“The Little of Our Earthly Trust”: Creeley, Bishop, and the Physical World

1.

Robert Creeley is a master of the anti-poem.  What do I mean?  Creeley’s poems, his early ones especially, are counter-intuitive; they don’t sum up meanings, or make meanings in any conventional sense.  If anything, Creeley’s poems are about a very ascetic, even sadistic, process of attempting to make meanings – they enact this process of trying to understand, trying to come up with something lasting – and yet they rarely (deliberately) achieve anything like the syntheses or summing-ups we typically expect from poetry (perhaps unfairly?), and in fact make this failing a central theme of their workings out.

I think it is this theme of failure in his poems – not an aesthetic failure, but an existential and possibly universal one – that makes his poems simultaneously satisfying (in a sadistic way on the part of the reader?) and question-provoking.  For Creeley’s poetry operates, very often if not always, on the edge of sense, on the edge of making meanings, which I think is why his line-breaks are also constantly called attention to – each line in his poem is a kind of metaphor for the failure, ultimately, to make any sweeping meaning, and his poems are constantly calling attention to, alluding to, nothingness, emptiness, failure, futility and disappointment.

But by nothingness and emptiness, I don’t mean to suggest anything lofty or even, for that matter, overly philosophical.  I mean that Creeley’s poems, in the best possible sense, are deliberate dead-ends (again, not aesthetically, but existentially).  They enact, in their stutter-y unfolding, the process of a mind discovering its limits, and then falling back into the darkness again.  Creeley’s poems are therefore not about the pleasure of smoking a cigarette, but the end of the cigarette, flicked disgustedly away.  Look at a “A Prayer,” from his book Words.  The entire poem reads,

Bless

something small

but infinite

and quiet.

 

There are senses

make an object

in their simple

feeling for one.

The poem, although it’s called “A Prayer,” is the barest of prayers; and while it is, in a sense, a prayer, it is also about prayer, and therefore about poetry.  It is a kind of guidebook, telling us what to do – “Bless,” we read, like a directive, “something small / but infinite / and quiet.”  Then, as if anticipating our question, “Why should we bless?” he answers, “There are senses / make an object / in their simple / feeling for one.”  To paraphrase, simply by “feeling for” an object, searching inwardly for an object we desire, we make, from our senses, from our search, from our faculties, that very object – God, the lover, whatever.  And yet Creeley does not, characteristically, idealize these “senses” or faculties, and in fact uses the word “senses” instead of faculties or aptitudes, stripping the word of any romantic glamour or mystery.  Creeley approaches prayer, then, minimalistically, ascetically, and, in a way, severely commonsensically.  The poem is simultaneously pragmatic (prayer is wish-fulfillment) and utterly counter-intuitive (saying this in 13 words) , and it itself is made out of the same “feeling for,” meaning the poem, like a prayer, is made from Creeley’s senses seeking an object for his desires.  The poem is an ars poetica, then, of a very sobering kind – an attempt at prayer, at poetry, while at the same time a minimalistic and disenchanting discussion of what prayer or poetry is.

2.

            I wonder if we can see Creeley’s early work as a constant interrogatory ars poetica, an obsessed exploration of the various variations of the anti-poem, the poem that refuses to conclude or offer us very many consolations outside the strained music of the poem itself.  I think this is why Creeley’s vocabulary is so stripped down, and almost absurdly disillusioning – there is a lot of talk about “heads” and “meat” and “holes,” because these are words that refuse to be romanticized, and indeed are terribly disturbing.  It’s as if Creeley’s biggest nightmare or anxiety is saying too much, for in doing so he would be offering us a picture of the world that is not real.  And it is the “real,” in this case the physically real world, the world of the head and not the heart, that grounds his poetry and makes it so unnerving.

Look at Creeley’s poems “Song,” from For Love.  “Song” reads,

What I took in my hand

grew in weight.  You must

understand it

was not obscene.

 

Night comes.  We sleep.

Then if you know what

say it.

Don’t pretend.

 

Guises are

what enemies wear.  You

and I live

in a prayer.

 

Helpless.  Helpless,

should I speak.

Would you.

What do you think of me.

 

No woman ever was,

was wiser

than you.  None is

more true.

 

But fate, love, fate

scares me.  What

I took in my hand

grows in weight.

