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Straight From the Hearth : SELECTED POEMS, By Robert Creeley (University of California Press: $25; 300 pp.)

June 23, 1991|Carol Muske Dukes | Muske Dukes just finished her fifth book of poems, "Red Trousseau," and is finishing her second novel, "Saving St. Germ," for Viking. She teaches in the English department at USC

In the brief but moving introduction to his "Selected Poems," Robert Creeley notes that poet-critic Robert Graves once characterized him as a "domestic poet." This cheerful condescension of Graves' hit an unwitting backhanded critical bull's eye. As Creeley says, "With Robert Duncan I am committed to the hearth and love the echoes of that word. The fire is the center."

Fire is indeed the center of this collection of poems, and the conflagrations are domestic and wild. Selected by Creeley from his 13 previous volumes, the homeyness here has a back-bedroom, eccentric flavor and his epigrammatic, refrigerator-note style recalls no one so much as William Carlos Williams, that other anarchistic, domestic genius, whose imprimatur Creeley early received. Yet the paradox in these poems, as Creeley himself points out, is that he has "moved endlessly" within his imagination and only now can "find a place to return to. "

Somehow this alchemical blend of transience and steadfastness produces the syllable-by-syllable blaze for which Creeley is so famous.

I didn't go

anywhere and

I haven't

come back!

"Eight Plus"

Or, as in his most famous, hipster-manifesto 1950s poem about smoking dope and reordering aesthetic priorities, "A Wicker Basket," we witness firsthand Creeley staking out his freaky home territory:

. . . and while certainly

they are laughing at me, and

all around is racket

of these cats not making it,

I make it

in my wicker basket.

"A Wicker Basket"

Notice that the poem is called "A Wicker Basket" not " The Wicker Basket." The choice of article is not random. (Diction and punctuation choices in Creeley, as in all poetry, are profoundly significant, but for him the visual, topographical appearance of the poem on the page approximates Gertrude's Stein's syntax-paintings or Cezanne's obsession for every inch of the canvas, what Stein called "acute particularity.")

So he says it is one wicker basket, just one, maybe even mine : not the collective, monolithic, poetified "the." This is Creeley's religion here; it is the job of the poet to be specific, to fracture (or discover anew) "context," to avoid easy conclusions, familiar rhetoric. He tries to say exactly what he means, which produces a simplicity that is gnarled, inquiring, complex.

The "cats not making it" are as much the amorous feline fence-sitting contingent as certain other poets, critics--the whole yowling Establishment of over-sayers, whom Creeley has sent up ever since he slipped a pea under the royal mattress of American poetry:

One and

one, two,

three.

"A Piece"

I remember a teacher of mine considering this poem in a graduate school workshop at San Francisco State in 1970: What was it? How did it work? Was it a sham? No, it turned out, it was an articulation of a universal rhythm, it was cryptic, nutty but precise. It worked.

So this cat has been making it, on his own terms, for some time--it is hard to fathom this enfant terrible nearing 70! Never mind that some critics find that he is occasionally hyper-oblique, self-consciously cute, and, for all his brevity, overwrought. (Critic John Simon once said, "There are two things to be said about Creeley's poems: They are short; they are not short enough.")

Still, it is hard to imagine any reader, confronted with this body of nearly a life's work, not succumbing to the enchantment of these crooked litanies. Creeley's notorious music, his odd and meditative "patterning," grows, haunts, is pure inspiration as the poems accumulate. There is also the realization, turning pages, that Creeley was and is such an originator, a source of casual and startling innovation, influencing schools of imitators. Yet, as with all genius, there can be, finally, no imitation: Nobody writes like Creeley, few have gone so stubbornly against the grain and left such fiery graffiti ("Creeley was here") within it.

That he was himself (like all serious-minded poets) an imitator is evident here. Yet he quickly transformed what he took in. His roots in "projectivist verse," as practiced by his mentor, Charles Olson, and the Black Mountain school of poets, along with his absorption of the founder-poetics of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, set him on a course of nonconformity, with a powerful reverence for the integrity of the poem itself. ("I love it that these words, 'made solely of air' as Williams said, have no owner finally to determine them.")

It is all a rhythm,

from the shutting

door, to the window

opening,

the seasons, the sun's

light, the moon,

the oceans, the

growing of things,

the mind in men

personal, recurring

in them again,

thinking the end

is not the end, the

time returning,

themselves dead but

someone else coming.

"The Rhythm"

Notice that it is the "The Rhythm," the great poem that continues to live, as "men" come and go. Even our sense of immortality is the product of this rhythm--our sense of "return." Such gentle irony in the service of such formidable speculation is his signature.

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