On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay
By Robert Creeley
University of California Press, 104 pages
“Is every metaphor—and the assertion of understanding is our great metaphor—mixed by the necessity of its intention?”
The line is R. P. Blackmur’s, and I think on it often—normally when I’m feeling tired or, in the case of this brief review, inadequate to the task of criticism. The assertion of understanding is our great metaphor. And it is, by dint of application, a troubled likeness—scored at the edges or sanded down a bit, to fit as desired. Blackmur’s point is lyrical and radical: the “differentness” of objects in the world and constructs of the mind make metaphor necessary and, consequently, imperfect. We can’t stop conflating what things “are” and what they’re “like.” Nor should we.
So enter metaphor. Robert Creeley’s On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay develops one deftly, in the space of eighty-odd, smallish pages: namely, that “age itself is a body,” a thing to which experience is appended, and from which energy is taken. In his review of On Earth published in The New York Times Book Review (April 9, 2006), D. H. Tracy paraphrases Creeley, writing that “age is inseparable from any thoughts one can have about it.” I see it a little differently: that his “thoughts about age” are rolled into the “body” of age itself. It’s a small point, but central, I think, to Creeley’s nuanced argument. As Creeley notes, the word “world” derives from a sense of “the length of a human life.” Creeley’s earth and his time on earth are inseparable, and the book is a testament to this twinned meaning.
Creeley died in 2005, leaving behind a sprawling corpus, something like 60 books. Though often lumped in with other artists of the Black Mountain School, he wasn’t overly concerned with boundaries of movement or style. His friends were famous: Ginsberg and Ashbery blurb the back covers, and Charles Olson was a contemporary and influence. In the closing essay, a meditation on Whitman’s late work, the poet offers evidentiary snippets of William Carlos Williams, Dickinson, Keats, Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Yeats. If Whitman contains multitudes, Creeley reflects them. His best writing is a mirror onto a better world—which is really a better self.
The piece’s argument is powerful: older Whitman’s interest in “fancy”—life’s “practical, peculiarly material dream,” in Creeley’s words—reflects a triangulated knowledge of body, world, and appearance. “‘Reality’ is the imago mundi,” Creeley writes, “the fantasy into which one was born.” Thus Whitman does not “fade” or “grow more mechanical” in age, but chooses to engage in a less expansive project. Songs of the land and sea give way to smaller reminiscences. Whitman is tending to a body composed of images, “residing” and “resonating” in memory.
Creeley’s “last poems” tread the essay’s same youthful ground, albeit with less conviction. The beauty of his earlier work springs from an economy of line and a subtleness in meter. In the short, wonderful “Love,” from The Charm: Early and Uncollected Poems (1967), Creeley writes:
The thing comes
the cat & the squirrel
torn, a red thing,
& the other
William Carlos Williams’s influence is evident—the tripping, indented verse-fragments, the charged used of “thing”—but the sentiment is Creeley’s own. His open parenthesis isn’t sloppy; it’s a trail-marker, leading the reader onward, casting doubt on the notion of a finishable poetry.
If only the final poems captured this playful dynamism. The pieces are generally small, and their focus, like the Whitman essay’s, is inward, gesturing toward external phenomena. Thus the title poem begins “One’s here / and there is still elsewhere / along some road to hell / where all is well—,” only to end
where all the saints wait
and guard the golden gate.
The two slant-rhymed couplets sway gently, but the hard, masculine rhyme of “hell / well” and “wait / gate” cultivates a juvenile effect. Creeley incorporates the language of a younger body, and the effort is forced.
“For John Wieners” eschews the grammar of youth but remains autobiographical:
Glass roses or something else hardly expected—an
Abundance of good will, a kind hand in usual troubles.
Do you hear voices all around you, a sort of whispering,
Echoing silence as if someone had left a window open?
Reading those several times with John, we were first
In a great hall, the Y uptown, where he said he’d heard Auden
Read, and now we did—the great velvet curtains, the useful
Sense of a company in the same place where we now stood, echoing.
These longer, more conversational lines better demonstrate Creeley’s late voice. A lyric rhythm is present but not insistent; free indirection allows Creeley to move between descriptive and ruminative modes, from the “glass roses” to the issue of “whispering, echoing silence” he addresses to “you.” It’s a quietly affecting piece, filled with what Creeley terms in another context a “tenacious fabric of inexhaustible yearning.”
The poetic intelligence behind this yearning is apparent on every page. It’s less clear what good comes from his dabbling in rigid rhyme and meter. But it’s hard to quibble with small deviations in a body of work this focused and brimming with life.
So why not close with a metaphor? On Earth is a sandbox for an old, spry artist—a site of play, of construction and destruction with innocent means. It’s an excavation of joy and sorrow, and like any experiment, it has its rough patches. All in all, a fine and fitting testament. And a wonderful way for us to pass the time. The work’s immediacy won’t suit everyone, but I’m inclined to roll up my sleeves and join the dig.