Creeley’s unfilled voids

Okay, I’ll be honest—this week’s poems featuring representatives from the Black Mountain School of poetry largely perplexed me.  In my defense, I have Covid Brain, and anything that requires more intensity of thought than measuring a dose of nasal spray is a bit tricky at the moment.  But when I stepped back and looked at this collection of poems as tiles in a mosaic rather than individual texts, I started noticing some trends.  When I’m confused by something in literature, I start asking myself—HOW am I confused? And is there a pattern in my confusion? Because if there is, then figuring out that pattern might be the key to being un-confused.  Soon I realized what was confusing me—I felt like there was information missing in a lot of the poems we read, most notably the ones written by Robert Creeley, as if the speakers just skipped over something we needed to know, and I wondered if we were supposed to figure it out or if we were supposed to bring our own perspective to the interpretation, or even more cryptically, if the confusion WAS the point.  The poem “The Language” gave me an “in” to what I think may be ONE way of reading these poems—Creeley and some of the other poets are interested in holes, voids, openings, and his claim that “speech is a mouth” is as much about the way we fill those metaphorical voids as the fact that, no matter how much we fill them, the voids remain.

Many of Robert Creeley’s poems seem to put the reader at a disadvantage in making meaning.  The way his speaker gasps his way through each line and stanza often omits ideas needed to finish phrases or to make sense of them.  Take, for instance, these lines from “For Love:” “If the moon did not… / no, if you did not / I wouldn’t either, but / what would I not / do, what preventions, what / things so quickly stopped” (ll. 13-18).  The speaker trails off a number of times in his train of thought here, and Creeley begins by employing ellipses to indicate this vocal act but then simply omits information needed to finish thoughts as if that speaker is speaking at the speed of thought and begins the next thought immediately upon abandoning the previous one.  We don’t know the answers to any of the questions in these lines—what the moon did, what “you” did, what “I” would do, what “preventions” should be taken and what “things” must be “quickly stopped.”  Despite the claim in John Osborne’s essay that most lines in a Black Mountain School-style poem end in an “unwritten question” that propels readers to the next line to get an answer (173), many of the questions in Creeley’s poem don’t get answered, leaving readers with the sense of energy that Osborne talks about, the “projectivist” momentum from line to line, that never really gets resolved or used.  It’s downright unsettling.


Creeley uses similar strategies in other poems, too—for example, the entirety of the poem “I Keep to Myself Such Measures…” reads, “I keep to myself such / measures as I care for, / daily the rocks / accumulate position.”  These four little lines contain what is intended to be an entire thought, much like a haiku embodies a concept in such a small space, but the missing information in this poem comprises probably a longer space than the poem itself.  What are the measures the speaker cares for?  What does it mean to “care” for them?  What is the relationship between the passage of time (“daily”) and the “measures” being taken, cared for, and referred to?  How to the physical objects, rocks, relate—metaphorically or literally—to these “measures?”  And what does the speaker mean by the phrase “accumulate position,” a phrase that imbues a sense of intentionality in these supposedly inanimate rocks choosing to accumulate, rather than simply shift in response to natural forces?  Is there a religious or philosophical parable with which a reader would need to be familiar in order to understand this poem, or is there simply, as in the case of “For Love,” missing information that Creeley resists providing?

Coming back to “The Language” allows me to account for some of my discomfort at not knowing.  The poem begins with a command: “Locate I / love you some- / where in / teeth and / eyes, […]” (ll. 1-5).  Creeley’s speaker asks an unknown someone (the reader, by proxy at least) to “locate” a missing phrase, perhaps even a missing concept, in the midst of a place where it’s not obvious—in “teeth and eyes.”  Though teeth are used to help form words and eyes can show emotion, both of these physical features only convey some of the necessary elements of language and are incomplete to convey its entirety.  The remainder of the poem is fixated on holes, conveying another kind of missing information: “…you / want so / much” in lines 9-11 relate the hollowness of wanting.  The use of specific words like “emptiness” and “holes” combined with the repetition of the words “fill” or “full,” all work together to deliver one of the poem’s central ideas, that love represents a yearning that leaves the lover continually unsated, but continually trying to satisfy that yearning.  The emotion of love is also conflated with the words used to describe them.  Creeley’s speaker doesn’t ask us to locate love itself, but the italicized phrase “I love you,” indicating that these words are what the listener is charged with finding as a way to fill the need.  The words themselves, however, prove inadequate, because as he informs us at the poem’s pretty emphatic closure (maybe the clearest closure of any of the Creeley poems we read this week), “…Speech / is a mouth.” (ll.23-24). Mouths are paradoxically capable of fulfilling the need for love by saying “I love you,” and being needy voids themselves, another iteration of the “emptiness” and “holes” the poem contains.

When you take all of these ideas about needs—particularly communicative needs—being unmet into consideration, Creeley seems to be offering us two possible ways of reading the title of his poem—“the language” referring to both the specific langue and parole associated with love, and to language itself.  The poststructuralist movement in linguistics and literary theory didn’t take off until a while after Creeley was writing his poems at Black Mountain College, but this reading of Creeley seems to invite a particularly poststructuralist interpretation—the idea that language itself is slippery, attempts to communicate are always going to be incomplete, unsatisfying, or subjective according to the reader’s or listener’s experience, rather than rooted in a single knowable truth.  If we think of “The Language” as a sort of proto-poststructuralist manifesto in poetry form, it might just allow us to frame Creeley’s other poems in light of those ideas.  So the missing information in “For Love” or “I Keep to Myself Such Measures…” becomes a feature of the poems, rather than a confusing omission, and the reader’s lack of full understanding of what the speaker means is an intended part of the experience, a reminder that language will always be only an attempt to fill a hole in how people communicate with one another, including how a poet communicates with his audience.

Reflection questions:

  1. Do other Black Mountain School poets similarly omit information and cause a communication breakdown between the speaker and the reader, or is Creeley unique?
  2. Did anyone else feel confused by these omissions, and if so, did you come up with any other theories as to why they existed?
  3. Does Creeley’s poetry (and other Black Mountain poems) convey different feelings about romantic love, particularly heterosexual love, than the poems of the Beats? When and why?

One Response to Creeley’s unfilled voids

  1. ekwooten1 September 2, 2022 at 9:33 pm #

    p.s. this post isn’t letting me categorize it, but I intended for this to be in the “close reading” category 🙂

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

Skip to toolbar