Reading the poetry of John Taggart involves the pleasures of repetition, as well as the mysteries and agitations of repeated presences: of language, of ideas, of sound forms, of song. To open a book of Taggart’s poetry is to invite a round of singing and a round of thinking about what the poem does when it is sounded out, what elements of thought it welcomes in. A retrospective consideration of his work must necessarily involve the recognition that repetition is what rings the changes in the poems and what signals those changes themselves that the poems enable. Repetition can be used as a compass to guide you through Taggart’s poetry; it’s a tool, an orienting device. But it also works as a major theme in the poetry; as such, more than a tool, it’s a current, a form of fluidity and a generator of sustaining power for the work itself, figuring the musical practices that Taggart works and reworks in his poetry.
Repetition embraces compulsion as much as it enacts transformation. Where it is a technique it can also be a symptom — symptomatic of a pathology or indicative of an effort to surpass the compulsion to repeat, a sign or token to make something new. (Symptom from syn, together, and piptein, to fall.) In one of his essays on analytical technique, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” Freud considers the relationship between repetition and the “motive for remembering,” suggesting that as these forces are transferred, during analysis, they become “harmless, and indeed useful,” by giving them the right to be asserted “in a definite field.” He calls this field a “playground,” in which the compulsion to repeat is “allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything … that is hidden in the … mind.” Freud recognized that repetitions in his patients were combinations of repressed memories and a resistance to remember them. Rather than curbing these repetitions, he sought to transform them in the “harmless” space of analysis.
Kierkegaard juxtaposed repetition with recollection. He claimed that the Greeks “taught that all knowing is a recollecting” but that “modern philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition.” The difference between repetition and recollection, in Kierkegaard’s mind, was neither a matter of degree nor of kind, but of direction. “Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward.” Repetition, because it moves forward, has the possibility of making a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy. If there is a credo to Taggart’s work, it’s move forward. In the brief introductory remarks to a rare poetry reading in 2001 at the occasion of Taggart’s retirement from teaching, Pam Rehm, who had been one of Taggart’s students at Shippensburg University, said, “John always taught me that the important thing is to move forward. So that’s what I’m going to do.” At which point, she started her reading. Expanding into a defined field of almost complete freedom and moving forward: these are the creative results of repetition.
Mark Rothko, in a statement about his paintings, once referred to his art as “a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” The immense freedoms represented in the repetitions in his paintings seemingly moved into the future. Taggart, confessing himself “tremendously moved” by Rothko’s assertion, admits to having wanted to make a poem worthy of it. “As I moved closer to the composition of such a poem,” he writes, “it became clear to me that I would have to find ways to translate the qualities inhering not only in stained glass and Rothko’s painting, but also those in Gregorian chant and Meister Eckhart. These qualities would have to come to exist in language as sound. It occurs to me that all my work, before and since this poem, involves translation, or, more accurately, transformation to make a poem ‘a sound object.’”
The poem whose composition he moved closer to is “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” which appeared originally in Peace on Earth, published in 1981 by Turtle Island, a book usefully measured as Taggart’s creative turning point. Consider the opening stanza of “Slow Song for Mark Rothko”:
To breathe and stretch one’s arms again
to breath through the mouth to breathe to
breathe through the mouth to utter in
the most quiet way not to whisper not to whisper
to breathe through the mouth in the most quiet way to
breathe to sing to breathe to sing to breathe
to sing the most quiet way.
It’s possible today to speak of the “Taggart line,” which can be described as a line of poetry built from “atomic” units of words and phrases repeated in a way to give rhythm and structure to the poem, which are then overturned in subsequent lines that test, resist, stretch, and repeat these elements. In Taggart’s poetry, repetition almost never means literally repeating. Rather, as Taggart describes it, the atomic phrases function so that “no one of them [is] complete as with a sentence, but [each is] kept continually in motion toward completion.” This motion toward completion generates the sonic and intellectual properties of the definite field or playground of Taggart’s poems, something that is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom. Genuine repetition is recollected forward. As he puts it in section 15 of “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” from There Are Birds:
sequence = one after
another set of things that belong together that are put together
that are made to hold together …
repetition of a phrase a unit/part of a melody at a higher or lower pitch
a phrase-mark a line linking notes that belong together
dependence of a subordinate verb according to rules of tense for the principle verb
the principle verb is think
The relationship between liberating expression and carefully repeated atomic phrases transforms Taggart’s poems from rote litany into the incantatory petition his work so frequently invokes. Take these lines from “Precious Lord,” in which Taggart rings through changes on the word “epiphany”:
Thomas Dorsey wrote the words wrote the words and the music
Thomas Dorsey wrote the words wrote the essential word
wrote “precious” not “blessed” the essential word is “precious”
this was meant to be enshrined as a moment of epiphany
moment when he wrote the better sounding word
moment of epiphanie epiphania epiphano epiphaneia epiphanies
moment of epiphany essential word shining picture
Dorsey: “that thing like something hit me and went all over me
that thing must be that same thing went all over him.
