Post 14: 4/1/05
Reflections on Creeley
It is now a matter of grievous truth that the poet Robert Creeley died Wednesday 30 March 2005 at Odessa, Texas, of lung disease. The profundity of that loss, its absolute depth, has since been the experience of the many who knew him and read his work, in what had become a virtual condition of lifelong intimacy. With the passing of Jackson Mac Low, two "beneficent eyes" of contemporary writing are gone. With Creeley, it is both the deeply personal nature of that loss, and the dawning revelation of his ability to construct a social relation out of the form of individuation that is lyric poetry, that now seem foremost. There is a way to hear a continuing emphasis in his final period, a "something" Creeley seems strongly to be "saying" to those who now mourn him: namely, the meaning and value of the social relation, in and as the forms of personhood that were, for him, the locus for questioning what is universal, human, and enduring. Death, obviously, is not that universal, though it is the most widely accepted occasion for it.
Creeley's meaning is now his loss; we have no choice but to read it. In the meagre account of the New York Times—as good or bad a place to start as any—it is a sclerotic construction of literary narrative that anyone with the faintest understanding of his work would reject. The Creeley of the 1970s is depicted as a moment of consolidation of his oeuvre, out of a mere twenty-five years that preceded it—with archival dust-jacket photo, list of canonical accomplishments, and baseline biographical facts. This is the retrospective construction of the author circa 1975, terminus of the first volume of his Collected Poems, complete with the approbation or disapproval of ancient critics who testify to his continuity with modernist tradition or the sparseness of his technique. It is amazing how quickly such a narrative formed out of the mists of a poetry that was anything but reducible to its terms; already, by the middle of the 1960s, Creeley was the poet of this biography, and his writing addressed the prospective horizons of its completion. Alas, death was the name for its incompletion, as Creeley so clearly recognized in the title of his penultimate collection, Life and Death. It does seem now that his work had gone beyond that biography, and has for some time. Death as the horizon of biography, the lamentable paraphrase of accomplishment in the New York Times, becomes a problem of another order: the continuous unfolding of his work.
There is a virtual hailstorm of biography being brought to its terminus on the pages of the New York Times. On the morning of 1 April 2005, Terri Schiavo has died: "her long, sorrowful struggle" ended, "her parents and siblings absent, the husband they reviled at her side." "Even Death Does Not Quiet Harsh Political Fight": "Her legacy may be that she brought the issue of death and dying to the battle over 'the culture of life.'" Pope John Paul II, as reported at 8:14 AM, has suffered a heart attack; he is "conscious and has been given last rites, the Vatican said." And Ted Koppel, "who during a quarter-century as the host of 'Nightline' on ABC provided a hard-news alternative to the monologues and banter of Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and David Letterman," having been forced off the air by by ratings declines and demographics as an entire generation heads for the exit sign. Biography is destiny, according to the Times, and measurable in column inches. Given any reasonable estimate of human accomplishment, Creeley should have made the front page. Is there any rationale for the relative weights given to these lives: Terri Schiavo, the Pope, Ted Koppel, Creeley? Or is there a notion of the human that transcends their separate instances? Creeley's work—his biographical destiny, the poetry that complicates it—argues this point.
Creeley's project is worked, in the critical sense of effective. It is a working with its terms and conditions, biography being one but by no means their irreducible limit. That said, Creeley was the most biographical of poets: Zukofsky's "the words are my life," enacted in the epic form of his long poem "A," was temporalized in the unfolding of Creeley's poetry over a life's duration. While "history" was a point of contention for Creeley, his work in lyric form is manifestly a sequence of "dates," each marking the uniqueness of a specific present. If this is so, then the present must be both discrete and continuous, lived on a timeline of duration but also taking the form of intensities, steady states and ruptures, futural projections and memory. As time moves ahead, poetry concretizes in its forms: Benjamin's "angel of history" in the form of the lyric. Biography, then, is anything but the destiny of an overarching frame; it is the sequence of instances that construct it. Here Creeley opens up a gigantic void between expectation and experience: the expectation of the completion of biography as a unifying meaning; the experience of writing a constructed present that simultaneously subtracts from, generalizes, and even threatens to destroy any such overarching unity misrecognized as "human." Creeley knew and played with this effect, as it was reproduced in the experience of others of him as presence encountered in time. Thus, it was the nature of his exceptions to what was expected of him that he communicated, in terms of both what he was and the nature of those expectations. His relationships to others, as a content of his poetry, were worked—and my positive sense, overall, was that it was working. And it still is.
