The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley is an engaging, thoroughly worthwhile selection of the poet’s correspondence spanning his complete life. The editorial work done here is quite impressive. The only areas to be possibly improved upon would be further notes in the back of the book and more illustrations. The letters span some sixty odd years, so although Creeley is perhaps one of the greatest over-photographed poets of our time it seems appropriate to have at least one photograph per decade. As it is there’s about three, including the photo on the cover. It is admittedly difficult to locate yet-unseen images of him, but several pages of reproduced letter manuscripts or perhaps images of this or that difficult to obtain publication would have sufficed instead. And it proves difficult not to wish for some further elaboration upon the minimal notes included. Not every reader has the book open next to the computer to take advantage of Wikipedia and Google. Yet as stated the overall skilled arrangement of the whole book is such that these are minor quibbles.
Creeley himself well understood the massive assembling project that any selection of his letters represented. Writing to editor Rod Smith, Creeley describes his sense of how “some general ‘map’ or sense of focus or parameter would be the first need.” He then immediately suggests the then-recent “selection of [Charles] Olson letters–or Gregory’s, just out from ND” as some examples of what he has in mind as successes. The latter volume, An accidental autobiography: the selected letters of Gregory Corso (New Directions “ND” 2003), I fondly recall a poet-pal curling up with in bed while down LA’s Chinatown for a reading, a small group of us having driven down for the event.
Creeley’s Selected, however, easily outshines my experience of reading Corso’s correspondence. This is no small feat given that so little is readily available concerning Corso, while material on Creeley is quite plentiful. I say this having an equal interest in both poets and having read ALL available material on each of them. Corso’s letters, for all his charm, are just too repetitive. They round out the experience of his poems but are ultimately as inhibited by his vices as the poems too often sadly prove to be. On the other hand, Creeley’s letters truly offer all that any of his readers might imagine and more. Not that Creeley didn’t indulge his share of vices: mention of numerous illicit substances make repeated revolving door appearance in the letters as do his (nearly) overlapping romances and marriages.
As a persistent reader of all things Creeley I would have thought there was little to be newly discovered about his life and writing. But the letters quickly prove just how wrong it is to make such an assumption. The simplest of fresh things I’ve come across is Creeley’s repeated use of “voila” throughout his correspondence. He’s usually using it as a turn of phrase to sum up his recounting of some recent excitement to a correspondent. Often it occurs near either the conclusion of the entire letter or some lengthy passage in particular, as if to say “see what I mean! And so now:” before continuing on to his next thought.
This reoccurring word appears early on in the letters and at first had me thinking it was something he just tried out which would then disappear as time went by; but I found it continued throughout decade after decade. This caught my attention because it is not a regularly used figure of speech I’ve found in any of Creeley’s other writings, poems, published interviews, essays, etc. where appear an abundance of what I term Creeleyisms. Familiar phrasal patterns to which he easily returns over and over again, yet the “voila” is present just in his correspondence. My new found Creeleyism: Voila.
Returning to Creeley’s letter to Rod Smith mentioned above, he offers a fitting summation of what proves to be the trajectory of The Selected Letters: “my so-called life as a writer, with its defining periods and persons, e.g., living abroad, New Mexico, etc. So again some sort of overall ‘map’ in mind would be useful, serving as center for the whole.” He continues, stating that it should represent (as it so successfully does) “…a means of getting some overall ‘picture’,” Creeley then mentions the regrettable Ekbert Fass biography of himself alongside the terrific mix-mash interview/critical/autobiography of Tom Clark’s Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place:
there’s the drear Fass biography—which is in no way my pleasure—but he did determined legwork in getting basic materials (letters, etc.) and to persons relating. It’s his ‘reading’ of it all which I necessarily abhor, but nonetheless his ‘parameters’ may be helpful. Then there are takes like Tom Clark’s ‘American Common Place’—my own favorite just that it cuts to the chase so usefully.
Not surprisingly, Creeley gets it right. If you’re interested in his life and work: ignore the Fass (or at least remain heavily suspect as you go through it), but read Clark’s book, along with the books of interviews available, and read these letters.
On my first approach to engaging The Selected Letters I jumped around with my reading. I began by looking up names in the index, which was hit and miss of interest, and just opening at random to begin with whatever recipient seemed promising. I also looked at those years with which I was most familiar of particular events having occurred. I very quickly recognized the strength of this collection and, turning back to the beginning, read the whole book straight through. There’s too much to be missed reading it any other way. The letters have been selected so that a/the/his (take your pick) ‘story’ does quite coherently emerge. Creeley proves relentlessly the generous caring spirit so many testimonials give him forth as being. It’s difficult imagining evidence of a truer committed friend, devoted artist, and human being striving for principled humaneness.
Rather than offer what would prove to be a shortchanged overview of highlights from throughout the book, in closing I’ll instead share some of my favored tidbits from letters late in the poet’s life. Creeley’s letters in his sixties to older poet Carl Rakosi in his nineties demonstrate the same careful respect shown for a mentor as the youthful Creeley did writing to William Carlos Williams as a young aspiring poet and editor. Repeated emails with then Poetry Project Director Anselm Berrigan not only concern the organizing of a tribute reading on the passing of saxophonist friend and collaborator, Steve Lacy, but also share with Berrigan recollections of his father by a local postal worker in Providence, RI where the Creeley’s had recently relocated.
Finally, there is Creeley’s clarification to Ammiel Alcalay concerning a remark by Olson in Muthologos, “Boy, there was no poetic. It was Charlie Parker. Literally, it was Charlie Parker.” Creeley asserts this should not be mistaken to indicate Olson listened to Parker, but that rather:
By the late sixties Parker is both public legend (like Pollock) and also primary example of “improvisation,” and Olson would have been well aware of that from me and a tacit host of others. Too, you see the context of the questions is whether or no there was an active “poetics” being worked out at BMC to which Duncan and I still obtained, and the Parker reference is making clear that no, it was a practice, the event, which was the action and center—
This gathering of Creeley’s letters decidedly functions as both “action and center” itself. The rewards for readers begin right at the start and continue until the very end; proving, more than anything, that Creeley is one hell of a missed man. Those of us who never had the pleasure of knowing his company now feel the weight of his absence alongside the vast number of friends, admirers, and assorted associates with whom he maintained an astounding presence, may we all be so lucky in our reading and writing lives.