Much as the Taggart line starts from certain words the poet fixates on — precious, epiphany, saint, want — to develop from a line into a stanza into a progression, the effect is experienced not as fixation (or as a compulsion to repeat) but as cantillation, in which the struck bells of the words and phrases resound as other bells of words ring out, in rhythmical, repeated sequences that drift into harmony, but then unsettle into slight dissonance.
John Taggart, George Oppen, and Ted Enslin: Taggart notes, “this was 1975 at Sylvester’s Cove, Maine. We had been visiting Ted at his place in Temple (Maine — Denise and Mitch Goodman lived not far away) and agreed to meet with George and Mary for a picnic. They sailed over from their summer place at Little Deer Isle” (photo by Jennifer Taggart).
To suggest there is only one Taggart line, however, would be misleading. I think Taggart’s work can usefully be organized into three major periods, albeit ones with intermediate periods that incorporate elements from previous periods into the next. Taggart’s early poetry is characterized as Objectivist experiment, to put it one way. Objectivist writing, which is probably the single most important influence on Taggart’s work, is a label applied to a group of second-generation Modernists who began to work in the 1930s but whose major works tended to be produced in the 1960s, including Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, and, to a lesser degree, Basil Bunting, whose work emphasized the treatment of the poem as an object, and whose most significant predecessors were William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Taggart’s poetry in an identifiably Objectivist mode encompasses a decade of work, beginning with To Construct a Clock, which appeared in 1971 when the poet was twenty-nine years old, through The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal, The Prism and the Pine Twig, into Dodeka, which was published in 1979. Two of these books, To Construct a Clock and The Prism and the Pine Twig, include shorter lyric poems that reflect Taggart’s investment in the work of George Oppen. Both Pyramid and Dodeka are more distinctly informed by a craft inspired by Louis Zukofsky, in that the books — each made up of one single serial poem apiece — involve complex compositional systems that place considerable demands — and stress — on the poems themselves.
Peace on Earth, from 1981, as I’ve already indicated, is a turning point. This book, comprised of four poems, signaled a seemingly enormous change in Taggart’s work. Gone were the short, Objectivist lyrics. Gone too were the complex systems, and the constraining boxes around the poems. Here were poems that breathed and stretched their arms, even as they took on grave subjects, such as the cost and aftermath of the Vietnam War explored in the title poem. The mode that Taggart discovered at this time directed his work for the next fifteen years, culminating in the publication of Loop in 1991. This is a massive book of poetry — over 230 pages — that gathers most of Taggart’s work from the 1980s, including one of his most memorable works, “The Rothko Chapel Poem.” He continued to explore this opened line in two subsequent books, Standing Wave and Crosses, the latter of which, despite being recently published (2005), contains work from the early to mid-1990s. If Taggart’s first period were to be labeled Objectivist experiment, this second period might profitably be called minimalist incantation. I first heard Taggart read his poetry in the early nineties; the effect of listening to his poems spoken aloud was to understand the mesmerizing, hypnagogic modality at work in these compositions.
Music, of course, has been a recurrent feature in Taggart’s work, from medieval plainchant, to modal jazz and John Coltrane, to Beethoven, to Olivier Messiaen, to gospel and R&B. A musical discovery signaled the change that brought Taggart into his third, present period. Commissioned to write a poem about Coltrane’s epic “A Love Supreme,” Taggart found himself grieving for the loss of a friend, the sculptor Bradford Graves. At the same time, Taggart began listening to the music of Sainte-Colombe, the eighteenth-century French composer and master of the viole da gambe, a prototype of the cello, as well as the bass viol, which he legendarily modified by adding a seventh, lower string, to give the instrument an even deeper melancholic timbre than it already presented. Taggart worked these elements — Coltrane, grief and loss, rose gardening, and Sainte-Colombe, among many others — into a singularly powerful long poem, When the Saints (1999), that added to the repetitive line of his middle period a much shorter line that in turn generates shorter stanzas, allowing for increased expressivity in his poetry (of grief, of course, but also a bittersweet humor) resembling less the minimalism of his middle period but more the variable musical forms that characterize Beethoven’s late string quartets (an enduring source of inspiration for Taggart’s poetry), as well as the choruses of Rhythm & Blues. This form came fully to life in Pastorelles (2004), which joins another musical/literary form, the medieval French pastourelle — a lyric that depicts scenes of rural life or that is expressive of that atmosphere — with the broader musical concept of the pastoral, something Beethoven famously brought to life in his Pastoral Symphony in 1808. The recurring subject of these poems is the drought that in the late 1990s hit south-central Pennsylvania, where Taggart has lived for several decades, particularly as the drought affected Taggart’s carefully cultivated gardens. This current mode, which might be labeled meditative plaint, has been especially fruitful for Taggart, in spite of its source in drought and grief, producing some of his most memorable poetry. He has continued to expand and to explore this mode in There Are Birds (2008), where his sonic, musical notations have given way to botanical, horticultural reflections, most vividly in “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” the long poem that comprises most of the volume, but also in the shorter lyrics which, like the longer poem, signal Taggart’s indebtedness to his poetic ancestors, including poems addressed to the recently deceased Robert Creeley, and also to Zukofsky, who we learn is the subject of “the one/only photograph on my wall.” Having browsed the shelves and seen the desks where Taggart composes his letters and poems in his rural Pennsylvania home, I can attest to this fact: the only photograph on the walls of his study is the portrait of Zukofsky he describes in “Grey Scale/Zukofsky.”
