ALICE ENTWISTLE: Echoes and Edges: Re-reading Creeley

Looking back, I realize, Robert Creeley taught me how to read.

Sometime after my second year exams – the summer of 1988 – I went looking for a poet to examine in my undergraduate dissertation. I didn’t have much in the way of criteria. I started off knowing that I wanted to avoid anyone we’d studied in class; I gradually realized that I wasn’t keen to focus on anyone I’d read before. I’d enjoyed the American Poetry course and the American shelves were nearest the library stairs. So they were the first I came across, when my hunt got under way. A fat, pale-jacketed Collected Poems of someone calledRobert Creeley drew me, partly for its size and partly because the ticket pasted on the inside of the cover revealed it had yet to be borrowed at all. Best of all, though, were the poems. Page after page of brief, fragment-like … things, they held my gaze like nothing else I found that night, perhaps chiefly because they seemed, so invitingly, to refuse me:

Moving in the mind’s

patterns, recognized

because there is where

they happen.

(from Pieces, CP 437)

Trying to read Robert Creeley would, eventually, teach me how to read.

My discovery of mid-century American poetics owes more than is probably obvious to one happy accident; that I happened to be visiting those shelves at the time Durham University Library was being overseen by an aficionado of that very literary scene, the late and lovely Ric Caddel, even at that time a contemporary poet of considerable repute in all kinds of literary circles. Without the reading which his choices and interests made possible for me, and later some wonderfully rich and interesting conversations in the Library café, I can’t think I’d be where I am today. Nevertheless, despite the debts I owe Ric and other guides who helped me tackle the one-eyed poet who became not only subject of my undergraduate dissertation, but then a British Academy-funded doctorate and later three publications, the thrill of opening Creeley’s Collected Poems, that first time, remains sharply clear in my mind. It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t seen anything like those poems before (although I hadn’t), nor that I didn’t know the poet’s name (I wasn’t widely-read in American poetry). It was above all the recalcitrance – what I would later know as habitual, but immediately obvious, even to the undergraduate – of this poet’s idiom; a recalcitrance which was both linguistic and spatial, figured as suggestively by the gaps and spaces on the pages as in (by) the cryptic-seeming words and fragmented phrases arranged among them. Thus the ‘edges and echoes’ of my title, a dialogic interchange still entirely capable, I find, of compelling middle-aged me.

As a specialist in contemporary British poetics who mainly writes about poetry by women, I’ve had little cause to revisit the poems which were my first literary-critical anchorage, still less Creeley himself. The poet whose home I visited in Maine in 1992 died in March 2005. I was then working full-time in Bristol, had just had my second baby, and was juggling those complexities around an interview with the late and much-missed Lee Harwood. I’m ashamed to say I barely managed to clip the Grauniad obit. And yet now – as then – Creeley haunts so much of the job I love and feel so fortunate to be able to spend my life doing: follows me into every classroom, every tutorial, every paper I deliver; discreetly inhabits every line of unfamiliar text I read.

I can’t make grand claims for what follows. Three motives produced it. 1. The chance to pay public tribute to a writer to whom I owe the founding habits of my reading practice and to some extent as a result my career. 2. The temptation to review my earliest critical efforts from a position, as an established scholar, which even postgraduate Alice couldn’t dare to imagine she’d ever occupy. How would it feel, rereading Creeley, as me now? And 3. A growing desire to consider why reading later Creeley might seem uncannily close – in a sleight-of-hand I surely should have anticipated – to re-readingearlier Creeley; should seem as much a matter of surrender to the laconic generosities of the word today as it did on that evening some thirty years ago, in the basement of Durham University Library.


My chief concern lies with the dynamic of the poem: the seat of what Creeley himself has called – in his customarily literal way – its force; its forcefield. I’m approaching this ‘field’ through the three lenses this laconic writer invariably trained on its operation: time, place and self, all of which converge in the ‘echoes and edges’ circled by two collections produced after I’d finished my thesis. I only got round to reading one of them properly a couple of years or so ago.

It seems sensible to preface the remainder of this perhaps maundering-seeming, but in fact deliberately economic account with – for those not used to reading him – a warning about Creeley’s stringent carefulness, in respect of language and what he’d probably call the ‘variousness’ of its uses:

Writing is for me the most viable and open condition of possibility in the world (‘I’m Given to Write Poems’, A Sense of Measure 67).

This attention to – respecting of – every resonance, every potentiality of any word, as reader and writer alike, not only anchors everything Creeley said and wrote in a long and loquacious life. Rereading him, even now, it is as plain as ever to me that he demanded of his own readers the same exacting, relentless, attention to the words on the page, their literal, spatial, sonic and syntactic relationships with each other and the [material?] spaces in which they are situated. In one useful essay, to explain and justify this principle, he borrows

the analogy of driving. The road, as it were, is creating itself momently in one’s attention to it, there, visibly, in front of the car… Necessary attention to what is happening in the writing (the road) one is … following [permits an] experience of ‘order’ far more various and intensive than habituated and programmed limits of its subtleties can recognize… (‘A Note apropos Free Verse’ ASOM 50-1).

