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HomeAnglophonia/Caliban35Robert Creeley’s Refusals


Cet article analyse les effets de compression dans la poésie des années cinquante et soixante de Robert Creeley. L’auteur de Pieces s’est fait un nom durant cette période grâce à des poèmes concis aux vers très brefs, ce qui a pour effet d’accroître considérablement la pression sur la brisure du vers, de même que sur les moindres méandres et écarts syntaxiques des poèmes. D’une manière analogue à celle de William Carlos Williams, dont il admirait l’écriture, Creeley pense par l’entremise de ses poèmes : « Je crois en une poésie déterminée par le langage qui la compose », déclare-t-il en 1960. Cela ne signifie pas, néanmoins, que sa poésie serait hermétique ou fermée sur elle-même. Il est clair que, comme chez Charles Olson, la question de l’espace dépasse de loin la simple page imprimée. Toutefois, au lieu de la percée olsonienne accomplissant l’expansion vers l’Ouest dans son texte sur Melville (Call Me Ishmael), Creeley s’intéresse aux modalités de la contraction spatiale. Fondé sur la correspondance de Creeley avec Olson, la présente étude conclut qu’il cherche une articulation nouvelle, et implicitement politisée, de l’espace américain, par l’entremise de formes poétiques radicalement informées par celui-ci.

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  • 1 See Perloff for a survey of hostile reactions to short form in Creeley.

1Robert Creeley is one of the most published and discussed of 20th century American poets. However, while numerous critics have noted his use of short form, there has been relatively little discussion of the specific effects of that form. By short form I mean all of the following: short lines, short stanzas and short poems. Creeley’s characteristic brevity is often used, sometimes with support from Creeley’s remarks in interviews and the ostensible content of his most famous collection, For Love, to assign him to a kind of domestic, lyric space. And less sympathetic critics have attacked Creeley on the same score.1 Notwithstanding his involvement with Black Mountain, the Beats and later generations of experimental writers, he becomes a poet of essentially private concerns, with the explicit or implicit corollary that his work is ultimately of less substance than such long-form public-discourse monuments of American poetic modernism as Pound’s Cantos, Williams’s Paterson, Olson’s Maximus, or Zukofsky’s ‘A’.

2Creeley, of course, had contact with all of these poets, from whom he derived a very particular interpretation of modernist poetics. All of them practised a version of the Poundian condensare, even in longer works, but Creeley, I contend, pursued this impulse towards condensation to a radical and distinctive conclusion. The result is work that engages with the world in similarly complex ways to those of the epic projects of his forebears and contemporaries in the Pound line. (Creeley, it should be remembered, repeatedly locates his writing in relation to the tradition of Pound, Williams and Zukofsky in his critical writing.) The writing challenges a pervasive assumption in academic poetry criticism: that short form and long form tend to correspond respectively to lyric interiority and epic collectivity. Creeley’s renovation of Poundian poetics cuts across private and public in a language that is characterised by refusal, negation and hesitancy. In this work’s ascetic formal contours, I argue, is an eloquent and sceptical encounter with the limits and risks of social being. The writing is the equal, in scope and ambition, of the more explicit visions of the interplay between ego scriptor and social collectivity offered in the modernist epic.

  • 2 Altieri has written extensively on Creeley and, while I differ on the point discussed here, I am in (...)
  • 3 Poets generally viewed as objectivists are Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Charles (...)

3Charles Altieri’s nuanced and largely enthusiastic description of Creeley’s ‘poetics of conjecture’ in his important Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry concludes that there is a formal defect in Creeley’s work (Altieri 1984, 103-131).2 At fault is the “myth of lucidity” that Creeley inherits from Williams’s objectivism and its attendant commitment to short form (Altieri 1984, 130).3 This, writes Altieri, fatally undermines the poetry’s ability to map self-consciously the movements of consciousness:

In his poetics of thinking Creeley becomes a victim of what had been his greatest strength: his taut, ascetic language. In short personal lyrics the spare style both intensifies emotional concentration and twists drama toward abstraction. But when the abstraction becomes the site of poetic activity, the same asceticism inordinately narrows the field and impoverishes the sense of self we need to connect the abstractions to experience. Because it lacks conventional modes of concentration and creates its own world, the rhetoric of conjecture must be a lush one (Altieri 1984, 130).

