Thursday, April 30, 2009

Minimalism Part II - Creeley's THIRTY THINGS [1974]

Robert Creeley presents an interesting instance of a post-Modernist writer whose career was to a considerable extent the "story" of the development of Miminalism in America--its possibilities and limitations--as the direction his work took through the 1960's and 1970's provides a kind of cautionary narrative of the vicissitudes of a commitment to a reductio. 

Creeley's work had always tended towards the narrow, the abbreviated. Poems collected in For Love 1950-1960 [Scribner's, 1962]--the book which established his reputation as a major post-War American writer, and even today is regarded by many as his best work--was filled with short, narrow, vivid, rhetorically succinct examples of a style that he'd derived from William Carlos Williams, Wyatt, Campion and others. It was "courtly" in a mocking, hip way. His following collection, Words [Scribner's, 1965-67] was somewhat looser in its first two-thirds, then, in its last 20 or so pages, reflected a new, more reductive tendency than before. His next book, Pieces [Scribner's, 1969], seemed at the time a culmination of the work of 20 years of thought and experiment, a distillation and limning of meaning and means into the fewest words possible for any given impulse. Some asked, at the time, whither might Creeley go, having written himself into a corner, so to speak? 

The answer, of course, was that he could go anywhere, do anything, use any form that suited his intentions. Having taken Minimalism about as far as one could, he was free to abandon it, exploit it further, or go silent. For the last almost 40 years of his life, that's exactly what he did do, writing almost every kind of poem you could imagine, in addition to abstract prose tracts, journals, autobiography, classical poems in quatrains, etc. And he continued, frequently, to keep his hand in with Minimal poems. 

One of the great books of the post-Modern, post-War period is his book Thirty Things [Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1974]. Published five years after Pieces [1969], it's like a continuation of the earlier collection, but with a slightly altered spirit. It's not just a collection of "things" however, but a clearly defined bracket of work, conceived as a unit, and deliberately executed as a book whose size, feel and qualities perfectly embody its content. The work is a collaboration between Creeley and his wife at the time, Bobbie, who contributes a series of black and white monoprints (collage-like found images distorted by moving them during exposure in a copy machine); the impression is of dream-blurred memories. 

The poems record a period during which Creeley lived in Bolinas, a small California coastal community perched on the southern edge of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a big triangle of land along the western margin of Marin County. Five poems scattered among the thirty, describe the windy edge of the mesa where the town sits, and are among the most accurate, and moving purely descriptive landscape (or pastoral) poems I know.  

The Temper

The temper is fragile
as apparently it wants to be,
wind on the ocean, trees
moving in wind and rain.


As You Come

As you come down
the road, it swings
slowly left and the sea
opens below you,
west.  It sounds out.


As We Sit

There is a long
stretch of sky
before us.  The road

goes out to the channel
of the water.  Birds
fly in the faintly

white sky.  A sound
shuffles over
and over, shifting

sand and
water.  A wind
blows steadily

as we sit.



Faded mind,
fading colors,
old, dear clothes.

the ocean under
the road's edge,
down the side
of the hill.


Up on the top the
space goes further than
the eye can see.  We're
up here, calling
over the hill.

Bolinas isn't a vacationland destination. In fact, the residents of the town have historically resisted the incursion of outsiders, notoriously (and repeatedly) removing the road sign announcing the turn-off along Hiway 1, so drivers wouldn't know it was there. As if to say "we're happy in our isolation, go away, build your condos and shopping centers and motels elsewhere, we're keeping this place just the way it is." In the 1960's it became a hide-out or "artist colony" for refugees from the urban centers--poets and artists from San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere set up shop to brave the rustic rigors of primitive plumbing, septic systems, and the volunteer fire brigade. It was close enough to the Bay Area to touch base with civilization whenever one wanted, but secluded enough to pass for genuine outback. 

This sequence of poems captures the vacant, methodical character of the Pacific aspect, its continual breeze and hollow roar of endless surf, lulling, hypnotic, its grey-blue monotony flattening out daily care and nodes of vivid color and anxiety. The human temper is fragile, sensitive to the unrelenting assault of the elements, which become equivalents for its own sturm und drang. The simplest description of a thing may be its ultimate formula. Only someone with a mind like Samuel Beckett, would be likely to construct a narrative out of such meager materials. But Creeley's style seems ultimately suited to it.  

The Pacific has come to symbolize the "end" of the Westward movement, the point beyond which we cannot go. A sort of ultimate land's end of psychological regard. In a sense, these poems acknowledge that emptiness, the edge of our longing for further reaches of possibility and adventure, of "territory beyond" the settled. 

