The poetry of Robert Creeley (1926-2005) is less a poetry of song and narrative than an artistry of language and thought, syntax and consciousness, syllable and word. Benjamin Friedlander’s edition  (the first “selected” poems since Creeley’s death) brings together verse from 17 books and leads us through 60 years of exploration into the role of the poem as an act of investigation—investigation into ways of thinking (through the possible maneuvers of language) about ways of feeling. Friedlander has supplied an instructive and smart introduction, in which he points to four qualities central to Creeley’s life’s work: “particularity, commonality, language, and person.” A journey through this collection is greatly rewarding as a check against glibness in our ordinary use of language and against the casual seductiveness of the romantic lyric.
Influenced by the modernist weight of Pound, Stevens and Williams, Creeley began publishing at the end of World War II. He worked closely with such poets as Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, and was a central literary figure in the experimental milieu of Black Mountain College (especially in the mid-1950s). His life and work intertwined with those of the Beat poets—in both San Francisco and New York. He lived and traveled widely, throughout the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Asia, and always those experiences and travels affected his understanding of poetry and its role in the discovery and communication of feeling and thought. In the last two decades of his life he became an ur-poet father figure among the Language poets, with a particularly strong impact on the work of such writers as Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and many others. Creeley’s language is always honest (and often playful, though wistfully so); it is also always work. When he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in poetry in 1999, the judges pointed specifically to the “stubbornly plain language that makes a Creeley poem instantly recognizable.”
Friedlander has chosen not to reprint many of the less stubborn poems from the earlier Selected Poems (1991, chosen by Creeley himself), especially those one might classify as more deeply traditional. For example, the very early “Old Song,” which echoes (in its pacing and diction) both Pound of the Troubadour period and vintage Burns: “Take off your clothes, love,/ And come to me.// Soon will the sun be breaking/ Over yon sea.// And all of our hairs be white, love,/ For aught we do// And all our nights be one, love,/ For all we knew.” (The shift in that final verb to the past tense has the tender and paradoxical effect of throwing the poem far into the elegiac future.)
Instead, Friedlander has chosen to organize this new volume around and through poems that grind in a more gnarly way over the tension between music and thought. One finds here a consistent danger in wanting to read the poems too quickly, attempting to smooth over the abruptness of the line, often enjambed, in order to get to a (nearly graspable) narrative point. It is important to read these poems aloud, precisely because the internal lyricism is not obvious; a voice is essential for making plain the cadence, the staccato, the frequent syncopation of syllable. These lines from “For Love,” a well-known poem from 1962, convey this artistry of tension and struggle:
Love, what do I think
to say. I cannot say it.
What have you become to ask,
what have I made you into,
companion, good company,
crossed legs with skirt, or
soft body under
the bones of the bed.
Nothing says anything
but that which it wishes
would come true, fears
what else might happen in
some other place, some
other time not this one.
A voice in my place, an
echo of that only in yours.
Lines such as these ask much of the reader, especially in their wit (“Nothing says anything”), a wit that is tightly related to Creeley’s practice of making syntax dis-familiar. “Love, what do I think/ to say. I cannot say it,” for example, asks us to understand that a second layer of syntax is the one that matters: the lines don’t ask merely, “What do I think to say?” but also “What do [I find that] I think [in order] to say [what I find that I say]. I cannot say it.” This elliptical, compressed, ambiguous attention to how we think with sentences —and how we think sentences—is at the essence of Creeley’s art.
Much of Creeley’s work in the last 20 years of his life was an attempt to translate into language commonplace feelings and thoughts of mortality and to acknowledge his own passion for the most ordinary of those feelings and thoughts. Hannah Arendt, in her lovingly analytical introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations (1968), observed that for Benjamin “the size of an object was in an inverse ratio to its significance.” One might say of Creeley, as well, that the size and scope of matters of consciousness—especially matters of self-awareness—were in inverse ratio to the importance of treating them artistically. Consider, for example, this passage from “When I Think,” which appeared posthumously in On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay (2006):
...When I try to think of
things, of what’s happened, of what a life is
and was, my life, when I wonder what it meant,
the sad days passing, the continuing, echoing deaths,
all the painful, belligerent news, and the dog still
waiting to be fed, the closeness of you sleeping, voices,
presences, of children, of our own grown children,
the shining, bright sun, the smell of the air just now,
each physical moment, passing, pass- ing, it’s what
it always is or ever was, just then, just
Robert Creeley is one of our finest poets. This selection, chosen from among poems that fill the two large volumes that make up the Collected Poems, provides us with the distinct story of his intensely simple desire to bring consciousness into a form that mediates something palpable from our passing days, that reminds us to pay attention just now, just here.