Robert Creeley in Conversation with Alan Riach Robert Creeley in Conversation with Alan Riach

Recorded at the University of Waikato
Hamilton, New Zealand
26 July 1995

{This is an edited version of a more extended conversation and has been prepared for publication by Dr Jan Pilditch and Dr Alan Riach of the University of Waikato. It is published with the kind approval of Robert Creeley.}

Robert Creeley:      '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.
Alan Riach: I think that's a marvellous poem, and although it's in all the anthologies, it strikes me as fresh every time I read it. I love that completely loose reference to 'the darkness' out there, outside, that 'surrounds us'...

RC: There was a very curious discussion of this poem in context with Philip Larkin's 'The Whitsun Weddings' as instances of the reemergence of Christian themes in contemporary poetry, somewhere back in the 60s. It was in the TLS. The contention was that the speaker of the poem is Jesus Christ and the John is John the Baptist. It was quite seriously made.

AR: Would you say that's a wrong interpretation?

RC: Oh, who am I to say? [Laughter] I only work here, I don't know... It seems to me absurd, frankly. But I only wrote the poem.

AR: So the poem is there for other people?

RC: Yeah, presumably, simply to read it as they will. It might be that somebody objected vigorously to the name 'John'. I can't preempt that. It's a name that's both affectionate and familiar to me.

AR: It's a poem that's also self-conscious: 'Keep going, but watch out where you're going!'

RC: Absolutely. It's a very... Well, it is a Christian poem in that respect: Puritan. It's a sense of, 'Cool it!' or, 'Take it easy!' or, 'You're becoming excessive...'

AR: In a sense, the world of American poetry and the arts in the 1950s is a world of excess.

RC: Well, it is and it isn't. Let me just think of when the dates are, there, specifically. I'm going to say this poem, 'I Know a Man', was written in 1955 and whether that's entirely accurate I don't know. This is the Eisenhower era. I remember it was written in San Francisco and I remember that I was literally at wit's end, so it is a curious double. Noone said this to me but I'm saying it to myself for sure.

My marriage had fallen apart. I'd left Black Mountain, had come to San Francisco, I was crashed for a time on Ed Dorn and his wife then Helene and their family. I'd just met Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg. I'd just connected with my terrific peers, and I was living in this little apartment on Montgomery Street off Broadway, but the point is I had no prospects, in one old-fashioned sense, but the whole world was mine!
The echo for me comes much later. It's Bob Dylan's, 'There must be some way out of this, said the jester to the thief...' That, to me, is the context. What I'm saying is 'let's get out of here' and then there is this curious not saying we've got to stick here and do our job in some responsible disposition, but that there is no way, there's no way out of this.

AR: You mentioned Black Mountain there.

RC: Right.

AR: When I mentioned a world of excess I was thinking of abstract expressionist painting, improvisatory music and dance, ballet, and the kind of spontaneity and 'high energy discharge' as Charles Olson called it, that you find in Olson's poetry. Olson invited you to Black Mountain College in the first place. Can you tell us a little about that?

RC: The college I knew was... Well, there were two colleges. I knew the college briefly two particular times. My first wife Ann had gone there as a student in the mid 40s and just before I went into the American Field Service she'd left Radcliffe where she'd been initially a student and she went there. I remember our relationship was sadly foundering and I'd gone down to try to persuade her of my love and all that, very truly. I had gone by bus and so I came into Black Mountain.
And I remember at that time Alfred Kazin was teaching there. It was a much more contained and comfortable place than the one I subsequently knew about. Everything was open. The dormitories were in reasonable shape and the whole physical plant was employed and working.
When I got there in 54 the whole business was much more fragile economically. It was beginning to collapse entirely. The plant was deteriorating, the resources for paying staff and for keeping the place together were much, much depleted. In some ways, emotionally, probably, I liked that better. But it was glorious. I mean, the people there were just impeccable, the staff and the students both.

AR: How important was the isolated location of the College?