During the 1960's, Creeley had moved closer and closer to "the edge" in himself, as to the edge of the continent. "The edge of that edge." With Pieces, he may have approached a limit in his own life, beyond which he could not go. It may be, that in Thirty Things, he'd finally come to sit on the bench at land's end and found the "nothingness" of which the Existentialists speak. It seems to have had a calming influence on his nature. Much has been made of Creeley's "thaw" just as Lowell's relaxation of tensions had been remarked during the 1950's with his Life Studies [1959]. Did Creeley retreat, in early middle age, from the extremity of his own artistic enterprise? Or was the last half of his life a fulfillment of the potentials of his acute earlier vision? 


Ed Baker said...

well a "break-away" piece for me what Cree did for/with Marisol


Marisol was on her way into her place when I and Fay were also on the way in Vestry Street... this was maybe lets see before my stroke so about 2000

I looked at tis "striking" woman and Fay said "That's Marisol. She lives there.

Robert Creeley also wrote a novel The Island

he regularly read here at the Library of Congress.. a "good" guy (mostly) and 'fine tuned'

Curtis Faville said...

Creeley's a hero to me.

A formidable presence. When I was 25, he was one of four or five ikons impossible to ignore, every time I thought to write, his echoes, turns of phrase were right there.

The best kind of teacher--you have to struggle to get BEYOND him, to BE YOURSELF.

Anonymous said...

concomitant to what you say
,Curtis, "presence" is some terrific plinth to

go out from....and "place"

any place/point is also.

ONE of my hearohs (Carl Rakosi) in an interview, 2001 w Klipschutz:

KL: Do you think young poets should adopt a master, or does that happen naturally?"

CR: It happens without the young poets being aware of it at first, and when he does, he has to free himself from the bond, which is not easy to do. [...] The trick is to maintain one's individuality and come away from this barrage with only as much influence as can be integrated into it."

well I just warmed up and being hot I got me a little poem first draft to start my day:

full moon
consulting dead poets

;so, that it might "look like" an high-coo this form.. but it ain't really a "full moon" either.

as for missionaries (everywhere) trading peanut-butter and jelly sandwitches for "converting to... and what Cecil Rhodes did to ....


religion AND politics are bologna!

now, faith that's an whole 'nuther "thing"

so in 1957 or so the last time I was told MY Intelligence
Quotient it was 112!
and I recall that Goethe's was 230! Bennie Franklin's was also 230!

they both read a lot. and were good cross-word puzzle doers.... and "liked" the women

well today I will re-visit all of my Robert Creeley "stuff"

Ed in Takoma Park

Steven Fama said...

Thanks for this post, Curtis. I assume I've seen these or most or some of 30 Things in Creeley's Selected Poems but I need to check out the book, which I've seen before.

The monoprints as I recall weren't instantly exciting or even but that's a memory I'd like to re-check given your "dream-blurred memories" take on them.

The five pastorals, as you call them (and I don't disagree with the characterization) do give a great sense of how it can be op on the mesa.

But there are great landscape poems out there and I'd have a hard time putting these Creeley ones on top of -- just as examples -- Rexroth's poems (scattered in a number of his books, though all in the Collected) set in or regarding the Devil's Gulch area of Samuel P. Taylor State Park (up Sir Francis Drake from Point Reyes), Everson's early San Joaquin valley fog poems or his later Santa Cruz mountain drought ones, etc.

Finally, I didn't get from your post what you mean when you write that Creeley's book was a "cleary defined bracket of work . . . ." More directly, if you explained what ties together the poems in the book, including the 25 not mentioned, I missed it.

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Anonymous said...

well 'mostly' acause

he died

before I got the chance to thank him ..

I had several chances but, a crowd was always surrounding him and,
crowds suck! they 'suck blood' and call it "ritual/dogma"

besides, I was standing wayyyyy "over there"
and on his no-eye side...

for those who don't yet "know" try Wilson's (editour of):

"Robert Creeley's Life and Work A Sense of Increment"

("Increment" being 'key')

Ed in Takoma Park, 1941-2009

Ed Baker said...

acause he died
I got the chance to

buy him a beer

and 'schmooze'


Ed Baker said...

welll ME again an ohhhh I get
sooo excited when something

strikes me

so we got 4 and twenty black-birds

and all of them listened to radio...


Olson, Zukofsky, Rakosi, Oppen,Williams, Duncan,Levertov, Eigner, Creeley, Samperi... oh I wld have to go to my "stash" to get a 24-poet list...and
1,000 etcs

but,, they all THEY ALL (especially Larry and Bobbie) they every one of 'em had

a central "electrical outlet" to plug into

C I D C O R M A N 's

radio program up in Boston

and the PIE!? well

Origin Magazine

and, all these "guys wrote wrote wrote wrote

far beyond any akaneamic credentialist "crap"

get a hold The Gist of Origin

Cid often said:

Curtis Faville said...


