The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley
Edited by Rod Smith, Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris
University of California Press
512 pages, $65
By Jeff Simon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
A strange micro-expression of guilt seemed to flash across the face of Robert Creeley as he read his much-anthologized poem “Oh No” at the funeral of his UB English Department colleague Leslie Fiedler. I may have misapprehended its meaning and, indeed, manufactured its very existence. What I took it to mean at the time is that Creeley not only had a twinge of regret at not creating anything new for the occasion but rued his reliance on such a comfortable old favorite to send off a colleague.
But then Robert Creeley wasn’t that kind of public poet – not of the poet laureate variety whom the world expects to produce on such occasions. He wasn’t even the Poet Laureate of the University at Buffalo English Department in its most legendary years.
He was, very definitely though, one of its two most important international reputations by far. The other was Leslie Fiedler.
And here is a book which is by no means an easy or unflaggingly accessible one. It is one that is, nevertheless, one of the most eagerly and long-awaited books to emerge from the greatest figures of that accidental community miracle that was the UB English Department in its greatest years (whose greatest academic architect, former UB English Department chairman Albert Cook, created it out of all manner of published brilliance.)
And yet I can imagine few books more important to Buffalo’s literary community – particularly those who were friends of Robert Creeley or friends of friends of Creeley or ex-students or colleagues or warm acquaintances who’d be grateful to run into him from time to time.
Creeley was, in later life, a genial man who inspired no small affection, but he was no one’s idea of a placid one – especially not at the midcentury beginning of his career when he and his friend Charles Olson were becoming the exemplars of a New American Poetry. Creeley in those early letters is sometimes combative and strident and almost always brilliant in a way likely to leave nonspecialist readers back in the dust looking through pebbles.
His tough-mindedness won’t be universally good news for all of his old colleagues or acquaintances either. Poet Irving Feldman – a famous MacArthur fellow eventually – is slammed in a letter to fellow-poet Robert Duncan hoping to arrange a Buffalo Duncan reading. “I’ll get hold of Irving Feldman” he writes Duncan in 1967 “who is not the loveliest thing to get hold of.”
Nine years later in 1976, he writes to his future third wife Penelope about a Buffalo dinner with sculptor Marisol, visiting sculptor George Segal and his wife and their hosts “real ... culture vultures, house stuffed with art, mags, the works and conversation rotates on such realities as do you remember when we bought our first work of art from Pace, dear … Incredible. also standing in line to get use of toilet because they’re too wary to permit use of adjacent toilets one knows are damn well in the house. And they check me for trouble, though of course I’m given about two miles of tolerance because A) I’m with Marisol and B) am an artist of one meager sort if not the Real Thing.”
It is reasonable to assume that the anonymous wealthy hosts of that 1976 dinner may well be still very much with us 40 years later and capable of recognizing the galling particulars now savagely memorialized between covers.
Creeley was a poetic revolutionary in his era and not one who slipped easily into the role of cultural politician (which he became in public life. Read here, for instance, how very much he had to do with booking his old friend, the great jazz soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, into Mark Goldman’s late, lamented Calumet Cafe.)
The young 24-year-old Creeley writes Cid Corman in 1960, “What’s wrong with T.S. I’ll tell you one thing that’s damn wrong, and that’s his values as they exist now, and as he attempts to apply them. I know, certainly, that Eliot’s work, in the past, is of immense value for anyone who wants to take the time to get into it. I certainly have. But when a man who up to this point has driven the car very nicely begins to go all over the road, we do not let him keep his seat. We kick him the hell out before we all crash … (He) hasn’t the slightest reason to be spared anything, short of actual murder.”
That’s the voice of a militant, volatile poet at the barricades. The revered older poet in Buffalo decades later was quite different, but he hasn’t entirely vanished either.
Obviously, we will be reading this book differently in Buffalo than readers elsewhere will. In San Francisco, for instance, they may wonder why so few of these letters concern the Beat-era scandal Kenneth Rexroth tried to make of young Creeley’s affair with Rexroth’s wife Marthe (which the older poet was almost absurdly indiscreet and histrionic about).
Here, in Buffalo those who, decades later, knew the late poet, professor and jazz pianist Jack Clarke may have trouble keeping a completely dry eye when they read about Clarke’s final days in a 1992 letter. “God knows one had to recognize he was dying but he was so sweet about it truly no one finally had to deal with it until he was dead. (His wife) Cass told us his last words were, with a lift in voice and attention – Hi Ma – very early morning a Sunday.”
So many of Creeley’s correspondents and references here still live among us for a very simple reason – it was Olson’s arrival first and then Creeley’s, LeRoi Jones, Gregory Corso, Carl Dennis, Susan Howe, Mac Hammond, Irving Feldman, Charles Bernstein etc. that confirmed the State University of Buffalo as a seat of what would, for decades, be one of our greatest and most important local industries – Poetics.
A “complete” letters of Robert Creeley would probably be impossible to move without a forklift. As this edition’s introduction points out, a Black Sparrow Press edition of the correspondence between just Creeley and Olson occupies 10 volumes and “covers only the period of their letters between April 1950 and July 1952.”
This first, nearly 500 page one volume selection of Creeley’s letters is an immense feat of literary scholarship and it must have been prohibitively difficult. Holes abound in the index. I can imagine all manner of readers wishing there were a better one. And, in the notes, it would be nice to have some explanation, for instance, of this 1983 letter to Alice Notley, wife of poet Ted Berrigan, about Berrigan’s death. Creeley writes “rather than now try to say anything more, please use the enclosed for whatever meager use it can be.”
One assumes, of course, the “enclosed” is money but it’s hard to be sure. It could be a poem, a book, a plane ticket, who knows? The notes don’t inform us.
This book is not something one breezes through – especially when it gives us a young poetic revolutionary who would become one of the most influential poets of his time.
Poetics may have been one of the greatest of cultural industries in Creeley’s era in Buffalo but that doesn’t make it the most accessible one.
As a book, though, to be read INTO as much as possible, this is an immense, fascinating milestone, especially for a community so lucky for so long to have such a great poet among us to read from his work and import his friends to teach and perform.
Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Book Editor.