RC: I think it was probably the most stupid place to put this particular college that could have been imagined. I mean it was very handsome, physically, it was a very handsome sight, but they couldn't have chosen a less hospitable place. Simply that, you know, Black Mountain and the whole Swannanoa Valley, that gap, was absolutely, it was dense as an old time Baptist retreat ground, classic heavy duty fundamentalist Baptist. Seems to me, I may be in error, but I do remember seeing Billy Graham in the drug store in Black Mountain. It was a very small town. I think it was his home town. It was all through there.
So here in this utterly conservative Christian community came this utterly untoward cluster of people, Europeans, disjuncts from the world they didn't like. They did not like these people. It was a lovely but poor place and they didn't like urban people. They didn't like northerners. I remember being told in a public situation, you know, 'Yankee, get out of here!'

AR: Can you recollect some of your teaching there?

RC: Well, I recall it was my first time ever teaching which I had had no training or habit of, so that I remember vividly getting there in this old truck I'd left in New Hampshire. I'd come from Majorca, had come on a boat, which docked finally in Albany in New York, taken a bus over to Littleton, New Hampshire, where I got my old truck, got my cat, actually, that we'd left with friends, and headed -- this is now three years after having left -- headed down toward North Carolina, and I stopped in New York in order to see Paul Blackburn and my battery wasn't, the generator was gone in the truck, so I got that fixed then headed on down, and must have got into Black Mountain sometime, let's say a day or two later, and I remember coming in sort of early mid-morning, meeting Olson for the first time D he was, I remember, he had this big towel, he was just taking a shower and he had this big towel on, this huge man...

AR: Olson was about seven feet tall...

RC: Well, he was six eight, six four. He was a big, big man. He wasn't particularly heavy, but he was tall, indeed, and barrel chested, so that was terrific, and I, and he said, 'Well, you'll probably want to get right to work...' I thought, 'No, no, I won't want to get right to work.' He said, 'Well, everyone's waiting for you. Why don't you meet with them, you know, this afternoon, or something like that...' 'You're kidding.' 'No, no...' [Laughter] So we met. And Mike Rumaker tells later, makes comment later, that for the first three weeks, he said, he could personally not understand a word I was saying. He couldn't hear me clearly. I was so shy and so muttering that he couldn't really hear a word I was saying. So we moved from the usual seminar room to some student's study, to an even smaller, we were finally in a room where everybody's knees were touching, I remember that. And finally people could begin to hear me and my own shyness was overcome by the fact that I was practically sitting in the lap of the person next to me and it, also, our group had now resolved as possibly six to eight people. There used to be this charming girl who would come in very eager and then would just fall asleep and so once she was asleep it was as though a magic hush and permission occurred. We'd all begin to relax and talk comfortably and then she'd sort of wake at the end of the class once again and off we'd go. [Laughter]

But the classes, I recall, were particularly interesting. I was 'trying to teach' (quote), William Carlos Williams. He was my great love and I remember this semester involved with Williams, in which we basically read the Collected Later Poems... I remember this terrific student [Tom Field] coming and saying afterwards, 'You know, I feel as though I know Williams absolutely, and I have this extraordinary sense of knowing these poems, not understanding but knowing, I know them...' Incredible. 'But,' he said, 'I never had a chance to ask you what you thought of them.' [Laughter] It was the most terrific compliment I ever got as a teacher, this person utterly transformed with his love for Williams but he, quote, 'didn't know what I thought about them'. I felt I'd done my work. It was now time to move on.

AR: You'd passed the message over without interfering...

RC: Intact, without interfering. No hands. He can open it himself... I was really dearly pleased by that. Tom Field. I'll never forget him.

AR: Were you teaching creative writing at the same time?