  • 4 For discussion of ‘experience’ in Creeley, see Friedlander (2010).
  • 5 n this I am developing a suggestion made by Benjamin Friedlander: “[Creeley’s] refusals are often a (...)

4In Altieri’s view, Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery offer suitably lush ways out of this impasse. Creeley, on the other hand, “cannot introduce into his reflections much sense of history or a broad enough range of concerns to keep the conjecture a complex philosophical movement” (ibid). There is a lack of fit between the evacuated spaces of “abstraction” and “asceticism” on the one hand, and the plenitude offered by “self” and “experience” on the other.4 My point of departure is to query Altieri’s dismissal of Creeley’s “spare style” and to claim for this style a “complex” cognitive status. Perhaps there is a “sense of history” folded into the formal contours of this writing, however improbably. It may be that the style of these small poems is intimately bound up with an aesthetics that cannot be anything but historically specific. The poems may, in “complex” ways, serve as an index of social experience refracted into language. Something of conjectural substance may, in short, be said by this poetry’s refusal to say.5 An ascetic style may harbour dense clusters of affect that cannot otherwise be registered in language. And, in any case, Creeley’s poetry may not be so beholden to Altieri’s “myth of lucidity” as might at first appear—the relationship between perceiver, object and textual representation may, indeed, be anything but clear. The focus of my attention will be the writing of Words and Pieces, a series of books published in the 1960s in which Creeley probes the relationship between experience and poetic form.

5The short and short-lined poem, in Creeley’s hands, communicates a great deal because his handling of the Poundian condensare makes such full expressive use of the various kinds of boundedness that short form potentialises. Creeley plays relentlessly on the communicative potential of ellipsis, incomplete syntactical units, sonic patterning and abruptly truncated lines. Such effects, of course, are everywhere evident in long-form modernism of Pound or Olson. However, the unitary nature of a short poem produces a different relationship between part and whole.

  • 6 Creeley and Ossman, 7. In a recent essay, Altieri describes Creeley’s line endings as “marks of anx (...)

6In a 1961 interview, Creeley explicitly links his use of short form with the narration of emotional states: “the truncated line, or the short, seemingly broken line I was using in my first poems, comes from the somewhat broken emotions that were involved in them.”6 The abrupt concision of Creeley’s writing of the 1950s and 1960s does not stem from a paucity of experience or emotion: what’s left out is itself communicative, exerting pressure on the few words that are presented to the reader. In other words, the violent self-editing that is intuited in a Creeley poem renders affective states that are resistant to consecutive explication. The reader, moreover, is frequently aware of a psychic and editorial process that is an agent of suppression, excision and effacement. The laying-bare of this self-mutilating apparatus in such constrained poetic frames makes evident the expansive range of the condensare gesture.

7The self-editing movement of the writing is, I believe, best understood as a form of refusal: refusal to utter, refusal to narrate, refusal to admit into consciousness. I do not mean by this a subjective process of ‘denial’ or a drama of superegoic censure. Rather, I mean an unwillingness to engage with narrative plenitude because of its entailments: psychic integrity, on the one hand, and an accommodation with a cohesive political identity on the other. Anything but a damaged version of American vernacular speech would concede too much to the culture from which that speech arises.

  • 7 Even this is more promising than the introduction to volume 4’s coverage of several weeks of corres (...)

