One of the earliest posts on Culture Industry was a rumination on Robert Creeley after his death in late March 2005. I know he is still mourned, and I – who was never close to him – miss him still. As I said there, it's hard for me to remember a time when his writings weren't central to my idea of what poetry is. This past semester, I realized how central his poems are to my teaching of poetry, as well. In the course of an undergraduate Contemporary American Poetry class, we went through maybe 30 pages of Creeley – probably as much as any other single poet – and I think my students found him more interesting & sympathetic than almost anyone else. (Tho I'm in the midst of reading some kick-ass final papers on Susan Howe, Ronald Johnson, and John Taggart, as well.)
It's been a rare semester when some poem of Creeley's hasn't landed on a syllabus of mine, or hasn't been handed out on a xerox or flashed onto the screen from Google Docs. What Creeley is good for pedagogically – and this can be separated out, at least theoretically, from the intrinsic value of his verse – is teaching line breaks (the music of enjambment and end-stopping), pointing up minute shifts of diction, and thinking about the construction of longer sequences out of short poetic units. Needless to say, I know the anthology pieces pretty damned well after all these years.
But I've been reading Creeley more or less steadily since I got those copies of Words and For Love in the Blacksburg used bookstore lo those many years ago. But it's only over this Fall that I started tackling him in bulk, straight thru. And I've found him defeating me: that is, I've had the first volume of his Collected Poems (1945-1975) down from the shelf for weeks & weeks, taking it up and then falling back overwhelmed. Not in the sense that I'm overwhelmed when I read John Peck or Susan Howe in bulk – that overwhelming involves never wanting to read another poem again, much less to pick up a pen: the same defeat I feel when reading Nabokov or Woolf, the sense of a writerly mastery so great that it makes further effort nugatory. Creeley, rather, seems to involve me in a never-ending forest of poems, some of whose value is radically undetermined: I stumble from one to the next, unsure whether to take seriously what I've just read – is this part of the sad lumber that sometimes overbalances the valuable ore in a poet's early collections?
What I need, Ba'al help me, is a Selected. I know, that makes me a kind of critical weakling, an ingenue, an toddler crying out for pabulum when it's time to tackle the grown-ups' dishes. But it worked for Olson and Duncan. Before I made my full-scale assaults on their collected works, I spent serious hours reading selected editions, seeing how their editors had mapped out the territory, what the editorial Baedekers recommended as the to-see spots. Then, when I dived into, say, Olson's full Maximus Poems and Collected Poems (excluding Maximus) I had a baseline picture against which I could measure the poet's full achievement.
I haven't yet laid hands on Ben Friedlander's selected Creeley (U California, 2008), but the other day I happened upon an earlier Selected Poems (U California P, 1991), this one chosen by the poet who perhaps knew Creeley's work better than anyone else – Creeley himself. And yes, by halfway thru it's been revelatory, showing me the contours of the work better than the randomly ordered reading I've done over the years, and better than the page-1-thru-page-600 slog I had set myself for Creeley's Collected. That latter slog will come soon enough, & no doubt will involve an implicit revision on my part of Creeley's assessment of his own achievement. But I've begun, and a solid beginning is half the struggle, in my experience.