Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

Ways of Looking

Ways of Looking

Parvenus and Ancestors , by Barriss Mills. Flushing, N.Y.: Sparrow Magazine, 1959.

Experiment Theatre Anthology No. 1 , edited by Carol Ely Harper. Seattle: Experimental Press, 1959.

Kô, or A Season on Earth , by Kenneth Koch. New York: Grove, 1959.

Mexico City Blues , by Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove, 1959.

A Red Carpet for the Sun , by Irving Layton. Highlands, N.C.: Jonathan Williams, 1959.

The Heart in Naked Hunger , by Judson Crews. Ranches of Taos, N.M.: Motive Book Shop, [1958].

The Feel of Sun & Air upon Her Body , by Judson Crews. Eureka, Calif.: Hearse Press, [1962].

There are many things to tell us the nature of the world in which we live. A pragmatic response to such nature, for example, would place the house where water is to be found, and would avoid, equally, the desert or whatever other situation might be supposed impossible. Our reference is this nature, and in our use of it we cite the nature of ourselves, the needs and suppositions which describe us as actual. Perhaps at last it is all a dream—as they say—some ultimate mistaking of purpose. That aside, in poems as elsewhere

Poetry , June 1961.


a description is, like it or not, made use of, to speak of worlds and to live in them. Adaptations of form and of purpose follow as an outline, an acknowledgment of exterior presence.

Barriss Mills works between a part-time wish and (also hopeful) a rejection of an easy taking, of anything, so that his poems are, often, wryly wanting something he feels may not be had. An image of his father becomes:

                          . . . Remembering
now my father and the begonias
he could love and they, thirsty, silent
accept unknowing his silent care.
("Remembering My Father and the Begonias")

Is that given as the despair, or the triumph, of care; or is it habit, maintained to secure a continuity? The problem, as ever, is meaning—and relationship, as Iago elsewhere says:

                   . . . I'll prick them
till they've lived (and felt
the world rush in upon them)
a moment, before they die.
("Interlude: Iago Addresses the Audience")

Mills feels, I think, the nature of women as both a relief and a curious threat, or problem, of adaptation, in the ease of relationship suggested, not with men but with all that men fumble in, the world of things and intention:

No man can feel it—
the aplomb women are born to.

The poems in his book are often a happy balance of good humor and a wistful attention to discrepancies. They are small in the range of their attention, and seem even meant to be so, e.g., notes on the "classical" moon, Venus, "Everybody Cried at Our Wedding," Pygmalion's "icy art," and money: "The money? nobody knew / by now where it had gone." In that sense they are occasional—or better, purpose described as provoked attention not so much lacking as falling beside a more deliberate sense of purpose.

Purpose itself, of course, may well be ridiculous, implying relationships where none may exist—so that no tunnels to China succeed. The Experiment Theatre Anthology fails partly in this sense. It is not so much that one rejects, just like that, "the petit drame or One-


Minute Play" which the preface to this book describes, nor even the "arena theatre in every living-room." But to say that "We can develop a Shakespeare so in a hundred years . . ." strikes me as pretentiously overhopeful.

The plays themselves, insofar as they depend on poetry for a means, seem garbled and cribbed, echoes of a high-school "Shakespeare," who is all too present as it is. Bad writing stays bad writing no matter what the occasion, and it is a poor trick to attempt to blur that fact by removing it all to a play:



Jacob, hear me now,
For I am yours, as night has been our vow:
You cannot love, I see, but give me room
To lay my heart, and God will bless my womb.
                                                               ("Jacob Hofstädter")

Which is unfair, out of context, and there are many other "tones" at work in the collection. For myself, however, there is little of interest and/or it is a world so cutely begged that it becomes offensive, the Living Room qua Ultimate Refuge for pains quite real enough but never, I believe to be exorcised in this manner. Our world seems desperate enough to make us want to turn all possible occasions to use. But to say with the complacency of Carol Ely Harper, "We have taught young poets, unfamiliar with playwriting, to make the One-Minute Play from one's own poem, preferably an unsuccessful one . . ." makes cosy what is not cosy, and turns such art as her Shakespeare's into a harmless pastime.

It is this sort of easy reference (which the Experiment Theatre Anthology implies) that Kenneth Koch lampoons with a very gracious viciousness. It is a character of the urbane to play upon discrepancies, and to leave the unifying and observing intelligence—with final limits of sky and ground and people thereon—as the only real term. Koch's "epic," mocking and clever, marches upon all sorts of things, the cliché of Great Baseball Teams (the Dodgers) and of Great Events (the Coronation) among them. The hero, or one of the heroes at least, is, rightly enough, Japanese, and the progress of the story, so to speak, leaps about like a kid flipping stations on a television set. The villain of it all is Dog Boss, whose farcical origins are much attached to a German shepherd, who had bitten his mother's seducer, etc., while all were living on a houseboat, etc.:

Dog Boss was there, a child of five; tears welling
In both his eyes, he ran to shore to farms


And cried for help, but none could understand him.
'Twas summer, blazing. Then a cool breeze fanned him,
And he saw at his side a German shepherd
With wagging tail, who understood! They hurried
To where the lust-crowned living-boat was tethered
And found the pair. The shepherd roared and buried
His teeth in Blickly's thigh, whose muscles severed.
From that day onward, sailing down the Surrey'd
Be nothing to the boy, without a dog;
Sheep could not substitute, nor could a hog.