8How, then, do social materials that appear inimical to the claustrophobic domestic settings of many of these poems make themselves apparent in this compulsively truncated work? There are glimpses of the young Creeley’s attitudes towards form in his intense early 1950s correspondence with Charles Olson, but little about his social perspectives. The 10 volumes published by Black Sparrow, covering April 1950 to July 1952, run to more than 2,000 pages, not including notes. Yet, as their editor George Butterick observes in his introduction to volume 8, “little seeps into the exchange from the larger world—the Korean War, McCarthy’s intimidation campaign, Europe still struggling to its feet” (Creeley and Olson, vol. 8, vii).7

  • 8 Public positions were a different matter: Creeley’s opposition to the Vietnam War and the invasion (...)

9Creeley’s politics in these letters, written at a time when he saw himself as a fiction writer, is generally as visible as it is in his poetry.8 One notable exception, however, is a vitriolic letter in which we get a peculiar and impassioned version of masculinity and its relation to Cold War ideology. The letter was written on 8 September 1950, a few months after the beginning of the Korean War and at the beginning of the 10-year period covered by the For Love collection (Olson and Creeley, vol. 2, 128-131). In it, Creeley engages in a furious diatribe against American culture, the “national character” as displayed in magazines and on the radio:

My impotence. To either shake off or get beyond the sense of this current biz. It revolts me, turns my stomach, sickens altogether. I hate the whole of it, despise, loathe & feel contempt for every damn one who deals in it. The nation: fucking idiotic lying/: perverts. Perverts in the head/rotten, filth, hate hate, hate. Voices: oily, & shrewd, know, exact, how to lie attractively to each and every one. Against that, just that, we put a handful of sounds/one feeling, two, a complex: love. Say, one woman, one feel of one way, one thing, one knowing, one day, sun, moon, fresh, rain, love, dying, as it’s been done. Against a multi-form (one complete lie) put: handful of words, tentative & wistful thought. Time, perhaps for exact fierceness, for being taken apart, strip by strip, torn by such, if the body didn’t break, give in, betray. (129).

10And so it continues. Recalling his own experience at the end of the Second World War in Burma, he lambasts the American military—“fucking idiots” (129). The Americans were hated, he writes, by their opponents and Creeley appears to sympathise with this hatred: “Loathed them. My people. Coming from one huge leper-like lie, white and edged: blue with disease. Rotten at the heart/rotted out.” He signs off with “Monstrous egotism. I don’t want” (ibid.).

  • 9 See Davidson (2010) for extended discussion of Creeley’s anger. It is striking, in this regard, tha (...)

11Creeley’s rage at 1950s America amounts to a good deal more than superficial hipster disdain for the values of the mainstream.9 It is an extreme counter to all that the dominant culture of early 1950s America represented: both a sceptical response to America’s claim to be the guardian of a new world order, and a disgusted rejection of the oppressive consensual normality of the period. What he sets up against it is both ambitious and conspicuously meagre—“a handful of sounds/one feeling, two, a complex: love” and a “handful of words, tentative and wistful thought”. Small gestures are set against “a multiform… lie”. Is Creeley already moving towards a poetics of insufficiency? Does a kind of socially embedded refusal constitute the bedrock of this commitment to the “small”?

  • 10 For an account of this correspondence see Mariani and Keller.
  • 11 See Duncan, 234: “Not only Pound, but Williams himself in The Wedge (1944) and The Clouds (1948) gi (...)
  • 12 Williams’s poem was published in Desert Music (1954). Creeley discusses it in “I Am Given to Write (...)

