Leverett T. Smith, Jr.: On "I Know a Man"

The second poem, "I Know a Man," is without doubt Creeley's best-known. A phrase of it has served as the title of Jeremy Lamer's novel Drive, He Said and of the movie made from it. More recently the poem has served as the epigraph of the final chapter of Stephen King's fantasy about American automobile culture, Christine. In this chapter, the book's narrator, Dennis Guilder, attempts to destroy the possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury Christine by battering her to death with a large pink tanker truck. In spite of a badly injured leg, Dennis tells us, "I was going to drive" (486). But driving only seems a solution to Dennis's problems, just as it seems one in the poem. Here it is:

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.                 (Collected Poems 132)

It is significant that Robert Bly includes this poem in his anthology Forty Poems Touching on Recent American History, thereby asserting a significance beyond the personal for it. In his introduction, Bly defines the political poem in such a way that we may understand "I Know a Man" as political. He says that "the poet's main job is to penetrate that husk around the American psyche, and since that psyche is inside him too, the writing of political poetry is like the writing of personal poetry, a sudden drive by the poet inward" (10). Later he concludes that "a true political poem is a quarrel with ourselves" (13) and continues as follows on the subject of the American psyche:

The life of the nation can be imagined also not as something deep inside our psyche, but as a psyche larger than the psyche of anyone living, a larger sphere, floating above everyone. In order for the poet to write a true political poem, he has to be able to have such a grasp of his own concerns that he can leave them for a while, and as he returns he brings back plant-seeds that have stuck to his clothes, some inhabitants of this curious sphere, which he then tries to keep alive with his own psychic body. (12-13)

Bly may have described here what any truly memorable poem achieves, and he certainly means us to apply it to "1 Know a Man."

"I Know a Man" is concerned with an essential human problem: how to cast light on the darkness which surrounds us, how to "run order through chaos," as Henry Adams put it. Most who have commented on the poem—and there are many—have arrived at this conclusion. Ross Feld says that "Creeley's best known poem is a good example of how postwar French existentialist doubt became transposed into American Beat fear; how the closed cafe turned into the semienclosed, more vulnerable automobile" (99). Wyatt Prunty, in an essay remarkably unsympathetic to the poem, says that the task of all contemporary American poetry "continued to be that of ferreting order out of apparent disorder" (80). Peter Stitt speaks of it as "poking fun" at "old existential sibboleths" (644). Charles Altieri feels that Creeley "encounters the actual dynamics of the void" in the poem (163). Finally Stephen Stepanchev speaks of an "awareness of the dangers of the world" (152). All these seem efforts to conceptualize the condition expressed in the phrase, "the darkness sur/ rounds us."

The poem contains three different alternatives to this problematic state. The first is proposed by the narrator: "buy a goddamn big car." The poem hints here at the silliness of the way most of Creeley's contemporaries in the United States deal with the problems they encounter—by buying something. (Notice how the stanzaic form of the poem keep separate the two verbs of the narrator's sentence: "buy" and "drive.") At this point the speaker's solution is that of most citizens of commercial post-World War II America, and the poem implies a satirical comment on the propensity of Americans to make their lives meaningful by reference to commerce and technology. But if the poem rejects this solution we need also to balance that rejection by examining Creeley's own excitement at acquiring a car in the 1950s, communicated in a letter to Charles Olson. He has just purchased a 1928 Hupmobile for $15 (not exactly the "goddamn big car" the reader of the poem imagines) and hopes it will be the solution to some of his difficulties: "To make visits in without spending money on truck, etc." He concludes his remarks on the car with a generalization which suggests that he himself may be closer to the narrator's friend John ("which was not his/ name") than to his narrator. He writes Olson "1 don't want to go fast anymore. I just want to get there" (Correspondence Vol. 3 122).

