David Perkins: On Robert Creeley

Around 1950 Robert Creeley (b. 1926), then unknown, started mailing out his work. He sent his poems and thoughts about poetry to many poets, old and young, and some replied. He and Olson exchanged letters, sometimes daily, for four years before they met in 1954. Living on Mallorca in 1952, Creeley found that printing was cheap there. Hence the Black Mountain Review (1954-57), which he edited. He also started a press, which published himself along with, among others, Olson, Duncan, Larry Eigner, and Paul Blackburn. Thus Creeley made himself known to his own generation. He climbed the hierarchy of little magazines from Goad and Gryphon to Poetry, and of publishers to Scribner's. By 1962, when For Love collected the best lyrics from his seven previous volumes, his style was being imitated.

For indeed it was distinctive. Whatever one thought of his lyrics--many readers admired them intensely--they were an unusual type for the 1950s. While many poets in the United States were breaking out into protest, confession, and liberation, with turbulent emotions, lavish particulars, and many lines, and while many others followed the New Critical mode, Creeley did neither. He retrenched into the small and muted. His poems focused on a metaphor or complex of feeling, which planted itself in the mind. Often the sentences were illogical, elliptical, or suspended in the indefinite; they opened delicate, precisely calculated gaps, so to speak, from which suggestions of meaning were emitted. "I Know a Man" is deservedly famous: . . .

In a general way such poems derived from Williams, for Creeley dwelt in Williams' ordinary world and talked a simple, Williams language. But his character was utterly unlike Williams'. He was nervous and passive. He had little interest in other people or the outside world. His isolated, interior lyrics observed his own feelings--mistrust, fluctuating love, angst, loneliness. Restless insecurity made him press honestly and hard into his emotions, trying to know the truth of them. The states of mind he compelled himself to acknowledge were morally painful, diminished, and above all, uncertain, so that from line to line his poems undermined what they tried to assert. The means to this might be slight--an interrupting line break, a question mark where we expect a period--but doubt insinuated itself everywhere.

His style was usually called "minimal," meaning that in many things in which poets may be abundant Creeley is sparse or barren. His poems have few or no descriptions, characterizations, or incidents. He builds his subtleties and resonances by juxtapositions of short, simple lines and phrases, by manipulation of syntax and rhythm, and by metaphor. As Creeley says, "You can't derail a train by standing directly in front of it, or, not quite. But, a tiny piece of steel, properly placed . . . ."

His poems in the 1950s were "open" mainly in their uncertainties and elusiveness. Their moral atmosphere lacked altogether that readiness and trustful momentum we associate with the Olson group. But beginning in Pieces (1968), where elliptical fragments were presented as jottings in a continuing notebook or journal, he moved toward the open ethos. A Day Book (1972) and Hello (1976) went further in this direction. His writing was now much less worked over. Some readers find it more vital, as in "For my Mother," which is certainly one of Creeley's best achievements.

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Title David Perkins: On Robert Creeley Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author David Perkins Criticism Target Robert Creeley
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After
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