12A key reference point in the Poundian tradition as Creeley thought through ideas of both form and the social was William Carlos Williams, with whom he corresponded between 1950 and 1962, a year before the older poet’s death.10 Williams’s spare style, his commitment to vernacular speech and his conception of measure were clearly of great significance to the young Creeley.11 Yet, the “thing” in Williams’s anti-metaphysical “no ideas but in things” (which corresponds to Altieri’s notion of objectivist lucidity) is clearly doing very different work to the “thing”, or perceptual gestalt, that Pound aspired to treat directly. A more relevant Williamsian precept for Creeley is “the poet thinks with his poem”, a formula that embraces affective and unconscious as well as intellectual processes. Writing of some lines from Williams’s “To Daphne and Virginia” Creeley remarks that what he admires in Williams is the possibility that “mind may make evident its resources apart from the limits of intention and purpose.”12 In other words, Creeley is presenting the poem as the best available site for a full rendering of cognitive activity as it is subtended by various combinations of emotional, social, unconscious or intellectual processes. Williams’s category of “measure” foregrounds poetic form as a constitutive feature of the poetry’s communicative capacity. Drawing on this aspect of Williams’s poetics, Creeley developed an idea of the poem as a dynamic emotional field in which large processes, undifferentiated entanglements of psychic and social, can be played out.

  • 13 See also the introduction to Creeley, Collected Essays (1989, xiv), in which he expresses his admir (...)

13The concept of “measure” is one that, as Paul Mariani has shown, the poets discussed in several letters. Williams wrote in a letter of January 1960 that Creeley had “the subtlest feeling for measure that I have encountered anywhere except in the verses of Ezra Pound” (qtd in Mariani, 187). For both poets measure was a way of thinking the expressive implications and entailments of form (a matrix of ideas that received different emphases in the dialogue with Olson that led to the latter’s “Projective Verse” essay). For Williams, “measure” informed a poetic language that “will be commensurate with the social, economic world in which we are living as contrasted with the past” (Williams 1948, 283). For the younger poet, form remains similarly inseparable from the “social, economic world”13 but Creeley places greater emphasis on the unconscious components of individual experience, the “complex of emotion” that exceeds “intention and purpose”.

14Creeley perhaps has such ideas in mind in the two poems entitled “For W.C.W.”, one written in the 1950s and one in the 1960s. Each has something of value to impart about Creeley’s use of form. Here is the second of the two, which appeared in the 1967 collection Words and which, through its use of the present tense, revives the older poet for a continuation of their exchange:

“For W.C.W.”
The rhyme is after
all the repeated

There, you say, and
there, and there,
and and becomes

just so. And
what one wants is
what one wants,

yet complexly
as you

let it go.
I want —

  • 14 All quotations from poems are from The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975, which is given (...)

Then there is —
I want. (CP, 273)14

15The relatively early poems of For Love: Poems 1950-1960 often offer an oblique rendition of the immediacy of an emotional situation. The work is typically reluctant to do anything more than hint at the context from which it emerges. Later work such as the poem above, however, turns in on itself, examines its own word-by-word development, and refuses to say. This poem has drawn considerable commentary. Altieri discusses the void in the poem, suggesting that this negation can be a “productive” element in the “dialectic of experience” (Altieri 1979, 184). For Michael Davidson, trauma is displaced into consonance: the “violence of ‘insistence’ is tempered by self-reflexivity: repetition compulsion becomes rhyme” (Davidson 2010, 70). In Alice Entwistle’s view, the poem’s “very inarticulacy gradually becomes slyly expressive”. Less persuasive, however, is her suggestion that this is because “Creeley surreptitiously affirms Williams’s craftsmanship by putting his own inadequacies on display”—or that the line-breaks are “apparently arbitrary” and only successful when voiced (Entwistle 135-36). I think it is possible to make much more of the communicative range of Creeley’s hesitancy.

16This unrhymed poem begins with a statement about rhyme as repetition and insistence—an allusion perhaps to Stein’s distinction between the terms and a signal of the internal loops of the poem itself (Stein 1926, 100-101). The following stanza is almost entirely composed of various arrangements of two words: “there” and “and”. Desire comes to the fore in stanza three—“what one wants”. This is articulated through another—“as you say”—who we assume is the conventional addressee of lyric but who may, of course, also be Williams. As the poem comes to its end “one wants” is supplanted by “I want”—all is stripped away to leave nothing but the pulse of desire, the “repeated/insistence” of “I want”.