To view Taggart’s uses of repetition — genuine repetition is recollected forward — it’s time to look more closely at some poetry. I choose three poems from the most recent of Taggart’s periods, the one I’m calling meditative plaint. The first two come from Pastorelles, probably one of Taggart’s most successful books and certainly one of his best. This book represents a breakthrough of sorts: a collection of shorter lyrics unified around the theme of drought and the havoc it wreaked on his extensive gardens. The tone of these poems is one of wry resignation and associative clarities — as in previous books, the phrase remains the sonic unit but in these poems the phrases are bound less often by direct repetition and more often by thematic and tonal repetitions. Here is “Pastorelle 15,” a short poem:
in the drought of 1876–1879 reportedly confused
rustling of dry leaves for rain
when the ear’s not yet adulterated/unadulterated in the morning
late at night or very early in the morning
it sounds like rain.
A splendid little poem. Its lyric surprise relies on the unwinding of the syntax to the last line, which repeats the key word, “rain,” the sound of which in the mind mimics the actuality of the dry leaves clattering in the morning or evening breezes. The poem begins to expand syntactically and imagistically in the fourth line, “when the ear’s not yet adulterated/unadulterated,” aided by the absence of punctuation, such that the phrases connect and compound. (Minimal use of punctuation is a trait consistent throughout Taggart’s work.) The pairing of adulterated/unadulterated is important to the poem: initially, it suggests sexual corruption (or its lack) and by extension, the sense of being tainted/untainted. But it’s also a botanical word, used to describe hybrids and pure breeds in flower growing, for instance. The ear not yet stained by the day or tuned to the sensitivities of the day, moving forward into the day, at first hears rain. The genuine repetition in this poem is not only the word “rain” but the idea of its sound carried through the whole.
“Why Trees Weep,” also from Pastorelles, returns to the idea of rain, albeit by association. Here, as in “Pastorelle 15,” the elements of the poem, including its ideas (its logopoeia), are kept in motion until the poem is completed:
Because they’re listening to Sainte Columbe’s “Les Pleurs”
because those they would love don’t
love them flee
because their neighbors are beset with illness/disease experience
pain in movement or
can’t move can only sit in gardens going to weeds
Niobe lost all her children.
This poem depends on the simple gesture of three answers to the implied question of the title, each introduced by the repeated anaphora of “because.” The patent absurdity of the first response takes us back into one of the repeated engagements of When the Saints, the book-length poem published prior to Pastorelles: Taggart’s involvement with the music of Sainte-Columbe, the reclusive seventeenth-century viol da gambe innovator. When the Saints is Taggart’s elegy to his friend, sculptor Bradford Graves. In this book he introduces the mode of meditative plaint he perfects in Pastorelles. Sainte-Columbe caught his attention because of the superbly melancholic timbre of his music, resulting as many believe from the seventh string in a lower register he added to the viol da gambe, which Taggart describes in When the Saints:
Sainte Columbe added a string
Sainte Columbe added a string to the viol
six + one
added a vibration
six vibrations + one vibration
added a vibration and changed the vibration
added harmony and changed harmony
changed the destination of the music
the destination changed
inward and secret destination.
We can take changing the destination of the music as a phrase synonymous with genuine repetition is recollected forward. The inward, secret destination of the music awaits the reader in the poems of Pastorelles, where inwardness is meditation and plaint, at least in “Why Trees Weep.”
Niobe was the wife of the Theban king Amphion, mother of seven sons and seven daughters. So proud she was of her children that one day she was boasting to Leto, daughter of Titans and mother merely to twins but sired by Zeus: Apollo and Artemis. Robert Graves sets the vivid scene: “Mante, the prophetic daughter of Teiresias, overhearing this rash remark, advised the Theban women to placate Leto and her children at once: burning frankincense and wreathing their hair with laurel branches. When the scent of incense was already floating in the air, Niobe appeared, followed by a throng of attendants and dressed in a splendid Phrygian robe, her long hair flowing loose. She interrupted the sacrifice and furiously asked why Leto, a woman of obscure parentage, with a mannish daughter and a womanish son, should be preferred to her, Niobe, grandchild of Zeus and Atlas, the dread of the Phrygians, and a queen of Cadmus’s royal house? Though fate or ill-luck might carry off two or three of her children, would she not still remain the richer?” Leto was not placated. Before Niobe could do anything about it, her superior twins, armed with bows, were seeking and destroying Niobe’s children, slaying them all. In her grief, Niobe wept until she was turned into a column of stone.
Taggart’s poem works together into a gloss the myth of Niobe, the mystery of Sainte-Columbe’s music, and the fact of trees, whose anthropomorphism in his poem casts them as Ovidian actors in his own transformation of music into an inward summons. Besides sound repetitions, Taggart avails mythic, thematic repetitions: Niobe’s loss anticipates Sainte Columbe’s melancholic music anticipates the death of Taggart’s friend, Bradford Graves, anticipates his recollection of that loss in this little poem.
