Ben Friedlander on Robert Creeley: 'Reading in Pieces'

From Jacket #31 (October 2006)

I want to say a few simple things about reading, and hope that my illustrations will justify the time taken, even if the purpose to which they are put is dull. Is this an apology? I mean it to be a model of reading. For reading too is a way of taking time, one in which the ostensible aim — meaning — is often of less interest than the compensatory pleasures offered up along the way.

This dynamic — between the expectation of meaning and the sensual enjoyment of what makes meaning possible — is one manifestation of a difference we often feel between reading analytically and reading for pleasure, a difference that often collapses when we start to look closely at its constituent parts. There is, for instance, a pleasure to be had in analysis, and, likewise, there are analyses to be made in the midst of pleasure. Who can say where the emphasis should fall when push comes to shove in the mind, when confronted with lines like these by Robert Creeley:

The men in my life were
three in number, a
father, uncle, grand-

father — and with that
father an interchangeable
other — the Man — whom

to score with, scream at.
The wind rises in a
fucking, endless volume.

Three stanzas of three lines each organize the poet’s thoughts about three men in his life, a symmetry of form and content that seems at odds with the quickness, and, indeed, colloquial imprecision at the poem’s center. Who is the father interchangeable with “the Man”? The caesura in “grand- // father” (which prettily, but perhaps distractingly, makes for three lines in a row beginning “father”) draws attention to a maddening, unnecessary ambiguity. If the speaker — Creeley — means to put his stress on “that” in line four and so assert that his grandfather became for him an embodiment of abstract male authority (and this makes sense given the facts of Creeley’s childhood), why not say “and with that / last” and make the matter perfectly clear? If he means instead to put the stress on “father” in line five and so say his actual father — who died when Creeley was four — became, because absent, “this vastly generalized figure” (as the poet himself puts it in a conversation with Tom Clark), why not revise the poem in any number of possible ways and so remove the problem of interpretation? I find a similar ambiguity in the poem’s conclusion, although there the ambiguity offers more productive directions for analysis. On the one hand, the italicized “wind” of line eight provides a poetic figure for the likewise italicized “Man” in line six. On the other hand, the wind’s ever-rising volume provides a poetic analogue for the speaker’s screaming anger in line seven. The ambiguity — or better, overlapping of meanings — is productive because it allows a reader to argue (as I now will) that the speaker in his agon has become, like his father or grandfather before him, an “interchangeable / other” of “the Man.” As it happens, these final two lines are the part of the poem in which I take the most pleasure, although not because of what they say — and not because of their conventionally poetic technique. I just like saying “fucking, endless volume”: I like the pleasing dissonance this angry line creates with the painstaking articulation of the first four lines and I also like the way it releases the speaker from the imprecision of lines five, six, and seven. For without knowing exactly what Creeley is saying, I can take pleasure in the force and feeling of his utterance — which is how one tends to understand the wind. Reading for pleasure, I take account of understanding’s lapses, but do not necessarily make an effort to correct them.

I have spoken here of analysis and pleasure, but, as I think my reading of “The men in my life” shows, the two are not essentially divergent save in one important respect: where analysis tends toward a total understanding, pleasure remains content with its partiality. My use of Robert Creeley to articulate this latter stance — partiality — is not accidental. If the former — total understanding — is the province of hermeneutics, a practice of reading in which the part draws interest only insofar as it illuminates the whole, then a de-emphasis of hermeneutics will necessarily be concerned with pieces. Robert Creeley’s Pieces (1969) is explicit in this concern, which Creeley framed as a matter of process rather than product, that is, of “scribbling, of writing for the immediacy of the pleasure and without having to pay attention to some final code of significance.” The words I am citing here come from the postscript to Contexts of Poetry, a 1968 pamphlet based on Creeley’s presentation at the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963. What Creeley meant by context in this pamphlet would be covered today by the phrase scene of writing: the places, tools, and circumstances that make literature possible literally — Creeley feeling at the time that his writing had become unduly qualified by habits of composition, namely, his dependence on a room, typewriter, and freedom from interruption. Breaking away from this dependence, he sought to produce a kind of poem unconstrained by “code[s] of significance,” trying by design “to avoid any immediate decision as to whether or not the effects of such writing were ‘good.’” The first poems so written appear in Words (1967), acts of attention trivial as statements but meaningful — I should perhaps say pleasurable — as composition. The best known of these is “A Piece,” which reads in its entirety:

One and
one, two,

— a verbal gesture rearticulated for the page, and something of a manifesto since it substitutes for song (Creeley’s own ideal of poetry in his earlier work) the words a bandleader might use to introduce the next number. The poem was, in effect, a new beginning, one that took the needs of composition as its starting point rather than working backwards to a theory of composition from a pre-established conception of the object. Allowing the work to take shape piece by piece, in the manner of “a day book” (the title of a subsequent collection, the one in which “The men in my life” appears), Creeley’s “pieces” freed the author — and thus, presumably, his readers — from determining how the pieces might or should fit together.[1]