17Shuttling between pronouns—one, you and us—the poem seems to peel off all poetic artifice, any veneer of the social, or indeed of history, to leave us with the bald conclusion “I want”. The poem is in dialogue, “complexly”, with Williams’s empirical inclinations—the assent to a decipherable object-world evidenced in his recommendation that the poet should “write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him” (Williams 1967, 391). In lines such as “there, you say, and/there, and there,/and and becomes”, language is presented as the medium rather than an instrument of thought. “I believe in a poetry determined by the language of which it is made,” Creeley writes (Creeley 1960, 478). To think the world, for Creeley, is also to make the world. Yet the object is plainly not adequate to the perceiver’s desire, as the objectless insufficiency of “I want” suggests. The poem remains unsatisfied.

  • 15 This latter quote was used on the dust jacket of the 1969 Scribner’s edition of Pieces, and so it c (...)

18What of the social in this poem? Creeley says in his Paris Review interview that “history, as a form of experience, is truly not something I've been able to articulate with, nor finally engaged by” (Creeley, MacAdams and Wagner-Martin 16). Later in the interview he remarks, “I’ve been given to write about that which has the most intimate presence for me, and I’ve always felt very, very edgy those few times when I have tried to gain a larger view. I’ve never felt right. I am given as a man to work with what is most intimate to me—these senses of relationship among people” (26).15

  • 16 There are exceptions. See, e.g., “The Province” from Pieces (CP 415), which refers to “tactical nuc (...)

19I believe that at such moments Creeley is not fully alert to either the historical meanings or the force of negation in his writing. That is where we find the “larger view”. The second “For W.C.W.”, like many of his works, is a poem that strips itself bare, that is “taken apart, strip by strip”, to quote again the early letter cited above. Yet, as the poem edges towards a conclusion, it can’t quite fully reduce itself to the monadic “I want”. The very word “and”, crucial to the poem, implies sociality: an I, a you, an it, an us. In the poem, Creeley—a friend of Ginsberg, writing in late 1960s America at a time of immense social and cultural upheaval—strives not to let that wider America in.16 The refusal itself is the salient point. In “For W.C.W”, and in other highly reflexive poems of the period, Creeley’s retreat to the syllable-by-syllable occasion of a poem’s self-utterance is a means of registering and withstanding the pressure of the very reality that he so noticeably seeks to exclude. His painful attention to the nature and conditions of utterance are his way of attending to what America was living through.

20Exclusions give compression its peculiarly compelling currency. Creeley makes the challenge clear in his famous poem of reduction, “A Piece”. This dense little poem begins as simple maths and ends as the barest of narratives, almost a condensation of the “a handful of sounds/one feeling, two, a complex: love” of his earlier letter to Olson.

One and
one, two,
three. (CP 353)

21We hear the chanting of a children’s addition table: “one and one is two”. But “is” is omitted in that second line, replaced by the fractional pause of a comma. So one train of thought becomes another, the literal enumeration of one, two, three. Lineation is crucial: each implied mini-sequence is fulfilled across a linebreak. That faltering moment when “one and one is two” becomes “one, two, three” depends on subtraction, the disappearance of the word “is”. The subtracted “is” prevents the poem settling into a single sequence. If, on the other hand, we hear a bandleader counting in the musicians, the phrase is similarly truncated: the poem becomes the prelude for a main event that occurs off the page. Doubt and vigilant self-awareness form the atmosphere of this poem. The refusal to countenance anything other than a cognitive glitch is an attempted withdrawal from the world. Its corollary is an alert openness to the other—“a handful of sounds/one feeling, two, a complex: love”. This is, on the face of it, a poem that excludes history. However, I’d like to suggest that, in its “exact fierceness”, in its conspicuous refusal of the existent, this poem also invites consideration as a refusal of complicity with American “hate hate hate”.

