Only Emotion Endures

Contrary to Corinthians, a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Especially absolute rhythm.

So there's plenty of choice music on So There, and enough of it improvised to pass the test as jazz. But what makes the music poetry is the poetry. The shortest of the poems here is "Ambition," 16 words spread over three stanzas:

Couldn't guess it,

couldn't be it—

Creeley was a domestic poet, right down to the dog.
photo: Gerard Malanga
Creeley was a domestic poet, right down to the dog.


Steve Swallow with Robert Creeley
So There

wasn't ever

there then. Won't

come back, don't

want it.

Beginning with the strings voiced in steep intervals and ending with jagged piano clusters counterpointed beneath Creeley's voice, Swallow's setting knowingly recalls Monk. But the syncopation and staccato were already there in the text, and you find yourself wishing more jazz singers possessed Creeley's absolute rhythm.

All of which explains why So There is unusual, but it's equally moving—the separateness of the poetry and music turns it into a eulogy delivered in the deceased's own voice, one that already sounded a little worn on the handful of recordings Creeley made in the '60s, when he was barely middle-aged. In the case of "Return," a reverie on a Cambridge street described as "quiet as is proper for such places," his voice even comes across worn on the page:

Enough for now to be here, and

To know my door is one of these.

The surprise on looking it up in Creeley's Collected Poems is learning that "Return" was Creeley's first completed poem—written shortly after his arrival home to his mother's from a tour of duty in Bombay with the American Field Service in 1945, when he was almost exactly the age I was when I began reading him. It's So There's oldest poem by far, but its quiet acceptance earns it a place amid numerous reflections on impending mortality and the insults of old age ("Lift me into heaven/Slowly 'cause my back's/Sore . . . ") that are as powerful as any in English since Yeats—and already becoming as meaningful to me as Creeley's ardent early love poems. That's something else Corinthians never figured on: the ongoing shock of recognition in following the work of a favorite writer from adolescence through the years, as his outlook on life evolves ever slightly in advance of your own.

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