A shortish poem dedicated to Charles Olson, Creeley’s friend and mentor, Rector of Black Mountain College from 1951-56,‘Le Fou’ opens mid-movement, as it were, conjuring with its first elliptical phrases the dynamic, larger-than-life author of the hugely influential essay ‘PRO-Jective Verse’: ‘who plots, then, the lines / talking, taking, always the beat from / the breath /                        (moving slowly at first’… (CP 111).

In this relatively early example – and, more often than not, elsewhere in Creeley’s always literal-minded – poetics, time, place and self are ineluctably entangled. For Creeley, time is essentially spatio-linguistic, just as the space and con/textual and paginary ‘place’ of the poem is to some extent always marked by its own temporality. As far as any poetic construct is concerned, time and place together govern and are governed by the activity of the word: both time and place therefore and likewise simultaneously inhere and issue in the event, construct and agency of the text. In one essay, Creeley spells this out by quoting the words of another, if rather more difficult and distant, influence, Ezra Pound:

Rhythm is a form cut into TIME, as a design is determined SPACE … LISTEN to the sound that it makes (‘I’m Given to Write Poems’, ASOM 65).

Creeley’s is a poetics which encourages – requires – us to recognize, concede, how time and space co-condition what we might call the physiology of the poetic construct and the span or compass of its always dynamic existence. As one of two lyrics entitled ‘For W.C.W.’ puts it, ‘There, you say, and / there, and there, / and and becomes / / just so. […]’ (CP 273).

Filtered through the figure of William Carlos Williams, perhaps Creeley’s largest and most significant poetic model, ‘For W.C.W.’ stages not only the poet’s relentless attention to the situation (and attendant sonic, visual and relational potential) of the word in time, but also how and why time-and/as-place, or, place-and/as-time, endlessly mesh and elide with the centering, cohering, directing/directed consciousness of self:

Since ‘place’ is not now more than activity – there is the question of all terms of relationship, and of the possible continuities of that relationship in a time which is continuous and at all moments ‘present’ … (‘Introduction to The New Writing in the USA’, ASOM 44).

As another essay makes clear, it is the definitive continuousness of the present – that temporal quality – which makes it so hospitable to the always conscious, always embodied, always sensing self; and thus in doing so situates, and makes accommodating

[the] very distinct and definite place, that poetry not only creates but issues from – and one in writing is, as [his friend and fellow poet Robert] Duncan says, ‘permitted to return’, to go there, to be in that reality. (‘I’m Given to Write Poems’ ASOM 57).

That place, as the essay and the lovely text to which it pays homage both make clear, is of course the body, the sensate ‘reality’ which houses and anchors the thoughtful, responsive and scripted/scripting (self-)consciousness. Creeley concludes: “That body is the ‘field’ and is equally the experience of it”.

Thus for Creeley, the definitive ‘undertaking’ of writing can never constitute any more or less than the continuing, ceaseless, almost hopeless effort to utter the situatedness of the body (self) in time and place. He calls this effort: “the attempt to sound in the nature of the language those particulars of time and place of which one is a given instance, equally present” (ASOM 47). The interrelated, time and place-bound yet edgeless ‘instance’ and presence of self – both mediated and subverted in the ongoing activity or event of the poem – returns me to my title and some of the ideas which seem to have been preoccupying the poet in the mid-late nineties, in collections like Echoes (1994), Life and Death (1998) and even his final volume, If I Were Writing This (2003).


Looking over these works, I was struck afresh by something I remember thinking as I was editing and polishing my thesis: the recurrence of my title words, ‘echoes’ and ‘edges’; and the ways in which these two signifiers seem at once yoked and opposed. Both often appear in each other’s proximity, their metaphorical resonances acknowledged no more than they are denied. Echoes for example contains no fewer than eleven separate poems (or fragments) with ‘echo’ in their title; a further fifteen texts make use of the same word. Indeed, ‘echo’ and ‘edge’ can be found circling each other in this collection’s opening poem: ‘Edge of door’s window / sun against /flat side adobe, /yellowed brown– /A blue lifting morning, /miles of spaced echo, […]’ (‘My New Mexico’, Echoes 3-4). I could very happily savour the resonances – sonic, materio-visual and tropic – of this lovely, limber text in some detail, but it would seem self-indulgent. That said, I can’t resist pointing out the way in which the foreground is lightly actualised, visually, in the detailed materialities – the sun-warmed planes, colours and textures of door and window frames, plaster, fence – of the angles and edges which seem to etch themselves almost defiantly on the ‘blue … miles of spaced echo’ of morning sky. Here, vacancy (framed) is made delicately finite even ‘sharp’; time is colourful and space finds an agency (‘lifting’) which is both temporal and resonant (‘backward, backward–’). Perhaps above all, it can be observed that the edges of the human immediacies which offer the poem its centre, and its speaker a kind of ground or handhold, seem both to refute and simultaneously to dissolve in the spatial and temporal limitless event (the seeming limitlessness) of the ‘blue lifting morning’. Without the edge there’d be no echo. And vice versa.