The third poem I’d like to consider in terms of its repetitions is “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley,” from There Are Birds. This poem belongs in the company of other recent poems functioning partly as homage and partly as what might be called “an autobiography of my lineage.” Despite a habit of writing essays in which he wrestles his ancestors, in his poetry Taggart is more forthcoming about his debts. In Pastorelles, there is a poem entitled “William Bronk” and another entitled “Lorine Niedecker.” There Are Birds includes a poem for Louis Zukofsky, a long poem called “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” and “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley.” Reading and reciting poetry are other forms of repetition, ones that deepen a poet’s sense of the work he values. Taggart describes this in the opening lines of another poem from Pastorelles, “The Compulsion to Repeat”:
Gradually how gradually
one comes to understand the poets
as gradually as
the compulsion of one’s own compulsion the compulsion to repeat
The Robert Creeley poem, written as an elegy after the poet’s death in 2005, is atypically autobiographical, telling the story of Taggart as a young man experiencing a first deep recognition while reading a poem of Creeley’s. The scene of the poem is Aspen, Colorado in the 1960s. He writes:
this is me then young man young poet
beside the Roaring Fork or a tributary the open blue and white For Love
book in one hand
the other in a gesture of appeal
the assignment show and tell show what
this poem “A Song”
fine clockwork of it subtle grammar of it of its words
their sounds and arrayment
Monk/Mozart refinement of the shifting pitches of this poem all fitted
together quiet and
and unheard/cannot be heard over the white noise steady roar of the
up white water
The repetitions and prolongations in the line, “fine clockwork of it subtle grammar of it of its words,” demonstrate a poetic gesture typical of Taggart’s work: preserving the structure of a phrase to push a thought forward, always slightly altered and adjusted. Much like some of the gestures of classic-period minimalist music.
Creeley’s poem, “A Song,” from For Love, which Taggart’s poem deliberately echoes, is both a provocation and a summons, both especially potent for a susceptible young poet to receive.
I had wanted a quiet testament
and I had wanted, among other things,
That was to be
of a like monotony.
Simply. Very very quiet.
A murmur of some lost
thrush, though I have never seen one.
Which was you then. Sitting
and so, at peace, so very much now this same quiet.
And of you the sign now, surely, of a gross
(which is not reluctant, or if it is,
it is no longer important.
Which one sings, if he sings it,
With great tenderness and unabashed grief, the older poet looks back on the image of the younger poet he was, sitting by the side of the river, and remembers being provoked and summoned by Creeley’s poem. The potential for bathos in such a poem is great unless handled with honesty and care. “[H]ear me now all these years later,” he says. “[R]eading with older/different eyes / which see what they see through/after tears the locked the unacknowledged.” Unacknowledged is the grace received at that moment from Creeley’s poem about “a girl so bright/in bloom who rejoices the heart.” The poet’s death and the memory of this moment trigger in Taggart a “motive for remembering” (to use Freud’s phrase again) that allows him to work through his grief. The conclusion to the poem is a highlight in Taggart’s oeuvre.
a poet’s thinking the long labor with words
want wanted have/had wanted not what a young man was so wanting and
wanting but what a
song wants just a few a spoonful of the right the rough and the smooth
words in the right order here and
there a rest making room for breath and letting a few of the words sink in
careful/with care how a song is to be sung if one sings it and
the last of the requirements
for care is clear having come through the ambiguities/tears having had to
learn the meaning
of the blues
what will fit on a bracelet a simple inscription
all these years later
hear me now having stepped back and needing to come forward
this poem is a song an
a work of love
Taggart is one of the most important innovators in American poetry in the past fifty years, the author, in the words of Robert Duncan, “of the larger dream-song of a transmission that goes back surely to Herakleitos and Pythagoras,” carrying forward into the present “a received content of our poetic imperative.” His poems define my sense of experimentation and revelation in a life devoted to poetry, poems that incant, in compulsive repetitions expanding into freedom, the dimensions of a definite field, a playground of language, wherein we might discover, if not everything, at least many of the things that lay hidden in the mind.
1. Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud XII, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), 154.
2. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 131.
3. At Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, April 7, 2001.
4. John Taggart, “A Preface,” in Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press), 71–72.
5. Taggart, Is Music: Selected Poems, ed. Peter O’Leary (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2010), 35.
6. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 72.
7. Taggart, There Are Birds (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008), 23.
8. Taggart, Is Music, 203.
9. Ibid., 273.
10. Ibid., 275.
11. Taggart, When the Saints (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1999), 24.
12. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: 1 (New York: Penguin, 1960), 258–9.
13. Taggart, Is Music, 256.
14. Ibid., 309; note the lineation quoted reproduces the text in There Are Birds, 83–4. The text in the Copper Canyon edition is inaccurate.
