Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lift Up Your Skirts, Ladies, We're Passing Through Hell--Creeley's Transgressions

This is a response to a citation offered by Ron Silliman at the Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, in an event,
Poetry in 1960 - A Symposium, which took place on December 6, 2010. The context of the citation was a discussion--following a program of individual presentations--the recording of which lasts 52 minutes. The discussion had turned briefly to the issues of sexual exclusion as expressed in Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 [Grove Press, 1960], which stood as the pretext for the discussion.

During an informal free-for-all give-and-take comment period which took place following the formal individual presentations, the following exchange occurred:

Question [speaker not identified]: "I suppose it's more of a romantic question. The question of having a symposium on the 1960's: To what extent is it a nostalgic act, and to what extent do you see this sort of meeting as linked to a return to nostalgias?"

Silliman: "Well, ah, you know, I think if it were a reification of 1960 I think we would be guilty of that but in fact I think it's more of a deconstruction, although I feel it's very of the things that was most useful in different discussions was hearing exactly where people were when they were working on different projects--Daisy Alden being a good example--and there were some others where it would have been very useful for people to have thought about, ah, Bill Berkson who was about 22 or 23 in 1960, and his relationship with somebody who was old enough to be his father, Frank O'Hara, who was also Gay where Bill was not, and there was a lot of dynamics going on that could be fleshed out in a much broader format would have been. I think that the ethnic and gender discussion points at some of the fissures that are really deep and need to be explored. One of the things we haven't mentioned today, although Rachel can cite it chapter and verse, the section in Quick Graph in which Robert Creeley asserts that women like to be raped, which did not make it into his Collected Essays, because at a certain point in his life someone must have talked to him, and he revised it. In 1960 or thereabouts, you could write that without people actually freaking out, and I can't imagine in 2010, an equivalent statement." [This is an exact quotation.]

Today Silliman has posted the following beneath a re-announcement of the 1960 Symposium, available through the PennSound archive:

Since these two points come up in the Q&A, it’s worth noting that Henry Rago, the editor of Poetry, died on May 26, 1969. I was thinking that his 14-year tenure with the journal began in 1952. It began in 1955. And the exact statement by Creeley is “There is nothing quite so abrupt and even pleasant as rape — ask any woman.” It appears in his essay on Franz Kline in the Winter 1954 Black Mountain Review & was reprinted in A Quick Graph but is cut from the essay in the 1989 UC Press edition of Collected Essays. Thanks to Al Filreis & Rachel Blau DuPlessis for running down the details, and to Clayton Eshleman for originally noting the discrepancy.

There are several issues to address here. Within the context of a discussion about
The New American Poetry's skewed selection along sexist/racial lines, Silliman's remark takes on pointed implications, not just vis-a-vis a criticism of Creeley's sexual politics, but about Silliman's intention in raising the issue, and the changing estimation of Creeley's importance as a canonical figure in the Language Poetry pantheon of acceptable, politically correct figures.

Later in the Symposium exchanges, Charles Bernstein--another participant in the event--seeks to soften the charge of sexist threat and transgression in Creeley's essay, by saying that "Creeley is part of a male culture, as is Olson, which one must understand...I don't expect poets and poetry to be any better than their times." Bernstein seeks to contextualize the Creeley citation by identifying it with historical tropes of misogyny, violence, and male dominance, more common at that time, in the culture.

What exactly does Creeley say in the cited essay, and what is its significance? The essay, or note, appears in the Black Mountain Review, Volume I, Number 4, Winter 1954 (pictured below). Creeley was the editor of the review, and was responsible for its content. Thus we can assume that Creeley wrote the Note, and approved its content, and took full responsibility for any possible misapprehensions which might have evolved out of any given reading of his text. (And of course, he chose to include it in his first collection of essays, A Quick Graph.)

In the Contributors paragraph, which appears on page 3 of the issue, it states: "Franz Kline is one of the most widely exhibited of American artists. His most recent show was at the Egan Gallery (New York) last summer." Kline was one of the original, major figures in the Abstract Expressionist group throughout the 1950's. He had a notoriously explosive personality, and his approach to his art might be described as primitivistic. His gaunt black brushstrokes against a white background are forceful demonstrations of principle, which suggest giant calligraphic gestures that remain stubbornly non-representational and non-programmatic. Creeley chose to publish a brace of eight black and white Kline (canvas) images (done between 1952 and 1954), accompanied by his A Note on Franz Kline.