RC: I had a writing group. I remember Mike Rumaker wrote this incredible story, which... We would have the habit of... A student or a person would read to the group what he or she had written, then there'd usually be some talk about it. 'Would you read that again?' I don't think we had a xerox; we had no means to distribute it, so it meant, 'Could I hear that again?' There would be the usual discussion. People would give impressions or what they thought it might be improved by.
So anyhow, Mike had read this story. God, it was... I'll never forget it. I don't think he ever published it. It was the story of two brothers, one a bit older and one a bit younger and, but one say was about 15 or 16 and the other's about 20 or so and they lived in the classic sort of suburban house. The story begins with the older brother just getting married and the ceremony and the local celebration. Then they go off in the car. And the young brother's feeling very displaced with the loss of the life that he and his brother had had. Now he'll never know him again that way. So he's lying in bed musing in this bedroom they had shared and at that moment there's a kind of scrabbling on the window and it turns out it's his brother. He can't go through with it. He's freaked and he's come home and he's asking for his younger brother to let him in, you know, because he's... And it was such a pristine, curious fable of transition and rites of passage and much that was obviously in Mike's confusion at that point. I just didn't want to talk about it. I remember saying to the class, 'That's it. No discussion.'
And for something like a week Mike thought I hadn't liked the story.

AR: In a sense, that story crystallises a feeling that attaches to the whole period...

RC: Right.

AR: ...A rite of passage, a transitional period in the history of modern American poetry. If you take your bearings from Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Olson and yourself, Ed Dorn and so on...

RC: Right.

AR: Olson was an important influence on your own life and your own work. There are nine volumes of your correspondence with him, which cover two years, 1950 to 1952. At least as much material remains unpublished, letters from 52 to 54, when you finally met. They give this terrific impression that in hammering out the ideas between you, corresponding, with a terrific ferocity throughout that whole period, sending letters off, sometimes more than one per day, to each other, pushing these ideas through, about form, in poetry, and about the artist in the social world, about what has to change, and how 'the sights' (one of the great phrases), how 'the sights have to be lowered' from the egocentricity Pound suffered throughout his career, that in a sense, through that correspondence, there is a kind of tunnelling out from under the rubble and the debris, not only of World War II, which must have been prevailing the entire western world, but also specifically in terms of poetry, out from under the weight of a man like Ezra Pound...

RC: George Barker is quoted in Williams's Paterson, as saying, 'American poetry is a very simple subject to discuss, simply because it does not exist.' And the date for that must be at least the late 30s or the early 40s. I remember knowing George Barker and liking him, indeed. He was a very warm, good-natured, droll person, so he certainly wasn't being simply malevolent; but it was almost the tongue-in-cheek...
Anyhow, who knows why he quite said it or where he quite said it, but the point is that as a so-called American poet, particularly as one recognised one's elders who were facing it, there was an immensely, either condescending or else dismissing disposition. I mean, here, we thought, here's this various and substantial place with all its factually remarkable artists, writers, and we have apparently no communal or collective authority whatsoever. It was like, we just, we aren't there, we're invisible, we just don't count.
I remember being in Paris and finding that one recognised in all the spectrum of the arts that there was, not a war on, but, there was an attempt clearly from an American situation, as a fact of the results of the war, to claim international significance as an authority, as a fact, in the arts. The contest was particularly active vis a vis painting and the visual arts. When the school of Paris collapses, and the New York school takes over, it was almost as though they were sold. There was a lot of commercial disposition in that for damn sure.

In writing, the authority had already pretty much begun to lean toward America, certainly in fiction and in the so-called novel, although obviously my generation certainly remembers vividly the continuing authority of Britain, you know, the British. C.P. Snow... I wonder who curls up with C.P. Snow these days? or Elizabeth Bowen? But then, there was Henry Green and there were a lot of extraordinary, interesting novelists who were getting it on. The poets were still, you know, I mean Auden was still, certainly... Then there were people like Gascoyne and the kind of funky various bright people...
I remember British friends were saying, 'God! You Americans are endlessly talking theory and prosody and all this bullshit! Don't you have anything? Don't you have any tradition? I mean, don't you have any way of writing that at least locates you in the same way that you might, you know, locate ways of dressing or furniture for your house or something? But do you have to be so endlessly paranoid about what you're doing? I mean, who cares? If you like the poem isn't that the point? And there's theories and projects and I mean...'
'Well,' I said, 'It's probably we're defensive and we've got to have some means whereby to explain ourselves to some possible other who hasn't as yet come along but one day may show up.'
There weren't a great number of people asking about how do you write a poem but something like Williams's I Wanted to Write a Poem is poignant in that way...

