k a m a t e k a o r aa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
|issue 9, march 2010|
During his first visit to New Zealand in 1976, the American poet Robert Creeley writes in Wellington:
I like this poem.
For one thing, ‘I want to be a dog’ is a constant reminder to me that words are carriers of sound and memory – largely because when I read ‘I want to be a dog’ I can’t help but recall the time I misheard the lyrics for the Stone Roses song I wanna be adored.
‘I want to be a dog’ is also a bridge of sorts to Creeley’s return visit to New Zealand almost twenty years later in 1995, where he sets a loop track going on his experience of being (again) in this location:
Or, in that same poem, narrowing in on the self in language:
Perhaps coincidentally (though Creeley was aware of it), the poet William Carlos Williams also once wrote: ‘I would rather sneak off and die like a sick dog than be a well known literary person in America – and no doubt I’ll do it in the end.’ (In the American Grain 217)
Which seems as good a place as any for me to begin.
This essay tells a story of how Robert Creeley is involved with New Zealand, drawing particularly from archives and his own writing to uncover how he is involved with this place.
Before going there, however, I want to set the scene a little by briefly introducing Creeley’s approach to poetry and the impact he had on New Zealand writers. Poet and artist Tony Green summarises this in his 2005 obituary for Creeley:
As is often the case when writers talk about the work of those they admire, when Robert Creeley introduces fellow poet and friend Charles Olson's Selected Writings I, his commentary lends equal understanding to his own poetic terms.
Here is one of Creeley’s poems from 1969, for example, where the form literally comes into being through the activity of writing (and indeed, reading):
‘A Song’ (1952) is another poem where sounds in motion enact meaning (a flat rhyme produces monotony, repetition is the insistence of wanting), and lines open without end:
Putting it very generally, Robert Creeley’s writing is characterised by a distinct musicality, a conversational directness and an ear for everyday language; and a willingness and desire to be open to the possibilities of a given situation or stimulus, rather than being shut down by pre-determined forms or particular subject matter.
In New Zealand, writers who read Creeley and other American poets in the 1960s and early 1970s will respond strongly to such aesthetics of presence and openness.
Poet and editor Alistair Paterson observes, for example, that New Zealand writers have gained an acceptance that:
Paterson also notes, on the brink of bringing Robert Creeley to New Zealand in 1976, that Creeley’s ‘open form’ poetics has been extensively imitated:
Younger than Paterson, Ian Wedde, Alan Brunton and Jan Kemp stand among the so-called ‘young New Zealand poets’ brought together in Arthur Baysting’s 1973 anthology of the same name. According to Bill Manhire, this generation (mostly born after 1945) experienced an ‘absolute transforming effect’ from reading American poetry, ‘partly because it made sense in the context of all those other American influences to which we were being exposed as a matter of course.’ (‘Breaking the Line’)
Robert Creeley’s attentive and often jazz-like measure, for example, is something that the young Manhire found specifically useful:
Other poets will find different points of connection in American verse.
As Manhire summarised it, American poetry made ‘diversity and possibility available, and, in so doing, it freed poetry from the single line represented by the English tradition.’ (‘Breaking the Line’)
Rather than re-tell the story of how New Zealand literature shifted direction in response to American poetics, my primary concern here is with Robert Creeley’s New Zealand.
Few people are aware, for example, that the possibility of a New Zealand connection with Creeley first occurs in 1954, long before the poet is physically present in this country or more widely read by New Zealand poets and writers.
Throughout much of his writing life, Creeley’s preoccupation is with relationships – the ‘howness’ of how we relate to other people or to a locale, how we give recognition to the effect of that connection in language.
Typically, Creeley’s response is an immediate one. ‘I’ve always felt very, very edgy those few times when I have tried to gain a larger view,’ he comments in the 1960s. ‘I am given as a man to work with what is most intimate to me – these senses of relationship among people.’ (Contexts of Poetry 97)
In Creeley’s later writing, however, including the poems he writes in New Zealand in 1976, he begins to double back on places that he has once experienced (France, Auckland, California), constantly drawing the past into the present.
This sense of history, or the past’s place in the present, will continue into The Dogs of Auckland in 1995 (Gander), where New Zealand and its poets in 1976 become an additional locale and company to ‘be’ in – not distant but actively here, where the writer is now, asking:
Written specifically for reading in a hypermedia environment (that is, an environment which allows nonlinear access to related texts or images or sounds from a single reading), this essay arguably behaves similarly to Robert Creeley’s poetry.
With them, as electronic fiction writer Michael Joyce suggests, ‘the text becomes a present tense palimpsest where what shines through are not past versions but potential, alternate views’ (Joyce 3), as also in an early Creeley poem such as ‘The Sea’:
While Robert Creeley may not have drawn any correspondence between the electronic medium and his own poetics, he loved the ‘openness and “democracy” of the possibility’ (Spalding) that is the Internet’s reach and boundlessness.
Websites such as the State University of Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center (EPC) which Creeley founded with Charles Bernstein and Loss Glazier, and the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) which he was in active and generous support of, were the complete opposite of the ‘constricted and meager’ possibilities he had experienced in the mid-twentieth century. (Spalding)
Robert Creeley’s New Zealand, a comprehensive author page concerning Creeley’s connections with the country, was added to nzepc in 2002. Its resources are central to my essay but it is at the meagre mid-century that I wish to begin, in 1954