On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay by Robert Creeley
Robert Creeley was 78 when he died in March 2005. In On Earth, a collection of his final poems, he leaves us with barely fifty pithy pages of poetry to brood on the man that was. The poems contained in this collection feel shorter than what we have come to expect from Creeley, but this might have more to do with the determined liveliness of these poems and the realization that one of America’s great poets has passed.
Creeley’s collection is considerably fattened by the addition of the essay Reflections on Whitman in Age, which Creeley wrote at the conclusion of 2004 and published in 2005. But the essay’s inclusion is appropriate, when we are given to compare Creeley’s poetry “in age” alongside Creeley’s own meditations on Whitman’s poetry “in age”. It is believed that the lung disease that took Creeley’s life came on suddenly without warning — ironically, when Creeley was on a two-month literary residency in Marfa, Texas — but to anyone who knows Creeley’s poetry and the man they will think otherwise. For a man who was involved with most of the major movements and developments of poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, it is hard to believe that Creeley did not know that his death was imminent, and when writing these poems, that these would be his works.
It still remains to be seen after Creeley’s death whether he will join the ranks of the great, canonical poets. During his lifetime, Creeley was exceptional not for the accolades he achieved, nor the way he seemed to bridge and float in and out of literary circles, but for his strange absence or sparse presence in many of the more prominent anthologies. For a poet of his accepted reckoning, Creeley remains relatively un-anthologized and so widely unknown in the larger community. This might have something to do with the fact that Creeley never produced any one defining poem, but one wonders if the minimalism of Creeley’s poetry is an additional factor in his sparse presence.
By all accounts, Creeley is a jazz poet: in the sense that jazz poets or musicians are thought unruly or iconoclastic. Creeley’s reputation as a jazz poet was earned through his acceptance of jazz as a major influence in his writing, but also for publicly eschewing metrical forms, restrictions or rules. However, Creeley is more “measured” than he would admit from his own mouth. In fact, his famous “breath-oriented” delineation that he helped popularize (together with Ginsberg and others) can be plainly seen today in many of the “torah-scroll-like poems” of Philip Levine and his/her imitators.
Like any great dramatist, Creeley’s improvisations are carefully convened by experience. Some of his better known poems like I know a man and Water Music could be thought of as exercises in trying to say over and over again a brief few words that could be called “permanent,” in the fleeting dustbowl America into which Creeley was born in the latter half of the 1920s.
In his last poems the tact is the same as it has always been, even if there seems a greater decisiveness and finality to these poems. We get the sense in On Earth that Creeley wants to ensure that all the experiments and aspirations he has ever desired to fulfill in verse are accounted for and attempted. But Creeley has never been one to leave any rock unturned. We have always known Creeley as a poet of an especial caring. Creeley lost one his eyes when he was five and his “seeing” in poetry from his very first poems to his last is extremely acute and sharp. Here, however, there seems a new innocence and fresh perspective. Titles like When I think, Oh, do you remember…, Talking, Bye and Bye, After School, Sad Walk, The Ball, The Puzzle, Echo, Wish, and Here are revealing enough of Creeley’s interest in “fleeting innocence,” but in these poems, the poet takes the risks of extending the heart and the heart of these poems to the point of bursting. In The Sad Walk, he measures just the right emotion without overdoing it, as demonstrated in the first two stanzas of the poem:
I’ve come to the old echoes again,
know it’s where I’ve been before
see the same old sun.
But backwards, from all the yesterdays,
it’s still the same way,
who gets and who pays.
What is so sad for the reader of this collection is reading the persistent aliveness and presence of the speaker in these poems even after Creeley’s death. In Wish, Creeley still has the “time” and freedom of thought to take us through another in a long list of “gedanken experiments”:
transformed into a clam.
be very, very still.
It is difficult now living in the post-Creeley age to think of the possibility of moving forward without Creeley’s familiarity and passion for verse. It is most difficult perhaps, because of his roving, inquiring and contemplative mind. He has left us with many questions and few answers. At the conclusion of War he writes,
Why would they hate him
who fight now insistently
to kill one another
But, perhaps, the truth Creeley left, as Heidegger reasoned, was in not giving an answer but in merely thinking about asking the right questions in poetry. Creeley was another in a line of poets that asked us to appreciate and embrace influences outside of poetry proper. If Heidegger is right, Creeley left us with much to think about.