Robert Kern: On "I Know a Man"

"I'm given to write poems" (QG, 61), Creeley says in one of the most comprehensive of his statements on poetics, and any investigation of his work as critic or theorist properly begins with the recognition that his primary sense of the poetic act is that he is its object, the humble witness rather than the organizing manipulator of the poem's occasion. This distinction in itself—that between humble witness and organizing manipulator—might serve as a fruitful point of departure, since open form poetics is often predicated upon the conviction that it is the order and value out there, in the external world, that is important, as opposed to what immediately issues from the poet's private creative imagination, the poem itself regarded as the locus of value. Of course this conviction depends upon a prior one—the assumption that there is in fact an immanent order and value in external reality, or at least that there are forces outside the poet that ultimately control and indeed permit the act of composition—forces which the poet must recognize in order to write at all.

The emphasis here falls on the notion of the poet as medium more than as maker, an emphasis that is clear in Denise Levertov's statement, "I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays." Although she goes on immediately to qualify this remark by saying that poets are "also makers, craftsmen," whose responsibility it is to communicate what they see, the act of making seems temporally distinct in her definition from the act of recognition, or seeing, which is primary, prior to any making, and without which making would be impossible or trivial. Thinking of the poet as both medium and maker, in any event, does not prevent Levertov from defining her own mode of "organic" poetry as a method "of recognizing what we perceive" that is based, in turn, on "an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake" (PW, 7), where the important point is clearly that there is an order in experience which not only transcends but provides a ground for the conventional forms of poetic tradition, and which it is the poet's fundamental task to disclose.

Creeley's articulation of similar intuitions puts even greater stress on the humility demanded by the act of composition regarded as a process of recognition:

I have used all the intelligence that I can muster to follow the possibilities that the poem "under hand," as Olson would say, is declaring, but I cannot anticipate the necessary conclusions of the activity, nor can I judge in any sense, in moments of writing, the significance of that writing more than to recognize that it is being permitted to continue. I'm trying to say that, in writing, at least as I have experienced it, one is in the activity. . . . (QG, 61)

Seemingly more radical than Levertov, Creeley is implying that he does not know where he is going until he gets there, a notion of the creative process that brings to mind his frequent use of the example of driving a car as an analogy for writing, where it is the external road that determines the driver's decisions from moment to moment and that he must strictly attend to if he is to maintain himself in not only a unified relationship with his experience but literally a safe one. Consider the friend's reply to the speaker in Creeley's well-known poem "I Know a Man":

[quotes poem]

In remarking on the poetic process in an interview with Charles Tomlinson—remarks that lead to yet another use of the driving metaphor—Creeley observes that his conception of writing is "an awfully precarious situation to be in, because you can obliterate everything in one instant. You've got to be utterly awake to recognize what is happening, and to be responsible for all the things you must do before you can even recognize what their full significance is" (CP, 26). In the poem, the friend is attempting to bring the speaker back into immediate relationship with the experience at hand by breaking into the speaker's self-distracting—and potentially self-destructive rhetoric of metaphysical despair and escapist fantasy.

Creeley's position, then, is one which allows no temporal gap between writing and experience—or what Levertov calls making and seeing—no separation between poesis and mimesis, so to speak. What a poem is about is literally its own making or unfolding. The poet, in such a conception, is inside the act of composition, which is entirely self-limiting, a record of the circumstances of its own occasion.


Title Robert Kern: On "I Know a Man" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert Kern Criticism Target Robert Creeley
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Composition as Recognition: Robert Creely and Postmodern Poetics
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