AR: There was a lot of theorising going on with Olson particularly, in the correspondence. There's that famous phrase, 'Form is never more than an extension of content'. The part of that phrase that I always linger on is 'never more than'...

RC: 'Never more...' 'Quoth the Raven, Nevermore!' [Laughter] Well, there was, but... 'You use,' they will say, 'You use a very abstract, you know, your language is, I mean, your structure, your way of speaking is very abstract!'
And I think, 'Oh no, it isn't, rain is rain in my writing, you know? Come on!' You understand what I'm saying? 'That's really not the point. Your way of configuring or stating or locating things is quite abstract.' And I think that, on the one hand I yearn for a reifying, you know, for contact, as Williams would say, or for ground. On the other hand, the ground was interesting most in how it permitted me to fly off it or how it permitted me to bounce, so that the ground was, you know, I loved it but I didn't, you know...
For instance, in present interests or parlances, a phrase such as 'virtual reality' would be the fact of an imagination without the authority of imagination. It would be, you know, the 'affective reality'. What happens if you don't have any sleep for six days? You might feel a certain way, which would certainly be real to you, but it would be the affect of having not slept for six days, so that it would be a conditioned reality or a reality arrived at through particular exercise and particular...

AR: Does that mean that so much of this is essentially personal, lyrical, individual expression? That the poetry has to emerge from a kind of imagination that's worked from a charge that is personal, rather than something, let's say... Well, Pound, for example, one of the weights he bequeathes, is his position as a man speaking politically for people in a public way. He might be misguided, or horrible, or wrong, but he's engaged in a social language which isn't the language of a love lyric, or of a personal confession or expression of personal belief or faith or love. It's a different kind of address...

RC: It is and it isn't. I mean, I was struck by I think it was Hugh Kenner in some discussion I happened to hear just by fluke a radio programme had him talking with someone about the epic and about the address to epic scale, or kinds of writing, thinking of obvious counters such as War and Peace or Victor Hugo or great panoramic novels or even something like Ford Madox Ford in the Tietjens series. But as he said, almost no American novel has the scale of that kind of address. Almost none that one can think of.
One can think of Faulkner, who might be proposed to such, but he really isn't doing that. These are very singular and isolating stories, although they propose to be a landscape of various social climate in fact they are, literally, they are the Snopes family, and they're very particular. Look, they're not the world by any imagination. And then you think of someone like Dos Passos. No. The authority in Dos Passos is Dos Passos, not the world that he's... It's like the photographer, he's taking those pictures. By and large the American genius such as it is and I think it is has to do with the singular lyric.
You know, I think it's Walt Whitman, 'Song of Myself' -- I think that's the prototypical American gesture, poetically and imaginatively and artistically, and I think it's as true of Emily Dickinson as it is of Pound as it is of Poe as it is of Melville. I think Melville again could be that, certainly, could be an epic possibility, and yet its resolution is Ahab and the white whale and that's not a collective enterprise no matter whether it takes whaling to get there. So that I think what defines American art is (quote) whatever it is we call 'lyric' and the singular.
And I think, for example, I remember years ago as a kid, my dear friend Rainer Gerhardt, and we were talking about just this fact of things, and he said, 'You know, even during the worst moments of Hitler's regime,' he said, 'when I wrote or said anything it never occurred to me I wasn't writing for all of Germany. Not writing to it, but as a person of it. Never thought of myself as separated. No matter how obviously shattered the country was, I was always all Germany.'
And I said, 'Well, you know, in America, I can't think of a single person I know who would ever presume or think that he or she was all America.' You know, 'I hear America singing' -- and that's as close as you'd get to it. It wouldn't be: 'I am America singing' -- it would be: 'I hear...'

AR: That's a very important point.

RC: I thought so. I've never forgotten it.

AR: Just loop back a second to the notion of poetics and prescription. When I read Olson's essay on projective verse, it seems to me that he is primarily trying to work things out for himself and not to be prescriptive to others. Although of course it's had a terrific influence...

RC: Oh, but that was not his intent, literally.

