On the Subject of Company

Buffalo, New York

They say the death of a parent puts you in time because that means there’s now no generation standing between you and ordinary death: you’re next. I don’t buy it. That kind of next is, absent violence or some cells going berserk, a long way off. It’s an idea; it doesn’t have the shape or feel of impending fact. What really puts you in time is the clock ticking on your own death when the doctor says “better pack, you’re not going to get better from this” and the deaths of friends and lovers. When friends and lovers die and your world gets quieter; that’s when the silence comes closer; that’s when next isn’t the least bit theoretical or abstract.

Who are you? You are the person who has these links to the world. One of Robert Creeley’s favorite words was “company.” He was always talking about being part of a company-a company of family, of poets, of artists, of this group here on this night around this table, eating and drinking and talking, always talking. Company = with bread. When the company constricts so does your world, so do you. The first thing he said when we talked about Allen Ginsberg’s death in 1997 was, “The company keeps getting smaller.” Company, for Bob, was whom you thought in terms of, whom you talked with.

Like the narrator of what may be his best-known poem, “I know a man,” Bob Creeley was always talking. It was part of the great pleasure of his company.

He often said that the authors and producers of “Murder, She Wrote” lifted that line from him and, worse, they butchered it, bungled it, missed the point of it. The poem has been widely quoted in the obituaries for him this past week and almost everyone who quotes the poem’s most famous line-“drive, he said”-quotes it incorrectly. It’s a poem that got away because of punctuation and line breaks, which did not fail to amuse Bob. The poem goes:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking – John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

“I know a man” has two voices: the “always talking” narrator and his friend who is not-named-John. People who never heard Creeley read the poem assume the friend starts speaking three lines from the end, telling the author to drive and to look out where he’s going. But when Creeley read the poem he put the long caesura after “drive,” so what the friend said was “for/christ’s sake, look/out where yr going,” just what anyone might say to someone who was walking beside him on the street, mouth running a mile a minute about the darkness surrounding them and getting a car and driving somewhere to keep it at bay, and in the process of talking maybe missing the curb, maybe not seeing a lamppost or garbage can or steel grille sticking up around the base of a tree. People who heard Creeley read the poem all know where that break belongs, but that doesn’t mean they keep it there. Slip away from his voice and the line break trumps the comma and the friend who is not named John is telling him to drive. Keep the voice in your head and you know they are in all likelihood not in a car at all.

In spring 2001, the editors of Substance-TV, an innovative dvd magazine that ran for two years, asked Bob Creeley and me if they could videotape us talking about Bob’s work. They ran part of the conversation in their first issue with the title “Robert Creeley and the Persistence of Verse.” Later this year, Center Working Papers will publish the entire conversation as a small book. Early on in the videotaping, we got to talking about the situation of poetry now. Bob was editing an anthology to be titled “Best American Poems” so he was selecting from an enormous mass of stuff, some of which he found interesting, much of which he found dreary. He talked about his delight with the electronic publishing scene (he loved the whole digital word: he carried a tiny laptop with him everywhere and stayed in touch with everybody via email) and then we got on the word “company.” This is part of that conversation.

— Bruce Jackson

BJ: And what is good stuff now? Are things changing?

RC: I suppose good stuff from my sense is not a consistent, but an insistent, attempt to find formal means that are most appropriate, most active and appropriate for what’s in mind or what’s there to be said. That aspect of things, try endlessly to try to think of how, what formal agency will best serve.

It’s a fascinating time in that way because it’s now both simple and practical to engage sound, image and words in a way that was unthinkable back in the forties and fifties. Now one can with really pretty rudimentary information manage a page that has all of these elements interacting, as witness our own website-

BJ: The Electronic Poetry Center.

RC: Electronic Poetry Center, which has its e-poems, its e-magazines, journals. It’s a whole new ball game. Hypertext, for example, and all its permissions and accommodations. Also the fact that materials can be published in this way, so much more actively and simply than they could be when one had to go through the classic eye of the needle which was the, you know, the literary journal of that time and place, which, whatever its sympathies, couldn’t accommodate the needs in fact of the poets thus coming in. So either one started one’s own small modest mimeograph magazine and hoped ten people would read it…. For this Best American Poems business, I’m reading, or looking as best I can, at a range of online journals, which now become legitimate place of activity for this publication. That’s fascinating; I find a lot there.

