dead poets society | illustrations by seth williams

In 1998, Robert Creeley published So There: Poems 1976 – 1983 with a preface full of italicized paragraphs to suggest a variation of voice (Collected Poems, vol. 2, pp. ix-xi). These italicized ruminations between non-italicized statements capture effortlessly a pervasive sense of dualism in the human perspective while saying much about the speaker(s) in Creeley’s body of work. Regrettably, the brilliance of Creeley’s entire preface constitutes an exploration best left for commentators of a greater endurance.

            For myself, it seems suitable to draw attention to the preface’s fifth paragraph so as to say something about the concept of an American identity as it relates to an American poetic identity and thus American poetics. The paragraph states the following:

They say you can be sure of three things in America, in any company, and you can always let them be known without fear of social reprisal. One, that you know nothing about opera. Two, that you know nothing about poetry. Three, that you speak no language other than English. Is that true? (x)

            One should note the call to action in the first two words and final rhetorical question of the paragraph. At the start, Creeley provokes the reader by basing the three assurances attributed to America and thus the American identity on the gossip of normative conceptions through use of the phrase “they say” (x). The language places the reader in a position of fundamental difference – outside of the “they” – while inciting the reader to criticize the listed assurances through a foundation on normative conceptions that could exist as baseless, rather than founding such assurances on pluralistic conceptions that would exist as more inclusive, or empirical conceptions that would exist as having a readily identifiable external source.

Creeley finalizes his call for a critical response by explicitly challenging the articulated normative assurances with a rhetorical question. Again, a sense of provocation occurs through the rhetorical use of the interrogative sentence “is that true?” (x). In one sense, Creeley not only places the reader in a position of fundamental difference, but in a position of authority. Through the rhetorical question, the reader becomes empowered to question the three normative assurances provided and thus capable of developing an answer to the question posed.

In another sense, Creeley uses the language of gossip to appeal to the reader’s emotion. The paragraph and its final question simultaneously voice a statement about America that the reader will perceive as a reputational threat inconsistent with their perception of an American identity or the ideals desired for an American identity, because the reader does not exist as part of the group – the “they” – that allegedly promotes or imposes the asserted identity. In this context, the question does exist as rhetorical and does not seek an answer. Instead, the question serves to articulate an assertion or imposition of a perspective that will naturally exist as hostile to the reader due to its exclusion of the reader’s view.[i]

One can analogize this aspect of Creeley’s final phrase to schoolish gossip. Simply imagine a scenario in which one child states to another “they say your parents are [z], is that true?” Absent sincere ignorance, validation of the statement – that is, the [z], which can be replaced by any number of adjectives – exists as subordinate to the ulterior motive of imposing a perception upon the listener. Even if the hypothetical speaker does not consciously realize the ulterior motive, the language itself directly confronts the listener’s perspective with a normative perspective that the listener must in turn address. Like the listener in the scenario, Creeley places his reader in the same position of confrontation with a normative perspective, the only difference between the two scenarios being that the reader confronts a normative perspective of the “parental” country, as opposed to a normative perspective of the reader’s actual parents.

In sum, Creeley’s rhetorical question simultaneously provides the reader with the authority to challenge the asserted aspects of an American identity while implicitly suggesting that these three assurances of an American identity are hostile to or separate from the reader’s view of an American identity.

Regardless of whether the assurances themselves are true or even exist as normative, Creeley creates a paragraph in which he incites the reader to challenge such assurances. Put differently, Creeley incites the reader to challenge an American identity that does not understand opera, that knows nothing about poetry, and that does not exist as multilingual.

In merely five sentences, Creeley exhibits a power over language that warranted banishment of the poet from the Republic for imitation of the appearance of the truth instead of the truth itself.[ii] He achieves a movement toward an idealistic American identity that promotes art and speech through imitation or representation of a normative American identity that may or may not be true – as evidenced by the last interrogative sentence itself – but an appearance of a normative identity that nevertheless exists as hostile to the reader through ostracizing language. Implicitly, Creeley’s direction of the reader toward a different American identity assumes such an identity to be good or superior to the normative American identity presented, regardless of the truth of the normative identity presented. One can imagine the philosophers of the Republic would take issue with Creeley’s paragraph for such a disregard of the truth or reality of an American identity.

dead poets society | illustrations by seth williams

However, a debate about whether Socrates truly banished poetry from the kallipolis and the merit of doing so falls outside the scope of the present interest. It simply seems worth noting that in an era of fake news and imagined narratives that the poetic voice appears more at home and more capable of instigating change than the philosophic voice and the philosophic voice’s frequent desire for the absolute or a sense of objectivity. Accordingly, the brief reference to the Republic merely serves to note the undervalued power of the poet in post-truth America. In this context, Creeley’s representation of an identity removed from the truth to illicit a counter response serves as a concrete example of the poet’s power of “imitation” and ability to instigate change toward a more idealistic American identity at an almost unconscious level in the reader, something which I believe the twenty-first century poet has yet to fully realize or master in the manner achieved by Creeley.