AR: There was an interview that I read later on, where Olson is looking back and saying, 'You know, there was never any "poetics" -- "prescriptive poetics" -- if you look at Creeley, if you look at Dorn, if you look at me, Olson, there's no similarity in terms of technique.'

RC: There's no similarity. No, we're not a team. The 'I' was not autobiograpical. It was not an attempt to enclose. I remember Irving Layton, actually, when he and Charles finally met, he apparently said to Charles, 'Well, I didn't think what you were doing had much to do with projective verse.'
And Charles said, 'I wrote that one day, Irving, and the next day I wrote something else!'
Come on, you know...

AR: Some of your own work, and some of the work of Zukovsky, I think, looks back to the lyric form as it was in Elizabethan or pre-Elizabethan poetry. To put it very crudely, lyric poetry, let's say, since Donne, includes an ego. This runs through the whole course of poetry in English, whether American or indeed any other national literature using English. There's an attempt, it seems to me, in post-World War II American poetry to look back to a lyric which is more to do with air and music than with the ego...

RC: I hear. Yeah. I was thinking of the sense of 'the divided creation' in a curious way, Allen Ginsberg's phrase... I just bought, in Herne Bay, in the bookstore there, I was walking by, and suddenly saw the Collected Works of Christopher Marlowe selling for $3.00 and I rushed in and bought it, because he was a great hero of mine years and years ago. And I opened, I saw this edition sitting there you know it was a new book and, I opened it up, and it opened exactly to the page, 'Oh, I'll leap up to my God! What pulls me down?' And I thought, well, this is for me: that's certainly something I could quote immediately.
That moment is remarkably locating for me because the 'I' in that poem is 'I' -- it isn't 'Everyman' or it isn't Pilgrim's Progress. It's an absolutely specific isolated singular 'I' and I can't think of a moment in English Lit where that presence is more specifically there. I'm sure that a more apt and closer reading could say, 'Yes, Bob, but you know, it's here in this poem, prior, it's here in this text...' But that moment in Marlowe for me, at least in my own imagination, dates that entry of that singular 'I' for, you know, for all time.
I mean, it's got, hopefully it will change, I don't see any pleasure in it. I think the situation is just as described. That weird isolation and pain of being singular is curiously realised, there, more aptly and more vastly than probably any other moment...

AR: But it's a legacy that has gone to American literature in a very particular sense.

RC: Yeah

AR: There's a wonderful moment where Zukofsky hears Pound broadcasting and ironically comments, you know, shaking his head, saying, 'The voice, Ezra! The voice!'

RC: [Laughter] Louis's voice was terrific, a classic accent which I loved.

AR: Do you see yourself and your own poetry in that tradition? Pound turns to Whitman and says, 'I make a pact with you,Walt Whitman, because I've hated you long enough.' And there's a sense of the anxiety of the father but also moving on beyond it, a lineage being affirmed at the same time as it's being put in perspective. Is that the constellation that you would put yourself and your own work in?

RC: There was an initial section in my Collected Essays I called 'Elders' and those are specifically Williams, and Stein, in a modest sense, HD in a modest sense... They were late late late coming to my own real use. Stein earlier than HD. But I came to Walt Whitman late actually. Not until I was about thirty did I really read him seriously.
I had several that I loved once, say, in college or probably a little before. I loved Herrick, I loved the scale and deftness of his sounds. I loved, what little I knew of Campion, I loved... I loved that whole sort of cluster... I loved the so-called Jacobeans, I mean, really a kind of hip mournfulness I really thought was great. I mean everybody from, you know, from Donne, obviously, but Crashaw... I liked all of them, I thought they were really, really various... Vaughan I thought was, I thought Vaughan was just, Henry Vaughan: WOW! You know? 'I saw Eternity the other night...' That was just -- far out! Great.
But the person probably most terrific for me finally is Coleridge, S.T., Samuel T. -- I really thought he was terrific. When I was in college, one of the great tests of significance was whether or not one had read substantially in the Biographia Literaria. Few had. Many were called but few were chosen. Few were able to do it. I felt always therefore a lightweight, but I loved Coleridge. I really thought he was glorious. And Hart Crane I love. I also love Hardy. I love Lawrence. When I came to collect, happily, my Collected Poems, I wanted a quotation that would give measure, almost like a benchmark for the imagination of determining authority, and I quoted from Lawrence's 'Hymn to Priapus' D I thought, you know:

                Grief, grief, I suppose and sufficient
                Grief makes us free
                To be faithless and faithful together
                As we have to be
...I thought that was, not only in sentiment, but... It was just perfect really.