From this synopsis one might conclude that Creeley had abandoned interest in wholes altogether, and this would be true if by whole one meant the hermeneutic ideal of a unified structure in which each part contributes to the total meaning. But even as he began composing Pieces, Creeley held to a definition of whole substantially different, albeit analogous in structure. Thus, in 1966, he wrote, “Poems are a complex,… a structure of sounds and rhythms which cohere to inform the reader (whether he listen aloud or in silence) with a recognition of their order,” and quoted Pound to say, “Prosody is the articulation of the total sound of a poem.” The whole for Creeley was a proposition of form, not meaning. It sustained a relationship between parts that was much the same as that assumed, for example, by the New Critics, but the nature of this relationship was not to be deduced by explication. This remains true in Pieces, where sound as such is no longer the object of the poem’s prosodic invention. In “The Rhythm,” the opening poem of Words, Creeley had already developed an enlarged sense of prosody, defining rhythm as that “which projects / from itself continuity / bending all to its force” — a definition that leads easily to a reading of Pieces as a “complex… of sounds and rhythms,” and thus as continuous with Words and the earlier For Love (1962). What is new is the diffidence regarding coherence — regarding the orderly relation of parts — and the embrace of meaning as a constituent aspect of the poem’s total structure. To be sure, some readers have wanted to claim a unity for the book — Russell Banks called it a “gestalt” and evoked the hermeneutic ideal when he wrote, “if the relations… between the parts could be shown, it might help to illuminate some of the less apparent aspects of the whole” — but Creeley himself aimed at incorporating all that a unity excludes.[2] As he told Michael Andre in 1971, “I wanted something that could include, say, what people understandably might feel are instances of trivia; that is, I really respect Duncan’s sense that there is a place for everything in the poem in the same sense that Williams says — the total province of the poem is the world.” To make a place for everything in a poem, no matter how trivial, is to confer a dignity upon the part — or piece — independent of its capacity for yielding an understanding of the whole. Such an understanding may not even be possible anymore, since the whole now aims at encompassing the entire world. Pound’s “total sound” of the poem is a recognizable order. The ordered meanings of New Criticism are explicable. A poetry of “total province” is something different: knowable in pieces yet meaningful only in relation to what cannot be known, it has a prosody — a compositional structure — that perpetually articulates relations without a determining coherence.

But what does this compositional mandate mean for reading? More particularly, what does a theory of literature rooted in composition mean in practice for the work of interpretation? For, although Creeley’s “pieces” take shape on premises other than those embraced by hermeneutics, his formal experiments of the 1960s and after were concerned, paradoxically, with incorporating a broader range of possible statements. Cognition was intrinsic to the act: intrinsic to the poetry’s composition and intrinsic, presumably, to its reception as well. To be sure, the nature of that cognition differs from the total understanding idealized in “close reading,” but hermenia is never beside the point, as is the case, for example, in the process-oriented writings of Jackson Mac Low, or in such analogous attempts to incorporate “antipoetic” material as we find in the work of certain language poets. Creeley’s “pieces” are records of attention, even if only to the act of writing that produced them, and almost all are propositional in form, which means that the most abstract and seemingly meaningless among them are still proposed as occasions for understanding. Thus, the play of sounds in a poem like “Letter to General / Eisenhower” — which translates into Creeley’s postwar American vernacular a kind of writing he first learned from Louis Zukofsky, to whom the book Pieces was dedicated — never precludes us from attending to the meaning, never achieves or seeks to achieve what Zukofsky calls a condition of music:

Letter to General
Eisenhower from




Better batter
bigger pancakes.

You Chief
Eat It.

Reading or hearing this poem, we can take pleasure in the sounds, accepting their permutations as a free association or babble, intuiting, perhaps, that the end result is a kind of putdown of presidents, generals, and authority figures as a type. Should we seek to confirm or disprove this intuition, or otherwise take an interest in the arrangement of statements, we might note that the poem is a dictation between generals, and that the free association or babble produces two notable puns: the double meaning of batter in “Better batter / bigger pancakes” and the varied shades of meaning of eat it (consume it, die, fuck off, you’re worthless) in “You Chief / Eat It.” Noting, however, that the poem is a “piece,” we could go further and read these lines as themselves part of an arrangement of statements, as part of a sequence or book that may or may not confirm, complicate, modify, or contradict our partial understanding. We could also read the poem as part of a life (General Mountbatten directed the invasion of Burma, where Creeley was stationed at the end of World War Two), or as part of a tradition — I have already mentioned the debt to Zukofsky, whose “Songs of Degrees” (“Hear, her / Clear / Mirror, / Care / His error,” etc.) Creeley first published in the Black Mountain Review. Such a range of possible approaches is hardly particular to Creeley, of course. What is particular is the absolute refusal to adjudicate between them theoretically. In the poetics of Pieces, each reading, no matter how partial, retains its validity within its own established parameters.

