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CREELEY'S WORDS SPURRED NEW VIEW OF LANGUAGE

Robert Creeley, one of the most significant American poets of our time, will be remembered around the world as a poet for whom pretentiousness was anathema. For Creeley, poetry was like music, and he never wasted a note.

In Buffalo, Creeley is a hero, part of the initial group that made the English department at the University at Buffalo one of the hippest in the country in the '60s and '70s.

"It was that English department which . . . helped make the University at Buffalo world famous," fellow UB faculty member Bruce Jackson wrote on his Web site this week. "(Creeley's) interests and connections radiated far beyond poetry. He was friends with many of the most important modern artists and he frequently worked with them on books and exhibition projects. He was also friends with, and a working partner of, important jazz musicians. If I've ever known a true man of the arts, it was Bob Creeley."

For me, recollections of Creeley involve the myth more than the man, but they have been no less profound in shaping me as a writer and as a musician than if I'd been a close friend. It was Creeley's name that helped draw me to Buffalo in 1990, after failed attempts to get into William Kennedy's class at SUNY Albany and a busted relationship had left me at loose ends. "Creeley is at UB; that's where I'll go," went my rather naive train of thought. So I suppose I have him to thank, or blame, for whatever's happened to me since.

My love for Creeley's thoughts came not from his poetry, not initially at least. I'd stumbled upon a book of his at a garage sale. "Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971," was its title, and though I'd never read a line of his poetry, I fell in love with the way he thought, and even more so, the way he phrased those thoughts.

Creeley spoke like a jazz musician played, in my estimation; long, languid tones, short, staccato bursts, and all with what I related to as a sense of the sadness at the heart of things.

From "Contexts of Poetry":

"(From 1946 to 1950) I was frankly doing almost nothing else but sitting around listening to records, which my first wife would be pleased to testify to. I was fascinated by them; well, first of all, not at all easily, I was fascinated with what these people did with time. Not to impose this kind of intellectual term upon it, as I'd question that; but I want to emphasize this was where I was hearing "things said' in terms of rhythmic and sound possibilities - you see, Auden was the alternative if one was depending on reading. But I should make clear, Henry Miller was the hero of these years, Kenneth Patchen was the hero of these years, D.H. Lawrence was the hero of these years, Hart Crane - they were the people who kept saying that something is possible, it's possible to say something, you really have access to your feelings and can really use them as a demonstration of your own reality." This particular passage had a profound effect on me. "Yes, exactly," I thought. "Writing is the same as music. It's in how you phrase it, how you hold back the note, bend it, shape it, then release it. And what you don't play is as important as what you do play."

When I did finally discover Creeley as a poet, I felt strongly that he achieved in verse exactly what he'd described in the above passage. There was space and stillness around his stanzas, no wasted notes or flurries of directionless motion. When I then heard him read his own work, as a guest during Art Effron's Anarchist Literature seminar at UB in the early '90s, it struck me that Creeley was a lot like Miles Davis - taut, economical, controlled passion and release, all masterfully phrased. And funny, too.

"There are several generations of poets, many now established writers in university positions and younger writers completing a first book, whose careers were immeasurably aided by Creeley's individual attention," said Dr. Joseph Conte, English department chair at UB. "In that regard, he follows his "elders,' Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, who opened their doors to young writers, including Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg and Creeley. This generosity of spirit and patience of a true teacher has been Bob's invaluable contribution to the continuance of American letters."

One of my favorite Creeley poems is the favorite of many others, and for good reason. The hipster syncopations of "I Know a Man" leap off the page like a particularly fluid be-bop solo.

I Know a Man

As I sd to my

friend, because I am

always talking - John, I

sd, which was not his

name, the darkness sur-

rounds us, what

can we do against

it, or else, shall we &

why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for

christ's sake, look

out where yr going.

For me, this was like finding all of Kerouac's "On the Road" stuffed into one brief poem, and I loved it too much to analyze it to death. I didn't need to, because I felt it. This I interpreted as evidence of Creeley's mastery.

It soon became clear that what I was learning from my three favorite writers of the period - Creeley, Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer - stood in direct opposition to what I was being taught in journalism classes. Therein lay the dichotomy I've struggled against, with devilish joy, ever since; how does one make music out of words when writing journalism?

Perhaps it's an unsolvable riddle. But from Creeley, I learned that actively seeking a language that demonstrates one's own reality is a noble endeavor. And I'm thankful for that.

THE WORK OF ROBERT CREELEY
Two poems from Robert Creeley, who died Wednesday at age 78.
GOODBYE
Now I recognize
it was always me
like a camera
set to expose
itself to a picture
or a pipe
through which the water
might run
or a chicken
dead for dinner
or a plan
inside the head
of a dead man.
Nothing so wrong
when one considered
how it all began.
It was Zukofsky's
Born very young into a world
already very old...
The century was well along
when I came in
and now that it's ending,
I realize it won't be long.
But couldn't it all have been
a little nicer,
as my mother'd say. Did it
have to kill everything in sight,
did right always have to be so wrong?
I know this body is impatient.
I know I constitute only a meager voice and mind.
Yet I loved, I love.
I want no sentimentality.
I want no more than home.
Oh No
If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit
for yourself only, in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will likewise all have places.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com.