free verse continued

An excerpt from my paper on Robert Creeley:

A consideration of Robert Creeley’s poetics must account for this. Although later in life, Creeley was to abandon the heavy emphasis he usually placed upon the ends of lines, they could only be excised so much as they weren’t literally written into the poem. They are, in fact, an inseparable part of most of his poems. Creeley’s lines are usually heavily enjambed. Often, articles, verbs and prepositions are left dangling at the ends of lines, a device which has been said to pull the poem quickly down into the next line. This is without a doubt one of this device’s effects. His poems are quick, and true to the form of projective verse, one perception moves ‘instanter on’ another. This is not, however, the sole effect of the enjambed, end-stopped lines. Their effect reaches much farther.

“Form is never more than an extension of content,” Creeley once told Charles Olson. True to the dictum, the form of Creeley’s poems are dependent upon the content. In his poems, he moves quickly from one image, one though onto the next. This was ultimately on his goals as a poet: “I wanted the fastest juxtaposition possible, and the least explanatory manner.” The quickness of his form lends itself well to such an aim. End line pauses intensify the break between Creeley’s fast moving images, strengthening the contrast of his juxtapositions:

For love—I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us
If we forget
The virtues of an amulet
And quick surprise.
The Warning, For Love

In this first stanza, the first two end words are verbs and the third a preposition. As end words, they beg for completion. What would the I of the poem do? What is being placed, and where in? In four short lines, love, a split-open head, a candle and eyes are placed in sharp contrast with one another. Form supports the juxtaposition of these disparate images against one another. The end-stopped lines serve to heighten the dramatic tension raised by the proposition of a head being split open for love. If the four lines were to be condensed into one or even two lines, the images would lose themselves in one another. It loosely scan as: For love I would turn your head into a jack-o-lantern. This is the virtue of Creeley’s form: There is, in his poems, a constant sense of what is to come. The logic of the poem is laid bare for the tensions that it creates. How will the relations implied by the verbs and preposition be fulfilled?

In formal, rhymed verse, poems ride upon the backs of their end-words. When there is a set rhyme scheme, there is, in the act of reading, an anticipation of the rhyme. Although this anticipation is not the primary focus of reading, it is absolutely a part of it. If one accepts that poetry was originally rhymed to facilitate its memorization, then one must accept this proposition prima facie. In breaking from tradition, Creeley cannot escape it. Readers of poetry are no doubt familiar with the “authoritative poetry” to which he alludes. For better or for worse, these readers have been trained to pay close attention to the end words since grade school. When this model of reading is applied to Creeley it would seem to suggest that by heavily enjambing and end-stopping his lines at odd moments, Creeley brings particular focus to typically overlooked words. Many of his critics support this view. They claim that the end-stopping emphasizes the ‘thingness’ of those terminal words. No doubt, there is some truth in this. Practically, however, it is difficult to say this is necessarily so. It seems somewhat ludicrous to suggest that the ‘thingness’ of words like not, love, she, it, on, for, day (to borrow a few terminal words from The Business ) is what a reader takes away from one of his poems.

On the contrary, it seems more intuitively plausible to posit that the effect of his odd end-stopping and enjambment actually places emphasis upon the first word(s) of the following line. The end of one line and the beginning of the next, for the most part, seem to function in call and response relationship. Terminal words, in Creeley’s poetry, pose questions and the onset of the next line brings an answer (however cryptic it may be). It is this call and response relationship between his lines that, to my mind, contributes the most to the sense of Creeley as jazzy. Reading a Creeley poem, one anticipates not the completion of a rhyme sequence, but the completion of a thought. Once, Creeley wrote that a poem should be “a structure of recognition—better—cognition itself”. This rapidity of movement and juxtaposition from line to line lives up to his definition of poetry as ‘cognition’. One is constantly in following the process of the poem, each line revealing a further layer of the idea underhand.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

It makes good sense that Creeley's prosody would lead to emphasis of the last and first words of lines (and clearly it can emphasize words not typically emphasized this way...).

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