I've never been able to understand why Rexroth was so important.

Apparently he was a very abrasive character, he'd insult people right and left, and pontificate about everything. People like Duncan would swear by him, but I've never been impressed by a single poem he wrote, long or short. Some of his Japanese and Chinese translations have a workmanlike efficiency. He did some competent essays for the Saturday Review of Literature many years ago. I know he had a feeling for Western Landscape, but it never comes off as more than "arrogant rock" to my ears. He'd read a lot of French and Spanish surrealism in his youth, and it influenced him. His first collection--In What Hour--contains poems of traditional technique, and some that are "cubistic" in construction.

Creeley isn't considered a pastoral poet by any stretch, but those I quoted above I've always admired--they really capture the mood of the place.

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eddie watkins said...

"Did Creeley retreat, in early middle age, from the extremity of his own artistic enterprise? Or was the last half of his life a fulfillment of the potentials of his acute earlier vision?"

Though I've never gotten into Creeley (but you've convinced me to pick up the 1st volume of the collected), I'd like to respond to this comment.

One need not remain at that edge to create work of excellence and interest. In fact one can probably not remain at that edge for long, without incurring damages. But having experienced that edge, and its dangers and extremities, can effectively "open something up" within one, move one to another level of the mind in a sense, and then this new level can be explored at relative ease. In this way even more of that new level can be revealed and remarked upon. Better to let extreme experiences do their work and then reap their rewards in relative safety, than to torment oneself by trying to recreate the experience of being on that extreme edge.

Curtis Faville said...

In Creeley's case, I think the exigencies of his life derailed him. I won't go into details--after all, there's a full-fleshed-out biography now--but things just weren't working. Could he/would he/should he have continued on a path implied by the last third of Words and then Pieces and Thirty Things? I can't say. I don't know what the implication of such an eventuality might have been. It's imponderable.

But there's certainly no reason to think that Creeley did the "wrong things" at any point. People may claim that a writer "abandoned" his inspiration in favor of a diversion or wrong turn. I don't think this is possible with Creeley. He carried all his intelligence with him to the end. He did what he had to.

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eddie watkins said...

Something about his work has always struck me as neurotic. A particular set of neuroses that must conflict with mine.

But then I haven't read Pieces or Thirty Things.

Steven Fama said...


A few reasons Rexroth's important:

plain written instead of academic crap.

a knowledge or world poetry when much of 'merican verse was USA-centric.

excellent love poems

excellent criticism (read the Classics Revisted)

His earlier experimentation, from the late 1920s and early 1930s -- some great stuff -- was first collected not in his first book In What Hour (1940) but rather The Art of Worldly Wisdom published almost a decade later.

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eddie watkins said...

I've benefitted from "Waxwrath"'s translations and have enjoyed his long poems and the rugged clarity of his short poems. I also like the seeming spontaneity of his work, its unbelaboredness.

And who doesn't like his great quote: "Most poets are so square thay have to walk around the block just to turn over in bed."

Curtis Faville said...

I don't think Rexroth was ever in danger of writing traditional poems. As a young man in Chicago, he was already a rebel, and his readings of the European avant garde, way back in the early 1930's, guaranteed he'd never be an academic.

He was influenced by Pound, going back to early models and "classical" postures. I think, with Rexroth, that doesn't necessarily have a happy outcome. I'd really rather have someone like Wilbur or Logue or Jeffers doing the Greek drama bit, instead of Rexroth.

Steven Fama said...


American Poetry in the 20th Century is a broad survey, as if Rexroth were sitting in his bath-tub or an easy chair and carryng on as if he were flying 30,000 feet above.

It's charm is Rexroth's wide knowledge, tendency to gossip, and judgmental approach.

Those are its deficiencies too.

The start of Chapter 8 is tpical as anything: an extremely good capsule portrait of Eugene Jolas, stressing his knowledge of languages and historic and varied literatures, a dismissal of the a key part of "The Revolution of the Word," praise for the magazine transition, and an intense curlicue inserted about Robert Desnos, in the course of which Rexroth knocks Cocteeau and Allen Ginsberg.

In this way Rexroth covers a lot of ground. The book has no index, but if it did, it would run pages. It's maddeningly shallow, but wide wide wide and to this day when I re-read the book it sparks interest in reading or thinking about things.

Rexroth champions Mina Loy, and Baroness Elsa von Freitag-Lorinhofen (that's Rexroth's spelling), considers WC Williams the greatest poet of the generation, specifically demolishing TS Eliot and others in the process, etc. etc. He's pretty dead-on.

eddie watkins said...

