Passed over by the media in the rash of celebrity deaths these last few weeks (i.e., Prince Rainier, Terri Schiavo, Johnnie Cochran, Saul Bellow and especially Pope John Paul II) was the loss of perhaps the greatest American poet of the latter half of the 20th Century, and certainly its leading proselytizer, Robert Creeley, on March 30th.
In one sense it’s understandable. Poets have never received much honor in America. But that makes it no less regrettable, nor less a loss for those who knew him through his poetry or through his seminal critical reviews of the works of other poets.
Today, I do my small part to honor his legacy, by devoting Poetry Monday, not to the works of an unknown poet, as I normally do, but to the poems of a man whose life was devoted to the art of enchanting readers and listeners with the beauty of his words, whether he sought to make them laugh or cry, or merely contemplate the follies and tribulations of humanity.
More after the break . . .
From his obituary at The Academy of American Poets:
* * *
Mr. Creeley’s honors include a Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Frost Medal, the Shelley Memorial Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. He served as New York State Poet Laureate from 1989 to 1991.
This hardly does justice to his influence, nor to the respect and esteem with which he was held by his peers.
Poets do not acquire fame the same way other men and women do. They exhibit no wondrous feats of excellence in the fields of play as do our sports legends, nor are they renowned for their prowess on the battlefield, or their victories in the political arena. Many aren’t even recognized as great writers during their lifetimes (see e.g., Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson among American poets, or Blake and Keats among the British). Often, they have no singular magnum opus like our novelists, nor a body of work well known to theater goers as do our playwrights.
Their fame these days is mostly acquired posthumously, by reader after reader who finds one of their poems and discovers in it the beauty and magic that words can evoke, whether telling tales of tragedy and horror, or love, or hope in the face of our common mortality. Over time, their fame increases while those of their more raucous contemporaries fades from view. After all, the deeds or misdeeds of famous persons, no matter how great, merely repeat events that history has witnessed many times before. But each poem is a new creation, and a new journey waiting to be taken.
People still read Homer and Ovid after thousands of years, and still find something to marvel at in the fragments of Sappho and the odes of Pindar, in the imagined heavens and hells of Dante and Milton, in the waste lands of Eliot and the second coming that Yeats observed in his mind’s eye.
I like to think that, if mankind survives the coming decades, Robert Creeley will join that number, and be not just remembered, but experienced anew by generations to come, long after the names of schemers and villains, such as Tom Delay, have been forgotten. It’s a small hope, but perhaps it will grow.
Now for the poems:
The words are a beautiful music.
The words bounce like in water.
loud in the clearing
off the boats,
They look for a place
to sit and eat–
A Wicker Basket
Comes the time when it’s later
and onto your table the headwaiter
puts the bill, and very soon after
rings out the sound of lively laughter–
Picking up change, hands like a walrus,
and a face like a barndoor’s,
and a head without any apparent size,
nothing but two eyes–
So that’s you, man,
or me. I make it as I can,
I pick up, I go
faster than they know–
Out the door, the street like a night,
any night, and no one in sight,
but then, well, there she is,
old friend Liz–
And she opens the door of her cadillac,
I step in back,
and we’re gone.
She turns me on–
There are very huge stars, man, in the sky,
and from somewhere very far off someone hands
me a slice of apple pie,
with a gob of white, white ice cream on top of it,
and I eat it–
Slowly. And while certainly
they are laughing at me, and all around me is racket
of these cats not making it, I make it
in my wicker basket.
America, you ode for reality!
Give back the people you took.
Let the sun shine again
on the four corners of the world
you thought of first but do not
own, or keep like a convenience.
People are your own word, you
invented that locus and term.
Here, you said and say, is
where we are. Give back
what we are, these people you made,
us, and nowhere but you to be.
As I was walking
I came upon
the same road upon.
As I sat down
by chance to move
if and as I might,
light the wood was,
light and green,
and what I saw
before I had not seen.
It was a lady
by goat men
Her hair held earth.
Her eyes were dark.
A double flute
made her move.
where are you
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.
A Form Of Women
I have come far enough
from where I was not before
to have seen the things
looking in at me from through the open door
and have walked tonight
to see the moonlight
and see it as trees
and shapes more fearful
because I feared
what I did not know
but have wanted to know.
My face is my own, I thought.
But you have seen it
turn into a thousand years.
I watched you cry.
I could not touch you.
I wanted very much to
but could not.
If it is dark
when this is given to you,
have care for its content
when the moon shines.
My face is my own.
My hands are my own.
My mouth is my own
but I am not.
when you leave me alone
all the darkness is
an utter blackness,
a pit of fear,
never to touch.
But I love you.
Do you love me.
What to say
when you see me.
can I say to
as if all
worlds were there.
Ballad Of The Despairing Husband
My wife and I lived all alone,
contention was our only bone.
I fought with her, she fought with me,
and things went on right merrily.
But now I live here by myself
with hardly a damn thing on the shelf,
and pass my days with little cheer
since I have parted from my dear.
Oh come home soon, I write to her.
Go fuck yourself, is her answer.
Now what is that, for Christian word?
I hope she feeds on dried goose turd.
But still I love her, yes I do.
I love her and the children too.
I only think it fit that she
should quickly come right back to me.
Ah no, she says, and she is tough,
and smacks me down with her rebuff.
Ah no, she says, I will not come
after the bloody things you’ve done.
Oh wife, oh wife — I tell you true,
I never loved no one but you.
I never will, it cannot be
another woman is for me.
That may be right, she will say then,
but as for me, there’s other men.
And I will tell you I propose
to catch them firmly by the nose.
And I will wear what dresses I choose!
And I will dance, and what’s to lose!
I’m free of you, you little prick,
and I’m the one to make it stick.
Was this the darling I did love?
Was this that mercy from above
did open violets in the spring —
and made my own worn self to sing?
She was. I know. And she is still,
and if I love her? then so I will.
And I will tell her, and tell her right . . .
Oh lovely lady, morning or evening or afternoon.
Oh lovely lady, eating with or without a spoon.
Oh most lovely lady, whether dressed or undressed or partly.
Oh most lovely lady, getting up or going to bed or sitting only.
Oh loveliest of ladies, than whom none is more fair, more gracious, more beautiful.
Oh loveliest of ladies, whether you are just or unjust, merciful, indifferent, or cruel.
Oh most loveliest of ladies, doing whatever, seeing whatever, being whatever.
Oh most loveliest of ladies, in rain, in shine, in any weather.
Oh lady, grant me time,
please, to finish my rhyme.
The thing comes
the cat & the squirrel,
torn, a red thing,
& the other
You send me your poems,
I’ll send you mine.
Things tend to awaken
even through random communication
Let us suddenly
proclaim spring. And jeer
at the others,
all the others.
I will send a picture too
if you will send me one of you.
Seeing is believing.
Whatever was thought or said,
these persistent, inexorable deaths
make faith as such absent,
our humanness a question,
a disgust for what we are.
Whatever the hope,
here it is lost.
Because we coveted our difference,
here is the cost.
And last, the poem he wrote for Poets Against the War:
What’s after or before
seems a dull locus now
as if there ever could be more
or less of what there is,
a life lived just because
it is a life if nothing more.
The street goes by the door
just like it did before.
Years after I am dead,
there will be someone here instead
perhaps to open it,
look out to see what’s there —
even if nothing is,
or ever was,
or somehow all got lost.
Persist, go on, believe.
Dreams may be all we have,
whatever one believe
of worlds wherever they are —
with people waiting there
will know us when we come
when all the strife is over,
all the sad battles lost or won,
all turned to dust.