The Artifice of Ineptness
It’s probably a cliché to point out how much a Robert Creeley poem can say, without saying much. But what 20th century male Anglophone poet, besides D.H. Lawrence, has made a career out of saying so much about the unpleasant feelings – anger, disappointment, shame, disgust, anxiety, desire for vengeance and violence – by saying so little? At least Lawrence has his rhyming and un-rhyming romantic expressiveness. Many of Creeley’s poems, in For Love especially, feel as though they were written after a terribly intense emotional storm, or strain: that they are the hollow, abstract wreckage produced from the emotional distance following that storm/strain. Look at “The Rhyme,” from For Love, (and notice the title, too, its abstraction and hollowness, how it echoes the abstract title of the book):
There is the sign of
the flower –
to borrow the theme.
But what or where to recover
What is not love
I saw her
And behind her there were
Flowers, and behind them
The poem consists of three short sentences in three stanzas each. The first stanza begins as if Creeley were setting up parameters for a poetic argument or lecture – as if he were pointing to a chart with a flower on it in front of a class. “Here,” he is saying, pointing, “here is the image of the flower, the notoriously famous image of all love poems.” He slaps the chart with his pointer, and asks, in a tone of growing disappointment and dawning depression, “But what do we do with everything that’s not love? Where and what are the images for that?” He is disappointed about his depression, or depressed about his disappointment: (I can relate).
The second stanza is both overwhelmed by this question and the disappointment this question engenders. As such, it comes across as almost wooden, manifesting a desire to be polysemous as a sufficient answer to that overwhelming question. This appears to be why the second stanza – the most difficult of the three – is so densely suffocated and trying – it feels like the anxious stuttering of a man overcome by a bewildering variety of emotions. For what does it mean to recover something that is not love “too simply”? How much self-condemnation do we read into that phrase? Is this the super-ego describing its own taxing regimen of forced minimalism? Or the ego discussing the id’s desire for a kind of ironic purity?
Some answers emerge in the third stanza, where Creeley seems to be explaining why he wrote the poem in the first place: “I saw her / And behind her there were / Flowers, and behind them / Nothing.” This is not a bleaker Stevensian Snowman (were such a thing even to be possible!), for we are not dealing with “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” as some grand metaphysical statement. Creeley does not do grand metaphysical statements, in the same way in which he does not do flowers. If anything, this is a quietly ferocious poem about poetry, or a brutally muted anti-poem, or a violently repressed poem about anti-poetry, or something like that. It is a poem that makes a virtue out of what we might call the “artifice of ineptness,” the ineptness being the poet’s refusal to see in the flower anything resembling past connotations or metaphors from personal or literary history. It is therefore an implicit critique of literary history, yet it is a negative, almost choked critique that offers nothing as its answer. What is left unsaid is the not-easily-conveyed heartbreak of discovering the non-existent difference between a kind of poetry (flowers) that feels unsatisfying, and a kind of life (the nothing behind the flowers) that feels equally unsatisfying.
The poem therefore manifests, in both its style and theme, a profound and overwhelming disillusionment. Creeley is exploding while exploring a convention – in this case, the convention of using flowers as a characteristic image for life, jouissance, romantic love. For Creeley, the flower is neither the grounds for an Ashberian associational orgy nor a Wordsworthian felt moment. It is not an avenue for contemplation at all. It is only an opportunity for displaying the bitter meagerness of its meaning when compared to the full (though equally bitter) numbness of life. And yet the poem delivers, almost sadistically, its own distinct pleasures, of asceticism, a kind of violent repression that produces a hollow (in the best sense of the word, if we can conceive of such a thing) and desperate Romantic critique.
The blunted shock of reading “The Rhyme” might be made more vivid and sharp by Lawrence’s “Cherry Robbers,” a poem I had to read twice to convince myself that what I read was actually what he wrote. Here, what is left unsaid is not anxiety or bewilderment, so much as a desire for violence that suggests something too awful for words, although conveyed by them with a disturbing richness:
Under the long dark boughs, like jewels red
In the hair of an Eastern girl
Hang strings of Eastern cherries, as if had bled
Blood-drops beneath each curl.
Under the glistening cherries, with folded wings
Three dead birds lie:
Pale-breasted throstles and a blackbird, robberlings
Stained with red dye.
Against the haystack a girl stands laughing at me,
Cherries hung round her ears.
Offers me her scarlet fruit: I will see
If she has any tears.
This is Lawrence’s “13 Ways of Looking at Blackbird,” though here the contemplation is less on or about the value of differing perspectives than on a perspective that unites us – namely, our Darwinian inheritance, our blood commingled with the violence of the animals and the indifferent earth. The first thing we notice about Lawrence’s poem is the shocking violence and eerily exuberant richness of its imagery – cherries tacitly compared to bleeding ears, dead bleeding birds, a girl “laughing at” the poem’s narrator, and the implied future existence of the girl’s tears, presumably caused by the narrator sleeping with, then leaving her. When has such bleakness been conveyed by such fullness? This is why I had to read the poem twice. I’d never read something so brutal conveyed in terms that seemed so un-brutal, nor had I ever imagined a poem striving to capture such brutality through such terms. Weren’t poems, as Creeley points out, usually about flowers? Lawrence’s imagery feels almost too complex to sift through – trees, jewels, cherries, blood, dead birds, blood again, cherry-earrings, virginity, tears – and yet the meaning of “Cherry Robbers” in each stanza is altogether and rather chillingly, if not sickeningly, clear. And yet there seems something almost brave about Lawrence’s poem, because of its honesty, as opposed to something instantly condemnation-worthy.
This seems to be a counter-intuitive answer to Creeley’s search for a way of signifying that could convey bitterness, emptiness, and all the unpleasant feelings we typically do not talk about. Creeley himself opts for a mode that refuses to allow himself the consolation of many of the pleasures of poetry – for starters, imagery and figurative language. He is the greater ascetic. Yet Lawrence embraces these pleasures while conveying equally if not more disturbingly the darker violent “irrational” side of life we typically do not talk about or mention. For Lawrence, weirdly enough, there seems to be a way to have one’s cake (figurative language, metaphor) and eat it, too (communication of unpleasant feelings). For Creeley, there is no cake (figurative language) and there is no eating (communication through the artifice of ineptness).