Q&A with Robert Creeley
Robert Creeley is the author of more than sixty books of poetry, including Just in Time: Poems 1984-1994 (New Directions, 2001), Life & Death (1998), Echoes (1994), Selected Poems 1945-1990 (1991) and Memory Gardens (1986). While having published several books in the 1950’s, it was the publication of For Love: Poems 1950-1960 (1962) that brought him widespread recognition. Mr. Creeley entered Harvard in 1943, leaving one year later to drive an ambulance in World War II. In the 1950’s he taught at Black Mountain College where he was Editor of the Black Mountain Review. He was one of the originators of the “Black Mountain” school of poetry that included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Mr. Creeley has taught at several institutions and since 1978 has been the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at State University of New York, Buffalo. He has received the Levinson prize, two Guggenheim fellowships, the Shelley Memorial Award and the Robert Frost Medal. He was New York State Poet from 1989 to 1991, and was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1999. (March 2003; 7th Smartish Pace Poets Q & A)
Have you any conjectures as to why the minimal presence of English Poetry from other English-speaking nations, such as Canada, Australia, or South Africa, in both the academic and publishing environments here in America? Need it be a concern at all?
Oisin Deyja — Montreal
I think it’s a concern for sure�echoing this country’s lack of interest in the poetries of other cultures and countries generally. It’s as if our imagination of the world had tunnel vision, was monofocal. I think a bleak but large instance is the recent war on Iraq in that there was neither interest nor concern to understand either that culture or its people. Paradoxically, the closer to home�other poetries in English�the more the resistance, except, possibly, to the British, though that too has increased significantly in the last thirty years. We use large, generalizing anthologies to cover the hole, call it�but I doubt we have any active attention.
Is it my imagination, or are poems more likely to be true and autobiographical than other writing? I know fiction is often drawn from life and true circumstances (stories in the media, the author’s life), and such. Yet no one expects it to depict the authors’ actual experiences. And yet I and others often expect poetry to be from the poet’s life. And it seems it often is. I know it must vary from writer to write, but what is your general impression? thanks!
Padma Rajaoui — Berkeley
I don’t think your question has a simple answer. I remember Irving Layton (old friend and exceptional Canadian poet) sending me once a poem he’d written called “Elegy for Fred Smith.” It had his characteristic grace and obviously he felt strongly about this friend’s death. So I write a note in sympathy, as one would. Then he told me there was no “Fred Smith” and that he’d just been trying on the “elegiac” form. Robert Duncan, another great friend and poet, put it, “I tell the truth the way the words lie.” Like it or not, I got fixed on “sincerity” in Pound’s emphasis (via Kung’s “Only the most absolute sincerity under heaven can effect any change”) and so had “to tell the truth.” I think Coleridge “told the truth,” “The Pains of Sleep,” for example. But “truth” is also an imagination as well as whatever else.
Mr. Creeley, How do you, with your new writing, view the relationship between the poem on the page and the SOUND of the poem? Is there an inherent connection between the two and do you always find the connection when you’re writing a new poem? I know some poets such as Bunting, Zukofsky and Pound find this an essential connection, do you think this true of poets you selected for the Poets American Poetry Anthology? Thank You
Tim Jones — Austin
For me personally, like they say, the tonal and rhythmic elements of poetry are crucial. Pound, whose advice meant a lot to me, said, “Listen to the sound that it makes.” I did, intently. Bunting gave me high marks for the use of “sound” and Williams spoke of my having an exceptional “ear”�both very generous. Anyhow, for me the coherence is managed basically in the “sound”�but don’t forget how many other modes and manners of poetry there can be. “Poetry, a made thing…” says Duncan�that “made thing” can be fact of many determinants. As to the Best American Poetry 2002 anthology, there I was reporting what caught my respect and attention as I read through a mass of the year’s writing�some of it found “sound” essential and some didn’t (and used rhetorical frames, or syntactic patterns, or something else instead). There’s no one way.
Do you believe that the reader is as smart as you, as Eliot thought, and thus you have no need�even though you may do it�to explain what you’re doing in your poems? Or, are you concerned with the potential reader who may miss the point of your work?
Derek — U Mass
In my case, as Charles Olson put it, ‘explanation is prior to composition,” i.e., I have had to get that nature of thinking done before I set out. The thing is, or so I feel, one’s following a lead, a line, a tune, a possibility�and once that act begins, there’s no chance to stop and consider who is or is not going to get it. Even when I am writing a poem, say, more or less addressed to public interest and condition as this recent one�http://www.counterpunch.org/creeley03132003.html � it’s still what’s coming to be said that keeps me going, almost like jumping rope in this case�and it’s fun! I know there’s much I write and have written which is felt to be “difficult” and so it may well be, but for me it was this need and pleasure, to get it said. Anyhow I don’t think it’s a case of who is or isn’t smart, or how smart, etc. That’s not where it’s at, like they say.
How much does the editorial process enter into your work? In other words, do you have particular people who you rely on to read and comment on your work? Do you primarily make decisions about your poetry yourself?
Molly Brack — Iowa
I make the decisions myself, finally, and always have. There were the “few golden ears” Allen Ginsberg speaks of�he says he wrote “Howl” not worrying about the possible critics but for “a few golden ears.” People I trust to hear what I’m saying and how I’m saying it�and to tell me straight where they think things are getting blurred. So it’s those particular readers, when they can manage it, Penelope, and in the old days Olson, Duncan, Paul Blackburn et al. But it’s still me who has got to make the choices�and because I rarely rewrite, they have to be made on the spot.
Which poets do you allow to see your unfinished work?
A. Thompson — Tulsa, OK
Pretty much anyone�but I don’t really have much “unfinished work” in the sense you imply, i.e., longer works. In fact, the one such I wrote recently was “Histoire de Florida” and that actually was written while I was otherwise responsible for a workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts�each of us wrote something for each days session and I figured I should do something too. Then the problem was not to hog the time�I loved reading it to them as I’d write it.
Is Helen Vendler’s characterization of your work, that “things are wasted, faded, faint, trembling, wavering, blurred, darkening” and that yours is a “way of avoiding bathos” consistent with how you see your writing? I take objection to her statement that your writing style is “fatally pinched.” Thank you kindly for your reply.
