Robert Creeley talks about his 'substantial life'
by Johnette Rodriguez
From his childhood on a West Acton farm to his stint as a
volunteer ambulance driver in war-torn Burma in 1944, from his undergrad days
at Harvard with John Hawkes to his long-tenured professorship at the State
University of New York in Buffalo, poet Robert Creeley has always felt a sense
of making, as he put it, "a substantial life." At 72, more than 40 years of
teaching and more than a dozen volumes of poetry attest to such. Steve Lacy and
Steve Swallow have set Creeley poems to music; a short-lived band called
Mercury Rev, former students of Creeley's, did a honky-tonk version of his poem
Following in the footsteps of Pound, Williams and Olson, Creeley created his
own set of large footprints for two generations of American poets. His poems
have a sense of the poet always present, an active participant in the
experience he describes, not just a detached observer. He writes sensuous love
poems in staccato phrasing; he spills over with feelings on politics and aging
in a set of 12- and 14-line-sonnets to old friends; he captures abstract
moments of contemplation in short-lined concrete descriptions that shake your
brain. Though his words are clear and direct, his syntax can often swing wide,
allowing those words to move through a poem like the brush strokes of an
Impressionist painting, shaded by their proximity to other words and forming a
whole image only in the closing line. Creeley will read his poems in Providence
next week (March 31) as part of the New Directions Festival. The following
discussion took place by phone from his home in Buffalo.
Q: You quote Robert Duncan as saying that poetry is not some
ultimate preserve for the most rarified and articulate of human utterances, but
has a place for all speech and all occasions thereof. How has your idea of what
poetry means to people changed over the years?
A: It's awfully hard to define in some exclusive manner. In fact, if
you look in the dictionary, a poem is something written by a poet and a poet is
someone who writes a poem. Again, thinking of Robert Duncan, the most useful
determination is the sense that it gets from its Greek root -- that it's a
made thing, made of words. Other kinds of statements of speech
are defined by the way they give instructions or make qualifications or
something apart from themselves. Poetry is an art wherein the materials, let's
say, are the literal words of which it is made. They have various
qualifications: they have sound, they have rhythm, they have "reference or
meaning," they have grammatical agency or fact -- all of those circumstances
have much to do with poetry.
Q: Can you speak to your idea of the "commonplace"?
A: I was coming back from Washington yesterday -- the classic
taxi-going-to-the-airport-old-time black driver and we were talking about
"life" and we began playing with cliches (laughs). No matter how hackneyed or
worn, they have the great virtue of being understood by almost everybody so
that they always make a commonplace or a circumstance where understanding is
That's the aspect of poetry I most enjoy. I think when I was young, I wanted a
respect for and an admission for and a use for the words I had, commonly, as a
person growing up -- vocabulary particular to the small farm town in which I
lived, the way my friends spoke, the way my mother spoke, my neighbors.
I was displaced because it seemed as though poetry was not really possible in
that speech. That's why William Carlos Williams was so dear to me. Just as he
insisted that a poet would take words as he found them or she found them
interrelated about him or her and would make of them an artifact or a thing,
which would be particulate to that speech.
I'm thinking of an introduction he wrote to a book called The Wedge --
that was such a relief. Otherwise one had either an English model -- Auden or
even more emphatic was Eliot. I didn't feel comfortable with Frost even though
he was proposed as the composite New Englander. To someone who actually lived
in New England, he was not that really at all. People like Edwin Arlington
Robinson were. And Emily Dickinson certainly was. But Frost curiously wasn't.
Again, one wanted a way of being able to use the words particulate to one's
life in a way that would give them agency and dignity and respect. Amen.
Q: What place will writing and poetry have in this increasingly
A: Well, thinking of e-mail -- e-mail is my absolute delight, by which
I mean it's almost too good, too much comes in. I found for example, as a
teacher, that composition has grown exponentially with the acquisition of
computers. It might be argued that was because there were programs that would
check your spelling or set your paper in appropriate margins or whatever. I
don't quite believe it. I think that people were immensely eased by the agency
that computers provided.
I remember reading some statistics that many, many persons presently in
college communicate with one another, even though they're on the same campus,
by using e-mail. Whereas the phone might have been used a couple of years ago,
e-mail is now the preferred means of communication. It's primarily the way that
people address each other and all of it has immensely to do with words,
especially words in a funny way more intimate to poetry, at least in the
register of poetry, than it had been, say, by phone. Phone was curiously not
much use to poetry. E-mail is.