But what of the assurances that Creeley represents as part of a normative American identity? One cannot help but question whether such assurances exist as part of a true – or conceptually “real” – normative American identity – partly, I imagine, in hopes of eliciting a real change. At a meta dimension of analysis, one can conclude that Creeley’s rhetorical question also exists as self-referential and reflective of the reader’s cognitive process. The poet, while inciting the reader to challenge the appearance of truth presented, simultaneously questions the truth of the appearance presented, as evidenced by Creeley’s use of italicization to symbolize internal reflection (ix). Creeley’s rhetorical question – “is that true?” – can thus be read not only as asking whether the assurances themselves are true, but whether the conception of the assurances itself is true (x). Likewise, the reader, when confronted with the hostile imposition of such an identity, not only seeks to critically negate the three assurances provided (i.e., the appearance of truth), but also comes to question whether such assurances existed in the first place (i.e., the truth of the appearance). It is this second step in the cognitive process, I would argue, that devalues the poetic act.

Ultimately, the poet and audience unite in questioning whether the imaginative process has had any impact outside of the self. Both poet and audience become unable to affirm Creeley’s cited statement of William Carlos Williams that “only the imagination is real” (x).[iii] As a result, the poet and the audience return to the philosophic concept of “reality” or “truth” and thus a hierarchical position as outcasts in the kallipolis, city, state, etc. As Creeley himself suggests in the non-italicized paragraph preceding his reflection, “there was no identity, to call it, for the poet in my world. It was only in my mind and imagination that any of it was real” (x). The desire to make a statement to the world – to exist as poetic in the world – thus pulls the poet and the audience outside of their italicized ruminations and into a tragic irony: the subordination of the imaginative process, which elicited a subjective change, to an objective reality, where the poetic change within the individual is undervalued.[iv]

In pithy terms, a persisting admiration and emulation of the philosopher and the philosopher’s concept of reality undermines the potency of the poet’s power of imitation and imagination. Perhaps the American poetic identity has something to learn from its politicians, who appear to have disregarded the philosopher’s objectivity for that of subjective narratives. Perhaps an elevation and reverence of the imagination, as the essential faculty of the poetic voice, will be the means of eliciting change in post-truth America.

This is not a novel proposition, but one echoed consistently by American poets and iconically by twentieth century American poets. For example, William Carlos Williams has already been cited as rendering that “only the imagination is real,” but it would be remiss to ignore the fact that Williams elevated the faculty of the imagination throughout his body of work (“Of Asphodel: Coda,” lines 30-32). For example, in Williams’s prose work, Spring and All, one finds the statement “[t]o refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force–the imagination” (Imaginations, 89).

In the following Beat Generation, Ginsberg carries this elevation of the faculty of the imagination onward, as seen in his essay “Demonstration or Spectacle As Example, As Communication” (Deliberate Prose, 9-13). Two years after the death of William Carlos Williams, one observes Ginsberg respond to the Hell’s Angels threat against a planned Vietnam protest with the assertion that “[i]f imaginative, pragmatic, fun, gay, happy, secure Propaganda is issued to mass media in advance . . . the parade can be made into an exemplary spectacle on how to handle situations of anxiety and fear/threat” (9-10). Ginsberg explicitly affirms that to make a statement outside of “war psychology” or the psychology of resentment “[w]e have to use our imagination” (10).

And of course, there is the voice of Robert Creeley in the last year of his life, echoing Gregory Corso. Nearing the final paragraphs of the present analysis, it seems fitting to end with reference to Creeley’s final essay, “Reflections on Whitman in Age.” Here, Creeley’s body of work culminates in an affirmation of a statement attributed to Corso that “only the poet can validate him- or herself. There is no other reference or judgment which can give more than an opinion.” As part of this experience of senescence, Creeley goes on to state that “one goes inside oneself, as it were, looks out from that ‘height’ with only the imagination to give prospect.”

In the culmination of Creeley’s perspective and life’s work, one finds a different view of the rhetorical question from his earlier preface that returns to the internal workings of the poetic voice and faculty of the imagination. Here, the subjectivity of the poetic voice is embraced and an answer to the question posed comes from within. Here, one finds a fully matured vision of the imagination as that which sustains and gives life promise.