AR: How are things now, do you think?

RC: In the world? Pretty awful!

AR: In terms of the writing of poetry, looking back on that period of the 50s and 60s...

RC: I do miss the, both the ambition, not simply as 'Tomorrow the world!' But I remember Olson's phrase 'Take a big bite!' 'Come into the world!' It seems that things are a bit faint, given the awful, you know, consternations of the literal world...

AR: Do you mean, do you think, that the sights have come down too far?

RC: I think somehow the, not so much the... There seems... There are some poets who absolutely are otherwise but they are certainly not young in the usual sense. I think of Susan Howe whom I have immense respect and love for as a poet. A cluster of women actually. Rosmarie Woldrup, Leslie Scalapino's incredible sort of intellectual explorations are vivid and terrific. I think the... Not that the men are therefore faint, but the...
The enterprise, the imagination of the world, as a place one lives in specifically and actively and therefore particularly in relation to the life one either wants or presumes to have or thus experience, I think there's a curious faintness.
I can't imagine why there's not a more -- not just outcry -- but why isn't there more D why is poetry so curiously faint? It has, in fairness to poets, one might remark that it basically isn't if one's thinking of so-called 'ethnic' poetries in the States or poetry engaged with absolute social determinants.

AR: These are more robust...?

RC: Yeah. These are much more robust. The reflective poetries for the moment are curiously faint...

AR: Is there a concomitant quality of gentleness that's been developed?

RC: It's hard to believe, thinking of the awful bleak situation in Yugoslavia. It doesn't seem to be a gentler, kinder world in any place that I'm aware of. I mean, it's unremitting brutality.
Thinking of the States where the provision for... I think the largest poverty group now are children... All the families having 18 year old persons or younger in their households are, largely, below poverty level... I mean, I don't see any... It's a kind of awful...
It isn't even rationalism. There's a kind of sense of, almost like the Puritan elect, 'If you're poor you deserve it!' And 'It's either through shiftlessness or absolute incapability that you're in that state! It's very hard therefore to sympathise with you.' I mean, 'You've done it to yourself!' You know? That's in the States now. That's the absolute imagination. That, there's a, you know, whether it be the arts, the cutting off of funding, the cutting back in education, the... Simply, 'You're either a winner or a loser.'

AR: Poetry should oppose that?

RC: Well, poetry should... Yeah.

AR: Or, poetry does oppose that?

RC: Any agency that's humanly available should oppose that or might oppose that... And it's hard to, it's like Williams: 'We go to our deaths in silence.' I miss the passion or the engagement, however futile it may well have been, but you know, people circling the Pentagon, chanting, 'Out, demon, out!' Well, that was a great imaginal moment or a great moment in the authority of the imagination...
I love... Penelope has this sense I trust absolutely, humanly, I mean, whatever discrepancies as people, or whatever, however, to speak of ourselves as people... It's almost like 'Dover Beach'... You know, 'Dover Beach'? You know that sense of 'Stay true!'
I do respect absolutely the sense that humanly one has the choice, in so far as there is any, of committing oneself, to pledging, or thus stating loyalty to another person, and recognising what humanly that means, and that the choices inherent in that pledge, really, give, what human response and resource and dignity and recognition ever can, and the rest is whatever it will be, but has virtually not a hell of a lot to do with being human, however dear, you know, however terrific. But being human means being... I mean, again, I love that poem, 'To be faithful and faithless together as we have to be.' I mean it's not being pious about it but to recognise that that's seemingly what the human lot has to deal with, 'To be faithless and faithful together as we have to be'.
But there's certainly, no, that is no excuse for being faithless at all.

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