Q: What kind of things have changed about what you write about?
A: An old friend reviewed the new book [coming out in April], and his
emphasis throughout the review was that I'd moved from a kind of aggressive,
sexual sort of classic male of the '40s to a much more open and relaxed person.
On the one hand, one's prospects over 70 are that sooner or later one's got to
figure on dying. Plus the so-called battle with the world, that Frost recalls,
is for my mind utterly gone. I have no argument with the world whatsoever. I
certainly have questions about policies or proposals for war or whatever. But I
have no quarrels with the world of humanness, per se, at all. I feel very at
home in it.
Again, thinking of walking in Washington yesterday morning, and suddenly, one
sees sun pouring down and you just look at whoever's next to you and say, "Hey,
isn't that lovely?" You get an immediate and quick response, which when I was
younger I would have been delighted by but much more awkward in asking for. At
this point in my life, I have no shame, I guess. Just in speaking to someone
who's also there. I find that that's a very old simple way -- that's again the
commonplace. People are there and unless they're immensely preoccupied in some
way that one can't anticipate, they almost without exception respond.
Q: In earlier days, you might have gone and written a poem
A: Not even that. In earlier days, I would have been much more wary or
really paranoid, worried that the world was going to get me, in some ways that
I couldn't defend myself against. I didn't so much feel overwhelmed by it, but
I felt often very antagonistic toward what I presumed was "it." I felt
isolated, outside its usual patterns and persons.
I think that's really true of all my generation in one way. I mean, that's why
Allen Ginsberg did say so emphatically, "Reduce the paranoia." That's what I
wanted, what I always wanted, to return to the body where I was born. That
sense of Howl -- it was a great paean to the dilemma of paranoia --
feeling outside the world in which one lives.
Q: In terms of being an outsider -- how was it that you left Harvard
in your senior year?
A: I had married and we were momently to have a child and I'd
volunteered as an ambulance driver [in Burma] for a year and then come back,
and it was just so unreal after that. It was as though the world in which I'd
been living had never been.
Jack Hawkes and I were at Harvard together. It was a very fraught time,
because we were being accelerated, put through four years in three. All of our
fellows were coming and going, being drafted. At least a third of our classes
would be fellows in uniform, Navy and Army. Not only did that upset us but it
meant that the teaching was curiously disjunct in many ways. All kinds of
presumptions and locating the world were utterly askew.
Q: Have you found that that happens with your own students, such as
during the Persian Gulf War?
A: It's a much deeper rift, actually. The hardest circumstance to deal
with is the economic situation, the privatization of the world and the
increasing disparities between haves and have-nots and the complete dislocation
of employment. It's very hard now to speak to a cluster of undergraduates and
give them any sense of what they think will happen to them, not simply what
training seems appropriate but what kind of world will be the one they live in.
For example, I went to college on an insurance settlement for the loss of my
eye [in a freak accident when he was two] that I believe was something around
$9000. I went to Harvard. When I hear that students come out of college with
debts in student loans up to $100,000, it's nightmarish.
It's back to the '30s with a vengeance. When I was a kid, frankly, it was a
time when the middle or upper-middle class were basically the persons who got
to go to school. Then there was the whole democratizing or a sense of
democratizing, but now we're really back to the same old smiling dentist, where
you don't really get to go and or if you do get to go to school, you certainly
don't get the jobs that you would if you go to other schools. No one clearly
knows what kinds of training will be pertinent to your use.
Q: Has your teaching affected your writing?
A: It's given me a terrific company. It's my bridge to other people.
I've literally taught every class -- I think the only one I haven't taught is
sixth grade. I remember teaching boys some "fourth year Latin" which I didn't
know (laughs). It was a little like being a coach -- I began to know what they
knew. But then I'd never thought of teaching as being a conveying of a didactic
subject -- I thought it was much more a rapport with ways of learning things.
Q: You've always found time to write?
A: Oh, yeah, writing is not the problem. At least for poetry. I've not
really written that much prose.
Q: Are your students more interested in poetry these days, what with
poetry slams, etc.?
A: I think if it isn't fun, it isn't a poem -- I think that's a wise
sense of things. I have always felt that the isolation of poetry or the
confining of poetry to a sense of high art was unwise in every way. In some
sense, if I could write poems as clear as Hank Williams's lyrics, I would be
very pleased. That's not just feeling down-home or something. I don't really
like or enjoy the classic boundaries.
See "Readings" listings for complete details on the New Directions