15. Robert Creeley, The Collected Poems 1945–1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 112.
16. Taggart, Is Music, 310.
18. Ibid., 311–2.
19. Robert Duncan, “Introduction,” in Dodeka (Milwaukee: Membrane Press, 1979), v.
June 17, 2014
For a spell during the 1960s, Robert Creeley’s ‘I Know a Man’ may have been the most often quoted, even the most widely known, short poem by a living American. Here is the poem:
Written around 1954, the poem got wide notice after For Love (1962), Creeley’s first trade collection, and it is not hard to see why. Sad and funny at once, with a trick ending, it undercuts the pretensions of high culture: what earlier poet would admit ‘I am/always talking,’ or suggest that his own verse exemplified mere ‘talk’? Better yet, ‘I Know a Man’ undercuts hip counterculture too: old and new art, Romantic despair and groovy enthusiasm, seem comically and equally irrelevant to the hurried American who just wants to get safely down the road.
Robert Hass, later the US poet laureate, called ‘I Know a Man’ ‘the poem of the decade’ (he meant the 1950s). ‘Drive, He Said’ became the title for a 1964 novel by Jeremy Larner, which in 1971 became a Jack Nicholson film; the same title later served an anthology of poems about cars, an episode of at least one television show, and at least a dozen magazine columns, including a recent New Yorker piece about congestion charging (‘Don’t Drive, He Said’). ‘I Know a Man’ is a poem about poetry’s impotence, and about artistic obsolescence, and a warning against pretension, addressed in particular to would-be Beatniks who wanted to talk the way it sounds. It is also the poem of a man with a very good ear, averse to big words, alert to colloquial speech, and uneasy, if not ashamed, of his art.
‘I Know a Man’ seems like a good introduction to the vast opus Creeley, who died in 2005, left behind: thousands of poems, dozens of essays and interviews, a bitter novel, a book of short stories, and hundreds of pages of hard-to-classify prose. Yet ‘I Know a Man’ also leaves out much of what made Creeley notable in each of the three phases of his career: his early focus on lust and shame, the diary-like verse-and-prose books of the 1970s, and the quiet achievements in his late poems of retrospect and solitude. We recognise Creeley’s poems first by what they leave out: he uses few long or rare words, no regular metres and almost no metaphors. The young Creeley aspired to write in Basic English: ‘he very nearly does,’ his friend Cid Corman wrote, except for the slang. Creeley kept for five decades a way of writing whose markers include parsimonious diction, strong enjambment, two to four-line stanzas and occasional rhyme. What changed over his career was not his language but the use he made of it, the attitudes and goals around which the small, clear crystals of his verse might form.
Born in 1926, Creeley grew up in ‘a small sort of farm town about 25 miles from Boston’ with his mother and sisters (his father died in 1930). ‘With five women in the house,’ he recalled, ‘I didn’t have a clue as to what men did.’ At the age of four, he lost an eye to infection: he wore an eyepatch, like a pirate, as a young man. Though he loathed Robert Frost – he liked to say so in interviews – the parallels between them are remarkable: both came from rural New England, whose ‘apparently laconic way of saying things’ (as Creeley put it) marked both men’s poems. Both attended Harvard, from which neither received a degree. Both liked to talk about American speech, and to say (correctly) that their poems captured that speech more than their peers’ poems could. Both achieved popularity despite the grim attitude in their best poems, and both discovered too late that their authorised biographers despised them. (In Creeley’s case, the culprit was Ekbert Faas, whose unwieldy tome stops halfway through the life of a poet he paints as a hostile philanderer.)
At a Harvard College full of incipient talent – his classmates included Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Donald Hall – Creeley felt discouraged and alone. ‘My eager thirst for knowledge, almost Jude-the-Obscurian in its innocence, was all but shut down by the sardonic stance of my elders,’ he recalled. He left college in 1944 for non-combatant service, driving ambulances in India and South-East Asia, then returned to Harvard but dropped out. ‘From 1946 to 1950,’ he remembered later, ‘I was frankly doing almost nothing else but sitting around listening to records.’ Creeley was also ‘smoking pot pretty continuously’ and drinking a lot; he got in fights, too, including one abortive dust-up with Jackson Pollock. Partly to escape urban temptation, Creeley, his wife, Ann, and their two young sons relocated in 1948 to a farm in New Hampshire, where he bred pigeons and poultry and tried to write. ‘I learned more about poetry as an actual activity from raising chickens,’ he said, ‘than I did from any professor.’
The Creeley of those years modelled his verse on William Carlos Williams, his sensibility on recent jazz (he listened to Charlie Parker while composing) and his fiction on D.H. Lawrence, ‘my own mentor, finally the only one I can have’. Creeley later claimed that he picked up his sense of line from the mistaken assumption that Williams, when reading his own poems aloud, paused at every line end. But imitating Williams was not enough: like most young poets, Creeley needed an attentive, sympathetic reader with just a bit more experience than his own.