It’s a funny time. I would say it’s remarkably conservative in the sense that people are reflective and the basic disposition is reflective. A friend showed me within the last few weeks, photographs of Gregory Corso’s grave in the English cemetery in Rome. I think one of our country’s most dear, dear accomplishments was Gregory’s getting Gregory buried in there. He’s the first person to be buried in that cemetery in a hundred years. There he is. Right there’s Shelley, there’s Gregory. It felt wonderful. If you look at the words on Gregory’s stone, taken from his own writing, they are of a mind in particularity that almost no one writing today has the power of. It isn’t simply that Gregory went for broke, but that he claimed and stated the world in an absolutely far beyond confidence way that I just don’t find. I find echoes of it or tones of it or facts of it.

Same is true of poets like Ted Berrigan, whom I felt was great, or Olson or Duncan. In some ways it’s got to be nostalgia. You can’t be seventy-five without missing your friends, or else you’ve never been alive at all. So that’s true: that these heroic presences of my life are endlessly there. But I miss a scale and an appetite. But I may not know about it-maybe in some very, necessarily edgy place where’s there no easy way in and they’re trying to find it.

BJ: I was talking to someone the other day about Allen [Ginsberg] and the kind of presence Allen was for us.

RC: Yeah, he was great.

BJ: Looking for someone like that now, or someone who fills that slot now, and I don’t see it.

RC: No.

BJ: It may be that the chemistry just isn’t adequate for someone like that to flourish. It’s a different time.

RC: I remember Allen, one time, when I was to give a lecture curiously at the Sorbonne-that was later described as the shortest lecture ever delivered in the history of that university, something like twenty minutes-and I gave all the books away at the end. Sort of a hint, you know. Basically the lecture was reading from these books.

So in any case, I remember talking to him about this prospect and I was trying to resolve on some writer and some way of coming in. He said, why don’t you emphasize that American poets are first of all extraordinarily eccentric people? They are cranks, classic social cranks, and that without exception they are all self-invented. They don’t constitute a lineage or a tradition of the usual imagination, certainly not Parisian, or French. They are Pound, or Whitman, or Emerson equally. I mean they all effectually invent both themselves and the world in which they are living – invent their modus or their means. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, the person I finally settled on.

BJ: And the good doctor.

RC: …Williams took the whole sense of speech particular to people so far beyond the rhetoric that it had had in writers like Sandberg, et cetera, where it was a simulated language. It wasn’t- out of the mouths of Polish mothers was in fact quite true. He never spoke in an imagined rhetoric such as Frost had. His language was very specific to him, so it was never talked down or dramatic in its base.

BJ: Finish about the lecture. You talked about Poe?

RC: Yeah, I talked about Poe. I was using the fact that his contemporaries thought he was a bore indeed, and that intellectually and critically and also as a poet he was head and shoulders above almost all his company. He was one of the great critics ever, not just in his ability to nitpick, but his abilities to think were fascinating. Then of course the invention of the classic detective stories and what not. That was, oh he was terrific.

BJ: Yes he was.

RC: Well the French loved him, I mean I knew that. Mallarmé had made this great translation of “The Raven,” which was far more respected than that poem has been in this country.

BJ: This leads me to something I wanted to ask you, Bob. You were just talking about American poets inventing themselves.

RC: Right.

BJ: One of the words I’ve heard you use again and again over the years is “company”.

RC: Company. I want company. “My love and company,” as I wrote. I think partly because of growing up in a small town, which on the one hand, had a very intimate and to this day has still that, echoes of that real fact of people, both my people from that time but also the habits of this town, although it’s now largely suburbia. In any case, because my father had moved us in as a family, and although my mother was the town nurse, so that was certainly a real identification, I never felt quite person to the place. I mean I felt, on the one hand, who else could I be, I lived there. I had my friends there. They’d stay friends all my life. But I curiously never, I didn’t know quite how I’d got there. I felt like a foundling, as though I’d been left on the doorstep. So it was, it was always a curious ambivalence.

Also our household didn’t have much company. There wasn’t, in the old-fashioned sense of “company come for dinner” or something. There weren’t many people coming and going from our house. It wasn’t physically isolated, but the nature of my mother’s work and her fatigue obviously when she had finished. Although she was a warm and responsive person, she was not a comfortably social person. That kind of “you all come in” was not her ability.

