LS: Born in 1926, Robert Creeley is the winner of a Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1999, a Lifetime Achievement Award conferred by the Before Columbus Foundation in 2000, and a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. From Black Mountain to wherever we are now, Creeley remains one of our most enduring and vital poets, “vital” spelled energetic and alive. His latest book just out this fall is If I Were Writing This from New Directions. I have him on the phone from Providence, Rhode Island where he is a distinguished professor at Brown University. Welcome, Robert.
RC: Thank you, Leonard. I hope the various beeps and gurgles (from the phone line) don’t throw us off.
LS: “Beeps and Gurgles” might make a good title for a new book.
RC: Yes, “and things that go bump in the night...”
Editors’ note: Preface to Against the Silences, by Paul Blackburn, published by The Permanent Press, London and New York, 1981. Reprinted with permission from The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989. — Jacket2
I’D LIKE TO SPEAK personally of this extraordinary poet, and take that license insofar as these poems are personal, often bitterly so. I wonder if any of us have escaped the painful, self-pitying and meager defenses of person so many of them invoke. What we had hoped might be, even in inept manner worked to accomplish, has come to nothing — and whose fault is that, we ask. Certainly not mine? Having known both of these dear people, and myself, I have to feel that there will never be a human answer, never one human enough.
When Paul Blackburn died in the fall of 1971, all of his company, young and old, felt a sickening, an impact of blank, gray loss. I don’t know what we hoped for, because the cancer which killed him was already irreversibly evident — and he knew it far more literally than we. But his life had finally come to a heartfelt peace, a wife and son so dear to him, that his death seemed so bitterly ironic.
Recalling now, it seems we must have first written to one another in the late forties, at the suggestion of Ezra Pound, then in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. We shared the same hopes for poetry, the same angers at what we considered its slack misuses. Paul was without question a far more accomplished craftsman than I and one day, hopefully, the evidence of his careful readings of the poems I sent him then will be common information.
We at PennSound are grateful to Jeff Davis for helping us make this recording available from the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, with permission from the Creeley family. The recording was made apparently in the late 1960s. It is available on PennSound's growing Robert Creeley page.
What brought you to Black Mountain? (1:17): MP3 In what capacity were you there? (2:32): MP3 What were your first impressions? (5:43): MP3 Did they subsequently change? (3:22): MP3 Who among the faculty or students impressed you? (2:17): MP3 Is it accurate to refer to a Black Mountain school of poetry? (8:44): MP3 What were BMC's particular strong and weak points? (4:55): MP3 Anything about the school's tone or procedures you wish were otherwise? (2:32): MP3 What satisfactions and tensions resulted from living at such close quarters?(5:07): MP3 What accounts for perennial faculty splits at BMC? (3:34): MP3 Did good relations exist between the college and the community? (9:40): MP3 Why did the college finally close? (1:07): MP3 How would you evaluate BMC's influence on your artistic growth? (11:16): MP3
(109:38): MP3 Among the reel-to-reel tapes in PennSound's Robert Creeley archive, we found a phone log Bob had made of a day in the life, the life being lived at the time in Placitas, New Mexico, in the late 1960s (let's call it 1968, but exact date not known as yet), where Creeley was living his wife Bobbie Louise Hawkins and their children. The log captures everyday life, that great Creeley theme, from a daughter asking permission for sleep-over to a brief conversation about an overdue phone bill to a long chat with Bob's life-long friend photographer Elsa Dorfman. In an age of email, this time capsule gives a sense of the phone conversation as both a space of intimate exchange and quotidian commerce.
The recording of this reading was segmented into thirteen poems just yesterday. Go here to see the special PennSound page devoted to this event:
When I Think (2:22): MP3 War (0:59): MP3 Talking (1:08): MP3 Paul (1:49): MP3 Old Song (0:53): MP3 Oh, do you remember (2:22): MP3 Mediterranean I (1:17): MP3 Mediterranean II (1:39): MP3 Jumping with Jackson (1:23): MP3 Shimmer (4:01): MP3 Sad Walk (1:32): MP3 The Red Flower (2:54): MP3 Old Story from The Diary of Francis Kilver (1:13): MP3
Will Creeley sent us at PennSound this great note after hearing a PoemTalk episode about one of his father's poems:
I saw word of this latest episode via PennSound's excellent & useful Twitter feed, and figured it was a good opportunity to say thank you again to Al, Charles and everyone at PennSound & Kelly Writers House for taking in our big cardboard boxes and digitizing the reel-to-reel recordings inside with such care and precision.
Who's counting? Well, but...Who's counting? Well, but... Here are the most often listened-to PoemTalk episodes in the last two weeks: 1) W. C. Williams, 2) Robert Creeley, 3) Wallace Stevens, 4) Jaap Blonk, 5) Cid Corman, 6) Allen Ginsberg singing Blake, 7) Amiri Baraka, 8) Ezra Pound, 9) Barbara Guest. I'm not counting the new Vachel Lindsay show; it received the largest number of hits but was just released, so its traffic resulted in folks responding to a widespread announcement. We'll see next month if people are still listening to the Lindsay. I certainly hope so.
Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man" is in many ways a signature poem. Few poems we choose to discuss on PoemTalk are such. Many are downright unrepresentative. This one might indeed be unrepresentative but if a person knows just one Creeley poem this is probably it.
It's been much written about. In The San Francisco Renaissance Michael Davidson explores the "Beat ethos" with a detailed reading of "I Know a Man." Similarly, PoemTalkers Randall Couch, Jessica Lowenthal and Bob Perelman find beat here--but also its counterargument, and/or a rejoinder to its dark depth and to the beat propensity for driving nowhere (or somewhere) fast. Robert Kern in boundary 2--a 1978 essay--finds postmodern poetics in the Creeleyite anthem: in a nutshell, composition as recognition. Cid Corman (himself the topic of an upcoming PoemTalk) finds and commends the "basic English" of the poem, comparing it with a "more refined" and less effective poem on a similar topic by Louis MacNeice. Walter Sutton back in '73 drew a line of influence from Charles Olson's poetics to Creeley's "laconic" and "spasmodic" lineation and rhetoric.
The PoemTalkers talk about this remarkable instance of eloquent stammering. The stammer is perhaps the apt way--since form is never more than an extension of content, and vice versa, after all!--of heading into the surrounding mid-1950s darkness, only to be brought up short by the actual needs of the actual American road. It is not a resolution and not a capitulation, but an assertive and possibly ironic (funny, anyway) means of bringing up short. Or, in short: more stammering.
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.
Our friends at the Poetry Foundation have listed and linked all episodes of PoemTalk here. And, as always, one can subscribe to PoemTalk through the iTunes music store; simply type "PoemTalk" in the Music Store search box.
There are, at last count, eight different recordings of Creeley reading this poem - all to be found, along with much more, on PennSound's Creeley author page. Not long after his father's death, Will Creeley brought to us boxes of reel-to-reel tapes, which we have gone through carefully, digitizing, segmenting, identifying poem by poem.