There are no fixed rules in art criticism, especially impressionistic ones like this. You could almost make a case that a poet, such as Creeley, has artistic license to make a prose that is as abstract as the art to which it refers, if only tangentially. In fact, I suspect that Creeley thought of his pairing of his note, side by side with Kline's designs, to be a kind of collaborative act, in which his piece is allowed to reflect the full breadth of his response, both emotional and intellectual, to Kline's art. It is in the context of this frame that I think we need to read his words here. Here is the text in full:

A Note On Franz Kline

There are women who will undress only in the dark, and men who will only surprise them there. One imagines such a context uneasily, having no wish either to be rude or presumptious [sic]. Darkness, in effect, is the ground for light, which seems an old and also sturdy principle. There is nothing quite so abrupt and even pleasant as rape - ask any woman. Think of the masses of misunderstanding that come from a betrayal of this. Make a list. Picasso? Much a way of being about something, minus night, etc. There are some men for whom it seems never to get dark. As, for example, for Klee it never quite seems to be sun, etc.

But, more interesting, think of it, a woman undressing in broad sunlight, black. What if light were black - is there black light? If there is black light, what is black. In other words, argue to the next man you meet that we are living in a place where everything has the quality of a photographic negative. Take hold of his coat, point to anything. See what happens.

With Kline's work, if the blacks were white, and vice versa, it would make a difference, certainly. It has to be black on white, because there he is, New York, etc. He has no wish to fight senses and all. But he is a savagely exact laugher, call it. I don't know literally if he depends on rape for a means to cohabitation, but I would myself argue that he is a lonely man. Men rarely laugh this precisely, without such a thing for a control. What is 'funnier' than forms which will not go away. If you say this to someone, they will laugh at you, but all the time, right behind them, there is a skyscraper! It's incredible how they can notice it, if they do, and still talk to anyone.

So what is form. If it comes to that. That question I once tried to answer in relation (as they say) to the theater. I was convinced that a man, formally, is no more and certainly no less than a chair. Fool that I was. I took two chairs, placed them either side of me, and sat down on the floor. The answer was, from these friends: Who would go to the theater to see a man be a chair? What would Kline have said. If anything. Is this thing on the page opposite looking at you too? Why do you think that's an eye. Does any round enclosed shape seem to you an eye.

There is no 'answer' to anything. A painter (possibly a musician) can assert this more effectually, more relevantly, than any other 'artist'. He can be present all at one time, which no writer can quite be - because he has to ' go on'. If no one sees a painter, or, rather, what he is doing - finally, not 'doing' - doesn't he still have things. At least no man can point at a painting and say it's nothing, he'll be lucky if it doesn't come down off the wall and club him to death for such an impertinence.

God knows we finally enjoy, deeply enjoy, wit, the grace, the care, of any thing, - how it is. Kline's audience (no doubt in Paradise) will be a group of finely laughing women, plus what men won't be jealous. --R.C.

What seems perfectly obvious about this piece, is that it isn't to be taken as a literal description either of the work being discussed, or as an attempt to show a biographical link between Kline the man, and the paintings being addressed. This is an impressionistic, poetic, take on Kline's aesthetic, part dream-like evocation, part tongue-in-cheek joke, and part serious meditation on the underlying thematic implications which occur to Creeley as responder. It bears comparison to Creeley's later prose books Presences, and the prose section of A Daybook, as well as other prose texts (i.e., the novel and the stories). None of these texts is to be taken literally, and I suspect that Creeley would have been surprised and even amused, were they to have been so treated. At the most, one might say that Creeley's Kline note is an imagination of a possible psychology of the works themselves, neither a metaphor for his own sexual feelings or conduct, nor for Kline (the man)'s personal eccentricities--though there is just the barest hint of sexual flavor as probable content in the paintings. Nevertheless, would any reader of this piece, then, or now, imagine that the statements contained in the note refer to actual opinions, points of view, or prejudices? In the context of the style of the piece itself, which rambles oddly from statement to statement, it's hard to see how anyone could draw such a conclusion.