Monsieur Silliman might share some similarities with Rexroth, no?

non-academic, autodidact, extremely opinionated (often in broad slashing strokes), thorny, extremely well-read, publicly available (though S isn't really the popularizer R was), and first and foremost a poetry inspirer.

Both necessary figures for their times.

Though I couldn't see R drinking joe out of a tin cup on a mountain-top.

Ed Baker said...

why not jus' re:visit areas lights heights? for starters maybe (even) WHOLE &/OR PARTS? or

A DEFINATE AIR re:garding Cid Corman's Thwe Precisions

or better yet just go to

that 1977 Stoney Hills (Peter Bates) interview

page 148..

and there-in a LE piece to thicken his plot (pardon me if the spacing ain't rigt):


to study with


in the common



go to town


your earth

then dis


watch out


for the steetlamp



pee est:
I could say more
will save things for after I am dead

for those who read/write/draw
before thinking

Anonymous said...

Eigner (also in areas lights heights

goes to this (re:Rexroth)
(a 'review' of)

By Kenneth Rexroth

Curtis Faville said...


in earth's wake

our time alloted

eddie watkins said...

Read LE on The Dragon and the Unicorn last night.

Refreshingly reviewed as a sensitized reader and a reader's direct experience as such, not as yet another poet picking bones or blindly & blurbily championing.

Anonymous said...


you can read Rexroth's poem here (en toto)

SOME piece of work!

reminds me that after all

(writing) poems IS above all else A CRAFT


as I frequently have said:

in my craft and sullen art

...go figure

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

The idea that poetry is above all a "craft" is by no means self-evidently correct.

"Craft" by definition is something which can be codified, profiled, and learned, like a set of algebraic formulas which can be applied, endlessly, to specific relationships and problems.

Rhyme, for instance, and meter, can be demonstrated and imitated endlessly. Straight end-line rhyme, therefore, can be employed with greater or lesser efficiency and inspiration by each succeeding generation of writers.

But imitation and pat structural paradigms don't make art. If you're going to make something new, if you wish to invent or discover, imitation may be your starting point, but it can't be your ultimate goal. Art is about challenging the prevailing modes of "craft". It may be that one must first understand, perhaps even master, previous modes, before one can get beyond them, but even that is questionable. Some people with only a cursory knowledge of antecedents nevertheless broker new forms and ideas.

Sorry to disagree with you here....

eddie watkins said...

Don't think that's the complete, Ed, but I'm curious - think you could read such a long poem on-line? would it get to your eyes?

I'm yet to be able to apply the same attention & concentration to extended on-line reading as I do to an actual book object.

Anonymous said...

I should have put that in-to quotes...or said Dylan Thomas said...

which led him directly to
udder drunkenness or worst.... now he is reduced to just another God of Poetry...

I knew that I should not have dropped out of that
pee ached dee program! gee, by now I cld have been Professor E-meritous

and have some degree of credibility.

I ag(f)ree with you

one might learn/memorize "The Rules"

then bye gawsh dropp 'em.... and move on.... ?

your blog IS a breath of phresh aire...


OH! another "neat" book (attitude):

Soetsu Yanagi's THE UNKNOWN CRAFTSMAN more to what/how I define (soemtimes) "craft"


"craft a piece" including what is accidental as .... etc..

Ed Baker said...

hey I just found it on the net and passed it on have yet to read it! I am with you I won't even fucking print it out on my HP Color LaserJet 2605dn...much less "read" this on-line version!

will find the book

a poem of this magnitude might take me years (of bathroom-sitting) to read

47 yerars now and I still ain't much beyond The Peesan Cantos of THAT monster..

Not to mention...

eddie watkins said...

Don't know if some of your typos are encrypted puns or not, but


looked to my eyes as


as if every year was an era

a great microscoping of time

Thanks! ... and

good to hear someone else hasn't yet slain that monster

Steven Fama said...

Just for everyone's -- or those who may be interested -- further information:

Rexroth's The Dragon and the Unicorn is a mostly entertaining and at points astonishing long poem, in Rexroth's characteristic short line, plain style, that mixes travelogue with philosophic meditations, but the poem is marred, deeply, by offensive sections of gay hate, or homophobism, or -- at the very least -- poor judgment regarding matters related to sexual orientation.

There's also some poor assumptions and conclusions about women, and about certain nationalities or types, but these don't seem as ugly today -- probably because they are mixed in with observations that are not so ignoble about those particular kinds of human beings -- as do the two or three (? -- I can't remember exactly how many there are)) rips on gays/homosexuals.