Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Rain: For Robert Creeley

Photo by Harry Redl

Maxine Chernoff and I first met Robert Creeley in Chicago around 1972. He was in town to give a reading at the Body Politic on Lincoln Avenue, the leading independent series in that city at the time. At a party in his honor, he was at the end of the hallway talking easily with that specific concentration of his, looking down as if at the thought itself then back at the person he was addressing. He spoke with us in the same manner, with no special agenda or ax to grind. He was the same person here as he was there, open and sincere. We walked away thinking what a nice man. Maxine was 20; I was 26. We were going to be poets and didn’t quite know what that meant. The lesson for us was that you can be a poet and behave reasonably, or as Bob himself would have said, “humanly.” Our daughter is named “Koren” after his poem “Kore”: “Oh, love, / where are you / leading / me now?”

I had seen Bob give a reading under Ted Berrigan’s sponsorship a couple of years before meeting him socially. Tall, affable, and angular, he decided to read one poem four or five times with different emphases and inflections. He was a little high, I think, the better to feel for us, but first to explore for himself, how elastic a syntax can be. You could learn more from one of his readings than a lifetime of prosody courses.

There’s a wonderful Harry Redl photograph of Bob in the Naked Poetry anthology of the late 60s, staring straight at the camera with one clear eye, one sunken and vacant, while before him on the desk stood the wooden model of a crow, turned sideways, with its one eye, and a half-filled whiskey glass. It was the most romantic portrait of a poet I’d ever seen, and it still defines him for me. Though highly posed, the image is not an imposture. He had his darknesses and discords, battling it out with Jackson Pollock at the Cedar Tavern, running away with Kenneth Rexroth’s wife even as the Beats were taking over Rexroth’s town of San Francisco. Naturally, Rexroth gave as well as he took in this department. Change was in the air. But whose change was it going to be?

No one wrote better love poems in our time than Robert Creeley, with all love’s intensities and disfigurements. Indeed, what sets him apart is not the originality of his technique, which was substantial, but rather his emotional intelligence. Here is his poem “The Rain”:

All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon
so often? Is it

that never the ease,
even the hardness,
of rain falling
will have for me

something other than this,
something not so insistent—
am I to be locked in this
final uneasiness.

Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
Be wet
with a decent happiness.

There’s a big difference between the early postmodern and ours of late; Creeley’s sensuous speech riddled with hesitation is one marker of it. He allows for matters of the heart. His obliquities do not tread inexorably toward parody, burlesque, and the exhaustions of theory. They are connected to the breath, to depths, to desire and the human occasion. He is all the more compelling for the guardedness of his vulnerabilities, that turn for instance at the end of his poem “The Whip”: “Ugh, / she said, beside me, she put / her hand on / my back, for which act / I think to say this / wrongly.” Is saying “wrongly” a form of love’s tact or confession’s brutal disclosures? Or is all expression inevitably skewed as representation? He wrote in the essay “Form”: “Being shy as a young man, I was very formal, and still am. I make my moves fast but very self-consciously.” This was the allure of Charlie Parker, whom Bob described as writing “silences as actively as sounds,” a good description of a Creeley poem. You can tell a poem by its rhythm from the other side of a wall. The emotional size of a poem is first announced through such sounding; it also leaves the most lasting impression. Creeley’s cadences are as distinctive as Thelonious Monk’s right hand, teetering and falling with an off-centered precision: Locate I / love you some- / where in / teeth and / eyes, bite / it but / take care not / to hurt, you / want so / much so / little.”

In the 90s, Bob and a Pulitzer Prize winning poet read at a Chicago benefit for our magazine New American Writing. The site was the old-line Union League Club, with its massive portrait of Ulysses S. Grant in the lobby. Bob was gracious about the setting, which had been arranged by one of our board members. The other poet told Bob that he had wanted him to win the previous year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry but had been outvoted by others on the committee. Bob was gracious about that, too, but his insecurities came out when at a fancy restaurant he absolutely had to have a cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate shake. And he was gracious when we teased him for having a “little kid” meal. Robert Creeley was one of our greatest poets of the last fifty years. His work was included in every major anthology of the same period, and he never received the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize. This is a case of the prize being smaller than the man. He was gracious when a poet-critic at Northwestern University asked him which critic he most admired who did not care for his work. But later he asked, “What was that about?”

Most of us have been touched by Bob’s generosity: the example of his work, his availability, his blurbs on our books, his gift of continuity and idiosyncrasy. He was one of our gods. Without him, the world became immediately less familiar.

I’d like to end by reading my own poem dedicated to Bob, the last in a sequence called “Edge and Fold”:


(For Robert Creeley)

never less than present
and close to the rain

summer’s in a rush
to wet its lips again

something calls us home
through the dim evening

a pair of hedge clippers
for those of us who dream

the exhaustions of infinity
will never touch us now

only gods die and the poor
love it well

what has always been
remains to be seen

memory’s last station
too many travelers

Presented as part of a Robert Creeley Memorial
University of San Francisco


At 6:32 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I love that picture of him.


At 12:37 PM, Blogger Ed Coletti said...

Paul, I'll be at your reading at Copperfield's on 3-24. Check out Ed Coletti's P3 ( for mine.

I was with Bob Creeley at SFS in 1970. Here's what I wrote for him then, when I was a kid in the Master's Pgm.


for Robert Creeley

I speak
like this
when I’m

with a strain of

When I speak
about him
his language
I’m trying
feeling the way
he feels
and feels himself
telling us,
yet it’s mind
mind and feeling

the listener
with the
wants to
out the words
for the poet
brings you into it.

Edward Coletti
September 1970


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