22Stephen Fredman has written of “negative space” in Creeley’s writing, by which he means the ways in which its attention to its own unfolding gives rise to “a heightened awareness in both the writer and the reader to appearances in the present” (Fredman 1990, 78). This negative space, I suggest, provides an atmosphere in which the sceptical alertness of the writing probes fissures in the world as it is. In 1967, Creeley writes: “The American condition has much to do with place, an active spatial term which differs in that way from what has been assumed its European equivalent. Space, as physical ground, not sky, I feel to be once again politically active” (Creeley 1967b, 94). This version of space implies both the space of the page and a wider political imperative. Rather than the expansive, outward Westward push of Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, Creeley is interested in effects of spatial contraction—this is where the space of his poetry is “active”. He looks for a new, and tacitly social, articulation of American space in an extremely impacted version of poetic form.

23It was in the book Pieces that the challenge of “A Piece” would be developed. One feature of this work is Creeley’s adoption of serial technique: poems in short sections separated by a single indented bullet point. An example is the poem “‘Time’ is some sort of hindsight”:

“Time” is some sort of hindsight, or else rhythm of activity—e.g., now it’s 11 days later—“also alive” like they say.
Where it is
was and
will be never
only here.
—fluttering as
    falling, leaves,
    knives, to
    down the
    vague sides…
    it— (CP 391)

24In this poem, the movement of reduction is episodic. In the opening paragraph, the copula “is” precedes two incommensurable descriptions of “Time”. Is Time known retrospectively as “hindsight”, or as the animating “rhythm” of life? The immediacy of “activity” and “alive” on the one hand seems to be set against the “11 days later” of “hindsight”, though the paratactic syntax makes the relations between terms undecidable. The offhandness of the “like they say” that concludes this section places all the foregoing at an ironic distance.

25The next stanza pulls apart the sententious “is was and ever shall be” of public speech acts, concluding with a paradox—“will be never/only here”—that questions the very act of predication. It is as if the cohesive linguistic environments that conventional social practices rely on cannot be admitted. The following stanza offers a lyrical image of fluttering, falling leaves, only to puncture this with “knives”. And how can one “tunnel/down the/vague sides”—tunnel anywhere but underneath? The poem seems to be reconciled to the forward, downward movement of words on the page but at the same time to be resisting spatial or temporal location.

26The concluding pair of words is a striking image on the page, a visual effect that cannot be reproduced by the speaking voice. On one hand we can understand “—it/it —” as a rendering of the falling of leaves, a visual miniaturisation of an old trope of passing time. Yet there is an undeniable moment of temporal arrest, as if the fixing of words on the page fixes a moment. Where “For W.C.W.” moved towards the unadorned urge of “I want”, this poem desubjectivises being: nothing remains but the blankest of pronouns, doubled and hovering in apposition on the page.

27In the poems I have discussed, the motif of refusal cannot be separated from the formal characteristics I have described. Refusal becomes, sieved through Creeley’s formal choices, a refusal of communicative plenitude. Ellipsis, compression, syntactical uncertainty, and the insistent breaking of the line make hesitancy and undecidability integral to the overall effect of the poetry. The poems become the receptacle of a kind of volatile potential for meaning that is repeatedly constrained by self-silencing gestures that reject the totalising ambitions of the complete and unequivocal statement. The shocks administered to the drive towards syntactical and semantic completion by linebreaks and stanza breaks lead to a reconfiguration of Poundian energy. In this version of the condensare, incompletion becomes integral to the verse’s compression effects. Instead of seeking a language that is “commensurate with the social, economic world in which we are living”, Creeley pursues one that withdraws sceptically from it.

