An Interview with Robert Creeley

This interview was originally published in 2001.  —Ed.

DANIEL KANE: One of the things that surprised me in your book Life & Death was that in a number of your poems you used a relatively long line. Your work has, for many years now, been characterized by a short line featuring strong enjambment—this selection from your long poem “Histoire de Florida” is an example. Since I’ve heard you read a number of times, I’ve noticed you really emphasize your short line breaks so that the poem on the page becomes a deliberate, oddly halting, and yet insistent physical voice in the ear. Did the longer line in your recent poems come about in a way that surprised you, or was it more a deliberate decision on your part? What do these long lines say about your poetic voice?

ROBERT CREELEY: They say a lot about the pace I now find most comfortable, tacitly one more reflective, less pressured by immediate feelings, more working its way along. A longer line slows things down in much the same sense that I am slowed down now by the fact of age. You probably know that William Carlos Williams’ triadic line gave him useful location and resource in his old age. It offered determined “handholds” as he made his way through the pattern of sounds and rhythms otherwise possible. So I didn’t think to move in these longer lines, particularly. They occurred as I wrote, proving the most viable and resourceful measure for what I was doing.

DK: Issues specific to mortality seem to rise to the surface in many of the poems in Life & Death. In a section of your long poem-series “Histoire de Florida,” you write, “Old persons swinging their canted metal detectors, / beach’s either end out of sight beyond the cement block highrises, / occasional cars drifting by in the lanes provided….” I’m curious whether you wrote these long loping lines to suggest a kind of final inventory before death closes in. I ask this because there’s a terrific scene from Wim Wenders’s movie Wings of Desire in which a poor fellow, knocked off his motorcycle by a speeding car, begins to list all kinds of things he sees, along with authors, foods, and so on. I hate to sound so morbid, but….

RC: I don’t recall any such specific preoccupation. Where I am is at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, with a company of ten other poets, each of us writing a block of whatever each day, for the mutual pile to be got to the next day. This prospect, like they say, is the beach at New Smyrna Beach, the comfortably common beach, where one sees everyone from local surfers to the people coming south for the winter. In this section I very much wanted a gathering rhythm—the “long loping lines” you noted—and you’ll see that each verse is seven lines and there are four in all, making a kind of loop, or continuum—a form that has been central for me pretty much since an earlier sequence I wrote called “Helsinki Window.” Life’s at a stasis, so to speak. I need a form to deal with that fact. This whole poem is much involved with classic memory, from echoes of what I held to in youth as Stevens—and also Yeats, Pound, Chaucer, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, etc., etc. There are many echoes here and a very usual wonder as to how dying will occur and how one can admit it.

DK: In your poem “The Mirror,” you wrote, “Seeing is believing.” For some reason, this familiar adage reminded me of the line from a James Schuyler poem, “No thing a symbol, every one real.” Are you suggesting here that the physical situation is primary—that imagination is just a temporary funhouse to entertain oneself in while the physical truth of dissolution, visible at all times, in front of our noses, closes in?

RC: This was written in protest of the hopeless human slaughter in Rwanda. Little good it could do, but that’s what “Seeing is believing…” refers to. It’s to the point that I saw primarily with my imagination, using the images I, as all, were given as well as the memories I had from World War II in Burma. I am suggesting that we, humanly, cannot deny the evidence of such a multitude of corpses, that we must admit such deaths and their waste. Because we felt ourselves to be different from these people, we paid, like they say, all too little attention. Of course, any reader will have his or her sense of the occasion, just as you have.

DK: I’m fascinated by this. Why didn’t you just say so—that is, why didn’t you name the place, the time? How does poetry benefit from such elision?

RC: I can’t now recall the name of the group that asked me and others to write something—it was to be used as part of a large public call for support. In retrospect, I don’t think referring specifically to Rwanda would make the poem say more, so to speak—the context is finally a daily one for any of us. Ginsberg puts it aptly in “Laughing Gas”: “What’s the use avoiding rats / and horror, hiding from Cops / and dentists’ drills? // Somebody will invent / a Buchenwald next door….”

