Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Minimalism XVI: Creeley's Rest
Robert Creeley's collection Pieces was published at the end of the Sixties [New York: Scribner's, 1969], at the height of his minimalist period. It was important not just because it expressed a radical tendency in his own oeuvre, but because it defined a leading edge of inquiry into the possibility of deconstructing ordinary language, a major preoccupation of the time.
Unlike the Concrete movement practitioners, Creeley's interest in minimal form wasn't transparent and ephemeral. He was tortured by personal demons, and his obsession with the conundra of words and phrases and formal structures wasn't casual or easy. He saw moral implications, traps and opportutnities in the smallest combinations.
Unlike most other minimalist verse, Creeley's small poems always have something fascinating and unresolved about them. They vibrate and echo in the mind, and can't be discarded once you've read them.
In traditional poetry (and more specifically, in light verse), wit and rhyme are employed in a spirit of play or clever emphasis, and in the vast majority of cases, it's an application upon language, rather than an investigation into the subtler shades of meaning. Tolling rhyme and light wit have their place--Pope's whole life work hinges on them--but they are expressions of, or elaborations of the resources of language, rather than meditations about the medium itself; and in addition, their tone and quality do not derive from conversation and speech, but rest upon higher platforms of rhetoric.
Riddles, proverbs, gnomes, wise-cracks, and folk-sayings are handy receptacles for the transmission of wisdom or humor, and they often convey more than people initially think. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is a saying that expresses an inequality, but which may have several different interpretations. Its original meaning is probably lost, though its power derives from the vividness of its formulation, since holding a wild bird is a difficult proposition, and birds are very difficult to catch without elaborate means. Catching and watching, possessing and coveting, confinement and freedom--there are many ways to go with it. It's like an open ended proposition which has the power of idiomatic speech. Creeley's poems in Pieces are anything but simplistic riddles, though they may masquerade as that to some readers who have limited patience with the magnification required to read everything that the poems say and do.
Creeley is above all a moralist. Every utterance, every remark, no matter how casual-seeming, carries a burden of responsibility and irony. He's always on edge, pushing each stanza, each phrase, each word, each punctuation mark to an absolute limit. Once a Creeley poem gets into your head, it's nearly impossible to get rid of, short of exorcism or a surgical lobotomy. One such poem for me is--
Though it's deceptively simple, its deception isn't the issue. There's often a sense of disquiet in a Creeley poem, a feeling that you've understood only part of the message the words convey. One thing/done is composed of six words, two to a line, divided into two groups of three by the comma. Syntactically, it's straightforward and sensible. It's a logical presumption: Every human action occurs in a sequence of duration, every act is an increment of measure, the measure of our lives meted out, the measure of the poem's beat, its cadence and setting.
The poem functions as an injunction to duty, or as an apology for any kind of failure or resistance to obligation. It's the reductive conundrum, that anything can be broken down into a series of simple linear increments, and so mastered, managed. Turning the poem around, it's also the lazy man's expedient: Now that I've done just one thing, I've earned my rest. What's next?
You could set the poem as two pyramids:
but the interlocking of the done, the which splits along the poem's dialectical fracture, links the initial completion of accomplishment to the (deserved?) rest of the conclusion. Yet rest means not only relaxation, but everything else--the rest of what will happen, the rest of everything! The isolation of a single function does not release one from the necessity of going on living, one to one to one, in a long sequence of events or acts which comprise a life lived in the continuous present. Oneness--the singularity of purpose which defines the committed life--is a virtual obsession in Creeley's work. One thing. And the joke cuts too, you've only done a single thing, written two little words, simple words, so you deserve to rest? To rest from your labors. Seems silly, actually. Except that rest is a necessity, not only in the sense of needing sleep every day, needing to rest from every motion our muscles make, and of course everything follows. Follows in the logical sense, if we're talking sense.
A Creeley poem is like a charm, a rabbit's foot you carry in your pocket, finger it while you're walking down the street, where no one can see it. Might bring good luck. Whatever. Ca va. The penetrating irony locked inside the words is revealed by the ingenious simplicity of their arrangement, and the resistance to elaboration. The poem's reluctance, curtness, standing pat--isn't a bluff. It means exactly what it says, is wholly self-contained, full. Wants nothing. Needs nothing. The least qualification would throw it off balance like a top that loses inertia. It spins forever in gravity-less aether, like a gyroscope in outer space.