Book, Creeley took part in a panel on Whitman and in the evening he gave a reading of his poetry at the University Bookstore.

As a poet grows older the photographs reflect life’s conventional pattern, a shift from debonair grins to gray hair and wrinkling skin, but at a certain point this game of correspondence between image and life, a short-term realism, stops. I imagine that the poet must decide, “I am this old, at least here in my own books I will get no older.” And so one photo, taken in later middle age, stays on through all the remaining years and afterwards long after the poet is dead. The Creeley I waited for in the hushed auditorium was a man in his fifties holding an umbrella and staring quizzically at the camera. Pushed in a wheelchair, a blanket wrapped across his lap, the poet who actually appeared, had aged thirty years in an instant from that image. His shoulders a tent collapsed along its frame, he spoke, and in speaking his presence filled the room, though he had been literally present for forty five minutes already (he was the last of three panelists to speak). An old and small poet, with an oxygen mask accessorized by a tank of air, he began to speak and that voice matched the inflections and tones that I had previously heard on recordings of his readings and lectures.

That evening at the reading the poor man who had looked absolutely crumpled––oxygen tubes, wheelchair––had found a stool to sit on and, perched there, was able to spin fascinating stories about Vietnam and Duncan. Almost uncanny, he spoke a lot about dying. He was quite eager to explain and preoccupied with it. He said that when one gets to a certain age the body becomes phenomenological for the first time since the changes in adolescence. Waking up each day, he could never guess what part of the body would break down or behave erratically. His encounters with the world, the way his skin fit in space was now in constant change. He made falling apart a sort of joke. But what struck me was a matter of breath. The oxygen tank was a new addition; his chest had felt tight (as he confided to the whole room) and so back in February he’d added the tank and mask to his daily ensemble. Practically speaking, this meant that he had to remove the oxygen mask, his now prosthetic lungs, in order to voice his poetry.

In speaking the lungs exhale. Indeed, speech is the only human activity that cannot admit into its charming form the passage of breath. The rest of life is accompanied by the systole/diastole, life-sustenance/expenditure pattern of exchange in which we give out the old and take in the new, unconscious of our own homeostatic self-preservation. So too, it goes without saying that reading poetry aloud is a matter of controlling one’s breath. What is often a half-beat, barely audible break as the poet, in reading, takes a breath between phrases, became in Creeley’s reading a conspicuous structure of the verse. Creeley would read until he needed to breathe and as he inhaled from the mask the verse would be punctuated with an “ifffhhpppfff”––– a mechanical, shunting sound, not wholly human. The entrance of this inorganic mechanism was invited in not simply as an unwilling side-effect of his physical frailty, but more importantly by a sense of Voice as the never-there precursor to the individual utterance, “the unspeakable tradition that forms the foundation for all traditions and human speech”(Agamben 103). Metered lines end-stopped by rhyme, which preconditioned the pauses in his reading, provided an opportune space, a mechanically-determined gap in the utterance, in which its opposite could have place––a silence open to be mechanically filled by breath. In the performance the body breathes but the subject speaks. The meter and rhyme become a way of mechanizing the voice as a concession to, or reconciliation with, the mechanistic limitation of breath––uncovering artifice as the foundational, even constitutive force in speech.

                 

Creeley’s last major essay and public appearance address Whitman, a poet he always admired, whom he had championed in the heyday of New Critical disdain for windy verse. In “Whitman in Age” Creeley sums up Whitman’s poetic project:

If there has been any confusion as to what Whitman is centered upon, it’s now clear indeed that the sea is his preoccupation, as it has been persistently throughout his life. In age the sea becomes more and more present as source and as that to which one returns, metaphorically perhaps but also quite literally, losing signifying name and function, entering the utterly common fate of all beyond any differentiation or exception. There is no longer a locating ground. (6)

In identifying with Whitman’s interest in an arche/telos of self and identity, Creeley begins to approach something like a Heideggerian conception of Voice/voice. Whitman most clearly anticipates this conception in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” an early sea poem that Creeley references in his talk as an example of the unchosenness of response to such a Voice (5-6).

An origin myth of the poet, “Cradle” relates the encounter between the young poet and a “he-bird,” recently bereaved of its mate, whose song of mourning initiates his own poetic singing. The poet’s newly-forged voice, however, is only completed by response to the Voice of the sea:

My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet
garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me. (178-183)

Thus, the poem’s speaker, even as he is called to voice and being, confronts the soundless oblivion of the Voice. The assonantal and succinct final line, “The sea whisper’d me,” depicts the moment the speaker is initiated and becomes “the entity that is.” In one sense the sea as Voice whispers to him and he responds; therefore he is brought to being as an answering voice. In another sense the sea whispers him into himself; it whispers that non-specific yet universally identified pronoun “me,” which interpolates and bestows the capacity of self-identification, a sense of himself as “me,” as a speaking thinking subject. Creeley’s poetry consistently indicates that breath is the limit and not the extension of voice. Whitman’s trope of the sea articulates, for Creeley, the essentially ethical relation to the other as it is contained within the self.