If I were to assemble a compilation of key moments in Creeley's work on which I found my own reading and continue to return, as if to a renewable resource, for my own poetic purposes, such an assemblage would stress the "turn to language" and find it in the midst of the poet's obduracy, doubt, negativity, opacity, insufficiency, and will. Not the vaunted love that came to serve as the insisted-on final horizon of Creeley's later work—the openness, certainty, affirmation, transparency, plenitude, and movement to the light that translates and overwrites the earlier tendency toward darkness and withdrawal—but the often intellectually brilliant, emotionally complex, and always provisional solutions to the dilemma of expression. Each poem in Creeley's work, especially in the early work but also in the late, takes the form of a solution to a crisis of expression that was willed into existence and willfully gone beyond—no matter how he would later frame it as "what I was feeling at the time." An anti-expressivist Creeley, writing at the moment in which expression fails and language is all you have, or where language fails entirely and expression is simply that which is left in its traces—this is the Creeley of the turn to language as a time-valued and site-specific thinking through expression toward a further horizon. In the process, Creeley turned from the aesthetic and cultural constellations that pushed him past mid-century modernism—the turn to myth as counter to Western logos, Whitehead's notion of "occasion" as the form of the poem, or the example of spontaneity in jazz—and by mid career arrived at a synthesis of Wittgenstein's language games and Heidegger's question of being that underwrote the movement beyond muthologos as expression. At this decisive moment—the moment of Pieces, the work directly influencing the Language School, from Robert Grenier and Bruce Andrews to myself and Ron Silliman, of poetry breaking into particles of thought, traces of meaning, ghosts of intention that expression can only stand by and witness—Creeley achieves his status as postmodern innovator. This is an intellectual moment, no matter how much Creeley would later see it as expressive.
In Creeley's work, the shape of language is informed by the eye—but in Creeley's case, we may well ask, which eye? As we have seen, Creeley's was a restless, activated, piercing, determinate, and willful eye that, by force of circumstance, had to do the work of binocular vision and fully dimensional perception necessitated by the loss of the other. That eye—the obdurate, unseeing one, source of the poet's difficult art—was always present, even as a way of positioning the body in conversation, figuring out which side of the table to sit on, already turned away to one side. In order to see completely, dimensionally, would necessitate endless movement and turning of the head—and there was a use of that movement, insistence as Creeley would say, to position the interlocutor, hold him or her in place, while the work of the mouth—the speaking subject as willed and unfolding even as a blithering act of love— complemented the labors of the eye, as it constructed a world while shifting it from place to place. Bashing it up and down until it stopped jiggling and would simply hold still while he would tell you just any damn thing, what was most immediate in his mind. This was the necessity, the "kind of act of" speech, that Creeley developed through his adversity and the resulting stress on full presence and competence—one that was originally, as he says, entirely awkward. Beyond the demands placed on perception and meaning by the loss of the eye, there is also a chiasmus of vision, not between the two eyes of normal stereoscopic vision, but between an active and determinate eye and a nonseeing and equally (non-)reflective one. Creeley's eye is thus determining in these two senses—as a beneficent and direct embrace of the whole and the particular, and as an obdurate unseeing that is the source of his blind will toward wholeness and completion. Creeley was the most insistent of men, as we can see in forty years' evidence of his talking head and gesturing body. His will was founded in the unseeing eye, only completed by the rest of the senses in its absent necessity. It is toward this eye that my reading is drawn, as to a negative of the wholeness invoked everywhere in his work.
This negativity is not the young man's awkwardness on the way to a retrospective assurance of its inevitability. Why does the young man buy Modess? Only as a badge of his castration anxiety. Let's hope he gets over it, and we do too, before he hurts himself and we are dismayed in the event. It strikes me, in the welter of responses to Creeley at his death, that there is a certain idiocy in not being able to figure out or dare to name some of his basic moves and go beyond them in the act of reading. A real reading of Creeley awaits—the existing criticism, with few exceptions, is pathetic. Why, one might ask, is this so? Because Creeley's love has been conflated with his will, the beneficent eye with the unseeing, and this confusion was Creeley's will, at least in life, leaving the work to go beyond it. Otherwise put, Creeley encouraged a holistic, pseudo-universal reading that masked the true particularity of his work—not the time-valued, site-specific occasions that make any of us human, I hear him say, but the particular solution to the dilemma or even crisis of expression that he faced in each poem. So the aura of the human is only the willed determination of the unseeing eye, while the seeing eye is the one that locates its language, affect, occasion, and scale. This is an intellectual art, but one that asks that you feel something. And, intellectually, you do—however much you are solicited to simplify that response via a holistic affirmation of the positivity of "the meanings of life." Such containment of more complex perceptions of Creeley's poetic purposes is the direct work of the unseeing eye, not exactly reproducing itself in accord with his wishes but affirmed in retrospection nonetheless. What we see here is the making of an ideology, if not a hagiography or cult of the person at the very least a system of meaning. Creeley has gone into social production, as we might to read him from our unsentimental vantage point in Detroit. A man fully in the act of making himself, and always incomplete—this is not the initial identification of the oedipal male, however mobilized he might be, but a horizon of poetry as language in its necessity for going beyond that which cannot be said in the act of speech. In the act of memorializing Creeley, I affirm an incompletion. And in that, I affirm poetry at its source.
New York Times
[Text copyright © Barrett Watten 2005. Not to be reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]