Monday, April 05, 2004

There's something profoundly nerdy about showing up early for a poetry reading, but I had a feeling it was going to be necessary for Robert Creeley at the U of C on Thursday evening. The reading had shifted from its usual long-hall, chairs-on-the-floor setting of Classics 10 to the auditorium setting of Social Sciences 122, which seats around 150, but by the time I walked through the door at 5:15 the place was already packed and I just barely managed to squeeze into a seat in the fourth row. By the time the reading started--at 5:30 sharp--people were crouching in the aisles and standing three deep in the open doorway. I even saw a few people standing outside in the cold, ears pressed against the slightly opened windows.

Robert von Hallberg provided a fine introduction, hitting on precisely that balance of forces that makes Creeley's work so powerful and appealing: its ability to be somehow both utterly plain and richly, almost agonizingly allusive, and suggesting a development from Creeley's early desire to articulate a generational consciousness to his more recent interest in finding a more broadly shared consciousness--or, as Creeley would put it several times during the reading, a "company."

Creeley came to the podium with a copy of Fanny Howe's The Wedding Dress and opened with a selection from Howe's "Bewilderment" that evoked the image of the "sleeping witness" who "feels safe enough to lie down in mystery"--an image Creeley likened to Keastian negative capability, and to Franz Kline's quip, "I paint what I don't know." "I have nothing to say," Creeley insisted; what's interesting, then, is to see "what still insists on being said."

Creeley had a copy of his Selected Poems but only cracked it open a few times, sticking mostly to new or recent work. I think Creeley's work of the '60s and '70s is absolutely indispensable--I can't imagine where I'd be without it--but I've had a hard time knowing what to do with his poetry since the '80s; his enjambments have seemed less hard-edged and his rhythms less infallible. His poetry's always risked banality, but in his best work simplicity turns into a kind of minimalism or abstraction; I've found some of his recent work, though, veering a bit toward the sentimental. Perhaps this is simply a product of achieving what Creeley called "a comfortably advanced age"; I think you can see something a bit similar happening in Ashbery's recent work, which continues to come out at a remarkable clip as his lines get shorter and shorter and his syntax less and less complex.

In person, though, Creeley's utterly convincing. I've seen him read three times now, and he always manages to keep his audiences rapt, moving seamlessly from poem to poetics to patter; he's one of the few poets whose reading actually profoundly illuminates the work--his sometimes abrupt linebreaks just seem to map the contours of his voice. He's an avuncular presence, coming in a comfortable blue sweater and jeans and even, Mr. Rogers style, removing the sweater before he started to read, and frequently smoothing back his hair or rubbing his brow as if slightly perplexed by his own words.

The first poem he read, "Possibilities," had everything I've been talking about going on; it had Creeley's typically constrained vocabulary, leaning on repetitions (each / each, all / all), slight permutations in wording, and corny rhymes (here / near / dear). But rather than making these a personal statement, the poem worked to push these into the impersonal: "One wanted...One says...One heard of a thoughtless moment." If a lot of early Creeley seemed to be about picking apart individual subjectivity, showing how agonizing it was for the "I" to try to say anything at all, late Creeley is more interested in the shared and collective, how "nothing's apart from all"--a sentiment, Creeley noted at the poem's conclusion, that stands against the current tendency toward "separation into bits and pieces."

These gestures toward common experience continued throughout the reading, at times doing a little classic-rock channeling: "Everybody's child walks the same winding road," "Two is still one--it cannot live apart." But the most affecting moments were grounded in an awareness of age and an ironic resistance to claiming age as a position of wisdom; we got Creeley's one-sentence Burnt Norton--"the old garden with its old familiar flowers"--and Beckettian reduction of life's objects, with, of course, Creeley's all-American automotive twist: "ring, dog, hat, car." A piece portentously called "Memory" turned out to be a loose stand-up routine, with Creeley recounting in painful detail his urologist's instructions on how to "squeeze out the last drops of pee" by hand, the weird stares this got him in public bathrooms, and finally a reference, of course, to "On Golden Pond." He also noted his alarm when his dentist began telling him, "Well, that should hold you."

The power of Creeley's method might have been most evident, though, in his final poem, "John's Song" (a title that of course recalls Creeley's most famous poem, "I Know a Man": "John, I / sd, which was not his / name"), which consisted almost entirely of repetitions of and variations on two phrases: "If ever / there is...other than war."

After the reading there was a reception upstairs in a room that looked like a well-preserved Victorian clubhouse. I chatted for a while with Ela Kotkowska (who has her own reading report up) and Kerri Sonnenberg. Ela sampled some unidentifiable finger food (potato? yellow squash? candied lemon?) while we plotted guerilla retail poetry for Marshall Field's: poems the length of an escalator ride, poems delivered with a perfume bottle in hand; poems sprung on mud-masked customers in mid-makeover.

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