Finally the whole thing comes to a fading end, because the problem with such work must be that it can, patently, go on forever. As can likewise the world which it reports, with such inventive humor. But laughter, like love, among the ruins seems a reasonable act. It doesn't change things, so to speak. It simply makes them entertaining.

If Koch's world depends upon a satiric response to a chaos of value, then Jack Kerouac's becomes a simplification of that chaos, familiar to us now in Zen teaching. For example:

You start with the Teaching
     Inscrutable of the Diamond
And end with it, your goal
     is your startingplace,
No race was run, no walk
     of prophetic toenails
Across Arabies of hot
     meaning—you just
     numbly don't get there.
(113th Chorus)

Kerouac's book is a series of improvisations, notes, a shorthand of perceptions and memories, having in large part the same kind of word-play and rhythmic invention to be found in his prose. It seems likely that much will exasperate because we are wary of that which does not make use of familiar continuities. We like the "story" of usual thought, and we are apt to distrust what so unembarrassedly wants to throw that all away. But Kerouac says:

Like running a stick thru water
The use and effect
Of tellin people that
                           their house
                            is burning . . .
(126th Chorus)


So I write about heaven
Smoke for the scene,
Wanta bring everyone
Straight to the dream.

If you could only hold
         What you know
As you know it forever,
Moving from griefy to griefy,
         lament to lament,
Groan, and have to come out
        and smile once again . . .
(196th Chorus)

Perhaps the "big words" will be missed, or more, the manner which contains them—and the forms of wiseness and security which that manner of investment secures. It is not that simple to find a language whose emphases will be common perhaps. I mean that Kerouac may well distract and irritate more than he will teach. But the attempt is useful, with its clutch of old songs and childwise wordplay, jogging the mind to a simplicity, making the old wiseness foolish, the old foolishness wise.

Irving Layton also distrusts the deceptive distances in manner which the more academic poet is apt to fall heir to, that remove from the terms (if not the situations) of a common existence with other men and women, in a common place. For example, in his preface to A Red Carpet for the Sun he makes very clear the position he has chosen for himself:

 . . . What I've written—besides my joy in being alive to write about them—has been about this singular business of human evil; the tension between Hebrew and pagan, between the ideal and the real. The disorder and glory of passion. The modern tragedy of the depersonalization of men and women. About a hideously commercial civilization spawning hideously deformed monstrosities.

With that intent there can be little misunderstanding of his commitment, and the poems themselves (here happily collected into one substantial volume from twelve others which came before it) make clear the range possible to this kind of sincerity. Layton is, all at once, the most tender of men, and the most purposefully satiric. He uses the provincialism of his situation (Canada) to keep himself awake to the alternatives, and, being a Jew, he holds to a tradition of intelligence and compassion. Most simply, he writes in this way:


The Madonna of the Magnificat

I shall wander all night and not see
       as much happiness as this infant gives
to his plain sisters who are adoring him
and his mother cradling and covering
       him with her love.

She has borrowed the white moon from the sky
       to pillow his golden curls
and at her magical cry the dark roofs
the length of the street lie down
       like quiet animals.

The night will wear out and disappear
      like soiled water through the city's drains
but now it is full of noise and blessed neighbours
and all the tenement windows fly open
      like birds.

A world so made possible (in the mind of a man who will not give in to its pain) must be true beyond all contradiction.

What to say, then, of all those other worlds, equally the intelligences (or lack thereof) which have created them? It becomes less and less a "world" one may witness as an "objective" phenomenon. Nor does this seem a recent problem if Wyndham Lewis can write in 1927, "The material world that the human intellect has created is still there, of course; but as it is a creation of our minds, it will no doubt be found that we can even physically disintegrate it." That we can now do without question. Yet that hardly proves a relief.

Judson Crews has, for some time now, lived outside of the common areas of recognition, surviving by his persistence and by, as well, the respect those who have read his work with care have come to give. He asks for nothing and lives sparely in his work, a place for survival, where the test of a life is that which is possible in it, terrors of image, dream sensualities, hard thought, all given place. The twists of language (which his titles most quickly describe, e.g., "Sated in Lucid Devine," "Bale Thaw") define this same character of test, of meaning, curiously, of statement against statement, word against word. The problem of meaning itself is defined by him in this way:

Of the Self Exceeded

The page itself was part of the meaning
and the man reading was part


The sky above is part of the meaning
and the bird drifting like a feather

Because the page is as perfect as meaning
and the sky is as perfect as air

The mind is startled in face of perfection
it hides from the limitless air

The bird is perfection of air, of air
but the mind is lost short of meaning

Both books (The Heart in Naked Hunger and The Feel of Sun & Air upon Her Body ) have this hardihood of thought; and both as well use the device of occasional photographs, of nudes, of flat building fronts, of many untoward things, let us say, to shock the mind awake with a somewhat wry invitation.

I find my own relief in such "worlds" as Crews and Layton have worked to make actual, admitting that such a feeling is a feeling—yet either man is openly concerned to make a way common to all, despite the seeming difficulty of Crews' images at times or Layton's insistence on values which must (fairly enough) discriminate. It is the size of the area involved by them which proves distinctive, and it is not that they make a world apart from that given me—which could only prove a competition. In one sense, we are all "nature" poets these days, and whoever can show a nature of world still possible, to others as well as "me," ought to be commended.


Ways of Looking

Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.