Sometimes a few encounters, no matter how long or intensive, in the end form something like a ghostly constellation that owes its linguistic content, the valence of its anticipations, its mutually substituting intentions—in a word, the laws of its existence—not so much to chronologically distributed facts or neuroleptic recollections of certain attendant, contextual circumstances as to the logic of an unforeseeable (“future”) exchange of that which can be rightfully called “generative possibilities”: they open to the imagination—but not at all to the permanence of memory—in forms that are ungraspable yet anticipate unimaginable perfection.
In certain other regions of discourse, these possibilities are sometimes called “desire,” which lends some vague value to the clarity of forestalling. The influence of such intersections is unpredictable. Sometimes such encounters happen in life.
I met Robert Creeley for the first time in Leningrad in 1988. Today, all that is left of that life is the crafty evening light, the crowded streets from Doctor Calligari, and faded memories of how space and location were instinctively valued more than time.
Why and how he came is now forgotten; it seems that Creeley was invited to Helsinki for a round of panel talks and poetry readings. As is well known, Helsinki is closer to Leningrad than Moscow .
On the first night, a reading was planned at the American Consulate, and on the second, an appearance on a TV show popular at the time. At the “restaurant” (quotation marks are really more than appropriate here) on Nevsky, near the Theater Union, Bob, myself, and Prof. Donald Wessling, expert on versification and prosody, were putting our papers in order.
Naturally, I was young and translated eagerly, as if searching for some treasure chest (it is permissible not to cross out this metaphor because it is entirely fair, relating as it does to “language,” “the Other” and other attributes of European culture). I tried my hand at translating Creeley’s poems. But then I stopped, without even noticing, because I found—or so it seemed at the time—pieces that were far more eloquent, far more convenient for “translation”—pieces that allowed for not too onerous linguistic maneuvering in the “re-representation of images,” while his poems with their “scarce logic,” very short lines, enjambments, and elusive yet powerful alternation of proclitics and enclitics triggered no reaction inside me—I evidently was unable to understand where in the matter of his poems there were rupture flashes, those invisible points of transformation (and accretion) that undoubtedly should have been there, creating conceptual knots of multivectored radiation. On the other hand, I instinctively sensed in them what Paul de Man pointed out, quoting Rousseau on “the impossible abyss that is impossible to satisfy” and the aspiration to “some other kind of satisfaction, which I cannot understand and nonetheless feel its attraction.” I speak of it in such detail because it was precisely that kind of poem that I couldn’t get my hands around.
So, with a bit of luck, it was possible to get lost in John Ashbery’s poetry, where it was important to trace the process of the dissemination of meanings, their transformation into dispersive semantic fractions in whose substance one should have expected (sometimes it actually happened) the emergence of a thrice reflected, multi-dimensional world of surprising cohesion and simultaneity, reducing extensive, multivectored speech to a single moment of clearing. Or for example, Lyn Hejinian—her language sent one back to both Gertrude Stein and Emily Dickinson. Which in reality was a “false signal,” though it created a surplus value of estrangement, of different optics in which meaning units of poetic diegesis were obviously disjoined propositions, or rather disinterested thought per se that eliminated the discursive function as the foundation of presentation. And the subject of which was also thought as the foundation of the poetic in general. This is what Ezra Pound called logopoeia, poetry of the dance of pure ideas, which he contrasted to melopoeia, or illusionism. I repeat, I talk about it in such detail so as to make clearer what follows here.
By evening, we were on Grodnensky Lane . Wine, conversation, sparks, Schubert—in a word, Bulgakov’s dream—and Pavel Grushko (translator from Spanish—probably, Neruda and Lorca)who had arrived from Moscow to take part in the readings, this time as a translator from English (or rather American), which put him somewhat ill at ease. It seemed that rain was firmly glued to the windows. What more can one expect of window glass in the Northern Capital?
At that time Bob was trying to quit smoking. Though not quite entirely. Tentatively. “Can I bum a cigarette off you?” We talked for half an hour about where we hid our cigarette butts as kids. Unfortunately, this scene wasn’t included in the film Smoke. And finally, the reading. This is where a lot became clear. In the margins: a hollow, low voice, unease or awkwardness of gestures (he didn’t allow his body, his arms, to say more than what was prescribed to them), but from the very first line, something more than the persistence of prosody became distinctly audible behind the voice—as if the resistance of language that was brought into motion grew with each word.
Creeley read like I had never heard anyone read before. Those “ovaries” or “projectives” in his score of articulation flared up like Leon Bogdanov’s “fragments of teeth in the gums,” instantly fading, leaving something like untraceably moving black spots of an echo from which a pattern developed that lived independently from what was properly verbal and addressed one’s hearing.
Another thing is noteworthy: these very negative constellations later helped me begin to understand what intonation is all about. I must also add that another person responsible for this is Anatoly Barzakh who in recent years has paid particular attention to this, shall we say, area of poetics. But let us go back to the beginning of my comments, to “generative possibilities.”
This point aside (I mean the subordination of the listener’s operative memory to the vital strategy of perception), it was intonation that became an unfillable, unmaterializeable form of transition from one thing to the next, remaining, paradoxical though it may be, only in the future or in the past. Something like the inextricable “metaphysical remainder” in Freud’s dreams.
I must add that one is also allowed to approach the situation from another angle.
Charles Olson, who was a close friend of Creeley’s ( Black Mountain College , 40s-50s etc.), in his programmatic article “Projective Verse,” talks about “the kinetics of the thing” and looks at poetry as energy that the poet transfers to the reader from where he got it by means of the poem itself. He goes on: “Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy discharge.”
I nearly forgot to mention Olson’s fundamental postulate on which these words are based. Namely, his thesis about “open space,” as opposed to the traditional line, stanza, conventional (instrumental) “form” that in sum total are “the ‘old’ base” of closed poetry.