28Compression is eloquent in this work. Subtle movements of reduction move Creeley’s writing against the grain of American culture of the 1950s and 1960s: expansionist, consumerist and wealthy on the one hand, and paranoid, conformist and bellicose on the other. The complicated parsing of emotional states that resist sequential narration led Creeley into a position in which the dyadic encounter implied by lyric tradition became an analogue for the social bond. Situating himself through a highly singular interpretation of the emerging tradition of Poundian modernism, Creeley seeks to query this bond. Social being is examined as a space of dynamic, provisional communicative exchange that refuses any legislative force. It is relation per se that is tested in this writing, rather than the disintegration of a particular relationship. Creeley’s insistent probing of the risks of communicative utterance continually played aspirations to linearity against various kinds of disjunction and repetition. Meaning is found negatively in this writing, in what the poem refuses to say as it declines to go along with a culture that Creeley can only “despise, loathe & feel contempt” towards. Against this he offers not the campaigning countercultural alternative of a Ginsberg but the “exact fierceness” of his manifold refusals.

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Altieri, Charles, Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s, Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1979.

-----, “Robert Creeley’s Poetics of Conjecture: the Pains and Pleasures of Staging a Self at War with its own Lyric Desires”, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 103-131.

-----, “What does Echoes Echo?” S. Fredman and S. McCaffery, eds, Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley's Life and Work, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010, 36-49.

Creeley, Robert, “A Note” [1960], The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, Berkeley, CA, California UP, 1989, 478-79.

-----, “I’m Given to Write Poems” (1967a), The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, Berkeley, CA, California UP, 1989, 496-505.

-----, “Introduction to The New Writing in the USA” [1967b], The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, Berkeley, CA: California UP, 1989, 89-97.

-----, The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975, Berkeley: California UP, 1982.

Creeley, Robert, MacAdams, Lewis and Wagner-Martin, Linda, “Robert Creeley: the Art of Poetry No. 10” (interview), Paris Review 44 (Fall 1968), <>

Creeley, Robert and David Ossman, interview, Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971, Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973, 3-12.

Creeley, Robert and Charles Olson, Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, eds. George F. Butterick and Richard Blevins, 10 vol., Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1980-1996.

Davidson, Michael, Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

-----, “The Repeated Insistence: Creeley’s Rage”, S. Fredman and S. McCaffery, eds, Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010, 69-88.

Duncan, Robert, “After For Love”, Boundary 2, Vol. 6/7, “Robert Creeley: A Gathering” (Spring-Autumn, 1978), 233-40.

Entwistle, Alice “‘For W.C.W.’, ‘Yet complexly’: Creeley and Williams”, English 50 (Summer 2001), 127-148.

Filreis, Al, “Asking Creeley about Williams”, Jacket 2, <> (a transcription of a conversation recorded on 10 April 2000, available at <>)

Fredman, Stephen, Poet’s Prose: the Crisis in American Verse, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Fredman, Stephen and Steve McCaffery, eds, Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010.

Friedlander, Benjamin, “What is Experience?” in Fredman and McCaffery, eds, Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work, pp. 203-231.

-----, editor’s introduction to Robert Creeley, Selected Poems, 1945-2005, Berkeley: California UP, 2008, 1-35.

Keller, Lynn, “Lessons from William Carlos Williams: Robert Creeley’s Early Poetry”, Modern Language Quarterly 43: 4 (December 1982), 369-94.

Mariani, Paul, “‘Fire of a Very Real Order’: Creeley and Williams”, Boundary 2 Vol. 6/7, “Robert Creeley: A Gathering” (Spring-Autumn, 1978), 173-192.

O’Leary, Peter, “The Energies of Words,” Poetry Foundation website 2008,

Perloff, Marjorie, “Robert Creeley’s Radical Poetics”, Electronic Book Review, Electropoetics thread, 13 October, 2007 <>

Stein, Gertrude, “Portraits and Repetition” (1926) Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1911-45, ed. P. Meyerowitz, London: Penguin, 1967, 99-124.

Williams, William Carlos, “The Poem as a Field of Action” (1948), Selected Essays, New York: New Directions, 1969, 280-291.

-----, Autobiography, New York: New Directions, 1967.