So, company. I remember, for example, a couple years ago when I was trying to persuade graduate students in our Poetics program to let me get them some kind of a digs in the city that would let them have more, not just presence in the city, but let them be more in the city as its information and daily business. I said, you know, “You need company”, et cetera et cetera. I kept talking about company. “You gotta have company.” One of the terrific women in the group, Anya Levin no less, who actually did eventually establish such a place, she said, “I thought when you said company you were talking about a small business that you wanted to start.” I said, “No, no, no another kind of company.” And break bread together.

And so in any case, the way I came of age as a poet, or came into poetry at the time, it really was a company. I’d lived in a sort of isolated manner and then suddenly arriving at Black Mountain I found here were all these peers and relationships were just validating and reassuring beyond belief. That company stayed all my life. I’d blessedly have it, had it.

BJ: When was it that you got there, and who was part of it?

RC: Initially, the primary person then there was Olson, Charles Olson. This would be ’54 I came. I began writing Olson just at the beginning of the 50s and we had this furious correspondence, which was-

BJ: Eight volumes.

RC: Yeah, it’s like ten volumes for something like two years continuing. I don’t think it will all be published likely in my lifetime. The editor died. I don’t think we killed him, but-

BJ: -you burned out an editor.

RC: Dear George. He was Olson’s primary editor. It was an awful responsibility, terrifying in its implications. He got through ten. Well, he did nine volumes and then a person appointed by him did one more and that’s where it stopped.

In any case, Olson was there, Ed Dorn was there. The nexus of other poets was through the Black Mountain Review, which I was funded to begin. That was a further location. That brought in friends as Duncan, for example, and Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, et cetera. It began to be not simply our gang. It really was; it was our emotional and defining cluster.

We were not necessarily a happy company all the time. X couldn’t stand Y. There were endlessly dilemmas of that kind. Just moments before you came I had a call from these terrific musicians…. He said he wanted to talk to me because one of them thought that the other was [noise]. What did I feel about it? Well, I don’t know and I’m not playing the music. So if it works or if it doesn’t work for you, that’s the real argument….I can’t tell you. I certainly would understand if you said you can’t work with X because X doesn’t work with you or something or just doesn’t seem to do it. Yeah. Anyhow, so there were those kind of dilemma at times.

Or people thought I’d lost it when I would publish various poets. I remember one was classic – “The Goat Man.” I can’t remember the name of the writer. Friends thought I’d really lost it when I published that story. I still like the story, but it’s a classic, vatic sort of primitive terrific story.

BJ: You published it in the Review?

RC: Yeah, in the Black Mountain Review. I didn’t worry about taste in that way at all. The great pleasure was, I never forgot Pound’s ukase. He says: “Damn your taste. I want if possible to sharpen your perceptions, after which your taste can take care of itself.” That was immensely useful advice.

* * *

Bob Creeley and I were born May 21 ten years apart-he in Arlington, Massachusetts, in 1926 and I in Brooklyn, New York, in 1936-so he would have been 75 that day and I would have been 65. He said something else to me in that conversation that, if it didn’t free me from fear of death brought me to a truce with it. The power that a few words can have never ceases to astonish me, which is a fact poets take joy in every day of their working lives. I never got around to telling Bob how important to me was the thing he’d said, almost as an aside. We’d been talking about the deaths of friends and then about how both of us were workaholics and how we’d probably be hard at it, right to the end. It was a conversation we’d had before and would have again. But that time Bob said something he’d never said before, nor did he say it subsequently: “You know,” he said, “you’re not going to finish anyhow.”

“You’re not going to finish anyhow.” That had never occurred to me. I don’t know when Bob realized it. What a brilliant, liberating notion that is. “You’re not going to finish anyhow.” What a beastly burden that frees you of. It licenses you to take on anything.

You don’t finish. Since you don’t finish, you don’t have to worry about finishing. Finishing isn’t what it’s about. People for whom finishing is what it’s about are already finished. It’s the doing it that’s the joy, and the talking about it that’s the joy, doing and having enough pals and family accessible by phone or email or close by so that you can do the talking that has to be done until the breath is no longer there to do the talking with. Which he did, right to the end, when the early morning sun burst through that Odessa, Texas, hospital room window and he saw that his wife Penelope and their dear children Will and Hannah were there and he told them what a nice thing he thought that was, what a nice thing it was.

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at SUNY Buffalo. He edits the web journal Buffalo Report. He can be reached at: bjackson@buffalo.edu