                 

Towards the end of the evening’s sequence Creeley read “Thinking,” a poem that, by claiming the absence of the addressor, instantiates the being’s presence:

Thought feels the edges.
Just so far it was only yesterday?
So far it seems now till tomorrow.

Time isn’t space.
Away for the day, one says––
gone fishing. Now and again. (1-8)

The “not,” as Agamben would interject, is that which is “constitutive of this Being of Dasein”(2). A pronoun-free discourse begins to describe what it is to have Being: “Thought feels the edges” (1). There is no information to identify an addresser or addressee. We know only that the utterance, “Away for the day, one says––/gone fishing,” echoes “in the quiet morning” (5-7). We might infer that this statement is written on a signboard, perhaps hung in a shop window. Or perhaps this is a fisherman’s voicemail recording. Either way the originary voice of the utterance, whether it is written or recorded, is the mark of the absence of the one who would speak. The human voice presents itself and in doing so declares itself not present. The statement clears a space, makes a displacement in time (“Time isn’t space” [4]). But the speech act is an inhabited space, an instance of the taking place of language; it was uttered once and will be so again. Thus establishing the essential negativity of being in language, Creeley is able to conclude,

The world will be as one left it,
still there, to reappear again perhaps
where it always is. (10-12)

It should be stated, however, that this is not a poetics of the impersonal. As Creeley read these poems, though one could hear breath circumscribing the poet’s voice, the poems still sounded nearly identical to recordings made years earlier.[1] This consistency is due to the forms of the poems themselves. The recording’s lines, often end-stopped with rhyme and/or launched with cumulative anaphora, regularize the poetic utterance. To be sure, in the performance we hear the grain (borrowing from Barthes’s definition of the grain in “The Grain of the Voice”) of Creeley’s voice, “the cantor of his soul”(Barthes 182), but we would still hear this grain if all we had was the written text. Poignantly aware of his mortality, Creeley turns to traditional prosody, that which today sounds strange and foreign to the ears where a half century ago a poem written in tight rhyming couplets would have been unremarkable. Artifice becomes the means by which Creeley can insure that the reader will still hear the grain not of Robert Creeley, age 78, but the grain of poetry, announcing itself as other, as a separate body.

Creeley reinterprets Whitman’s “multitudinous” as “liv[ing] a common person” (“Clemente’s Images” 71), not as contained in the body, but as a state into which one enters in that dispersal known as death. In this way Creeley takes on Whitman’s mantle but transforms being, the self “containing multitudes,” into a self in ethical relation to the other that, for Creeley, is being towards death. His poetics of negativity are based upon the assumption that one can’t turn the singularity into the shared, but the poet can share in the common. By “returning to where language already happened to him” (Agamben 94), by referencing the tradition by means of citation and by the invocation of prosody, Creeley’s last poems return to where poetry has already been, literally, to what has already been written. It’s not so much that Creeley is afraid of dying or is even regretful of a life lived too little or too much, but he is unable to reconcile singularity––now a body that has become the issue of his existence––with his increasing sense that “we live a common person” (CI 71):

Inside I am the other of a self,
who feels a presence always close at hand,

one side or the other, knows another one
unlocks the door and quickly enters in.

Either as or, we live a common person.
Two is still one. It cannot live apart. (67-72)

As Creeley read “Clemente’s Images” I remember how his voice caught in the words “the one who’s in between / the others who have come and gone”(10) because it clarified for me what had been a confounding mien of beatitude in solitude. The other is alive and near to hand. The remembered body belongs outside itself and yet is remembered and maintained within the self. Creeley had lost loved bodies, parts of his family and many of his friends, but these others had become a common person unified in the other, the other of the self. Here, in the homesick lines of Robert Creeley’s late poetry, one is left wondering whether the “here” is life and home, or whether the “there” where one’s friends have all gone might not be the locating ground of the self.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Language and Death. Trans. Karen E. Pinkus with Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Barthes, Roland. “The Grain of the Voice.” Image Music Text. 1977. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: The Noonday Press, 1987

Creeley, Robert. Robert Creeley Reads. JagJaguWar Correspondent: Canada, 2000.

———. Whitman in Age.” Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2005.

Whitman, Walt. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Norton Anthology of Poetry. eds. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005. 1073-1078.

Notes

[1] For an excellent example of such a recording see Robert Creeley Reads. It contains much of the same material and many of the same inflections as Creeley’s final reading.