The name "John," along with the phrases "goddamn" and "for/ christ's sake," has been seen by critics as suggesting the possibility of an alternate scheme of value—that proposed by traditional Christianity—particularly when we consider that the beginning of the Gospel According to St. John is concerned with presenting God as a source of light, bringing order to a world of darkness. Creeley himself has been particularly enraged by some readings of the poem, remarking in one interview that "it's the most incredible distortion of any intention I felt" (Contexts 207. Creeley gives a summary of his intentions in "I Know a Man" in this interview 207-209). Charles Tomlinson, in another interview with Creeley, comments that critics of this sort (and he refers to a discussion of the poem in a recent issue of the London Times Literary Supplement) who "must somehow try to dig down for something which they think ought to be there and they get frustrated when they find it isn't" (Contexts 15). The words are in the poem, and they resonate, but the poem also rejects traditional Christianity, as it has rejected contemporary American materialism, as a solution of the narrator's problem. When the name "John" is mentioned, we immediately learn that John was not the narrator's friend's name, and this instructs us to beware the solution of traditional Christianity. The question the poem confronts, however, remains a fundamentally religious one.

The poem's words propose a third solution to this problem of how to light the darkness which surrounds us. This is conveyed in the way the problem is stated:

The darkness sur- rounds us.

The breaking up of "sur-rounds" creates a new word, "rounds," one with more positive connotations. According to the poem (and without the narrator understanding it), the darkness also "rounds" us, helps make us whole, or at least the recognition of that darkness is what enables us to achieve what wholeness we can. The human imagination will transform darkness into light. Wallace Stevens has a similar use of the word "surrounds" in his poem "Anecdote of the Jar". Here is its first stanza.

I placed a jar in Tennessee, And round it was, upon a hill. It made the slovenly wilderness Surround that hill.                 (Collected Poems 76)

The congruence of the word "surround" with the word "round" in Stevens's poem achieves the same paradox which Creeley gets by splitting the word over the end of his line. And we have a vision of the possibility of order within chaos. Creeley has written of himself that 'I am however young [old] writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—" (A Day Book, n.p.) He has this in common with the narrator of his poem.

They also have in common a delight in driving and an impulse to see it as a means of ordering the world. On a couple of occasions in his correspondence with Charles Olson he expresses this delight. Simple activity is the ideal: both Creeley and his narrator seem companions of Jack Kerouac ("John, I / sd, which was not his / name") here:

Feel very much these hot days, like moving—travelling. Two yng men stopped in yesterday, with a car, and talking to them, cd not keep off the subject/where they were going (Hartford & the Tanglewood, they replied . . .),and thought myself—of, say, one of those Lincoln Continentals, rides like an extension of, say, the idea. Anyhow, say, cruising, abt 60/70 miles per: those long, stretches, highways—into the south, down & under. With 1 bottle cool, cool: wine & yr own self—wd be cool. Remember one morning on Morningside Drive, waiting for Bud—he drove up in one of those, sitting between Dizzy Gillespie & the Hawk . . . 'Sunday After the War.' If you want to drive, drive with one who knows: flight. The gig. Used to catch myself pulling/UP/ on the wheel to see, if it cd not be: LIFT ED                 Away, the gig. Riding on the idea/as Lawrence wd: is the way, in some ways. To be able to move. Riding. Well, not as extension of 'power' but just: 'movement.' Is the thing. (Correspondence Vol. 2 101)

The poem's genesis might well be right in this passage. Creeley imagines himself and Olson in the car, and sees it as a transcendence of ordinary life. In his distinction between movement and power, he distinguishes himself from the commercial American.

A second passage from a later letter, underlines many of the same elements and adds more:

Leave me now turn you on to RainerM/: will be picking up soon again, thinking as I am, of one big black car, sliding along the highway, west, southwest, along those real crazy highways: abt eve, leave us figure it, & the lights begin to pick up things, flash them back at us, & movement, IS move/move/move: 1 gal/wine, on the seat beside, & all the things to see. (Correspondence Vol. 4, 27-28)

Here the darkness is beginning to surround us, and it does appear an active agent in the making of meaning. What these passages omit is the element of warning with which the poem concludes.

Details

Title Leverett T. Smith, Jr.: On "I Know a Man" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Leverett T. Smith, Jr. Criticism Target Robert Creeley
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Creeley: 'A So-Called Larger View'
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