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.