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A poetic life

March 5, 2008 |  3:50 pm

Bigcreeley

(Photo credit: University at Buffalo Office of News Services)

For a vivid overview of poet Robert Creeley's career, Stephen Burt's essay in the London Review of Books is a must. Creeley's work, Burt argues, can be divided into three stages: an early hard-to-handle period ("often drunk or stoned, a skirt-chaser [in the language of the time], with frequent, extreme ups and downs"), a middle phase marked by a minimalism so intense as to occasionally eschew meaning altogether and a final, elegiac stretch that was "solitary, melancholy and surprisingly reminiscent of childhood," in which we are defined less by who we are than what we’ve lost.

For Burt, Creeley is a quintessential New England poet, spare and taciturn, who "often seems to have thought not in lines or sentences so much as in quatrains, which he called 'both a semantic measure and a rhythmic measure.' " But more than anything, he sought to strip away all ornament, all metaphor, and to have words simply stand for themselves.

This was not always an effective strategy. Creeley titled one of his first minimalist poems "A Piece," and said that it was "central to all possibilities of statement." That poem reads: "One and / one, two, / three." "If you like that," Burt writes, "you'll love — well, almost anything."

But in his poem, "The Farm," Creeley also wrote: "Tips of celery / clouds of // grass — one / day I’ll go away." No other contemporary poet I can think of evoked so memorably and so starkly the evanescence of existence, the futility of being alive. The miracle of his writing is that somehow this did not make him hopeless, that in his melancholy he was able to find a measure of connection, even though he knew it couldn't last.

"[T]o listen to Creeley at his best," Burt writes, "is to listen, often uncomfortably, to men and women speaking behind closed doors, to hear what they say to themselves and to each other when they do not know what else to do. . . . Few writers have done more with fewer words."

David L. Ulin

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