Thursday, July 23, 2015

Robert Creeley, Poetry Warrior

Great news! The new issues of two of my favorite literary journals, The Laurel Review and The Notre Dame Review, have dropped from the sky.  The latest Laurel Review is a special prose poetry issue, and includes two pieces from my forthcoming remix extravaganza, The Kafka Sutra (in which the parables of Kafka are retold as if they were a Sanskrit sex manual).  The Notre Dame Review features a raft of great stuff, as well as "Robert Creeley: Poetry Warrior," a little something I wrote about The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, a very fine edition prepared by Rod Smith, Peter Baker, and Kaplan Harris.  It begins like this:
            “The book,” wrote Robert Creeley to Rod Smith, who was then hard at work on the volume in question, Creeley’s Selected Letters, “will certainly ‘tell a story.’”  Now that the text of that book has emerged from Smith’s laptop and rests between hard covers, it’s a good time to ask just what story those letters tell.  Certainly it isn’t a personal one. Creeley was a New Englander, through and through, and of the silent generation to boot.  Yankee reticence blankets the letters too thickly for us to feel much of the texture of Creeley’s quotidian life, beyond whether he feels (to use his favored idiom) he’s “making it” through the times or not.  Instead, the letters, taken together, tell an intensely literary story—and, as the plot develops, an institutional, academic one.  Call this story “From the Outside In,” maybe.  Or, better, treat it as one of the many Rashomon-like eyewitness accounts of that contentious epic that goes by the title The Poetry Wars.
            If you, like me, you entered the little world of American poetry in the 1990s, you found the Cold War that was ending in the realm of politics to be in full effect in poetry.  What had begun as a brushfire conflict between rival journals and anthologies in the fifties and early sixties had settled into an institutionalized rivalry, with an Iron Curtain drawn between the mutually suspicious empires of Iowa City and Buffalo.  The longstanding Iowa Writers Workshop found itself in a geo-poetic stalemate with a younger, more radical opponent, the Poetics Program at SUNY–Buffalo, which Creeley helped found in 1991, and which formalized Buffalo as the institutional home for poets who rankled at the idea that history had ended with Robert Lowell.  For many young poets, it seemed one had to pick a side, and treat the rival camp with deep mistrust, if not contempt.  For others, it all seemed a bit pointless, especially the rhetoric of resentment emanating from Buffalo, perhaps the best-endowed poetry program in the nation at the time.  Reading Creeley’s Selected Letters, which begins with a wartime letter from Creeley to his family and ends with an email he sent two weeks before his death in 2005, we get a view from the trenches of the postwar poetry wars, from their beginnings to a time when they were fading into literary history.  We get, too, a vivid picture of the outsider status, or non-status, of innovative poets like Creeley in their formative years (“we do not have any status as writers in this country” he wrote in 1956).
The whole piece is available in print and in a pdf online here.