Robert Creeley: In a panel discussion with Michael Ondaatje and Robin Blaser, June 17, 1999

Fall '05 TOC

A few weeks ago in New York I met a curious and engaging man whose responsibility is, I believe, the finances of New York, and he had apparently been hired by Buffalo to do a financial précis or make a judgment on the city's situation. And as he told me, he said, "There's only one thing wrong with Buffalo: it's in the wrong place." He said, "Actually it's not part of New York at all, it would be much more aptly joined to Canada, for example; it would be equally aptly joined to Ohio—it's the Middle West. So it's at the farthest possible reach from its active financial and defining center." He said, "Now if you could just move it down to some place a little north of Poughkeepsie, your troubles would be over."

So there one is. I've lived in Buffalo since 1966 in some particular and continuing manner. And it's . . . I was thinking just that tonight it's going to be a contest for me personally that the Buffalo Sabres are playing in the fifth game with the Dallas Stars, which you remember wiped out Colorado a few weeks ago. It isn't just the sort of . . . you know, giant killer, but Buffalo's economy is so defined by that game. In other words, the payroll for the Buffalo Sabres is about, I think about 1/20th of the Dallas Stars. And it goes on like that—Buffalo is that kind of place. In the city now, on every street corner, there's some terrific manifest of "Go Sabres, Go," etc. The place is in a beautifully manic and terrific mood. And the last game, the fourth game, was just wonderful. So that is a fact of being somewhere.

I begin to recognize . . . I had a seminar—like they say as a teacher—this spring. It had a curious title: Poetry's Public. And it began with . . . it just used four texts: one was Eric Havelock's The Muse Learns to Write, which gives a quick, succinct, and beautifully compact sense of the shift from an oral tradition to a literate tradition. It's written also . . . extraordinary sweet book . . . the author is eighty-five at the time he's writing this, and he's waited all these years to summarize his opinions for fear they would have made an awful chaos and mess in the whole field of linguistics and classical studies had he published them earlier. So he now recognizes he's beyond such argument and writes this terrific, beautiful book. And in it, he says such simply clarifying things. He asks the reader, not glibly, to think of what happens when you ask someone "what it means." Someone is saying something, and then the Socratic trick was to say, "What do you mean by that?" You were talking but suddenly you're given this peculiar, displacing objectivity—specious, utterly abstract, and no existence whatsoever—and asked what you mean by what you're meaning. And it's . . . I think why I've held to poetry as like the veritable lifeline, is that, in poetry, meaning what you're meaning is what you're meaning—there's no other meaning but what you mean. And it's immensely good company.

Also, in this same course, we ended up with Jack's The House That Jack Built, which is, I must say, a beautiful place to come home. And at that point, various dear people in the class were bringing in, you know, lots of Jack's poetry as well. So it became really extraordinary. And it made clear to me . . . I'd known from your [Robin Blaser's] terrific and extraordinarily useful essay, "Outside & Inside" . . . but just at that moment it all became so specific in reading what Jack was saying and the ways he was thinking. And the presumption, of course . . . In poetry, not really, rarely if ever, by poets that one is somehow owning that which one does, is a rare mistake for a poet to make. I remember Robert [Duncan] saying years ago: when one first writes a poem that satisfies one's imagination of a poem, there's a great feeling of elation that "I've . . . here, I've written this poem." But after a very short time indeed, that's not a remarkable interest anymore, not that "hey I can write a poem" . . . but it's poetry being . . . poetry is . . . the poems are what's interesting, not that I, you, or someone else is writing them.

So coincidentally just at the end of this business in Buffalo, it happened that we had a visitor, not to my part of the scene, but to Charlie Kyles, a very brilliant old time person there, particularly involved with instruments—music—all over the world. And he brought up a friend of his from NYU as it was, named Christopher Small (who's an Englishman), who's fascinated by the . . . he puts it very simply: "Music is not a noun." And I thought, "Poetry isn't a noun either, come to think of it." It certainly doesn't become a noun, and it isn't the thing, it's an activity. So that Christopher Small would say of music: there's not music, there's music-ing. And it isn't simply . . . it's the act of music-making. And that really suddenly flashed in my thinking, very vividly. The confusions I've had even about the word, "poem," became suddenly quite clear. But equally, kind of curious things such as: how is it that we have, you know, thousands of people making poems, writing poems, but very damn few reading them. Making them is a great deal more fun—[Blaser:] "than reading them!"—than watching someone else. In other words, we're doing something rather than producing objects of discrete order.

That's . . . again it tied in with senses of Zukofsky writing one poem all one's life. Whitman, almost like Turner in the tape, kept painting the paintings—Whitman: the backward glance, more . . . just . . . or Duncan, or any of us for that matter. It's something we're doing, not something we're ending, or concluding. And this was, to me, its wonder. And again, in my own thinking, or life, or habits, it's been almost impossible for me to secure any sense of what it is, you know. As we're talking or thinking about it, it's always amazing to me how ranging and diverse a sense of possibility it actually permits. It rarely if ever seems to have . . . someone says "no one reads poems anymore"—well, no one ever did, in that finite manner. I mean, no one ever had a particular object that he or she, in poetry, was affixed to, and this was forever what was read or somehow. It's always part of something, it's always an activity rather than a substance that's secured. I think in that way, it's like novels—it's doing something.

And that . . . again thinking of place—as Michael's [Ondaatje] been talking about it, and Robin also—I was the youngest in my family, and my father died when I was about five, and he had been married once before. So I had two half brothers from that previous fact, whom I never really knew except in a very marginal way. So I had a sense always of being in a curious displaced place. I grew up in the country, but my father's actual life had been in the city.

A few years ago, my sister . . . we went to see the house that I would have come back to as a baby, on Mt. Alban Street in Watertown. And my sister was incredible—she could still remember the license plate of the car and the phone number . . . this would be back to . . . it'd be about 1922 or 3, it was incredible. She talked her way into the house, charmingly, and went up and showed the lady where this was and where that was. And as we are coming out we now want to go over to Belmont, where my grandfather, my father's father, had lived, and I suddenly see Center Street. And I remembered that poem . . . I have a poem called "I": "acquired so many acres of Belmont land, through which the heart of the present Creeley road runs Center Street." So I just on impulse turned left on Center Street, and sure enough, it took me right over to Belmont and put me right on the backside of my . . . what was the echo of my grandfather's farm.

But it was still a world that I had never, never actually found place in. If I go to where I'm at home, I go into my mother's—although I never was there, except in displacement, as we're all living in Massachusetts. The real home that I have as an emotional or social person is probably Maine, where, as my wife says, they understand my jokes and ways of thinking. And I don't even think of it, I mean, I just feel completely at ease in that language.

And I suppose what I'm trying, in a curious way, to say, is that I'm fascinated by the way that, particularly Americans—I was thinking of Maine, specifically: Edward Arlington Robinson or Edna St. Vincent Millay are these curious surviving poets . . . Marsden Hartley—how the habit seems to invent the whole condition. As though you had to learn to play baseball without . . . with no clue except there's some kind of ball and some kind of a bat—you contrive the whole thing out of whole cloth. I feel as though I've done that. And I've felt—not simply in paranoia, but I know there's been a certain resentment—that that was what I seemed to have to offer the world was this curiously homemade act.

But, I loved it that poetry, of all the things one could humanly do, seemed to have the most . . . not capability or flexibility, but it seemed the most provident and securing of this need: how to get said what must be said. Or, it seemed to me, as though . . . "words that came to me made solely of air" etc., or Allen Ginsberg's "some of my time now given to nothingness." But this aspect, or this fact of being human, was most provided for in this act of poetry.

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