In the poem "The Hole" Creeley reenacts the sexually charged nature of language--

she didn't want
it, but said, after,

the only time
it felt right. Was
I to force

--and this is anything but untypical in his work. Creeley is one of the few poets who frankly addresses explosive emotional and behavioral issues in his poetry. His work is filled with references to sex, marital discord, violence, argument, frustration, embarrassment, titillation, inebriation, confusion, anxiety. Beside such a catalogue of distress and partial confession, how does an early essay like the Note play out?

Is a writer allowed to address--even play with--abnormal or transgressive ideation in his/her art without crossing a sort of ethical line which transcends aesthetic license, implicating the author in a kind of kangaroo court of permissible expression and attitude? On the one hand, we defend, for instance, Mapplethorpe's clearly offensive homoerotic S/M imagery as a part of the national artistic pride, but we are ever ready to attack any evidence of unacceptable straight "male violence"--even when it's a part of a representation, an effort to explore, explicate, even expiate impermissible tendencies. Allen Ginsberg notoriously, publicly explored his own homoerotic sexuality in his poetry, as well as in his interviews and autobiographical and non-fiction prose. So did Jonathan Williams. As have many others in the years since 1960. The aesthetic coming-out party has been in full-swing for at least 40 years in American art and literature. And yet, we still see instances of a deep division in our attitudes about transgressive straight male art, seeing it as violence towards women, as unsublimated chauvinistic regard, as embarrassing, forbidden behavior.

At one point in the discussion segment of the Symposium, Rachel Blau DuPlessis warns, as an aside to the discussion regarding sexism, "we can't go back there"--meaning, I presume, that we can't go back to a time when male poets were free to address their own sexuality out in the open, even when such explorations were done in a therapeutic spirit. "At a certain point in his life someone must have talked to him," Silliman avers--or perhaps Creeley himself realized that his formerly free-wheeling self, his keen curiosity and determination to follow his inquiring mind wherever it might lead him, e.g., down the tortuous passageways of his own sexuality--would no longer be accepted, his words no longer be regarded as permissible in the current atmosphere of correct opinion?

So I think there are two questions which beg to be asked, and answered here.

1 Is it fair, ultimately, to make claim of, or to impute, a malicious motive in Creeley's sentence "There is nothing quite so abrupt and even pleasant as rape - ask any woman";

2 and if so, is it within our purview to condemn Creeley's work because it is somehow tainted with the reliable charge of misogynist, chauvinistic, sexually violent attitudes?

Would we be as likely to persecute the reputation or literary residue of any current Gay-Lesbian-Person-of-Color writer or artist, of standing, were they to express feelings of sado-masochistic lust, juvenile fixation, racial hatred, or other inflammatory content, in their works, as we would be in chasing down and nailing the offenders of earlier, less benign, times?

For at least the last 45 years, Robert Creeley has been a hero of the literary avant garde, a pioneer not only in the art of poetry, but in prose fiction and the non-fiction literary essay. He functioned for much of that period, as well, as a great editor, teacher and supporter of the American avant garde.

But no one is allowed to escape the thought police, who relentlessly track down every suspect and expose each of them for their transgressions and supposed shortcomings. It's important for everyone, not just Creeley's fans but everyone in the artistic community, to know that he harbored dark and superstitious fantasies about women. It's high time we put Creeley and Olson in their place, and move on. They were good writers, maybe even great ones, but they were deeply flawed, irredeemably so, and no longer deserve to be unambiguously admired. All rise and bow your heads in silence.


J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Art Durkee said...

In an interesting synchronicity, the Harriet blog posted something parallel today, regarding Burroughs:

If Your Books Are Weird, You're Weird.

It's the usual mistake about confusing an artist with their work.

J said...

Most Ahhtistes serve Mammon--aka finance capitalism-- abstractionists, bohemians, "beats" included.

Then so do athletes--National Felon League.

THe USA is still brooklyn and chi-town 20's, judges/cop/polis on the take--and Ho-wood run by the studio rackets so forth-- but the media and ewe-ni-versities, Inc. got their cover-up game down by now. Paul Feyerabend a few others --now Zizek, sorta-- was on to that game (including the little bay area talent nite fraudniks, and their pseudo-nabakov-desadean folderol).