DK: “The Mirror” also has the words, “a disgust for what we are.” Much of your writing seems to me to walk on the tightrope of love and awe for the possibilities inherent in personal relationships on the one hand, and on the other a sense of disgust and even shame at the violence and nastiness we’re capable of. I’m thinking here of your early poem “If You,” in which you wrote: “A form of otherwise vicious habit / can have long ears and be called a rabbit.” Is it fair to say this dilemma partly informs your poetics?

RC: I came of age in the Second World War and, being 4F, misguidedly wanted to “participate,” and so joined the American Field Service. I ended up driving an ambulance in Burma—where I very quickly learned both the obvious uselessness of war and its grotesque highlighting of self-destructive human confusion. I don’t think it’s quite possible to realize the depth of that confusion until one is being shot at by altogether abstract agency, human or otherwise, bullets or bombs—put simply, someone is trying to kill you because he or she has been told to. It seems like ultimate black comedy. So I am saddened, to put it mildly, that so many years of my literal life have been witness to such repeatedly malignant acts as wars must constitute. That is the basic reason for the “sense of disgust,” as you put it, “and even shame at the violence and nastiness we’re capable of.” Otherwise, “the vicious habit” you note in “If You” refers to a kind of rapacious sexual appetite that presumes all other humans are simply there for its use.

But trying to locate the boundaries for a poetics in a proposed dilemma of this kind, i.e. between some character of (benign) love and the other use of “love” as sexual appetite, has not been my interest. “The poet thinks with his poem” (as Williams says) far better describes what my experience as a writer (poet included) has been.

DK: Our discussion about “The Mirror” has led me back to the first time I started reading you, which was when I was just about nineteen years old and, for the first time, read through Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry. I found your poetry deeply emotional, responsive, indeed—and I don’t mean to offend you—wildly sentimental. Over the years, I’ve been surprised by how many critics and readers situate your poetry within the context of the experimental, when that word is being used more to denote radical experiments in form than anything else. Do you see a tension between your poetry as a love poetry in the lineage, say, of Thomas Hardy, and your poetry as a poetry of rupture, disjunction, and sonic/aural experimentation?

RC: Not really—in that in each case a particular facet or content or means evident in what I’ve written is being emphasized. To that extent it’s also being isolated from what else might be going on. I would think the most experimental instance of my poetry would be found in the form and content of my book Pieces, for example, and one might also use that work as fact of some of the most articulate “love poetry” I’ve written. One sees, as usual, what one’s looking for—at least that gets the primary attention.

DK: Are you suggesting that the meaning of a poem is primarily subjective, depending on the environment and desires of the individual reader? Does this open-ended way of looking at meaning seem right to you, or is it cause for anxiety—or at least frustration—on the part of the author who “knows” what he’s saying?

RC: I’d agree with Williams that “A new world is only a new mind,” that what one calls “imagination” is the means by which we experience “reality,” any reality. Having had one eye since the age of four, I know the world I see is not the normal one, no matter what the object of sight may be. I have no depth perception nor can I see three-dimensional images. All my sight thus is subjective and whatever the objective image might otherwise be is so altered.

Even more to the point here is [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein’s “If you give it a meaning, it has a meaning.” The “you” is anyone at all. You might not agree with my meaning or even recognize that it exists, but it is there nonetheless. A poem may well have, in Charles Olson’s phrase, “some several causations”—reasons, points, purposes. There may well be a wish to say something specific and this is certainly a familiar and valid possibility for poetry.

But poetry is also a structure of words, or better put, a construction of words. And whatever one may have meant the construction to mean or say, the experience of others will also be a large factor in the stabilization of such meaning. Wars have many meanings for those involved with them—as do poems, as do people. “Everybody’s right,” as Allen Ginsberg said. In any case, the author is not, presumably, only directing traffic toward a predestined meaning. What a bore that would be!