He found one. ‘It is really Charles Olson I must thank for whatever freedom I have as a poet,’ Creeley remembered, ‘and I would value him equally with Pound and Williams.’ Olson and Creeley began corresponding in 1950 – Williams seems to have put them in touch. Olson was then a former federal official, the author of a vivid book about Melville, not yet the theorist, impresario and cult figure of The Maximus Poems. The Olson-Creeley letters now comprise ten published volumes; Olson’s most famous formulation, ‘Form is never more than an extension of content,’ originated in a letter from that first year, when Olson had published one book of verse, Creeley none.
In 1951 the Creeleys decamped to rural France, where Robert and Ann could live cheaply, and then to Mallorca, where Creeley became tutor to Robert Graves’s children. While abroad, he co-founded small presses and little magazines – Divers Press (with Ann), Origin (with Corman), and then (with Olson) Black Mountain Review, named for Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Olson became rector and in 1954 brought Creeley to teach. Creeley, Olson and Corman would soon see themselves, with some justice, as part of a rising tide, an anti-academic neo-modernism in American letters, led in part by the journals they had helped to found. In 1955 Robert and Ann split up; in 1956 he left Black Mountain for New Mexico, where he taught in a boys’ school, married his second wife, Bobbie, and established a steady flow of poems and prose that continued for fifty years. For most of those years he made his home in Buffalo and taught at the state university, whose reputation as a haven for avant-garde writers he helped to create; he also undertook frequent, sometimes year-long trips to Europe, Australasia and the American West Coast.
Among all the poets of the American 1950s who wanted to learn from Williams, only Creeley had anything like Williams’s ear. He learned early (compare Williams’s ‘To a Poor Old Woman’) how to repeat and how to vary the simplest of phrases within a stanza: ‘Time we all went back home/or back,/to where it all was,/where it all was.’ Creeley often seems to have thought not in lines or sentences so much as in quatrains, which he called ‘both a semantic measure and a rhythmic measure’, and to which he gave remarkable aural finish: ‘Sun on the edges of leaves,/patterns of absent pleasure,/ all that it meant/now gathered together.’
Despite his acoustic gifts, Creeley in his twenties ‘thought that my work as a writer would be primarily in prose’. His stories pursue a stuttering interest in the repetitive monologues that take place deep inside his baffled protagonists’ heads: ‘I love you, he said, and echoed it in invariable silences saying, each time, I love you, but never feeling very much … He would have spoken, but couldn’t, and looking to his wife, wanted to push, then at her, to explain, but did not know what he wished explained.’ His 1963 novel, The Island, set on Mallorca, presents a marriage grinding its way to collapse. Both the author and his apparent stand-in, John, subscribe to a Lawrentian sense that men and women live in different worlds; John displays, too, the paralysing self-consciousness that in Lawrence and elsewhere afflicts men who cannot be masculine. Fighting insomnia, John contemplates ‘some necessity he never got the hang of, or the feel of, the place of. One wants to ask a simple question, do I do it right, is it enough.’
The young Creeley called his poems ‘signs of inadequate love’; their subjects were the subjects of his fiction. Those early poems portray quarrelsome lovers, stranded travellers, impoverished New Englanders (‘we are practical/– but winter is long & … there is never enough’), a failed violinist, and a whole cast of grim characters who cannot find their instincts in the authentic Lawrentian way. Creeley could be frank, like Lawrence, not only about sex and bodies, but about our shame and confusion around them. Probably no other serious English-language poet wrote multiple poems about urination. Nor had any other male poet before him written well about sanitary pads: ‘What should the young/man say, because he is buying/Modess?’
Creeley was not always ashamed: the perfect casualness of sexual joy has rarely been as ably captured as in ‘A Wicker Basket,’ in which sudden rhyme and hip lingo show a fleeting ease:
Out the door, the street like a night,
any night, and no one in sight,
but then, well, there she is,
old friend Liz –
And she opens the door of her cadillac,
I step in back,
and we’re gone.
She turns me on –
To mock such words, such attitudes, Creeley suggests (‘certainly/they are laughing at me’ while ‘I make it’) is to miss all the world’s fun.
But ‘A Wicker Basket’ is an exception. Usually the early Creeley’s pace is slower, his tone less confident, his women hard to please and his men baffled. He wrote a ‘Ballad of the Despairing Husband’, a ‘song of the sleeping wife’, ‘who wouldn’t even hear you if you asked her’, and a horrifying poem that opens: ‘Let me say (in anger) that since the day we were married/we have never had a towel/where anyone could find it.’ His men are not just post coitum triste but sad or anomic ante coitum too: ‘It/hurts/to live/like this,/meat/sliced/walking.’
If you want to know whether you will like Creeley’s early poetry, a better test than ‘I Know a Man’ lies in the closing stanzas of ‘The Rain’:
Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out
of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
with a decent happiness.
The passage gathers almost all the qualities that typify Creeley up through the late 1960s, and by which he sometimes excels: irregular line lengths, regular stanzas, restricted diction, intermittent medievalising (note the echo of ‘Western wind’), only the simplest sensory detail, and a genuine attempt at tenderness, with resentment underneath.
