The Poet in Robert Creeley's Prose
Stephens, Michael, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Robert Creeley's poems are brief, emotional machines of concise industry. They often leave a rhythmical hum in the mind, the aftereffects of their intellectual and emotional artistry. The prose - a collection of stories, a novel, incidental prose, and some essays - is often short. But shortness is not con-cision, as Creeley himself well knows. In the introduction to The Gold Diggers, and Other Stories he writes, more apropos of the prose, that "if you once say something, it will lead you to say more than you had meant to." The poems are really about what is left out; the prose is about saying more than one had meant. I don't mean that remark critically either, because it more applies to the characters in the fiction than to the author. Creeley is a bit of a high-wire artist, always sure about how to say just the right amount, a writer filled with consummate balance.
But to write about Robert Creeley's prose almost begs you to address his poetry. There, one has to work through a progression of human influences. Of course, William Carlos Williams - to whose own prose Creeley's bears a crafty resemblance - appears, but so does Charles Olson, another mentor to Creeley, his main man if you will. In fact, with Olson, one might argue that the prose is far greater than the poetry ever was. Creeley was Olson's poetic fulfillment, the one who embodied all those ideals that the big man ranted about. But one can't overlook Pound, nor any of the Objectivists (George Oppen, Charles Resnikoff, Louis Zukofsky), nor, for that matter, all of Pound's influences, going back through the Imagists, Flaubert, clear back to the ever-danceable rhythms - and still today the most varied of forms - with the Provencal troubadours. In Creeley's case one might easily go back to the Greeks, to the easy spoken rhythms of Euripides but also to the sly, erotic fragments of Sappho.
Still, Olson is the most obvious source of all for the poetry, though with the prose, the rector of Black Mountain College looms less rapturously in the background. That said, Olson's seminal essay "Projective Verse" comes immediately to mind as good a place as any to fathom Creeley's prose. Olson writes about "composition by field," using breath and syllable as the measure of the poem. But reading The Island, Creeley's novel about his sojourn in Majorca, one sees - just as it is with the stories - that breath and syllable are the yardsticks for evaluation, not plot and character, the old Aristotelian recipe. To Creeley, story is "an egg of obdurate kind." Beginnings, middles, and ends are replaced by life itself - here he sounds like Camus in his introduction to the story collection - where the only end is death, "and the only value, what love one can manage."
Breath and syllable allow an odd, quirky New England voice, full of quick starts and abrupt halts, to embrace an international tradition that informs the prose, for Robert Creeley is the least provincial of his contemporaries. He may be one of the most American of our poets, with that pedigree from Olson to Williams, back to Whitman and Dickinson - the last with whom he shares startling affinities of geography, angle of expression, and compression of feeling - but Creeley's prose seems to derive from more Continental models. His students from Black Mountain College, Joel Oppenheimer and Fielding Dawson, would become almost a quaintly xenophobic Village poet and a New York artist and writer manque respectively, but Creeley himself has never been associated with America's metropolitan centers unless one wants to include Buffalo, New York, in such an assessment, and I don't care to. His landscapes are Europe, the Southwest, and California.
What do I mean, though, by Continental influences? In his early years as a writer, Creeley lived in Majorca, the place where his only novel is set. Robert Graves was the gray eminence of the island. A writer who bears some resemblance to Graves in The Island is referred to as a self-acknowledged, now famous "variable figure. …