DK: In the context of this interview, which is meant for teachers of creative writing, among others, I’m wondering what you might say to a teacher who wants his or her students’ writing to make sense. I ask this because I recently heard from a teacher who was frustrated by what she deemed the “mechanical irrationality” of dada and surrealist-influenced writing. She wanted her students to have a message and get it across in “plain English.” Your poem “The Mirror” appears to suggest an alternative model.

RC: Sad to say, I have had little to do with creative writing as a pedagogic undertaking. In the thirty-four years I’ve taught now at SUNY Buffalo, I can’t have taught more than one or two classes of such kind. I have no messages simply contained in what I write, whatever my poems might be thought to say. “When I am in my painting,” Pollock says to make clear his sense of that situation. When I am in my writing, I am delighted by the activity permitted and so fostered—and simply want to keep it going. I think poetry can convey clear information both of feelings and of acts—but that need not be its responsibility or purpose. There are so many instances to the contrary, I hardly have to recall them here—from Lewis Carroll ad infinitum. Finally, the occasion of the poem may well be Rwanda—but the subject, if such it can be called, is the fact of common indifference to the suffering of others, justified by the presumption that “we are not like them.” In that sense, Rwanda is sadly just another occasion for this recognition.

DK: Getting back to questions of subjectivity and meaning, I’d like to ask you about your use of the abbreviation, “etc.” It’s one of the first things I noticed about your writing. Lines of yours like “I see the flames, etc.” have become an almost daily part of my consciousness. For me, the “etc.” serves as a tacit acknowledgment of the reader’s participation in the ongoing work of the poem. “Et cetera” keeps the possibilities of the poem—in terms of music and meaning—moving beyond the confines of the page. Have you thought extensively about the function and meaning of “etc.” in your poetry, and if so, could you tell us something about it?

RC: In the instance you are quoting (from my early poem “The Dishonest Mailman”) I hear “etc.” as words (et cetera) and repeat it in the ending of the next line, making a useful and ironic couplet. I wonder that all your questions thus far have had so little to do with the sounds of words, with the play of that fact. For my company, one rule of thumb was Pound’s proposal of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia—and the melos or melody of poetry has much occupied me over the years. Otherwise I have thought, as you say, “extensively” about “etc.”—and other things—all my life. “All the rest….” “The ten thousand things.”

DK: In “Histoire de Florida,” you incorporate lines of Wallace Stevens—”I placed a jar in Tennessee” is one—into the body of your stanzas. How has including other poets’ lines into your own writing, without citing them, affected your understanding and definition of a poetic music and voice?

RC: It’s like quoting in jazz. It lets one set an echo, tonal, rhythmic or otherwise, quickly into the pattern. It’s much like collage in visual art, for example. I was playing against the brilliantly flat abstraction of Stevens’ statement in his poem—whose literal precision I’d never forgotten. Truly, if one so places “a jar in Tennessee” or in the bathtub, or in the backyard, or just in your pocket, the “jar” begins to shape “reality” in consequence, much like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy. (I wonder if the writer of that film was a Stevens afficionado!)

DK: You mention that Pound’s proposal of melopoeia has preoccupied you. I often hear echoes of certain music when reading your poems—the gestures of Cecil Taylor or Archie Shepp in your book Pieces, for example, or the more discreet, gentle, and oddly disjunctive notes of Eric Satie in your book Mirrors. Have any musicians in particular influenced your writing, and if so, how has this influence manifested itself in your poetry?

RC: I think, with any of this, that one had best not be too didactic or literal. That is, I have used music as an instance or parallel rather than a prototype for what I wanted to do. Jazz gave me an ideal sense of the possibilities of improvisation within an often very simple pattern—for example, Charlie Parker’s endless changes on the melody of “I Got Rhythm.” Miles Davis (who I never got a chance to meet, sadly) seemed an absolute contemporary, born only a day or two after my own birthday. Cecil Taylor is a wonderful instance of crossover genius in all the terms of music, poetry, and dance. I am honored that he knew my work from way back—as I did his, from the time Steve Lacy was playing with him in Boston in the 50s. Other defining people included Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman (who told me once that Jayne Cortez got him to read my work), and on and on to a present friendship with the great bass player Steve Swallow. He, drummer Chris Massey, reeds David Cast, wonderful guitarist David Torn, and I have just put out a CD called Have We Told You All You Thought To Know?, a recording of a live performance in Buffalo two years ago. Steve had set ten of my poems in an earlier recording, Home, in the early 80s—and I should note also Steve Lacy’s recording of his setting of twenty poems a few years ago on a CD called Futurities. Musicians have always been allies, and have heard me loud and clear from the beginning.