Shorter, less explicit, ‘The Cup’ seems to make a distinctly similar argument in a kind of hermeneutic self-dismantling which reaches towards equilibrium: ‘a / walking round rim / to see what’s within’ (Echoes 26). This time the relationship between ‘rim’ (edge, of course) and ‘what’s within’ suggests the link between language or utterance and the thought which can only be displaced, overwritten or deferred, in the event of its representation; between the (essentially limited) linguistic/spatial and temporal drama which the poetic construct inscribes on the page and the echoes which spill out of, extend and subvert those limits; between the writing and reading selves, locked in a necessarily specific thus always finite and yet metaphorically ceaseless pas-de-deux. In these several, overlapping, interleaving ways, this poem seems to me to propose both the endlessness and the finitude of suggestion, at once and always antecedent and precedent, never wholly contained in or by the echoing ‘cup’ of the word, phrase, poem, or indeed any intentional creative act or utterance.

Which idea brings me to Life and Death, and the in/finities of the creative consciousness as un-spooled in what is probably for me its central poem. The speaker of ‘Edges’ is captured conjuring for him (or her) self, ‘just one moment, a place /I could be in where all imagination would fade /to a center, wondrous, beyond any way…

And the far-off edges of usual

place were inside.

(… )

In this inside/outside self-crossing helix, while ‘The road from here to there continues’, at the same time, amid the dynamism, there is reassuring coherence to be drawn from a recognized place,

Here it all is then—as if expected, waited for

and found again.

(Life and Death 56)

It was only after I started writing this paper that I learned that this endlessly layered, endlessly suggestive, text originated in a collaborative project which Creeley undertook with the figurative artist Alex Katz in the mid-nineties. The form of the poem (thirteen four-lined stanzas, or quatrains) emerged as a direct response to Katz’s etchings; each quatrain engages, or perhaps enters into dialogue, with one of the illustrations. The whole was eventually published in a sumptuous large-format limited edition work entitled, of course, Edges (Peter Blum, 1999) which I am proud to say I now own, rather belatedly. And leafing through it, this evening, of course, I find that the page edge I turn offers another iteration of the edges on which the whole meditates, over and over, line by line, stanza by stanza, inked penstroke by inked penstroke, page by page. And in the process I am of course, with or without my permission, mischievously implicated in the poem’s own self/textual unfolding, much as Creeley himself might have been:

Why continue writing? Inexplicable, except that it is, literally, an active possibility for me… the way the world then enters, or how I’m also then known to myself, is a deeply fascinating circumstance… a realization, a reification, of what is (‘The Writer’s Situation’ ASOM 109).


To (re-)read later Creeley is, for this now-aging enthusiast, to be propelled back to the moment/place (the echoing edge) of my very first encounter with the suggestive echoes and reticent edges of writer whose demands of himself and language changed me; has come to seem, therefore, a rereading of my own (echoic) relationship with his writing. For me this is a poet whose scrupulous respect for the finitude of the word makes nothing plainer than the evident infinitudes of the poem, an echo-chamber (with all the contradictions of that now-popular trope) poised by the measures of time and space on a kind of endlessly unreliable, endlessly suggestive arête, a knife-edge from which the unguarded reading, the clumsy writer, can all too easily topple it.

As the experienced reader I feel now able to own myself, Creeley’s watchful example has discreetly taught me, indeed will always teach, that reading like writing must stay alert to, navigate, negotiate the equilibrium which any poem strikes between echo and edges. Thus his relentlessly literal attention to the word and its potentialities tropes, without self-consciousness or wrenching, how the interwoven activities of reading and writing depend on, defer to and persistently escape each other; make gaps sound, absence present, and edges echo.

There seems no more effective way to suggest the uncanniness of the reading experience I’ve been trying to describe and account for, than to point, in conclusion, to ‘The Mountains in the Desert’, written in 1961. Here, the arid upland landscape which the poem sketches at its start stages a ‘geography of self and soul / brought to such limit of sight’ which proves compelling (‘I cannot relieve it / nor leave it, my mind locked / in seeing it’) perhaps above all for the self-unpiecing it seems to urge of, prompt in, its mesmerized witness:

Tonight let me go

at last out of whatever

mind I thought to have,

and all the habits of it.

(Life and Death 269)


Back at you, Bob. With thanks. For so much.



Works Cited

Robert Creeley. Collected Poems 1945-1975. Berkeley, Cal: University of California Press, 1982

——. Echoes. New York: New Directions, 1994.

——, and Alex Katz. Edges. New York: Peter Blum, 1999.

——. If I Were Writing This. New York: New Directions, 2003.

——. Life and Death. New York: New Directions, 1998.

——. A Sense Of Measure. London: Calder and Boyars, 1973.


Alice Entwistle is Professor of Textual Aesthetics and Contemporary Poetry at the University of South Wales; she is currently working on books about Gwyneth Lewis and Ciaran Carson, respectively. Her published works are A History of Twentieth Century British Women’s Poetry (Cambridge with Jane Dowson), Poetry Geography Gender: Women writing contemporary Wales (U Wales P, 2013) and In Her Own Words: Women talking poetry and Wales (Seren 2014). She was awarded her doctorate in 1997 for ‘Creeley Among Others: An American Poetics in Context’; it’s unpublished.



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