Bev — NJ
I sure know what Helen Vendler is referring to. We both come from the Boston area, like they say, and “fatally pinched” is all too insistent a prospect if you have what my mother called a “lower middle class” status and all. I think it’s taken real time to manage a passage through the early years of my life, coming of age in WWII, feeling very inadequate to the world as I found it, growing up fatherless, one eyed, and so on. Yet I was lucky in that solutions, if that’s the word, seemed to keep coming at very unexpected moments�like just now being hired at Brown at age 77. That’s happy! Or getting an unexpected scholarship to Holderness School at 14 because my sister Helen had persuaded my mother, the Acton, Mass town nurse, to apply for me. Anyhow Helen Vendler is not out to get me�she has other work to do�and my writing is not her interest. I don’t not read her critical work therefore�I just haven’t, but I know from her students, those I’ve met, she’s a classically inspiring teacher with, expectably, very strong opinions. I liked her very much when we met and had a necessary time together a year ago�it was a pleasure just that I felt so simply at home with her.
What duty does the poet have to the audience? And whom do you see as the audience when you’re writing your poems?
Randy — Washington, NJ
I think of what Whitman said, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” It works both ways but “duty” doesn’t seem the useful word in either reference. Poets are quite literally the ‘voice of the people,’ they are product of a culture, a community, a rhetoric, a political habit, a ‘world’ felt as common even if it is one in which one lives seemingly alone. I remember a European friend telling me he could always spot Americans because they always seemed to be by themselves—unlike the Japanese, for example, who move in comfortable clusters. So the book which most emphasizes my own loneliness and isolation, For Love, is also the book which has had the largest audience and the most influence on other writers. I was very surprised to find so many younger men, then, ‘identified’ with it. I had been speaking so necessarily to myself, I felt. Who would have thought so many others were listening?
How do you know when a poem is truly finished?
Sue Kline — Lutherville, MD
Perhaps you remember what Williams says in “The Desert Music”�it’s literally the text of an interview Mike Wallace did with him�and it goes something like, “Why/ does one want to write a poem?// Because it’s there to be written.” One knows a poem is finished when one comes to the end of that “writing,” when there’s no more to say or do, when whatever need and energies compelled and provided for it have gone. “Fled is that music…” It’s done.
What gets you started on a poem�an idea or an image?
Cliff — Chicago
Yeats says something about getting a tune in his head, and Williams’s sense I’ve already mentioned�”Because it’s there to be written,” and what he then goes on to say in answer to Mike Wallace’s questions. Zukofsky says, “Out of deep need…” Olson, “he will have some several causations…” (in “Projective Verse”). Robert Duncan spoke of feeling a “readiness,” akin to feeling like taking a walk. Incidentally Duncan has a great essay involved with all of this, “The Truth and Life of Myth”�among other things he tells how it was be began writing “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” which title is a literal reference. God knows where it comes from and what quite provokes it�at least for me there’s no clear logic as to what sets it off (thinking again of Mike Wallace’s questions, “But what sets it off…”) It isn’t really an idea or an image�it’s a phrase or tag or echo usually, something that provokes and/or permits a series to occur. That first verse of “Help!” started off just so�doggerel no doubt but who cares. I like following the bouncing ball.
At the time of fellow up-state poet William Bronk’s death in 1999, you eulogized and praised the poetry and the uniqueness of the man. He was held in high regard by such fellow luminaries as Olson, and Oppen, and thought by many of his contemporaries to be one of the master poets of the twentieth century. His critical prose works, too, are given extraordinary praise. And yet for all the recent scholarship, which includes a promised biography, and collection and publication of his letters, he still seems to me to be one of the most neglected, undervalued, and under anthologized of modern poets. Bronk is not even given a breath of mention in Michael Schmidt’s otherwise admirable and tremendously ecumenical, “Lives Of The Poets.” Can you speak to the reasons for Bronk’s apparent absence from the canon. And do you know any one else you feel to be of such worth who has gone for so long without the recognition they deserve.
RM — Ohio
Certainly it is not the intention of his peers. He was, as you say, and is continuingly much valued. Possibly his very modest habits and loner disposition—and singular writing—have made him inconvenient, though I can’t believe that’s the reason. At least I’d like to think it isn’t. But never forget that anthologies are there for pedagogic use and that Norton, for example, is influenced significantly by response from teachers as to how they have found the contents of an anthology to be possible for them as teaching materials. Zukofsky was removed from the first edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair) on that grounds I believe. The canon is a complex resolution of public identity, pedagogic accessibility and continuing authority (granted it’s first been recognized). There are a number of poets who have the same bleak isolation as Bronk—I think of Paul Blackburn, for example, a crucial poet of my generation as any of our peers would tell you.
You once said something to the effect that the reflective poetries for the moment were curiously faint, that they lacked robustness. Can you expand on your meaning here, and do you still feel it to be the case.
RM — Ohio
I grew up in a time when “reflection” was so present, everyone preoccupied with how she or he felt about things, whether “recollected in tranquility” or not, that I now miss that often evident intensity�Ginsberg’s “Wales Visitation,” for example, or all of his work, or Gregory Corso’s, Denise Levertov’s, Duncan’s, Olson’s, and so on, etc. Or Robert Bly’s “The Tooth Mother Naked At Last”�or Michael McClure’s explorations. So much, just in that one generation. Now it seems too often cliched�perhaps a fact of my age�but little seems either “robust” or moved, even as the ugliness of the world seems adamant. Help!
You are quoted as saying to the critic Burton Hatlen something, I thought, quite humorous and also telling. You said, “Oh yes, the sentence, that’s what we call it when we put someone in jail.” Should we assume then that the line-break is the key to opening the jail door, or as in the old westerns, the way we saw our way out through the jail house window, (there to cut or fade to the commercial, or the next episode?)
RM — Ohio
So much for puns! The line break is a means of signaling a juncture, a rhythmic emphasis, a counterpoint for the poem’s statement and/or its embodiment. The line in poetry is for me akin to the “line” in music and the line breaks mark an interval particular to the phrasing. So it’s first of all a typographical agency, allowing the writer to “score” the text as he or she feels it is to be heard (thus read). Just to go back to early instance, here’s a link will give you both text and reading, so you can see/hear for yourself:
Are images and ideas conformed to short lines before you begin writing the lines?
