Creeley’s “Poem for D.H. Lawrence”

I would begin by explaining

that by reason of being

I am and no other.

 

Always the self returns to

self-consciousness, seeing

the figure drawn by the window

by its own hand, standing

alone and unwanted by others.

It sees this, the self sees

and returns to the figure

there in the evening, the darkness,

alone and unwanted by others.

 

In the beginning was this self,

perhaps, without the figure,

without consciousness of self

or figure or evening.  In the

beginning was this self only,

alone and unwanted by others.

 

In the beginning was that and this

is different, is changed and how

it is changed is not known but felt.

It is felt by the self and the self

is feeling, is changed by feeling,

but not known, is changed, is felt.

 

Remembering the figure by the window,

in the evening drawn there by the window,

is to see the thing like money, is to be

sure of materials, but not to know

where they came from or how

they got there or when they came.

Remembering the figure by the window

the evening is remembered, the darkness

remembered as the figure by the window,

but is not to know how they came there.

 

The self is being, is in being and

because of it.  The figure is not being

nor the self but is in the self and

in the being and because of them.

 

Always the self returns to, because of

being, the figure drawn by the window,

there in the evening, the darkness,

alone and unwanted by others.

 

“Poem for D.H. Lawrence” starts with a simple, unprepossessing title, only to spin a larger and longer, thicker and denser web of repetitions and variations that build from the title a momentum almost sestina- or pantoum-esque in the force with which the repetitions happen again and again.  One wonders, indeed, if the poem started off as a sestina.  It begins with a declaration in italics, perhaps an epigraph: “I would begin by explaining / that by reason of being / I am and no other.”  It is a quote whose pithiness causes us to lose sight of its argumentative formulation – and the quote, in three short lines, might be viewed (somewhat perversely?) as a kind of syllogism, a syllogism that argues that, “by reason of being,” the poet – and by extension, the reader – is what he is, and nothing different.  This reeks of platitude and a kind of easy listening philosophical attitude, but it’s important to view the quote as an explanation, as Creeley will often turn in his poems to question or wonder about what it means to explain anything: if our explanations help at all with our living, or if they ultimately fall short, like our senses, of giving us any kind of total picture; and by extension, if we are to long for total pictures at all.  (Creeley I think would say we shouldn’t.)  The quote, then, is a declaration, a doorway, a portal, an introduction to the poem that follows; and as we dip into the poem, it’s important to remember this starting-point, concerned as it is with fundamental questions about what it is to be a human being and use words to express the felt sense of one’s life.

The poem is a meditation on that question, phrased differently as “what am I?”  It is an attempt in poetry to think through this question, not analytically, but through the recourse of a poem that, through its own line-breaks, content and form, attempts to enact dramatically if contemplatively a mode of answering the question, “What is it like to be alive?”  “Always the self returns to / self-consciousness” Creeley writes, invoking the notion of return as he has in the previous two poems.  But how do we read this line’s tone?  This does not seem to be a lament so much as a more neutral statement, essentially stating that sooner or later we return to a felt sense of ourselves, of who we are, of our idiosyncratic and unique beings.  Here Creeley uses a metaphor for the way in which we view our lives, our creations: the self sees “the figure drawn by the window by its own hand,” and the figure might be viewed as a poem, a drawing, or anything that the self creates, hence a reference to the Greek poeisis, or something made.  This is a clue to us that the poem, like most poems, is self-referential, and in the background is talking about nothing other than the genesis of its own making.  But Creeley adds his own touch, for this self is “alone and unwanted by others.”  The philosophical temperament of the poem is strangely balanced by a kind of sad petulance, a lyrical pouting.  And the self “sees this, the self sees / and return to the figure / there in the evening, the darkness, / alone and unwanted by others.”  What’s going on?

Creeley is using certain poetic tropes intended to immediately evoke for the reader the sensuous world – “evening,” a “figure,” “darkness.”  He knows that these words, used rightly, carry enormous power, and he lets them, as it were, speak for themselves.  Perhaps we might read the first stanza as, in a way, drawing us a picture of the poet contemplating his own poem, the poem of his life, the poem of his creation.  And yet this is not a euphoric or romantic take on the “figure drawn by the window,” (and notice the sexual undertones of that phrase – for couldn’t the figure be a nude?), for again we hear of the self “alone and unwanted by others.”  As the poem continues, Creeley begins to wonder about origins; he writes, “In the beginning was this self, / perhaps, without the figure, / without consciousness of self / or figure or evening”; and then repeats the refrain, “alone and unwanted by others.”  Hence, as the poem develops, it seems to almost strangely accrue pain, and enact in itself the process, seemingly tortuous for the poet, of being unable to escape from himself, from the dark hole of his grief.  Creeley weaves a web, only to find himself stuck with himself again; he weaves another web, and yet the return to self-consciousness occurs repeatedly, and almost viciously if slowly.  One might think of performance studies, and the notion of the self as a constant performance.  But if Creeley is performing in his poem the process of our consciousness going out and coming in, it’s coming in is attended by a helpless sense of disconnection, estrangement, alienation, and doubt.

By the third stanza, Creeley moves away from his meditation on origins, and towards a way of thinking about the difference between epistemology and felt sense.  “[T]he self / is feeling, is changed by feeling, / but not known, is changed, is felt.”  This seems of a piece with Creeley’s decision to write a poem here, instead of, say, a philosophical treatise.  He is not arguing about what constitutes the self so much as performing for us the act of being a self.  For that matter, the poem itself “is not known but felt.”  We feel this tugging process, this waxing and waning, this ebb and flow of the self going out and in, but it is not something we can analyze exactly; it is not something we can actually really explain. 

By the fourth stanza, which is the longest stanza, we are not “seeing / the figure” but “remembering the figure by the window,” and so there is a further remove, a further circling outwards.  And, after the sixth stanza, where are given more information about the self’s relationship to ontology, we have the very sestina-esque final stanza, which reads

Always the self returns to, because of

being, the figure drawn by the window,

there in the evening, the darkness,

alone and unwanted by others.    

 

This is the sort of summation of the poetic argument, and so it’s worth looking closely at.  “Because of being,” Creeley says, “always the self returns to…/ the figure drawn by the window.”  It’s as if Creeley is arguing that the self cannot extricate itself from its creations, but constantly returns to them, revising, updating, revisioning, redescribing, in the same way in which Creeley in this poem constantly re-describes the self, the evening, the darkness, although always using the same terms.  The last line, the once again “alone and unwanted by others” is perhaps the line that saves the poem from being tendentiously philosophical.  It is a pathetic line (in terms of pathos), but its petulance, its sadness, its straight out sighing unconfidence gives the poem a ringing and disturbing end.

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