It will be difficult for a biographer to do a better job of revealing Creeley and his life than the editors – and of course Creeley himself – have done in this selection. Whether in letters to other writers, his wives or his children, Creeley wrote openly about his often changing views, responses, feelings, hopes and plans. He is often so ingenuously open and self-focused that he discloses even more than he may be aware of – i.e. reading a Creeley letter can be a lot like reading Browning monologue.
The context and tenor of the early letters during which Creeley farmed in New Hampshire, lived in Aix-en-Provence, Mallorca and Black Mountain, NC, will be familiar to those who have read volumes of George Butterick’s ambitious but uncompleted Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence. It’s a period in which Creeley is aggressively seeking his place in postwar American poetry, searching for mentors and exploring possible connections with his younger contemporaries. Before he has any significant publications he is confidently introducing himself to Williams and Pound, asking for their help, and exchanging views on poetics. He soon discovers more fruitful connections with Cid Corman, Denise Levertov and Olson. These letters mostly concerned with questions of how to write, literary politics and publishing possibilities but are also punctuated with reflections on his poverty, his unhappiness with the places in which he is living, and his embarrassment at not being able to support his young family in a ‘manly’ fashion. What is especially interesting is how he wrestles with himself in these letters, posing various possibilities against one another in both his writing and domestic lives. There’s an obsessive sense of irresolution similar to the one which gives the first decade of his poetry such power.
Throughout he tends to be excited about new poems he has written. But often within a few months he re-reads them and thinks they are weak, facile, slight, too “easy” because they are so similar to ones he has written before. He finds them again a year later – if he hasn’t destroyed them – and is impressed with them. Later when they are published and well received by some of his writer friends his estimation of them rises again. The excitements, self-doubts, conflicted feelings, moments of despair – often caused by the same things that have excited him – tumble one after
I found especially interesting in this selection of letters its presentation of the development of his relationship with Levertov. His first meeting her in 1950-51 was in a sense coincidental, not brought about by poetry – she had recently married his long-time friend Mitch Goodman. In the Olson-Creeley Complete Correspondence he seems for a long while hardly aware of her, or interested in the fact that she writes poetry. Mitch and she visit him in New Hampshire, several times as I recall, but Creeley’s attention – when writing to Olson at least – seems to be almost exclusively on his old male friend. In this volume there is one 1951 letter to Mitch, followed by an April 18 1951 letter to Denise and Mitch, followed by an April 22 1951 letter to Denise which begins almost immediately an intense life-long correspondence – i.e. here Creeley appears to quickly discover that he has much more in common with her than with his old friend. It’s possible, I suppose, that his not mentioning her at any length in the Olson letters had more to do with his understanding of Olson than with his estimation of Levertov – an understanding that with Olson he was having a man-to-man correspondence.
That internal debate about conflicts and perplexities continues throughout Selected Letters, but Creeley’s focus gradually becomes more on his personal relationships and living circumstances than with poetics. He appears never to find a place and circumstances in which he is truly comfortable and able to call ‘home’ for an extended period. New colleagues and universities and teaching circumstances that initially seem welcoming eventually seem to him restricting or intrusive – whether in Albuquerque (“a sluggish time ... I really think it’s the basic inertia of people here" ), Buffalo “a hard city to get with in all senses” ) or Vancouver. He tends to like most people when he first meets them – which makes the reading tours he embarks on in Europe and North America – pleasant. Poets whose work he has found limited – such as James Dickey – seem to him to be warm and decent people when met briefly. One gets a sense that Creeley was happiest as a nomad. His longest-term relationships of any kind were mostly by mail – with Olson, Duncan, and Levertov. It seems ironically fitting that he should die while being a visiting writer in Texas.
Given the mass of letters and email that Creeley wrote – “fifteen thousand or so typed or handwritten letters, cards, and faxes ... a practically uncountable number of emails” (xxviii) – the editors have done a creditable job. They have followed Creeley’s advice to them (yes, the project has been in process for that long) “to tell a story” (xxvii), and created a selection of more interest to a general reader than to researching scholars, who will still have to use archival collections to get definitive answers to many of their questions. Still, there are annoying gaps in the “story” – for example the reader never learns from Creeley why he was eager to leave his position in Vancouver, or why he left Bolinas after less than two years – one surmises that departure was because of the collapse of his marriage to Bobby Louise Hawkins, but one can't be certain.
The editors write amusingly that his one year in Vancouver “did allow him, with the help of Warren Tallman, to stage the famous Vancouver Poetry Conference in the summer of 1963" (xxxiii). That undergraduate poetry class, taught primarily by Creeley, Olson, Duncan Ginsberg, and Levertov, and its associated lectures and readings was almost entirely Tallman’s idea; he did nearly all of the organizing; in the last three crucial months leading up to the events Creeley was in New Mexico. In 1963 there was in fact no “Vancouver Poetry Conference” – this set of capitalized words came into being only in the 1970s when some younger writers (mostly in the US) who were in the classes, or affiliated with ones who were, chose to pad their CVs by giving the summer a more impressive title. Creeley himself in these letters never uses it. In a post-summer letter to Paul Blackburn he refers to it as “that wild business in Vancouver” (265), in one to Alexander Trocchi “a gig on so-called poetry” (274). In a 1965 letter to Olson he calls it – while commiserating with the pressure of expectations Olson had experienced during his meltdown reading at the Berkeley Poetry Conference – “the Historic Moment of Vancouver, etc, i.e. yourself as such Focus” (291). In 1982 in a letter to Ginsberg he calls it merely “Vancouver ’63" (359). Writing to Tom Clark in 1987, a time at which the fantasy name was beginning to become established, he refers to the summer as the “time of the Vancouver festival” (369), and to Paul Auster in 1989 writes “I knew Michael Palmer way back when he was George – 1963, en route to that Vancouver Poetry Festival” (380). Again amusingly, Palmer had not only changed his own public name but was also one of those in the US responsible for inventing and entrenching a big-sounding name for the Vancouver summer. What we see reflected here in the letters is that the summer 63 Vancouver happenings had no official title and that Creeley, always valuing the open, could name the happenings however he pleased on any occasion.
It’s evident too in this collection that Creeley didn’t enjoy universities, university teaching, academic procedure, or formal academic events such as “conferences” or colloquia. (Neither did Tallman, who himself preferred to recall that summer as a “seminar,” “festival,” “poetry klatch” or “götterdämmerung.”) And it's evident that Creeley enjoyed receiving the awards that the establishment could bestow – a Guggenheim fellowship, an NEA grant, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Frost Medal, endowed university chairs, a Distinguished Fulbright Award, being New York State Poet. He managed to use university employment to become both the poet who had time to write and travel and the husband who could support his family – but apparently not without recurrent anxiety and self-doubt, which both nourished his writing and made relationships difficult. He feared being comfortable in his poetics – he often writes here of his need to break from the habits of his earlier writing – and seems to have experienced university practices as offering a similar kind of “inertia” comfort. He looked for living situations where he could be comfortable but seems also to have distrusted comfort when it occurred – much like he did in his writing. In this regard he is very different from Robert Duncan could distinguish between the stability of a domestic life and the openness necessary for poetry, and who wrote in his 1952 “Pages from a Notebook” “I once dreaded happiness, for I thot that ones being, ones art, sprang full grown from suffering. But I found that one suffers happiness in that sense. There is no magic in poetry that will not remain magic because one has sought wisdom” (Collected Essays 39).