Glen D. — Beverly Hills
I think that the short lines gave me (and often still do) a pace, which could accommodate ways I was feeling in saying this or that, the emotional ground of the statement, so to speak, which was its impulse and energy. The short lines were most flexible and intense in their effect. But I wasn’t putting ideas or images into anything as I wrote, i.e., I wasn’t packing a suitcase. I was using a pace, a phasing, that let me most usefully move with the direction of the feeling and its information�like dancing, really. I found the apt form in the activity.
Do you think you’re writing as much now as you did when you were younger�in which decade do you think you wrote the most, and in which were you, in your view, most productive? Are there periods of your life where you have regrets as to what you were writing, or how you were (or were not) writing?
H.P. — California
In the words of Edith Piaff’s great song, “Je ne regrette rien…,” I don’t regret anything I’ve written, even if I have long ago left the feelings that prompted it. One’s not a monitor or critic in that way. One’s doing what one can at the time and that has to be it. Now I write markedly less than I did when young�there’s much less impulse, rush and response from the world. I am old and that is real. Nonetheless it’s my continuing pleasure and, like swimming, one doesn’t lose the art even if one’s less agile and able in other respects. The arts have the virtue of letting the old not only have a place in their activity but often a great one�as the late Beethoven, or Williams, or H.D. I keep working, not because of Puritan intent but because writing gives me more active engagement with the world than almost anything else at all. It’s been my companion and resource almost longer than I can remember. How much or how little is not the only point. It’s one’s life that’s at issue.
I think it’s great when poets I like win prizes, but it doesn’t mean I think their work is any better, or that someone else’s poetry is better just because they win a prize. How important are prizes to poets? And in what way are they meaningful? Has a prize ever made a different in your poetic career?
Hellen — New Lum, MN
Prizes make one feel good, respected, counted in�but they tend to come long after the fact and usually when one no longer much needs them, at least as reassurance. I’ve been lucky in that I have had a number of prizes in the past few years, and some of them provided real money, which is always useful. But, as you say, I don’t think they are a necessary measure for a poet’s work or significance. Some years ago a group of us, who were friends of Robert Duncan, were so frustrated that he had not been recognized or honored with any prize, established our own and gave it to him�and it meant a great deal to all concerned.
I admire the courage you had in selecting the poems you did for the 2002 Best American Poetry�I appreciate the willingness of the editor of Smartish Pace, Stephen Reichert, for publishing many of these poets as well (Burkard, Cooley, Eshleman, Finkelstein, Harper, Kumin, Liu, Phillips, etc.). That being said, many poets and readers I know think the volume is narrow in it’s approach (aren’t all volumes!?) and was wondering if you’ve had to respond to criticism for your selections? Also, did you decide to conduct this question and answer session with Smartish Pace, and not another magazine, because of their appreciation for similar poetry? Thank you for your reply.
BR — Denver
As to this pleasant question and answer business, I was asked and accepted, and that was that�no other choices involved. In like sense, the 2002 Best American Poetry is what I was caught by in all the stuff I then read. I think I said in the introduction that I could well have made other anthologies from the same material�it was my take then and there as I read. No one otherwise has specifically asked me to justify what I came up with, so that’s that. Some like it, some don’t�and though I think all have right to an opinion, those opposing should know I had no interest in an argument, only in a selection particular to the fact that I was the responsible judge.
Are we to believe any of what Ekbert Fass and Maria Trombacco have written about you in ROBERT CREELEY: A BIOGRAPHY? There are many things in this book, which seem to contradict what I’ve learned from other sources. Have you met these authors and did they seek first hand accounts of that which they write? I just get this sense that these folks are pessimistic and spiteful or something; I can’t imagine them having known you in a meaningful way, and then have written what they did. Any other comments you’d like to make on this book would be greatly appreciated. I admire your work.
Debbie — University of Missouri
That book is like a bleak tar baby, so I am going to avoid determined comment. I’ve known Ekbert for years, first met when he’d come out to the West Coast in the early 70s doing research for his biography of Duncan’s early years. I backed him subsequently for grant applications, the works�so the final book was quite a shock, like they say. Marjorie Perloff wrote a review of it for the London TLS which makes such points as I might hope to. The anger implicit in the book’s writing is very disturbing. I don’t know what happened to him�but he’s hardly the person I’d thought of as a friend. Maria Trombacco I know nothing of except for her involvement in this work.
Dear Robert Creeley, do you submit less of your poetry for magazines now then you did when you were younger? As a subscriber to this magazine [Smartish Pace], I’m wondering if I might see your poems on their pages in the future?
Barry — Berlin, NH
Being more noted (as well as older), it’s increasingly hard to keep up with people’s requests, call it. In the old days I published in three of four magazines period�like Origin, for example, where I found all my friends as well. Now I tend to make it first come, first served. Otherwise it becomes a logistical balancing act which even to think of now depresses me.
If you hadn’t become a poet, what might you have become? Did you ever consider leaving poetry and pursuing other full-time activities?
RC — CT
I have in an obvious way had several full time activities most of my so-called adult life. I’m a father for example, and a husband. I’ve also taught every grade but for the sixth, from first grade through graduate school. I’ve been teaching at SUNY/Buffalo alone for the past thirty-seven years and now, as remarked, am headed for a five-year plus appointment at Brown, which takes me up to 82, god willing. I needed to do something that gave me unequivocal place in the community and teaching was it�and I liked very much doing it. Poetry I managed, come hell or high water�teaching paid the bills and kept me in the world otherwise. Had I done what I’d thought to in high school, I’d be a veterinarian.
Do your short poems start out as longer lines on the page and are then clipped down? Do your poems start as narrative ideas that are ultimately condensed into the shorter lines that make-up so many of your poems? Why not tackle the longer lines?
John — Dayton, OH
No, they are written as you find them�very little change ever if any. They start most usually with a clutch of words, not necessarily narrative but just provocative as sounds and sense together. The shorter lines were, as I noted before, capable of emphasis and tensions I really felt as I wrote. Then a longer line (which in some ways I began with, in imitation of Stevens) would betray or be inappropriate to the feel of the statement/rhythm. It let out the steam and/or energy. Now older, the longer line feels often better, the pace is more physically what I feel, as here:
…I think of all the impossible loves of my life, all the edges of feeling,
All the helpless reach to others one tried so bitterly to effect, to reach
As one might a hilltop, an edge of sea where the waves can break at last
On the shore. I think of just jumping into darkness, into deep water,
Into nothing one can ever point to as a place out there, just its shadow, a
Beckoning echo of something, a premonition, which does not warn but invites.
