Thursday, June 19, 2008

STL #70: Robert Creeley

I haven't done the homework, but I suspect that a lexicon of Robert Creeley's poems would be surprisingly small in comparison the the girth of the two chunky volumes that comprise his Collected Poems. Creeley gravitates to a handful of small, seemingly innocuous words, words like "this" (he has several poems bearing that title), and his poems and conversation returned often to a set of abstract nouns like "company," "circumstance," and, most oddly, "etc."

Out of this modest lexicon, Creeley built a body of work that seemingly rejects the weight of lyric tradition yet fully embraces its history of craft, of the well-wrought urn. Creeley saw himself as part of a company with his fellow Black Mountaineers working in the open field. Yet reading his prose statements, one doesn't find antagonism toward the other side of the 'poetry war' of which which the NAP was a major front. While he notes that "a division of method appears between those who make use of traditional forms, either for discipline or solution, and those who, as Olson, go "By ear... " he does in this passage note good reasons for using traditional forms. Tradition continues in his company; it is "an aspect of what anyone is now thinking, --not what someone once thought. We make with what we have..." The difference between his company and those who use traditional forms is described in this passage: "They [the traditionalists] argue the poem as a means of recognition, a signboard as it were, not in itself a structure of 'recognition' or--better--cognition itself. Some, then, would not only not hear what Olson was saying, but would even deny, I think, the relevance of his concerns. The great preoccupations with symbology and the levels of image in poetry insisted upon by contemporary criticism has also meant a further bias for this not-hearing, since Olson's emphasis was put upon prosody, not interpretation." Olson and Creeley's emphasis is on prosody, perhaps the strongest tradition in poetry that there is.

For this company, prosody is what Pound said: "the articulation of the total sound of the poem." Creeley uses the surprisingly traditional method of rhyme over and again. In this selection, 11 of his 14 poems use some sort of end rhyme, including slant rhyme and irregular patterns. The question I want to turn to now is simply "why?" To limit my investigation I'm concentrating on the poem "The Warning," though I will also open myself up to the more traditional realm of prosody, meter, to better graph the "total sound of the poem."

Since I'll be discussing the poem in detail, here it is in its entirety:

The Warning

For love – I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.

There it is: eight lines, 32 words not including the title. The dominant meter is iambic dimeter, but expressively varied--the shocking second line starts with a decisive dactyl and grows an extra foot. The seventh line complicates the poem and is also longer, though a smooth iambic tetrameter. The seventh line lets out some hidden context before the eighth line pulls it quickly back. The final rhyme, reaching back to the last line of the first stanza, is the most pronounced rhyme, but looking back you see it is not the only rhyme. While the first stanza is unrhymed (a, b, c, d), the fifth line slightly echoes the fourth (eyes/us) and the sixth and seventh don't only rhyme with one another but pick up "put" from the second. Broadening the definition of rhyme, the rhyme scheme of the poem might be seen as (abcd d'b'b'd), though more conservatively as (abcd effd). Beyond rhyme, the poem is tightly knit together by recurring sounds in these unassuming words: l and d sounds in the first three lines, n sounds in lines 2-5, z sounds in lines 3-4 and 6-7, and r sounds in the last three lines. Particularly impressive is the n, d, l pattern in the first stanza, and how all three sounds cluster around the mysterious "candle" in the skull. Finally, its worth noting that almost every word is closed--begins and ends with a consonant. You might say this sound pattern is a guarded, close-mouthed one.

After the gruesome imagery of the first stanza, the second stanza twists away ending with an in-itself-surprising "eyes"/"surprise" rhyme. The second stanza is in itself a "surprise" that as with a lot of Creeley poems I can't quite resolve. The most unusual word in the poem is perhaps "amulet." Not an uncommon word except when compared to the rest of the word in this poem, amulet is taken up in its shamanic sense as a charm against evil. But that must be read ironically--in the name of love, I will kill you to make a charm to protect love? But what is the "quick surprise" of the last line? Is it a new love? As I recall, the book this eventually appeared in, For Love, is largely concerned with the disintegration of a marriage and specifically the complications of infidelity. That may sound like the kind of confessionalist crap that was starting to be churned out at the time, but note that "The Warning" doesn't describe anything at all, but enacts a state of mind.

To (re)read: For Love, Words, Pieces. A Quick Graph.