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Robert Creeley: A Biography

by Ekbert Faas, Maria Trombacco
513 pages,
ISBN: 0773521739


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Rimbaud-Type Monstrocity
by Eric Miller

Writing recently of Arthur Rimbaud in The New Criterion, Eric Ormsby drolly endorsed the following admission by Rimbaud's biographer Graham Robb: "While the readers of poFtes maudits often identify with the poets themselves, critics and biographers tend to identify with the parents." It is Rimbaud's evident sadism, as well as his attitudinizing, that especially motivate Ormsby's revulsion from the poet. In view of Ekbert Faas's new biography of Robert Creeley, which concentrates on the American poet's first forty years, what instructs us most in Ormsby's response is the tone that he adopts. Ormsby assumes the voice of middle age: wise, humorous, cultivated, temperate¨and void of all complicity. Middle age customarily reserves for itself the right to be ironic about everything, except about its right to irony, whether that right is exercised or held strategically in abeyance. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe took such distance from his own youth, coolly reconfiguring Werther's passion in the recombinant dooms of Elective Affinities.

Yet, in common with many impulses of satire, the dismissive will to put delinquent Rimbaud in his place may foreclose on the truth that every stage of human life and every mode of human deportment contain a refractory truth and an inalienable integrity, at least insofar as they aspire to artistic expression. To pass an absolute verdict is possibly to approve a dangerous contraction of imaginative scope: literary judgement occurs in a realm forever liable to reversal on appeal. Moreover, something pharisaical inheres in the repudiation of one pleasure available to connoisseurs, whatever their biological age: the joy of being a vicarious asshole. This joy comes to us through contemplation of someone else's questionable behaviour¨someone to whom we will never lend money, someone with whom we will never go to bed, someone to whose flagrant malice and contagious diseases we may claim, for historical or prudential reasons, entire immunity. In our moralizing moods, we ought to remember that the judicious Samuel Johnson loved Richard Savage, and took pleasure in the company of this murderous impostor, whom he commemorated with a biography. The middle aged, like the young, inevitably harbour a measure of criminality; inward criminality prospers the more we deny it.

Hence Ekbert Faas demonstrates emotional honesty in the preface of his Robert Creeley biography when he declares that "his undisguised bias" lies with "the younger poet's not so Šdecent' character and Šcrotchety purview' on life." Faas further avows a "fascination with the Rimbaud-type Šmonstrosity' and unself-pitying candour manifest in much of Creeley's early work." As early as 1980, in his book about Ted Hughes, The Unaccommodated Universe (1980), Faas already manifested a predilection for "monsters". In fact, structurally speaking, Faas's biography of Creeley may remind the reader somewhat of Anne Stevenson's life of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame. Like Bitter Fame, Faas's book concludes with a massive appendix in the form of a memoir. Ann MacKinnon, Creeley's ex-wife, recalls pleasures and horrors; the latter decisively outnumber the former. MacKinnon remembers rape, homicidal rage, abortion, brawls and this maritime idyll set in Majorca on the raveled fringes of Robert Graves's circle:

One day I decided to swim a little Ó so I left my guests sitting on the flat rock and slipped into the buoyant water and paddled about while they watched me. That became boring so I started back to the rock. To my horror I found that I could get no nearer than about three feet away from it. The water washed me inshore and out Ó I could not grasp the edge of the rock. I explained my predicament breathlessly to my friends and asked for help. They looked at me in a bored way.

"Why don't you swim harder?" said Paul Ó No matter how I begged they both said they would not help Ó I looked at their cold eyes and saw that there was no help there Ó If I must die then I would not let these people see my tears or my frightened face. I resigned myself to die as bravely as I could. I would look at the sky as long as possible. Paul called my name.

"What will you give us if we save you?" Ó "Anything you want," I gasped.

In a jaded mood, we might consider this anecdote as epitomizing very neatly the behaviour of any literary "community". Thrashing where the Mediterranean Sea crashes onto jagged rock, under the regard of piscine "friends", MacKinnon captures the true note of psychopathy¨its casual conjuration of nightmare among the properties of the quotidian world. Such psychopathy most of us witnessed or perpetrated in our adolescence, renouncing it, if we were lucky, in our more consistently empathetic adulthood.

Ekbert Faas's account of Creeley's life is immensely readable, phrased in something of the accelerated, demotic style¨half scholarly, half journalistic¨practised by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces. Under the transient influence of this racy style, the reader may miss a time when university programmes did not entirely throttle the world of imaginative writing. Black Mountain College was nothing like our present arrangements. Now almost every one of our putative rebels teaches creative writing part time in the confines of an abstemious campus, and many young writers aspire precociously to the finickiness of middle age, mistaking pedantry for the power of discernment that must come from the random rewards and punishments of time, which draws blood. No course at school can really abbreviate such necessary trials: instead, it may teach how to fake everything, jaggedness and fluency alike. But 1950s bohemia had vast drawbacks, especially for women, as Ann MacKinnon's contribution proves abundantly. Perhaps the most depressing feature of Faas's account, apart from the fistfights, is the disposition of the dramatis personae to make love only when drunk or otherwise distracted. Eros is best appreciated, and reciprocity best gratified, in a state of excited or languorous clarity. Creeley and his friends deserve praise, however, for helping resuscitate Mina Loy's reputation, an effort of which Faas makes no mention¨pardonably, because illness forced Creeley's abstention from a key interview with Loy conducted in Aspen, Colorado, in the 1960s.

Out of an unsavoury pulp of booze, bruises and tears arose Robert Creeley's admirable poems. Faas plausibly prefers the work Creeley wrote before he was institutionalized, institutionalized, that is, in the bland¨rather than psychiatric¨sense. Faas's discussion of the poet's later work is somewhat cursory, somewhat mocking; perhaps the intended effect of such mockery is to revive the fire in the indignant ageing poet. Derision as a stimulus to growth occasionally works. Creeley has, at his best, written a concentrated, minimalist verse, trained like a bloodshot microscope (or telescope) on truths dire or quiet. In the midst of a neo-euphuistic revival, in which choice diction is sometimes mistaken for cognitive adventure, and Nobel prizewinners furnish consecrated models for aspirants, the possibilities of an honest minimalism gain appeal. Faas subordinates Creeley's actual writing to the events in the poet's life, and this disposition can induce us to overlook the poet's excellence too easily. Nevertheless, Faas supplies a rationale for this emphasis: he wants to give room to a confusion of reportorial voices in his biography, a confusion that parallels the chaos of bohemia and that often enough imposes on the reader a pleasurable vicarious vertigo, as if we had emptied those bottles, soiled those sheets.

From a life spent in young Creeley's profligate way we are supposed, by reverend custom, to educe a set of advisements. Five propose themselves. Avoid early fame. Make love sober. Respect real achievements even when you disagree with the premises from which they have arisen. Unless you are unerringly sure you fit the profile of a misanthropic genius, give a little more credit than you take. Study the careers of writers, such as Goethe, who aged humanely, inventively and with pervasive sufficiency of grace. ˛

Eric Miller, author of Song of the Vulgar Starling and the forthcoming Nemesis Divina, teaches at the University of Victoria.

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