[Sidebar] March 26 - April 2, 1998
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Free speech

Robert Creeley talks about his 'substantial life'

by Johnette Rodriguez

[Robert Creeley] 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 "So There."

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 possible.

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 technological age?

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 about it?

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 Festival.

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