That ambivalent, oblique, laconic way of speaking, it’s very self-defensive, but it thinks of itself as very up-front.
A really charming guy last night, one of the musicians, said to me ‘Hey, man, you got a really interesting voice.’ You know, I was very charmed. And he said, ‘Yeah, the way you really push it out there--you can hear every beat.’ [laughs.]
That’s terrific. That’s the way I feel it.
These words, taken from an interview with Anne Waldman in Ron Mann’s 1982 documentary Poetry in Motion, come from the most laconic of 20th century laconic American poets, Robert Creeley.
Creeley’s sound-driven poetry is in a sense halfway between Cage’s silence and, say, Michael McLure’s shaman-fire. As a twentysomething wanna-be poet commuting to Rutgers University’s Camden satellite campus, I first saw the film on a VHS tape rented from TLA Video in Philadelphia. The documentary was 4-5 years old by then, and I rented it on countless occasions, accumulating some serious late fees. Sometimes, I took the train across the Delaware River for the sole reason of hearing the clip where John Giorno yelps his poems over a prerecorded track or Jayne Sanchez duels with Jamaaleen Tacuma’s bass.
The documentary’s angle or thesis was that poetry, as a heard form, can be freed from the academy’s grip, which according to several of the featured poets, is “so hard to understand.” As someone forced to read Pound and Eliot at a premature point of my writing life, I agreed with these assertions wholeheartedly. Watching the film again, I also recall feeling that I was somehow more hip than the academics.
Creeley, a poet in academia almost all of his writing life, at first seemed staid and laid-back to me, certainly not as viscerally satisfying as the poets reading with the bells and whistles, like Ed Sanders of the Fugs, for instance, with his "musical tie." Creeley’s comments that immediately follow his reading of “Self-Portrait,” however, have always helped me appreciate the poem. On the surface, the speaker does seem rather coy, “laconic,” and “oblique” in his meaning and intention. Over the years, I grew to like the poem more and more as my ear changed; Creeley’s pauses in his performance and line, after tens of listenings, I learned, provided a perfect form for the sound and meaning contents of the poem. It indicated deeper ambiguities. Here's the poem:
He wants to be
a brutal old man
an aggressive old man,
as dull, as brutal
as the emptiness around him,
He doesn’t want compromise,
nor to be ever nice
to anyone. Just mean,
and final in his brutal,
his total, rejection of it all.
He tried the sweet,
the gentle, the “oh
let’s hold hands together”
and it was awful,
dull, brutally inconsequential.
Now he’ll stand on
his own two dwindling legs.
His arms, his skin,
shrink daily. And
he loves, but hates equally.
The structure and sounds the poem sets up is just like the jazz I’ve learned to love--simple, repetitive, supporting the thesis/head, tearing it apart, then rebuilding it again. “Self-Portrait” does all that in four stanzas. It is, in fact, pushing it out there--stanza 2 parodies stanza 1, stanza 3 parodies the first two stanza’s sounds, and stanza 4’s simplified resolution is an almost identical syllabic twin of stanza 1.
My definition of parody here is an imitation meant to recall the original, but either through variation, simplification, or a certain hollowed-outedness, becomes its own form, something else completely on its own. The speaker’s voice, its third-person, coy nihilism, I think, is also a parody of the sort of poetry that through its first-person authoritative voice establishes the subjunctive or overbearing kind of mood, a testifying gushy upliftment that doesn’t seem appropriate for the implied “I” of Creeley’s poem.
I’ve always liked that there has been two versions of “Self-Portrait” in my possession, kind of like the way I am proud of having two versions of songs or rare vinyl that hasn’t made it, at least to the satisfaction of audiophiles, onto some deluxe CD re-release.
In the Creeley versions I have, the only real discrepancy is in the line, “his own two dwindling legs” [italics mine]. In the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, the line does not include “two” and is dated as written in 1983. In Poetry in Motion, produced in 1982, the line includes “two.”
I had the chance for a moment of closure in 1998, the kind of instance afforded by privilege, place, and a sheer sense of curiosity--otherwise known as going to graduate school in New York City. Armed with a print-out of the poem, I approached Robert Creeley for an autograph, for him to sign this sheet that I had carried along with me on the subway like a talisman. I showed him the crumpled-up piece of paper, he sort of laughed to himself and to another bearded man with whom he was speaking, presumably also from Buffalo, since every man I’ve ever met from Buffalo has a full beard.
Feeling more self-conscious, I asked him which version did her prefer--the “own dwindling legs” or the “own two dwindling legs”? I prefer the deletion of “two,” Creeley said. “It sounds and scans better." He signed the poem and capped my pen.
I withdrew, hearing what I had not wanted to hear--I preferred the version on the video, the one that, by its long-vowel sound and almost absurd tautology, made it more conversational, accessible. To deal with the original version, the first one I heard and saw, is to stay loyal to the emotion, the staccato propriety—in Creeley’s words, that’s the way I feel it.
All these years, I thought I had presented to the poet the documentary transcript version, and he was generous enough to sign the one he did not prefer. Then I looked at again just now, and it's not. It's the Norton version.
I don't think I'll ever forgive myself for not presenting the one I loved for the poet to sign.
I need "two" there, and I wished Creeley did as well.