It is possible that in viewing the (open) space of language, Olson intuitively gave preference to the understanding of space not as “something that encompasses a certain speculative volume,”† but as a constant becoming of the situation of thinking in the interaction of “magnitudes,” or Russell’s “facts” (a few steps back we find the Saussurean “system”), which finds its extension in Creeley’s own two dictums (they may be somewhat at odds with each other): 1) form is never more than an extension of content, 2) meaning is not in things but in relations between them (today this seems a commonplace).
Of course, a question arises, how, where, and why “energy” appears in the poem. A short digression to the notion of “ open space ” is in order .
In the European tradition, this theme was first introduced by Epicurus’s idea of a perpetual destruction of moenia mundi (limits of the world) and of a movement of atoms that collide to form necessary formations by accidental deflections (klinamen) and would never “intersect” if they strictly obeyed the law of gravity.
Omitting, out of laziness, a few obvious steps, we arrive at the simple conclusion that the poetic text is formed as a space that oversteps the “limits” of language in the course of the deflection and catastrophic “collision” of meaning units (from phonemes and semes to collected works of various authors on the horizon of literature as such), and the decay of fixed meanings through a change in the trajectory of these always already identified meanings is precisely the source of Olson’s energy. Tynianov called it the “congestion of the poetic sequence”; Deleuze and Guattari—the “machine of war.” But the war to which the poet is doomed promises no appropriation or subjection—that is, no “present,” because, like intonation, it abides either in the future or in the past. The past included one more day .
Bob read into the camera; the session took place in the building of what was then known as the “Culture Foundation.” Already at that time, I thought my translations were dreadful. I mumbled something, wanted to hide something behind a certain mannerism of smoothly flowing Russian speech. Now I am convinced that everything I translated back then wasn’t worth a penny.
Another likely reason for this is that at the time, I had no idea of the tension with which they all thought, spoke, and wrote about poetry since the mid-1940s. There was never such tension either in the Soviet Union or in Russia . Indeed, those were the times of dramatic insights. Sometimes they were too much, sometimes too little. But excessive light is exhausting .
Besides, “excessively” bright light is never permanent. And in 1993, I started my fall semester at Buffalo for which I arrived late. If you remember those Aeroflot flights to America with a landing in Newfoundland , you would also remember long lines for American visas and the shack near our main post office where visas were issued after a few nights of waiting.
By that time, Creeley had had the “rights” sorted out and bought a house—but that house is another story altogether. It was a nearly three-story building of a fire station. With a watchtower . Higher up in the tower, there was a kitchen and a dining room (he also claimed there were hanging gardens and a sauna in them), lower floors were occupied by children’s rooms, and between heaven and earth, between the heavenly winter food and the delightful company, his study: great Susan Howe, bald and irrepressible Charles Bernstein, Wystan Curnow (from New Zealand,‡ same as Penelope, Bob’s last, beautiful wife). There are too many faces in one of the photographs; the picture is blurred—but is it worth peering at it? I’m too old for such squinting to go unpunished. But it’s not a matter of enumeration…
Still, at the university he was the supreme deity of the English Department, and only Charles Bernstein could comfortably fill in for him when Creeley was absent for inevitable reasons on some appointed days.
But he was always present in a small bar just off Main St. (try getting to it on foot, through snow) where students, poets, sometimes professors held readings and where in the end two huge pots of free Buffalo wings were rolled out for everyone (two-day burns to the oral cavity) and where one always found Mr. Bertholf, keeper of the truly Babylonian university library where with his royal permission I had the good fortune to leaf through multicolored manuscripts of James Joyce and black-and-white ones of Jack Kerouac.
When during a break at one such reading, Bob and I decided to sample local vodka (4$ per shot), Bertholf stole up to us from behind and told me to ask Bob how he drives a car. The thing is, Creeley had lost his left eye as a child, which diminished neither his attractiveness, nor charm—it was as though he was supposed to look that way.
I asked, “How?” Bob gave a hopelessly wave. Then Bertholf, with the animation fit for a tired Christmas story, said that Creeley drives at 25 mph because he gave Penelope his word. And that police stop him all the time, but after they bend down to his window, they immediately stand to attention and salute him, showing the way forward with a broad gesture. The city knows the Poet, concluded Bertholf.
This also must have been a sign of fate saluting him. Of course, he wasn’t a “lucky boy” or “fate’s darling”; he worked like a docker in sleet—always, everywhere. But … fate always gave him some extra time .
In 2000, I was at his reading at the Unterberg Poetry Center on 92nd Street in New York City . It was magnificent . Bob read with Michael Palmer. Ushers walked through the aisles, passing out pencils and tiny notebooks for notes to the poets. The house was full, except for the third circle.
They were both great. Michael warmed up the audience; then Bob told the story of his grandma dying. And next to that, a poem that put everything in its place. He smiled a lot after the reading that evening but didn’t say much. Everyone was there .
And two and a half years later, we saw each other in Petersburg . We talked about how we don’t recognize many things both there and here. There were other things we talked about, but I’ll save them for later.
Robert Creeley, born on May 21 st, 1926 in Arlington , Massachusetts , died on March 30 th, 2005 in Odessa , Texas . Sort of like, no matter how you die, you won’t go anywhere.
P.S. He wrote on the title page of his Collected Essays:
N.B. Indeed, how can we know what we know before we know.
Translated from Russian by Evgeny Pavlov
* Memory Gardens. Poems by Robert Creeley. Marion Boyrs. London – New York .
‡ See Zemlia morei: antologiia novozelandskoi poezii (Land of Seas: an Anthology of New Zealand Poetry), Moscow : NLO, 2005.