When I was a kid, I
thought like a kid—
I was a kid,
you dig it . . .
Robert Creeley was one of those adolescent passions I suppose I should’ve put behind me by the time I happened on these lines from “Later,” included in his 1979 collection of the same name. But what did Corinthians 13:11 know, with that bit about putting away childish things upon becoming a man? The books and movies and songs that leave a dent in us deeper than first love when we’re young and unformed aren’t ours to renounce, because it’s more like they own us. I was drawn to the poems in Creeley’s early collections For Love and Words
as a mopey, self-conscious mid-’60s college freshman partly because nothing ever happens in them—even when an action is understood to be taking place, all we get are the running thoughts of a man watching himself perform it.
Although he was frequently anthologized alongside the Beats and freelance shamans like his friend and mentor Charles Olson, Creeley belonged to no recognizable school. Like the housebound Emily Dickinson, he was a “domestic” poet: “Such is my ‘world,’ like they say—what space I can recognize,” as he once put it. But even though that “space” was his own head, his overarching theme was heterosexual love—of immediate interest to me as an 18-year-old just beginning to experience its vicissitudes. He was the greatest love poet of the second half of the 20th century, when love got really difficult. I read him for commiseration, never advice, because in poem after poem, his only wisdom concerning women was in recognizing their impenetrable otherness.
In the process, I absorbed a few pointers on craft he’d learned from Ezra Pound, beginning with the dictum “only emotion endures.” In a 1913 manifesto, Pound had called on poets “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome,” which meant finding for each poem “an ‘absolute rhythm’ [that] corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” Rhythm and pitch are everything in Creeley, albeit tied to the rush and hesitations of thought rather than normal patterns of speech. Taking Pound at his word, it’s poetry akin to musical notation—it sings once you learn to read it as you would a score.
Doing it myself was another matter, and my own career as a poet was nipped in the bud when I realized I’d never be able to shake Creeley’s influence. But I still quote him way too much, and just when I’ve promised I’ll stop, along comes So There, a collaboration with bassist Steve Swallow far too unusual and moving for me to ignore—though
collaboration might be the wrong word, inasmuch as the readings are from 2001 and the musical settings from a few months after Creeley’s death in 2005 at the age of 78.
He was the most jazz-savvy poet of his generation. Unlike Amiri Baraka on Coltrane, Paul Blackburn on Sonny Rollins, or Gregory Corso on Miles Davis, Creeley never indulged in bebop onomatopoeia to mimic a favorite musician (“Blues for Horace Silver,” an uncollected poem from 1976, refers to the pianist in no other way). But he once cited Davis’s 1954 version of “But Not for Me” as an influence on his phrasing and sense of time, and those frequent rhythmic displacements of his—”relation-/ships,” from “The Immoral Proposition,” forces the stress on the final syllable, you’ll notice—pull you up short the same as Monk.
Rhythm isn’t the same as meter, though. At its most liberated and playful, it can be the opposite, which is where both Swallow’s earlier Home (1979) and Steve Lacy’s Futurities (1985) miscalculated in attempting to reconfigure Creeley into song. (Nor did it help, given the narrow male perspective from which he tended to mythologize women, that the singers called on were Sheila Jordan and Irene Aebi, respectively.) Have We Told You All You’d Thought to Know? and Courage’s The Way Out Is Via the Door, a pair of CDs from the late ’90s featuring Creeley as a performer with improvisers including Swallow and drummer Chris Massey, were unsettling for a different reason: Creeley’s poetry is colloquial but implicitly unspoken. Encouraging him to raise his voice to compete with instruments did him no favor.
So There gives him back what space he can recognize by weaving Swallow’s bass, Steve Kuhn’s piano, and the Cikada String Quartet in and out of his previously recorded monotone. Those hostile to the very idea of jazz combined with poetry might be relieved to hear that Creeley’s readings take up less than a quarter of So There. Most of it is Swallow and Kuhn duetting, dissonant strings added for suspense rather than sweetening. The only already established bassist to go electric for keeps in the late ’60s, Swallow was also among the few capable of achieving the desired guitar-like agility without sacrificing the upright’s gravitational pull to the bottom of chords. He’s in typically lyrical form here, and going back 40 years to their time together in Art Farmer’s rhythm section, he’s always brought out the best in Kuhn. Swallow’s ballads, blues, tangos, hymns, and near-minuets in response to Creeley serve an added purpose in allowing Kuhn to display his versatility—in that sense, So There is a better showcase for the pianist than his own splendid but more conventional Live at Birdland, the album with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster due from Blue Note later this month.
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—
there then. Won’t
come back, don’t
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.