Your mention of Satie is also much to the point. His “loops” were fascinating to me as were Anton Webem’s “reductions,” call them—i.e. his interest in duration and structure—how “long” did a composition have to be to work as such? Music and poetry have the obvious parallel of being “forms cut in time,” of being serial patterns, consisting of sounds and rhythms in relation to time. One of my heroes is Thomas Campion, for example—who is an early, brilliant instance of this double.

DK: The music in Life & Death is certainly various. I was particularly moved by the section in “Histoire de Florida” where you repeat the phrases “You’ve left / it out” and “You’ve left / them out.” For example, one has the stanzas “You’ve left / them out / David / your son // Your friend / John / You’ve left / them out.” Beyond the narrative here, there are so many stories and games and chants that seem to be referenced—I think of alphabet songs, Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth casting their spell, counting games. Of course, all these phenomena use repetition to determine form. How have you thought about the role of repetition as it plays itself out in your poetry and in the work of other writers?

RC: I remember when still in high school going with our class from West Acton into Boston to see Macbeth, and that chant of the three witches has stayed in mind ever after. “When shall we three meet again….” Popular verse, like they say, uses repetition as a securing glue—the pattern of the blues is a useful example. Rhyme is repetition—of sounds, of rhythmic patterns, of thoughts. I often used the insistent repetition the couplet makes to bring disparate or discordant emphases together: “Bring it home to give it to you./ I have seen animals break in two.” Stephen Fredman (who read me so clearly in his initial work Poet’s Prose) notes a conjunction between Walt Whitman and myself I would never have thought of. It’s in his second book, The Grounding of American Poetry: Charles Olson and the Emersonian Tradition. He proposes Whitman and me as linked in our use of repetition. I was moved and delighted! Again he notes very usefully the so-called “parallelism” we both use as a means for structure.

DK: Since many teachers will be reading this interview, I’m curious to know how you were introduced to poetry—could you give us a bit of literary autobiography, mentioning some of the primary texts that turned you on to poetry and that, most importantly, distinguished poetry as an event or genre somehow distinct from prose?

RC: A book called First Loves, published last spring, is useful not only for my information but some sixty-seven other poets’ as well. My sister, four years older, was much involved with poetry and wrote it with active effect. Perhaps it was sibling rivalry that set me off. She introduced me to crucial books when I was ten or so, including poetry. Then teachers were a decisive link—as a survey done recently by the Academy of American Poets makes very clear. Teachers are the majority by far of those who bring the young to poetry. My grandmother—my mother’s mother—was also a great lover of poetry and could recite it gloriously. My sister asked her once why she knew so much of it and she answered that she liked to have something in her head. As the note in First Loves makes clear, it was the emotional and erotic rush of poetry that first got to me—Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” was the instance. I loved the weave of such feeling in the securing and locating sounds and rhythms. Eliot and Longfellow, all the same! I guess that if I needed to choose one precept that most served my senses of poetry over the years, it would be Pound’s injunction: “Listen to the sound that it makes!” Whether it was James Whitcomb Riley or William Carlos Williams—that’s where I always came in.

 

Robert Creeley (born May 21, 1926, Arlington, Massachusetts, U.S.—died March 30, 2005, Odessa, Texas) was an American poet and founder of the Black Mountain movement of the 1950s.

Daniel Kane is Professor in English and American literature at the University of Sussex in Brighton. His books include We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry (2009) and All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s(2003).

 


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