With For Love and Words (1967) – his ninth and 11th books of poetry but his first and second from a trade press – Creeley deserved, and received, attention as a maker of spare free verse and as a poet of modern sexual love. Yet by the time he got that attention he was already abandoning those goals. ‘Tonight let me go/at last out of whatever/mind I thought to have,’ he prayed in Words, ‘and all the habits of it.’ It is a very 1960s prayer. ‘Sometime in the mid-1960s,’ Creeley recalled, ‘I grew inexorably bored with the tidy containment of clusters of words on single pieces of paper called “poems”.’
What else was a poet to write? Not more narrative fiction: perhaps a series of unfinished texts, ‘pieces’ if you will, whose vagueness testified to the inadequacy of all representation. ‘Composed in a journal as daily writing,’ the still controversial Pieces (1968) reflects its times as much as it reflects its author. It reflects, too, a kind of fatigue common to the period: ‘I was so damned tired of trusting my own opinion as to whether or not this was a good piece of poetry or a bad piece of poetry,’ Creeley remembered. For years he all but gave up on writing distinct and individual poems: instead he wrote stanzas, sentences, phrases and then pages, series, books. Often those pages explore not what we mean and how we feel, but what it is to expel sound from the larynx, to have a body, to stand in a room: ‘What a day/it is – what//one of many days’; ‘Where it is/was and/will be never/ only here.’
Creeley collaborated, then and later, with many prominent visual artists, most of them quasi-Pop or figurative: Robert Indiana, Jim Dine, R.B. Kitaj, Marisol. Yet his middle-period writings, with their stark and almost featureless units, now seem to place him closer to Minimalism – to Donald Judd, for example, with his sets of identical boxes. A few Creeley poems might almost be reviews of Judd’s sculptures: ‘Singular,/singular,/ one/by one’; ‘This/and that, that/ one, this/ and that.’ The Creeley of these years declared war on ‘the damn function of simile, always a displacement of what is happening’, adding ‘I hate the metaphors.’ As paint, for some painters, must be always and only paint, metal stand for nothing except metal, Creeley’s words had to be always and only themselves.
Pieces and its sequelae also recall drug culture, more important to the arts in those years than to poetry in English before or since. In the right chemically-enhanced frame of mind, even such banal couplets as ‘Walking/and talking.//Thinking/and drinking,’ such openings as ‘There is love only/as love is’ can seem to disgorge infinite wisdom. If the poems of the 1950s show the theorising, technique-oriented influence of Olson, those of the 1970s reflect frequent parties with famous hosts and guests, none more so than Allen Ginsberg, repeatedly named. It’s no surprise to discover, in A Day Book (1970-72), a poem entitled ‘On Acid’, nor to discover within it a mantra: ‘End, end, end, end, end, end.’ Creeley called one of his first minimal poems, ‘A Piece’, ‘central to all possibilities of statement’; that poem read: ‘One and/one, two,/three.’ If you like that, you’ll love – well, almost anything.
Yet the man who wrote ‘A Piece’ wrote, in the same years, genuine, memorable, almost equally minimal poems. One is ‘The Farm’: ‘Tips of celery/clouds of//grass – one/ day I’ll go away.’ Another is ‘Xmas Poem: Bolinas’, set in the California town where Creeley and other countercultural writers (Tom Clark, Aram Saroyan, Ted Berrigan) then lived:
we’ll get high
and go find it.
It’s misleading to call Creeley ‘experimental’, as if other poets served as his control group; it’s useful, though, to see his career as an experiment in how little a poet can say outright, how few techniques and how few words a poet can use and still end up with durable poems. His middle period, with its tiny non-poems (‘Wigmore/dry gin/kid’), is in this view a useful negative result: it showed what happens if you give up too much, and it enabled him to learn, in Later (1978) and after, what was just enough.
Creeley’s work after 1978 reflects his intercontinental travels, his consciousness of his own advancing age, and his more settled life with his New Zealand-born third wife, Penelope (Pen). (Creeley’s style also helped to shape such New Zealand poets as Bill Manhire and Ian Wedde.) The later poems are more traditional than their predecessors, in their sounds and in their goals. They rhyme more often. They have recognisable closure. Few are so short as to pose conceptual puzzles about what a poem is. When they are bad they are prosy or repetitive, not insubstantial or nonsensical. They never sound like Olson (much less like Ginsberg), and at their best they recall Thomas Hardy: they are, in the end, mostly poems of old age.
Devoted to stripped-down, quiet effects so early, Creeley seems to have prepared for most of his youth to write about feeling old. At just 60, he published a poem called ‘Lost’: the ‘here and now of all’, he mused, gave him the choice ‘to look back to see the long distance/or to go forward, having only lost.’ Old age is, for Creeley, solitary, melancholy and surprisingly reminiscent of childhood: it is, he wrote in 2003,
Like sitting in back seat,
can’t see what street
we’re on or what the
one driving sees
or where we’re going.
Waiting for what’s to happen
can’t quite hear the conversation,
the big people, sitting up front.