There is music in pain but not because of it, love in each persistent breath.
His was the Light of the World, a lit match or the whole city, burning.
It’s a poem in deep respect of poet friend John Weiners, read at his memorial last fall at St. Mark’s in New York.
How do you see Ashbery’s poetry in relation to your poetry? Do you think his writings require more imagination on the part of the reader than your own?
Mary — Winston-Salem
To answer your second question first, not really�his poems “take” you to wherever they propose, provide a place and instance for you to “be” in. For example, think of this from an early poem, certainly a well known one:
As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them�they are so far away from me!
Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule.
And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning out of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!
City I wanted most to see, and did not see, in Mexico!
But I fancy I see, under the press of having to write the instruction manual,
Your public square, city, with its elaborate little bandstand!
The band is playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Around stand the flower girls, handing out rose- and lemon-colored flowers,
Each attractive in her rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and blue),
And nearby is the little white booth where women in green serve you green and yellow fruit.
The couples are parading; everyone is in a holiday mood.
It’s his imagination that’s taking care of yours. At times I think I lean very heavily on the reader’s using his or her imagination to get to where I am�as in the beginning of “For Love,” probably written about the same time as John’s:
Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all
that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,
different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.
So much of what’s being “said” here depends on the listener/hearer’s ability to follow the abstract passage of both its statement and its feeling�so as to get the necessary sense of “what is it that/is finally so helpless,//different, etc., etc.”
It’s as though each word poses another task for the imagination�”wants to/turn away, endlessly/to turn away…” One knows, so to speak, what that feeling is, but to imagine it, thus to get the import of what’s being said, is not that easy�certainly hasn’t the provision, call it, of John’s poem at all:
…How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her son.
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.
What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.
And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze
Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.
What we share is a sense that we are following the dictation of what’s to be said, that we are “making it up” (recall that “poem” means “a made thing,” as Duncan emphasizes � actually he said “natural”!) as we go along.
With your great popularity, are there ever moments were you think editors accept your work because of your reputation and not because they truly understand and appreciate your work. I’m not at all suggesting that you shouldn’t have the great success you’ve enjoyed, just asking a practical question that seems unavoidable.
Rachel Porter — SC
Quite probably�just as they didn’t accept it when there was no public reference, etc. One can tell pretty quickly who wants it just for the name and who otherwise cares because it’s an information and company they’d enjoy. At this point, while not dismissive or irritable, what editors think is not a concern, one way or the other. It can’t be. As H.D. writes, “I go where I love and am loved.” That’s really all that matters and the rest is something else altogether.
What is the single greatest influence that Pound had on you as a person, and not necessarily as a poet�if that distinction can be made?
Joel — Chicago
When he was still in St. Elizabeth’s, we had a very moving correspondence from my end�it was a complex of great Poundian maxims with sudden flashes of unexpected wit or playfulness. He’d sign his letters often: “Yours Anon/ Y Mouse”�or he’d say, “You refer to something as being the case for the past forty years. Are you 24 � or 64?” He used to address me as “Little Fish Basket”�terrific! Elsewise I’d be “the Creel”�and he gave me impeccable rules of thumb for paying attention, e.g., “Any tendency to abstract general statement is a greased slide…” or “Literacy is the ability to recognize the same idea in different formulations.” He quoted to me Aristotle’s “Swift perception of the relation between things is the hallmark of genius.” He taught me to take myself seriously as a writer (and person) and to learn how to work sans the usual frames of classroom or club. In short, he demonstrated that such writing as I hoped to do was serious, that it took concentration and practice, and that one had to keep engaged. As he says in the taped conversation with Geoffrey Bridson for the BBC, “You cannot have literature without curiosity.” One remembers it all.
What in your work do you think Olsen would take objection with? I think it was Robert Duncan who most noticeably broke from Olsen, while still maintaining elements of his writing style. And also, and here I’d understand if you have no reply, was Mr. Duncan as pretentious and difficult as folks make him out to be? What, if any, effect do you think this had on his writing? Did it hurt him with editors or audiences?
S. Valentine — Brunswick, ME
Actually Olson and Duncan stay close friends to the end, ‘companions in the great adventure’ as Robert would say. It’s Denise who really parts company as he from her�and it was never a particular friendship. Duncan was and is a great poet, a great essayist�and person. You know, most useful would be to have him speak for himself, which is possible at this link�where you’ll find some lectures which are wonderful. Just scroll down to “D” and Robert Duncan: http://www.factoryschool.org/content/sounds/poetry/frontenac.html
For your interest here, check out these two at the end of his files: “Lecture on Ezra Pound;” “Reading and Discussion of his work.”
Do you think the general public that occasionally reads poetry needs to be reached by poets? I know poets like Billy Collins are popular because of their accessibility, and I think Billy a fine poet, one I don’t mind reading, but I think poets such as yourself and those found in the 2002 Best American Poetry, are unfairly seen as selfish, or “academic” because they choose not to write Billy Collins poems. I find that if the reader can’t appreciate my poems, then they need to read elsewhere, but I owe them no nothing. How do you feel?
Wendy — Duke
I don’t think the public knows what it wants any more than we do�so really do what you do, and enjoy. It’s even more pretentious to presume one can in some sense write (down?) to an audience in the fashion implied. If people hear simply and enthusiastically, then that’s great�Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for example. But there are various modes of information and transmission that may be complicating for all�difficult, in that they require a learned means of understanding, etc. Anyhow I’m with you�it’s finally all done for nothing in all possible senses. Or, as Allen Ginsberg wrote, “Some of my time now given to nothingness…”
Can you point to a poem in your body of work that signifies a significant change from your early writings to your more recent poems? Also, will you be reading on the east coast anytime soon? Thank You!!!
Kristin — Baltimore
Looking back, poems like “So There” move to a strong half-rhyming, regular quatrains, narrative line, etc. There’s a pleasant recording of it (with band of friends first students here in Buffalo, Mercury Rev). Scroll down and you’ll find it:
But by “Helsinki Window” (late 80s) things are clearly moving to increased “formal” set, 12 lines much like a compacted sonnet. Then as time passes, like they say, I move more and more to “loops,” increased emphasis on rhyming patterns, and so on.