What has Creeley taken in his hand?  He tells us it is not “obscene” – are we to believe him?  On one level, yes – the poem does not seem to be an explicit meditation on onanism, but on another level, the poem is undoubtedly, metaphorically a kind of masturbation that, like all poems, attempts to give birth to something the poet believes in.  But for Creeley, the suspicious, the skeptical, the stutterer, what is there to believe in?

It seems important to note that, if Creeley believes in the nebulous notion of “song,” then he is the first to attempt to make this notion as concrete as possible, for song itself in the poem is characterized by something Creeley can seemingly literally hold in his hand, something that grows in weight.  Again, Creeley’s sobering physicalism, his refusal to romanticize even his “vocation,” a word I’d presume Creeley would be absolutely disgusted by.  For in this poem, called “Song,” the song or the poem is a desperate, even humiliating kind of utterance, absurdist in its own way, where the poet calls attention to his helplessness and his fear – what, essentially, is his song.  Perhaps this is why the poet uses such banal words in the fifth stanza – “wiser” and “true” – as if Creeley would prefer to use cliché’s than anything that would overreach or overmatch his feelings.  But his very use of cliché’s suggests a deliberate hollowness of vision, a refusal to imagine anything outside the helplessness of his condition, as if by doing so he is being more real, more “truthful.”  Whatever he has taken in his hand, then, it would seem to be something like the gravity of his situation, although another fair reading of the poem would be that he is not being a reliable narrator, and that he is taking himself, his genitals, in his hand out of a kind of mordant grief.

3.

            How does Creeley’s work compare to Elizabeth Bishop’s, a body of work that is equally obsessed with the physical world, but for very different reasons?  For if there is nothing behind a Creeley poem, nothing like meaning behind or outside the physicalism of his poems, then we might say that Bishop, in varying degrees, works to achieve the opposite effect – that the physical stands for something mysterious, beautiful, un-physical, meaningful, lovely, imaginative, despite, or because of, being drenched in descriptive detail.  Here is Bishop’s poem, “Song”:

Summer is over upon the sea.

The pleasure yacht, the social being,

that danced on the endless polished floor,

stepped and side-stepped like Fred Astaire,

is gone, is gone, docked somewhere ashore.

 

The friends have left, the sea is bare

that was strewn with floating, fresh green weeds.

Only the rusty-sided freighters

go past the moon’s marketless craters

and the stars are the only ships of pleasure.

The poem is presumably a lament – summer is over, the “pleasure yacht…is gone, is gone,” “the friends have left,” it is getting colder, etc.  And yet so much of the poem suggests the opposite – suggests that, even though a chapter has ended, there are other consolations to be had.  For the pleasure yacht is not lost forever – it is “docked somewhere ashore.”  And even though the friends are gone and the “sea is bare,” there is a certain lyricism to the mysterious last three lines of the poem that suggests a kind of consolation in the loss.  Even though, ostensibly, no pleasure is offered in the world at that moment, still, the “stars are the only ships of pleasure,” which suggests that pleasure still can be had in a way.  Bishop has many poems that end with bare physical descriptions suggesting more the mysterious than a bare physicalism; I’m thinking right now of “Sandpiper,” which ends

The millions of grains are black, white, than, and gray,

mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Bishop, like Creeley, is choosing to give us features of the physical world, but here they are rendered with a certain care, a certain amount of excruciatingly rendered detail, that Creeley would be unlikely to give us, keeping in mind his penchant for nouns like “room” “wind” and “trees” instead of the specific room, wind or tree.  We might then say that for early Creeley, there is no consolation in life save poetry, and even that is the barest of consolations.  But for Bishop it is different – look at the ending of one of her masterpieces, “Poem”:

Life and the memory of it cramped,

dim, on a piece of Bristol board,

dim, but how live, how touching in detail –

the little we get for free,

the little of our earthly trust.  Not much.

About the size of our abidance

along with theirs: the munching cows,

the iris, crisp and shivering, the water

still standing from spring freshets,

the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

Again, like Bishop’s “Song,” there is a paring away of meaning, a scrubbing clean of any extraneous detail (“is gone, is gone”).  And yet meaning in the poem – “the little we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust:” – still exists, still operates, still can be alluded to through the sad empathic knowingness of Bishop’s authorial voice.  Her poem, like a Creeley poem, ends with physical details, but these details, unlike Creeley’s poems, do not stand only for themselves, do not stand only for the physical world – instead, they stand as signposts to the interior world of the poet, to the vagaries of memory, to her sadness about how much has been taken away.  For Creeley, this would be an opportunity for anger, for a kind of violence; for Bishop, it is the occasion for a sigh.

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