There’s a curious and interesting essay by Christopher Rizzo in the new Jacket Magazine. It’s essentially an response to a rather dismissive October 2007 review by Charles Simic of Robert Creeley‘s The Collected Poems (both Volume I, 1945-1975, and Volume II, 1975-2005). Rizzo is clearly a smart person and a fan of Creeley’s poetry and poetics. My admiration for Creeley is strong, but I have to admit it wanes when I read his work from Pieces on. This is exactly the portion of his work embraced by aficionados of the avant-garde, and I take Rizzo to be a member of that group, based on this passage from his essay:
In 1955, [Robert] Duncan visited Creeley in Majorca. “I can remember riding in this trolley and Robert looking at me and saying with that crazy smile,” recalls Creeley, “‘You’re not interested in history, are you?’ I thought, well yeah, I’m interested in history, buy yes, as you say, I’m not interested in it decisively as a way of learning” (The Special View of History 6). Creeley’s work, by and large, bears out such a statement. What was Creeley interested in “as a way of learning,” then?
(Collected Poems I 624)
We can either read this complete form as a solipsist jotting, or we can consider the phenomenological function at work here. Anyone who has ever written anything knows that such an experience of sickness calls attention to itself, so much so, at times, that one’s proprioceptive faculties are heavily involved in the task of determining one’s physical status. One is informed, in due course, that one feels almost too ill to write. In such a situation, Creeley’s task as a writer is at one with the physical circumstances of writing. The extended description of logical cause is forgone in the light of negative capability. It does not matter whether such illness stems from either bad fish, or a bad review. The brevity of form arises not from habit, but from a specific occasion of phenomenological knowing by an “actual, willful man”.
What’s telling to me is the elaborate nature of Rizzo’s denial that “Sick” is a “solipsist jotting.” He devotes about 140 words to argue why a five-word (counting the title) poem is a profundity and not a piece of trivia. But all his words add up to is an abstraction of the poem as given into a minimalist gesture whose value derives from the theoretical context in which Rizzo places it. Fans of the minimalist gesture often take this approach to absurd extremes (see my earlier post regarding Ron Silliman‘s explication of a one-letter “poem” by Aram Saroyan), evidently because they care more about the theory than about the words on the page.
Going back to Creeley’s words, though, and setting aside the Rube Goldberg Byzantism of Rizzo’s interpretation, and asking ourselves not what the poem means as an instance of theory but what effect it has on the reader—well, this reader at least has to admit that it has no effect whatsoever. As a description of illness it is utterly pedestrian. It lacks rhetorical force almost completely (I say “almost” because the word “rubble,” with its suggestion of “rumble” and “bubble” in the sick man’s stomach, is marginally interesting). It is utterly forgettable—except, of course, as the thin nail upon which Rizzo attempts to hang his ornately framed theory.
The bottom line is that it is perfectly possible for serious, important poets to write badly for extended periods of time. This seems to be the case with Creeley. There is great pathos in his later work, because only occasional flashes of his early genius appear in it, but Creeley nonetheless felt the need to write something—anything—and now his weakest efforts must suffer the indignity of being used to prop up ideas that can only serve to fatten more Ph.D. theses while further alienating what little audience poetry has left.