-----, “Letter to an Australian Editor”, William Carlos Williams Review, 17:2 (Fall 1991), 8-12.

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1 See Perloff for a survey of hostile reactions to short form in Creeley.

2 Altieri has written extensively on Creeley and, while I differ on the point discussed here, I am indebted to his sensitive readings of the poetry.

3 Poets generally viewed as objectivists are Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Reznikoff and Carl Rakosi. Although Objectivism is notoriously hard to define in a way that embraces the work of all these poets, and related others such as Williams or Basil Bunting, the writing associated with it typically aspires to clarity, directness and sincerity in the depiction of its objects, and the poem itself is sometimes viewed as an object. For a useful account of the genesis of Objectivism, see O’Leary (2008).

4 For discussion of ‘experience’ in Creeley, see Friedlander (2010).

5 n this I am developing a suggestion made by Benjamin Friedlander: “[Creeley’s] refusals are often as important as what he embraced (Friedlander 1). Michael Davidson, in Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics, makes much, albeit briefly, of Creeley’s poetic technique in his book on Cold War gender roles. He writes of how both halting enjambment and “lexical insecurity” challenge a construction of maleness as the sturdy and self-assured lynchpin of the American family—that key bulwark against the threat of communism (Davidson 2004, 57-58). I would like to hold on to Davidson’s point about the meanings of form. However, I will be hesitant to make positive claims about their impact.

6 Creeley and Ossman, 7. In a recent essay, Altieri describes Creeley’s line endings as “marks of anxiety, each expressing an urgency to see emptiness somehow filled and each frustrated by the order of things that produces the feeling of emptiness” (Altieri 2010, 42-43).

7 Even this is more promising than the introduction to volume 4’s coverage of several weeks of correspondence in late 1950 and early 1951: “Nothing of unusual significance is written by either man during these three months” (Olson and Creeley, vol. 4, vii)

8 Public positions were a different matter: Creeley’s opposition to the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq is well known.

9 See Davidson (2010) for extended discussion of Creeley’s anger. It is striking, in this regard, that Creeley considers William Carlos Williams, a key influence at this point in his development, an angry poet: “Many of the early poems are really angry, and their emotional base is their revulsion and anger at the world he finds around him” (Filreis, n.p.).

10 For an account of this correspondence see Mariani and Keller.

11 See Duncan, 234: “Not only Pound, but Williams himself in The Wedge (1944) and The Clouds (1948) gives the young Creeley his challenge of what form and measure in poetry must be and defines, more certainly than Pound, the particular mode or convention of the common-speech song with a persisting convention of two, three, or four line stanzas, highly articulated to provide close interplay and variation, which Creeley is to specialize in and to develop toward his own poetic voice”.

12 Williams’s poem was published in Desert Music (1954). Creeley discusses it in “I Am Given to Write Poems” (Creeley 1967a, 500). Another part of the Williams poem provides the epigraph to Words.

13 See also the introduction to Creeley, Collected Essays (1989, xiv), in which he expresses his admiration for Williams’s Eliot-bashing “Letter to an Australian Editor”, a communication in which Williams suggests that “the poet’s very life but also his forms originate in the political, social and economic maelstrom on which he rides” (Williams 1991, 11).

14 All quotations from poems are from The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975, which is given parenthetically as CP in all subsequent references.

15 This latter quote was used on the dust jacket of the 1969 Scribner’s edition of Pieces, and so it clearly carries some weight for Creeley.

16 There are exceptions. See, e.g., “The Province” from Pieces (CP 415), which refers to “tactical nuclear weapons”.

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Bibliographical reference

Will Montgomery, Robert Creeley’s RefusalsCaliban, 35 | 2014, 179-195.

Electronic reference

Will Montgomery, Robert Creeley’s RefusalsCaliban [Online], 35 | 2014, Online since 16 December 2013, connection on 24 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Will Montgomery

Royal Holloway, University of London

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