Michael Davidson: On "I Know a Man"
The speaker is caught between two conflicting positions: whether to solve his existential despair by escaping from the world (by buying a "goddamn big car") or by paying a greater attention to what is immediately in front of him. Despite the poem's title, he cannot truly know anyone -- either himself or another -- because he is constantly talking and thus avoiding recognition of the other. He does not really know the other's name, nor is he able to differentiate himself from his interlocutor. His despair is generalized ("the darkness sur- / rounds us"), and to drive and thus escape such despair is an inadequate solution to a problem of much greater proportions.
The poem's last tercet introduces a voice of reason that urges the speaker to pay attention to what is happening: "for / christ's sake, look / out where yr going." But the terse and enjambed lines, the highly subordinated quality of the syntax, and the confusion of speaker and interlocutor conspire against the ostensible solutions these lines proffer. Adding to the general instability of the lines is the fact that the word "drive" could equally be a continuation of the previous lines (Why not buy a car and drive somewhere?), or it could be the beginning of an imperative spoken by "he" ("drive . . . look out where you're going"). Such ambiguities enact at a structural level the very conditions that prevent the "I" from "knowing" anyone. The poem, then, demonstrates one kind of attention -- poetry's power to embody contradictory states of feelings and emotion --while denying another.
Creeley states in compressed form some of the dilemmas that can be found in the work of many Beat writers. The world is perceived as alien and hostile, an undifferentiated "darkness" created and maintained by forces beyond the individual's control. The hipster's endless talk becomes a tentative way of countering that darkness and of acknowledging, if inadequately, the need for dialogue. Another solution, one found in many another American literary work, from Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick to On the Road, is to take the open road, "drive" away from Aunt Polly or the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit toward some indefinite freedom. Most accounts of the Beat myth stop here, at the edge of the highway, where the vast spaces of the West offer the illusion of escape. But Creeley's conclusion offers a salutary warning to pay attention in the midst of distraction and abstraction. This moment of self-consciousness, however tenuous, represents a side of the Beat myth seldom acknowledged: the recognition of solitude and vulnerability despite the competing claims of participation and communalism.
|Title||Michael Davidson: On "I Know a Man"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Michael Davidson||Criticism Target||Robert Creeley|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||06 Jul 2021|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||The San-Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century|
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