Culture & Conversation

Earthbound: Artful, Polished, Acute

Robert Creeley died in Odessa, Texas, at sunrise one day in March, 2005. On his writing table was a black folder containing thirty-odd carefully typed poems; these, along with an essay he had written the previous year, were put together by his wife and other editors into a final collection, On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay.

Famous for pared-down poems wherein every syllable and line break unfolds riches of meaning, Robert Creeley is nevertheless an easy and engaging read. His singular, mostly first-person musings are by turns intimate, conversational, cerebral, ironic, anguished and direct. His is the angst-ridden, nerve-wracked voice of renowned shorter poems like “I Am a Man”, or the serene, magisterial voice of “Echoes”. The best way this reviewer found to read through his weighty Selected was to carry it around and take in the poems during waits for buses, short subway rides, coffee breaks, TV commercials. Considering how fragmented our attention spans have become, poets like Creeley make one wonder why more don’t read poetry these days. Robert Creeley, however, holds a dubious distinction: for a writer of such influence, he occupies an oddly marginal place in anthologies and in critical regard. This may be because he wrote not a single great poem, but a great quantity of excellent small ones, spanning some 60 collections that together make for a sort of odyssey.

Hence, perhaps, the value of On Earth. Many of the poems are as artful and polished as any he published during his lifetime. Published pretty much in the order in which they were found, it makes for a natural, if incomplete, trajectory. Here, in that same, unmistakable voice, are common motifs of earlier works: the sea, echoes, the mirror, the hole in the wall, the scary surrounding void, the delight of talking. With age has come a certain relaxed amiability, but death, while no longer the harrowing presence found in earlier poems, carries an even greater weight of finality. “Sad Walk”, with its unintrusive echo of Macbeth, shows Creeley at the top of his game.

The essay, a rambling meditation on the later poetry of Walt Whitman, expresses the same concerns as a number of the poems, and employs a number of like images. His observations on Whitman could be said of himself. “The common sense is that Whitman’s poems faded as he grew older, that their art grew more mechanical … the life, however, is finally the poetry, the issue and manifest of its existence.” While nostalgic melancholy is felt as the sun sets on a great literary career, here also is the acuity of extraordinary discipline, the youthful pleasure of a literary gabfest. Of his friend, the poet Paul Blackburn, he writes:

I wish he were here now, we could go on talking,
I’d have company of my own age in this
drab burned out trash dump we call the
phenomenal world where he once walked
the wondrous earth and all its pleasures.

Brian Campbell’s second collection, Passenger Flight, was published by Signature Editions in April, 2009.

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