Clearly, the possibility suggested in this paper for the poetic voice to effect change through a revaluation of the imagination or its appearances is not new. Yet the irony is that the politician seems to have listened more actively than the poet to the poetic voice and its comments on the imagination while using this faculty as a tool to maintain a psychology of resentment and war.

Consistent with the possibilities of the poetic voice suggested above, I will resist inquiring further into the truth of the three assurances Creeley represents as part of a normative American identity. Instead, I will use the appearance presented to imagine something more. I will imagine a multilingual America that sings. An America that understands its poetry.

*  *  *

1. Admittedly, this interpretation assumes an audience that will not submit to a normative claim without deliberation. But even with respect to a passive audience, I would argue, as I argue subsequently with respect to an active audience, that the statement exists as confrontational. In relation to a passive audience, the confrontational nature of the language merely results in or elicits an instantaneous compliance and assimilation, rather than an experience of ostracization. But even if the passive audience does not perceive a threat, the language exists as a threat of ostracization that still demands an expression of submission to belong to the normative consciousness or “they.” Thus, the reputational threat attributed to such language would appear generally consistent across perspectives.

2. See, e.g., Books II, III, and X of the Republic for discussion of the regulation and banishing of the poet for being twice removed from reality or third in the series away from reality (i.e., imitating the imitation of reality).

3. See also William Carlos Williams’s “Of Asphodel: Coda” for the poetic assertion that “Only the imagination is real! / I have declared it / time without end” (lines 30-32).

4. As established by following paragraphs, it would be improper to indirectly suggest that Robert Creeley valued the faculty of the imagination less than his external surroundings. One often observes a deep appreciation for the imagination throughout Creeley’s work, and often with a reference to William Carlos Williams. Yet Creeley also expresses a complex relationship with the imaginative process that justifies the interpretation of his rhetorical question above, a relationship that frequently returns to discussion of the imaginative process against the backdrop of the empirical or conceptually objective world, as in the case of his rhetorical question’s return to the idea of a truth or reality. At times, Creeley suggests that one should scrap the dichotomy, as in the essay “A Note on the Objective,” where he ends with the statement “a man and his objects must both be presences in this field of force we call a poem” (Collected Essays, p. 464). At other times, Creeley abandons such an idea while giving in to the desire of engaging with reality, as in the essay “Was That a Real Poem or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself?,” where he states “[y]et I am very much a person of my time in wanting to leave a record, a composite fact of the experience of living in time and space” (575). Arguably, Creeley provides the best articulation of this tension between his conception of the imagined and the real in his aptly titled essay, “The Creative” (539-553). Here, he asserts that the Western mind must give up questioning which of its worlds – the creative and the empirical – is “better,” and yet proceeds to express a sense of hopelessness for the creative process while stating “I don’t want to say that there’s no use in living in whatever imagination of the universe is your own. Democracy is literal and will tell you where you are inexorably” (548). It is precisely this view of democracy as literal that the present analysis would assert has changed – or perhaps never existed – in a manner that justifies a shift in focus away from the empirical world to the imagined world to effect change. Creeley seems in the last year of his life to develop a less futile view of the internal, imaginative world that may itself support such a position, as cited later in this analysis. Rather digressively, this is all just to say that it does not seem improper – or unfair at least – to interpret the rhetorical question discussed above as existing, in part, as a slip into a desire for truth that negatively affects the imaginative process. However, one should not assume that this specific instance of representation or interpretation fully captures the complexities of Creeley’s perspective.

Works Cited

Creeley, Robert. “A Note on the Objective.” 1951. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, University of California Press, 1989, p. 464. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4t1nb2hc/.

Creeley, Robert. “Preface: Old Poetry.” 1998. The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1975-2005, University of California Press, 2006, pp. ix-xi.

Creeley, Robert. “Reflections on Whitman in Age.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 81, no. 2, 2005. https://www.vqronline.org/essay/reflections-whitman-age.

Creeley, Robert. “The Creative.” 1972. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 539-553. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4t1nb2hc/.

Creeley, Robert. ‘Was That a Real Poem or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself?.” 1974. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, University of California Press, 1989, p. 575. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4t1nb2hc/.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Demonstration or Spectacle As Example, As Communication.” 1965. Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, edited by Bill Morgan, Harper Collins, 2001, pp. 9-13.

Williams, William Carlos. “Of Asphodel: Coda.” Poetry, vol. 84, no. 5, 1954, p. 250. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20585365.

Williams, William Carlos. “Spring and All.” 1923. Imaginations: Kora in Hell / Spring and All / The Descent of Winter / The Great American Novel / A Novelette & Other Prose, edited by Webster Schott, New Directions Publishing, 1971, p. 89.