Creeley’s validation of partiality rests on three principles that emerge slowly in his work over a period of about fifteen years, 1963 to 1978. These principles are: First, the relationship between part and whole is not hierarchic. The part retains its dignity as an object of appreciation or study — and consequently retains its autonomy as an object — quite apart from any modification to pleasure or analysis that might occur when it is resituated in a larger frame. Second, the distinction between part and whole is always provisional. Because the part retains autonomy, it is, when the object of a writer’s or reader’s attention, as whole as any larger collection of parts in which it might be situated. The distinction between part and whole is precisely a function of the attention given. Third, the whole need not be a unity. Because it admits everything, the whole can, in its more complex manifestations, include parts that produce disunity. It can include discordant elements and be discordant as an element in a larger whole, although this discord will only be discoverable or verifiable by way of the act of interpretation it troubles. The interpretation of these discordant poems may not be satisfying in New Critical terms — I have already noted Creeley’s willingness to avoid deciding “whether or not the effects of such writing were ‘good’” — but the work involved in retrieving even a partial understanding is entirely in keeping with Creeley’s overall commitment to process. Moreover, because interpretation is never the sole form of response that work permits or invites, discord between forms of reading is as essential a possibility as discord between the parts read.

You are perhaps wondering at this point why I have taken the trouble to sketch so schematically — and, I fear, pedantically — a hypothetical reception history that, far from being unusual, is the state of affairs that inevitably obtains in response to a literary text generating any sort of notable history at all. Whatever the author’s intentions, whatever form of reading the author may seek to promote or describe, a literary text invariably inspires a diversity of critical approaches, not to mention the partial responses due to unequal interest in its various parts or aspects. What I find unusual — if not unique — in Creeley’s work is the utter lack of friction or disconnection between the empirical experience of reading it and the theory of reading implied in its poetics. This last point might easily be developed in detail, either by showing the kinds of friction and disconnection that occur when we read other poets (both those who compose in the hope of provoking new modes of reading and those who write for readers with pre-established skills), or by tracing out the publication and reception histories of particular works by Creeley. For the present, I want only to assert the odd but happy fact that intention and reception match when partiality is given such credence. I call the fact “odd” because one might expect — I know I did — the opposite: that legitimation of partiality would produce disagreement or disjunction. But this possibility for discord is precisely the ground that Creeley’s work establishes as common.

Central to any hermeneutic practice is the notion that understanding a part illuminates the whole. But what constitutes a whole? And what theory of literature must we accept to substantiate the claims of a piecemeal understanding? For the reasons I have given and others that our allotted time will not permit me to present, Robert Creeley’s work, especially after 1963, offers, I believe, a sustained inquiry into these problems. His experiments in organization (Pieces, A Day Book [1972], and Hello [1978]), his fascination with insubstantial but formally complete word groupings (in the books just mentioned as well as Thirty Things [1979] and a number of other works scattered throughout his later collections), his redeployment of key words for the titles of individual poems and entire books (“Song,” “Here,” “Echo,” “Later,” “Place,” “There”), and his republication as freestanding works poems originally composed in collaboration with visual artists (His Idea [1973 and 1982], Life and Death [1993 and 1998], Drawn & Quartered [1999 and 2003]), all show, in their different ways, that the “reading in pieces” subsumed theoretically or by fiat to a totality of meanings in hermeneutics can become in a poem an act of attention significant in its own right, a condition of intelligibility surpassed by but not absorbed into more total forms of understanding. The “piece” for Creeley is not a fragment of the whole, but a whole with provisional status — a theory of literature rooted in composition. Creeley was hardly the first poet to seek such a theory (Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound are notable precedents), but he may be the first whose work supports an equally meaningful theory of reading.


This talk was prepared for a panel on reading organized by Lisa Samuels for the Modernist Studies Association annual meeting in Chicago, 2005, chaired by Jennifer Scappettone and including papers by Samuels and Nick LoLordo along with my own.

[1] I am using the word “pieces” in a generic sense to refer to Creeley’s poems as conceived by the poetics of the book Pieces, incorporating thereby work published in other collections as well (such as “A Piece,” published before, and “The men in my life,” published after).

[2] Denise Levertov caught this aim well when she wrote, “it’s a complete book, the way a notebook or diary has its own completeness, a relatedness of part to part that is not identical with the coherence of the deliberately arranged.”