I am due to read on the east coast (Boston) at Emerson College, October 15 and at Yale (New Haven) on November 13, and at St Marks (NYC) with Jennifer Moxley on November 19. That’s what’s set.
William Carlos Williams once said that he wrote short lines because of his nervous nature, because he was excited when he wrote. Is Williams being coy or should I find some truth in this statement? Does anything like this account�in part�for your short lines?
Harold K. — Baltimore
I think it’s true. Again, short lines put exceptional stress on each word and also let one shift quickly from one thing to another. They don’t pick up the inertial ‘stabilizing’ a longer line would get willynilly, just by being long. Williams was fascinated by the whole structure of phrasing�one of his last attempts to deal with it was a substantial essay on measure. His sense of an “isochronous” or “variable foot” is also much to the point. As said, I’m much involved (or have been) by the same needs and possibilities.
Do you see yourself as a Black Mountain poet, and if so, in what way does this label still have meaning for you? I’m a big fan of your work; thank you.
Charlie — Calgary
It wasn’t like a football team or something, but it was a company�even awkwardly defined. I’d like to include Hilda Morley, who was really there, for example. It was a transforming time in my life, so I am happy with the continuing label, right or wrong or just beside the point. That’s where I really came of age and found my life as a poet and person.
I have a difficult time reading Louis Zukofsky, what to you is the great benefit of reading his work, particularly his book “A.” Thank you for your generous reply.
Sandy Lou — Pittsburgh
It’s like a great, various box of chocolates, so dense and particular, so “American” in its attempt to write the world with all that it can muster as means. I love it that it’s all made of words and, be it said, the life that went into them. For me it’s an ultimate tune-up of my hearing, of what gives me pleasure in poetry to begin with. I am finally as dumb as anyone if it’s a question of know everything that “A,” for example, refers to�but I hear it, I dig what’s there sounding. Just begin with his essay, “Poetry�For My Son When He Can Read”�or begin with this essay, by his friend and impeccable poet, Lorine Niedecker (whom you might well read as well): http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/niedecker/essay1.html. Anyhow along with staying alive is being alive. Onward!
What effect do you hope the shape or structure of your poems will have on your readers?
Robert — Athens
The (con)structure is what interests me, the how they’re put together, what pattern of activity is serving to bond the parts, to keep a coherence. So I hope this construction, this “made thing,” will carry the information I hope to engage with it over to, as Olson says, the reader. Sometimes a pattern of four (quatrains) keeps the best balance, the most simply and variously constituted�”count off by fours,” etc. Then there’s “two by two” (classic couplets), or “threes” and “fives,” which last is much used by the Japanese, I believe�what Olson called his “fivers.” The visual shape of a poem has otherwise not much interested me�certainly not as it did George Herbert and other of his contemporaries. Concrete poetry has bridged very interestingly between word and image but, apart from one or two tries, I have not worked with this possibility much at all.
How will Paul Muldoon’s difficult collection winning the Pulitzer affect the average American’s opinion of poetry? Further, how important are awards to the general opinion of poetry?
Jack A. — MI
Probably not any more than did Jackson Mac Low’s winning, a couple of years back, the Tanning Prize from the Academy of American Poets. The Pulitzer is a much more publicly identified award, though it provides very little money indeed. Still it’s good publicity I would think. The winners come from all manner of background by and large. I think the public likes the idea of winners, very much so in this country. What it does for poetry per se�other than show that someone’s willing to give a poet a great deal of money just for writing poems�I don’t know. But at least it must lend a certain seriousness to the poet’s circumstance. “Hey, did you hear Harry got $200,000 for writing that silly stuff nobody can make heads or tails of? Maybe he wasn’t so dumb after all…”
What distinguishes ekphrasis from other kinds of poetry (besides the obvious)? Thanks for answering my question, and God bless Smartish Pace, the best thing that’s happened to Baltimore since the crab cake!
Anna — Baltimore
I was just now looking up “ekphrasis” in a common enough dictionary, the Grove Dictionary of Art, and find this:
Ekphrasis [Gr., pl. ekphraseis; Lat. description].
Technical term of ancient rhetoric: teachers of rhetoric defined it as a vivid description intended to bring the subject before the mind’s eye of the listener. The composition of an ekphrasis was one of the most advanced of the graded preparatory exercises ( progymnasmata) designed to teach basic rhetorical skills to schoolboys. These texts suggest persons, places, events and times of the year as possible themes for ekphrasis. In practice, however, paintings, sculpture and buildings came to be popular subjects for Greek rhetoricians from the 2nd century AD onwards. Ekphraseis of works of art and buildings survived throughout the Byzantine Middle Ages and reached the West during the Renaissance.
I suppose that contemporary resources provide such a plethora of “descriptive” agencies that a mode such as “ekphrasis” has lost its occasion in some sense. “One picture is worth a thousand words.” Poetry has moved more toward “witness,” “to tell what subsequently I saw and what heard…,” as Williams writes. The attempt to cleanly divide the world between the “subjective” and the “objective” has also been seemingly abandoned. Again thinking of the recent “war,” was there ever one more “subjectively” defined and conducted? Where was the “reality” other than in the minds of those so engaged? For better or for worse, now the artist enters the art, has an evident part in it, enacts it, increasingly is it�as much as any other fact of existence. Readers in like sense been brought in as participants, and, in the digital arts and their practice, hypertext formats, for instance, the “reader” is now an active component of the composition.
What is satisfying about collaborating with other artists?
Lisa Miller — Rochester
The company, for one thing�the breakdown of Dylan Thomas’ proposal of “In my craft and sullen art, etc., etc.” The bleak myth of the lonely artist, working always alone, always without defining company, always poor, always needy, always singular, is such a degrading qualification for audience and artist alike. So when one works with others, does a thing in common, there’s a great relief and satisfaction just in that fact alone. Just now I was supposed to go to Bremen for a festival but the flights fouled up in Washington, so I never made it�but I was, in a curious way, going back to see friends, of course, but also the statue by the Rathaus of the Musicians of Bremen, Grimm’s great folktale heroes, who save the city from the marauding robbers.
I loved the whole idea of those dear animals�they were my kind of people, particularly with respect to my own life as an artist.
Could you describe the desire to write about art?