Creeley’s last essay (collected, with last poems, in On Earth) considers Whitman’s late, short poems of ebb tides and declines: ‘Daily, it would seem, the persons one has lived with go, leaving an inexorable emptiness.’ His own late poems make peace with their purported inconsequence, their unshowy, unhurried manner revealing a late style that knows all too well how late it is: ‘Amazing what mind makes/out of its little pictures,’ one page concludes, ‘the squiggles and dots,/not to mention the words.’
The early Creeley rarely depicted landscapes; the late Creeley does, but with an odd simplification. Almost all their sites – Helsinki, Berlin, Auckland, Massachusetts – look alike, and all their colours are muted or sad: a ‘grey/iced sidewalk’, ‘yellow/light with low sun … against far-up pale sky’, ‘sheen of water at evening’, ‘snow, day old, like thin curdled milk’. Even in tropical East Asia, the poems find the same ‘faint dusky light/at sunset’, the same matt off-whites and greys. The colours Creeley saw everywhere in the world brought, in their subtle variations, a visual correlative for the subtle effects in his palette of small words.
So averse early to any English tradition, the late Creeley names or quotes Chaucer, Wyatt and Wordsworth, and even writes his own ‘Versions’ of Hardy’s ‘The Voice’: ‘Why would she come to him,/come to him,/in such disguise.’ Such a poem means not to outdo its model but to transcribe Hardy’s melancholy into Creeley’s new American metric, almost as a musician might transcribe a piano score for woodwind or strings. Creeley’s late simplicities, like Hardy’s, revoke old hopes and offer few replacements:
Were you counting the days
from now till then
to what end,
what to discover,
which wasn’t known
over and over?
The stoic warning completes itself with ‘known’, but the poem does not end till the half-rhyme ‘discover’ and ‘over’, as if Creeley were only restating, once more, what life says to us in its last half, again and again.
It is a consolation to see, amid all the late grey poems of advancing years, flashes of comedy about straight male desire, that subject in which the earlier, more self-serious Creeley specialised: the boy called ‘Bozo’, for example, grew up to ‘see … all/he’d wanted to, aged four,//looking up under skirts,/wearing ochre-trim western shirts.’ But mostly the poems are sad. The 1950s Creeley seems to have been hard to handle: often drunk or stoned, a skirt-chaser (in the language of the time), with frequent, extreme ups and downs. Such reports sit oddly with the many prose tributes – and the spate of elegies – that honour the older Creeley not just as a poet but as a colleague and friend: the change in his poetic aims perhaps reflected a changed personality too.
Creeley’s quiet poems demand that we read them slowly, even when they appear brief and simple. Taken too fast, or too many at a time, his poems (and there are a lot of them – almost 1400 pages in the two-volume Collected) can sound cramped, monotonous and repetitive. Read at leisure, the best poems are subtle, musically gifted, memorably terse. Such an oeuvre places unusual pressure on the editor of a posthumous selection: Ben Friedlander has done it right. His Selected Poems represents all Creeley’s periods and everything Creeley did well: For Love rightly dominates the early going, and every late volume gets at least some space, while the prose-and-verse journals and collaborations (such as A Day Book) are mined for what gems they hold. Friedlander’s introduction emphasises the continuity of Creeley’s efforts, making a case on behalf of the work as a whole. Only the table of contents indicates which poems came from what volume; the poems themselves appear as a continuous stream, which rightly draws the focus away from books and phases and towards individual poems – I had never noticed how good ‘People’ was, for example, until Friedlander reframed it here.
Creeley said that he and Olson were trying ‘not only to realise themselves’ in their poems ‘but to realise the potentiality and extension of words as a physical event in the world’. He, and his allies, believed for a while that modern poems could express without representing, that figurative language only got in the way. This belief led at its worst to a literature as limited and unwieldy as the language of objects in Swift’s Laputa, where only a kettle itself can signify ‘kettle’. Yet this unsustainable (if not anti-intellectual) attitude let Creeley focus as few modern poets have on sound, which is to say on the sound of speech: on the ways intonation and rhythm carry attitude and emotion, and on how to put those ways down on the page.
To say this is to make Creeley sound much like Frost, who said he could hear ‘the sound of sense’ in ‘voices behind a door that cuts off the words’. And to listen to Creeley at his best is to listen, often uncomfortably, to men and women speaking behind closed doors, to hear what they say to themselves and to each other when they do not know what else to do. Creeley arrived – he wanted to arrive – as part of an anti-Frostian, anti-traditional, wing of American verse: Olson, and Black Mountain, and postwar jazz, helped him develop his sense of line, his sparse, even teasing placement of words on a page. And yet Creeley now seems to belong to a much older and nearly continuous enterprise. He dedicated Collected Poems 1975-2005 ‘with love, for Herrick and Zukofsky’: affiliation with late-modern innovators, such as Louis Zukofsky and Olson, first got Creeley noticed, but his likeness to earlier makers of lyric poems – to Herrick, Housman, Hardy, Gurney, Frost – will help his verse endure. Few poets have had their reception more affected by the wind of the times, which at one point seemed to blow right in Creeley’s direction. Yet we read not a zeitgeist but a book of poems, and behind the poems a man: shy at the core, aggressive in the beginning, melancholy at the end. Few writers have done more with fewer words.