Robert Creeley: An Afterword to Sorrentino's Splendide-Hôtel
I’ve been trying to pay respects to this work since first reading it in someone else’s home, in that curious disjunct that made it theirs and not mine despite I was a person of its text and was probably more there, “heading toward Indianapolis,” than I was even in reading it. I too loved Rimbaud, that wildly youthful genius who had changed all of French poetry forever before he was even twenty years old. I pondered his Voyelles and tried, in careful manner, to deracinate all my senses. In the early 1940s, with the whole world blowing up around us, it seemed a sufficiently modest proposal. So I note with interest that Splendide-Hôtel was first published just about one hundred years after the first of the Illuminations were written.
Albeit there are many presences in this remarkably particular book, the two who make context for the imagination it “so much depends upon” are, of course, Arthur Rimbaud and William Carlos Williams, and Gilbert Sorrentino’s homage to Williams’s authority is always emphatic: “ ‘Look at what passes for the new,’ the poet says.” Rimbaud is source for the title, both it and the motto being taken from the first of the texts in Illuminations, “Après le Déluge,” in which “As soon as the idea of the Deluge had subsided,” there begins a divers coincidence of actions, some sophisticated and reflective and some of primal innocence. “Caravans set out. And Hotel Splendid was built in the chaos of ice and of the polar night.” Or as Sorrentino writes in his second sentence: “Thus, any story.” It is in just so simply seeming a manner that words become the reality we had only believed them to be issue of.
Rimbaud’s heroic definition of the artist would be immensely attractive in itself, but even more to be valued—as one thinks of the hundred years—is the formal improvisation he was able to make hold against the canons of French literary style. Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, which one presumes him to have known, would be a useful precedent, but it does not anticipate the genius of his own invention or the impact it will have on all formal device in French poetry. “For Rimbaud,” as John Porter Houston aptly says in The Design of Rimbaud’s Poetry (1963), “a style is a system suited to a specific poetic conception and not to an author’s characteristic mode of expression.”
With that useful point in mind, one can then judge the parallel of Williams’s situation in the composition of Kora in Hell (1920) or the Improvisations, as he also calls it:
I let the imagination have its own way to see if it could save itself. Something very definite came of it. I found myself alleviated but most important I began there and then to revalue experience, to understand what I was at— (Spring and All, IX, 1923)
Ezra Pound’s response was wryly abrupt: “But what the French real reader would say to your Improvisations is Voui, g(h)a j(h)ai déjà (f)vu g(h)a g(h)a c’est de R(h)imb(h)aud!!” The quotation comes from Stephen Fredman’s Poet’s Prose (1983) and is used, paradoxically, to emphasize that Williams did not know Rimbaud’s work speci?cally—or, to quote another of Fredman’s sources, Mike Weaver: “. . . as Williams informed René Taupin, his knowledge of French culture was visual and not literary.”
So it is, curiously enough, Gilbert Sorrentino who serves as their introduction in many ways indeed. As one might well expect, the factors and habits of his attention are solidly American, as are Williams’s. Thus Rimbaud’s A in “Voyelles” (“black hairy corset of the bursting flies which buzz around the cruel stench, gulfs of shadow”) becomes ground for more thoughtful consideration in Sorrentino: “On the bookcase, a ?y. In the mind, A.”
So too the d of the word “glazed” in that most familiar of all Williams’s poems:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
“I take the d of that word as my excuse for this chapter” (“D”)—which has been at such pains to separate writing from the simple excuse of an intention. “One wishes to say simply that the writer cannot escape the words of his story, he cannot escape into an idea at all.”
Neither can he escape the compacted habit his life has been given. “I walk through the world, aging with each step. It is the only world I have, and I am compelled to accept its raw materials, that is, those materials it is given me to deal with. One must find some structure, even if it be this haphazard one of the alphabet.” There is no securing point, no compelling and relieving reason. Yet, as with Williams, he knows the perfect: “K-K-K-KOUFAX!”
There is also the moral of the writing, any writing, that he shares with Williams, “the government of words.” “They want politics and think it will save them. At best, it gives direction to their numbed desires. But there is no politics but the manipulation of power through language. Thus the latter’s constant debasement.” So it is that the “President” is simply a figure precise to an imagination and conduct, “who takes care to cross all his t’s. Yet he cannot hear this tolling bell.” Or, “the true President of the Republic,” Lester Young. The Prez. “He holds a tenor saxophone. On the bed is his clarinet.” For C.
But all this seems to have been said, or about to be, in that such work as this takes one far beyond the limits of a prescription. Always something, like they say. Always room for one more.
From Robert Creeley's Afterword to Splendide-Hôtel by Gilbert Sorrentino. Copyright © 2004 by Gilbert Sorrentino. Published by Dalkey Archive Press. Reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.