Diane — Nashville
Years ago I wrote a few notes about the work of various artists, Franz Kline, Phillip Guston, Harry Callahan, etc. These were published in the Black Mountain Review, which I edited—and were written mostly as a complement for the images, which were the point. Then I’ve written reviews of various exhibitions and publications now and then—Fred Sandbach’s was one such instance. Arakawa and Madeleine Gins’ book another. Possibly because I have one eye, what seeing defines is very attractive to me—I know people with two eyes see in a way I can’t, for instance—but my sight is ok for visual art, at least for the most part. I like looking. It changes my mind usefully to see the world so engaged. It’s not verbal, it’s physical in the sense that it has weight, color, mass, texture, activity and so on. I have friends as Brice Marden, for example, who think in non-verbal manner. His take on or conversion of calligraphy is fascinating.
I know that many factors have impacted the change in your writing from the 1960s to the present, but if you had to point to one factor of life that has had the most profound effect on your writing from then to now, what is that factor? Thanks for answering my question and thanks to the editors of Smartish Pace for making Mr. Creeley available.
Paul Long — New York
I think the 60s themselves changed my life, not just acid, say, or the absolute shift in social disposition, but finding the means as well which Pieces is for me, the way to locate a serial possibility in fragmented and often contesting texts. Our family went through heavy changes in that same time, death, mental illness, divorce. In the mid-70s I remarried and that has been a great and enduring wonder to me. The loss of sustaining friends, WC. Williams, Paul Blackburn, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan, Joel Oppenheimer, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Dorn and on and on, bleakly, has been hard—like a neighborhood that was one’s home disappearing. All that comes in and is enacted, so to speak. I have loathed the incessant will to war, particularly this country’s. The latest episode is the same vicious appetite back again if ever it was absent.
Which of Charles Olsen’s books would you recommend to a young reader who is just now starting to make sense of his vast collection of poems? Is there a logical starting point? How about with your poetry?
Nathan — Trinity College
Possibly that early edition mentioned before (Selected Writings) might be a good way in, but it is missing all the later work—which is the culmination of what he gets done. If you can locate a copy, reading around in the two volumes of Muthologos is useful. I remember coming in to Pound by way of Make It New and Pavannes and Divisions — there’s also the Collected Prose now. His Selected Letters is a good introduction to his interests and habits—and then you can put with it Tom Clark’s biography, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. Sentimentally or not, I like some sense of the writer got either through his own writing or else some biography as Clark’s. Most particularly, go in where you feel most located and at home—let that take you to the next place, and so on.
Are you aware of what Pound thought of Duncan’s homosexuality, and the way in which it is brought to the surface in his writings?
Philip Russ — St. Louis
I would think it no problem for Pound, although I never heard Robert comment particularly. It bothered Auden—i.e., Robert’s publication of “The Homosexual in Society”—because Auden then thought the public involvement would be a breaking of the circle, a loss of privacy. I know John Crowe Ransom, the editor of the Kenyon Review, was very confused to learn that Robert was gay—and then saw “African Elegy,” which at first he thought wonderful and was about to publish, as somehow a veiled homosexual manifesto. So he in consequence he did not—and Cid Corman’s magazine in Boston, Origin, is where it appears.
Were you ever troubled by the teachings of Mr. Olson? I once heard Ms. Levertov say that she was lucky if she understood half the things he was teaching in his classes, but this didn’t seem to bother her. What was the value in the other half?! I appreciate you considering my question.
Terrence — Madison, WI
Quite the contrary. I really loved the scale of Olson’s proposals—his take, in that sense, on the world. You can check out my introduction to his Selected Poems. What I put into that collection, granted I had a finite space in which to work, is instance. I wrote as well the introduction for his more recent Collected Prose, so again you can look at that—and also the Selected Writings, which I edited, still in print since the mid-60s. It includes both prose and poetry. In other words, the relation between Denise and Charles has to be their business in the obvious way. My sense is that neither made much active use of the other, which is fair enough. They were quite different poets.
Who are some young poets who should be appearing in magazines such as Smartish Pace?
Allen Feinberg — Jacksonville
“Younger” these days seems to be for me someone about fifty. I like some younger poets for sure, as Anselm Berigan, Maggie Nelson et al. That Best American Poetry 2002 gives some instance—but I need to be told as much as you. Being old can mean loss of an active eye for what’s happening. Too, as Pound said, “After fifty one cannot keep one’s eye on all the sprouting corn.” Meantime one’s being stomped on by all of said “hungry generation”—which would seem to be as it should be.
You have said, “I see as I write.” The sentence is in many ways revelatory, but could you speak more fully to what the statement suggests about the ongoing relationship between you as the writer in the act of writing, and the poem.
RM — Ohio
I don’t recall saying that but if I can take as, “I see what it is (I understand or get what it is) I am saying as I write it…”
The sense is akin to Charles Olson saying, “We do what we know before we know what we do.” I write. as it were, to understand what I am saying. Just now I have a collection coming out called If I Were Writing This—and the first section of the title poem goes like this:
If I were writing this
with prospect of encouragement
or had I begun some work
intended to be what it was
or even then and there it was what
had been started, even now
I no longer thought to wait,
had begun, had found
myself in the time and place
writing words which I knew,
could say ring, dog, hat, car,
was rushing, it felt, to keep up
with the trembling impulse,
the connivance the words contrived
even themselves to be though
I wrote them, thought they were me.
Mr. Creeley, how much influence have your editors had on your work? And what kind of influence? I’ve heard some poets say that the editors picked the poems for the book and that seems like a lot of control for someone who’s not creating the art. Are there certain editors that you’ve worked with more than others? Do you think editors have more of an effect on the “final product” of poetry or fiction? Sorry for all the questions, I’m just really interested in the topic and have never heard your opinion. Thank You.
Wilson — Manchester, CT
There have been very provocative stories, some legends at this point, as to who wrote which of what—for example, the reframing of Norman Mailer’s first novel or, in a situation of literal and necessary editing, how much of the final series of Olson’s Maximus Poems has to do with Olson’s own intent. That last question one can’t ever answer and George Butterick had to take on an awful weight of responsibility. In other instances, it’s less honest, one wants to say, and certainly far less pleasant—the editing of Emily Dickinson’s texts is a classic. For me the one real editorial intrusion was in the instance of my first book done by a trade publisher, Scribners. The book was For Love and there’s a poem with these lines: “Oh come home soon, I write to her./ Go fuck yourself, is her answer.” The head of Scribners, Charles Scribner, Jr., felt it would be an insult to the firm’s history to publish a book with a word so present and so used. He was a good friend to me subsequently, but my editor then reported his dismay and so, in the first edition of this book, the word becomes “screw”—much less pleasant and far more ambiguous in context than the proposedly offending “fuck.” That was the first and last time as far as I can remember and “fuck” went back in for all editions subsequent. Possibly some writers can work very comfortably with their editors in this respect—Thomas Wolf was said to have had this relation with Maxwell Perkins at Scribners, who certainly had a genius for such helping as all attest. But it all makes me uneasy as a practice—even though it may well work.
Do you see Olson and Williams as the fathers of your poetry? Do you see others who may fit this description?
Fran — Huntsville, AL
Williams was very much a crucial elder, a model for what I hoped to learn to do. Olson was a brother, a companion, a close and defining friend. You have the ten volumes so far published of our correspondence to make the point most clearly. He is an influence then as a friend is, who can give you an objective sense of what you’re doing—he was a great reader in that way, the best. Williams was something else—albeit at times very and dearly close. But I never thought to depend on him for response as I would in the friendship with Olson. In my Collected Essays I start with a section called “Heroes/Elders” and there you’ll find Whitman, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting and Gertrude Stein. It’s a bit deceptive in that those were the ones whom I wrote of in essays—but there were also Coleridge, very much, and Stevens, most evident in my early poems—and so on.
What’s the best biographical piece that’s been written about you? Which is most accurate? Or maybe it will be you answering these questions from the general public!
Toni Banks — Allentown, PA
To me the best is Tom Clark’s Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place—not just because the frame is a long interview with his commentary and analysis. His perception of who I am and what I’ve done is very specific and detailed. It’s not just a puff or generalization. Amazing what he gets into such a compact format! The book also has my own “Autobiography”—and pictures, etc. I remember Hugh Kenner said of it, it will be the ground for any further such study or summing up.
When did you begin writing poetry?
Andy William — Phoenix
Probably early in college—first published poem is 1946, I think. I first wrote prose—the stories in The Gold Diggers published (by my wife and me as The Divers Press) in 1954. I had not thought to be a poet but I liked doing it, it came easily. Then editors, to whom I sent work trying to keep their attention while I wrote another story, would like it and publish it, and that was encouraging. It was also fun and always has been. Somehow I don’t have to think about it.
Mr. Creeley, I’m writing my dissertation on poets who work in collaboration with artists, and I would love to know about your own process of collaboration. How do you view your relationship with the artist you are collaborating with? Why are you drawn to collaborative projects? Do you write differently when working in collaboration? How do you feel about publishing the poems you’ve produced in collaborative projects without their visual counterparts? What do you see as the relationship between the poem and the visual art (text v. image)? Thank you in advance for addressing these questions. I look forward to your answers.
Magdelyn Hammond — University of Maryland
To begin with, let me note a few links where one can see (albeit it has to be a limited fact for the art) some instances:
http://www.2river.org/2RView/2_2/poems/anamorphosis.html (Francesco Clemente)
http://www.2river.org/2RView/2_4/2_4.pdf (Robert Indiana)
http://www.conjunctions.com/archives/c32-rc.htm (Archie Rand)
Just a few years ago there was a substantial exhibition of many of these collaborations called In Company: Robert Creeley’s Collaborations (with catalog of the same name). Finally to answer at least some of your questions, I think of collaboration in this instance as a “reading,” one way or the other, and sometimes both, of the work, the artist’s of mine, mine of the artist’s (which last is the case in those instances I’ve given. It proves in that way a company, it’s an empathetic gesture—not a criticism or judgment. Now and again it is a mutual act—the work I did with Cletus Johnson was such, for example. But mostly it’s A’s response to B or vice versa. Otherwise you probably know of Magritte’s great painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which you can see here:
Foucault writes very attractively of the problems, or cases, to be distinguished in what either the visual arts or the verbal arts present (represent) as reality in his discussion of this painting. One is in each case seeing things, but the conversion is not at all of the same kind. I think of Zukofsky’s quote, something like, ‘what’s dumb with show I’ll plain with speech’—in fact, the visual and the verbal (or literary) factors are almost at loggerheads. So that too makes it all an interesting place to be!
Your poems are often called inaccessible. What is worth being able to access in your poems? Is it the struggle to find some kind of meaning or the communication that should be worthwhile to the reader?
Marcia — Las Vegas
I have little interest in the “struggle” finally. That’s each person’s sad dilemma�or possibly it’s a happy one, if the would be reader believes the difficulty is worth it. The fact one has to work �to get it’ has nothing to do with my own intent. I am saying whatever it may be as simply as I can. But some things�feelings, thoughts�are complicated by their nature, it seems. “How to get said what must be said,” Williams wrote, “Only the poem…” For example, this would seem a simple enough poem I wrote among others, when living in Bolinas, California:
One day after another �
They all fit.
But simple words don’t make it simple therefore. Here’s another, just two
words, both the same:
That one seems harder. I was thinking: there’s you, and there’s me, and then there’s it�which is to say, the so-called world, all else, we come and go from. We’re always in it, or would hope to be�but we really come to it in mind, then soon leave it to return to our so-called selves. I was struck that in the Iraqui culture, “self” was only the possible consequence of how we related to others, not the seemingly locked-up strong box, which our culture defines. “This above all,” Shakespeare writes, “to thine own self be true…” It sounds terrific, seems to argue a useful integrity. But what about “it”? What’s left out there, that “it” still outside?
Do you read before you write? If so, whom do you read?
P. Thomas — U of CT
I don’t read other poetry as a way of gearing up, call it. I don’t not read, thinking to stay “uninfluenced” or something�but I just never have “read before I write” in the sense you propose. Much more likely, I’ll be listening to music, jazz usually�it sets a beat and an ambience, which is locating. Also to the point here is Robert Duncan’s comment once, that, thinking of something he had in mind, he couldn’t remember whether he had read it or had written it. The two acts are very interrelated, i.e., one reads writing, and writes as one reads. Sounding words aloud as one reads is a useful instance. One comes into their dance, so to speak. You’ll hear jazz pianists like Bud Powell or Keith Jarrett “singing along” as they play. I know (or am told) I often “talk along” as I’m writing.
What subjects do you find yourself writing about again and again? What compels you to keep writing about them? Do you come up with new subjects?
Melissa — Ann Arbor, MI
Those obvious, I guess�relations of family, with those particular to one’s life. Feelings of place, the days going by, senses of myself as a thing in the world, a person, inside and out. Zukofsky notes the themes of poetry in history as being quite few in number: war, the seasons, relations of men and women, of friends�and so on. One’s so compelled to write, as you say, “about them” because they have become measures of the world apparent, a way of recognizing one’s place in it. “Learn in the green world what can be thy place…” or words to that effect. Otherwise I suppose it’s like coming again to a place to see what’s happened in the meantime.
I haven’t read all of your poems, but there seems to be a pattern in the length and number of your lines (short). This must be a form that is either comfortable or still challenging after many years. What, if anything, drives you to change the shape of a typical Creeley poem?
Mark C. — Philadelphia
Like it or not, doing something this way as opposed to that quickly becomes a habit—and one can either make use of the familiarity, which can become a problem in what it assumes or limits, or else deliberately set out to break it—which I’ve done from time to time, as in the poems following For Love, say, or now these returning to a rhyme and all—and a longer line. Loops were such an instance in the 80s—those 12 line sets wherein the “sentence” usually never ended till the last word, and then the whole could begin again. I think the short line has been very useful for me over the years, allowing maximum shift and flexibility in the informing pattern, call it. There’s a poem of Duncan’s which rehearses the various rhetorical qualifications that lines determine, something like, “the short line we reserve for candor…” and ‘the long line paces evenly to its close…’ Now one should go find the poem—which I have, and here it is:
Keeping The Rhyme
By stress and syllable
by change-rhyme and contour
we let the long line pace even awkward to its period.
The short line
and keep for candor.
This we remember:
ember of the fire
catches the word if we but hear
(“We must understand what is happening”)
and springs to desire,
a bird-right light
This is the Yule-log that warms December.
This is the new grass that springs from the ground.
(The Opening of the Field, 1960)
What was the last poem you read that really moved you?
Billy — MN
Unexpectedly (for me) it was Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and there was a specific occasion involved. Andrei Codrescu was to have read here in Buffalo for our local literary arts program, Just Buffalo, but could not make it because of getting the flu. So I was asked to fill it. It was part of a Valentine’s Day celebration, and so I read primarily a sequence of Valentine poems I’d written for Penelope over the last ten years. But I wanted to end with something not mine, and also, to acknowledge the awful situation we had come to last February (2003). So I read this poem to them�and found myself at times so moved that I really choked up and cried. Here it is:
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; -on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
What can poetry say to today’s business man with his cell phone, his Franklin, his busy schedule, his second wife who is probably having an affair? I’m no expert on poetry, but I do enjoy it. The thing is, I have a hard time explaining to people in the “real world”, or even some of my friends and family, what use it is, or why they might benefit from looking into it. Sorry for such a layman’s question. I just happened upon this site and to be honest, I’ve never read your poems but I’ve heard of you. In any case, thanks for taking my question.
Mary P — NY
It’s a question indeed. I think some must be so overtaken with the usual world, so preoccupied by its mechanism, that they lose sight of the fact they too are its presence, are alive and particular in all its events and possibilities. Bleakly enough, it took 911 to bring the agency of poems back to that world, and the postings, literally and on line, were everywhere. People hungered for a language of feeling, for a way of saying something which could express, in the ageless sense, how it felt to them, how it mattered, how it was. Not just to sell it, not just to buy it�but to be it, to be there with it too. Williams writes, be it said with great clarity, “Only the imagination is real…” What we imagine the world to be is, for better or for worse, what it then becomes�all too simply. You must know that old adage about being careful about what it is you want, because you are very likely to get it? One cannot save people in some missionary sense and it has to be accepted that poetry will not find place in a world so mechanistically determined�it dies when the heart dies, when the phenomenal world is just a trashed speculation. We presume we will live forever, even each one�but we finally know that is impossible. Still we think, humans will, “us” will continue despite. Yet I cannot feel a world, any, can long survive the present use to which it’s now being put, and I think poetry is one of the enduring and final human resources against the dehumanizing of the world we now witness. Let me end, like they say, with a poem particular, written with all this in mind:
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.
In Life and Death you explore to some extent the places we inhabit, a theme I’ve always been drawn to. I get the sense in your poems that you know what it’s like to be a foreigner, even in your own home, in places of familiarity. So I’m wondering what, if anything, grounds or centers you? What is “home” for you? (and if you’re able to answer this, has poetry helped or hindered the discovery of that centering?)
TJ — Atlanta
Poetry, as I wrote in the preface to my Selected Poems, has been a constant companion. “Why poetry? Its materials are so constant, simple, elusive, specific. It costs so little and so much. It preoccupies a life, yet can only find one in living. It is a music, a playful construct of feeling, a last word and communion…” Home is where the hearth is, and the heart—and even as it moves, it stays. I’ve had the dearest company imaginable in this or any life, and that has been home, all the time.
I spent some time recently looking thru En Famille, and thought its photos and themes would make for a great film. I appreciated your simple lines which expressed how really un-simple that painful faith of familial loving can be. Anyway, have such thoughts ever struck you as you’ve written poems throughout the years? I mean, have you ever written a poem and, through or because of it, had an idea for a film, or, say, has a particular line from a poem you’ve written sparked an idea for a novel?
Kristen M. — Ohio
It’s fascinating when something one’s done can be so transposed to other use, and though I have never that much managed it myself, it’s happened through fact of friends. But the conversion, call it, hasn’t so much been the fact of an “idea” as the making of a place, an action, call it, wherein the other “thing” could find means and accommodation to develop. Michael Ondaatje told me that when he was first writing The English Patient, in an early draft he had the character wandering in the desert reciting to himself bits of Olson’s and my poems—as this one, he said:
There is a world
on top of,
it’s here, now.
Incidentally, if I do nothing else in this nattering, please let me point you to an extraordinary book of Michael Ondaatje’s, The Conversations\Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. If so-called literary criticism might begin at this level of attention, all would be a great deal more interesting for all concerned.