Creeley is a rare case among poets in that he dares to explore what many writers will not admit – the futility of language to express what is most intensely human. Language is so often seen as the primary method by which we express ourselves and by which we are connected, and it is difficult for one whose life is based on that idea and the craft of words to look it straight in the face and even more so to write about it.
This past week I had the opportunity to hear one of our Semana Poetica poets (Marica Bodrozic) speak in my German class, and it seems that much of her thinking might be applied to Creeley’s thoughts. One of her comments that struck me most was that “when you don’t understand, you still understand something.” It seems strange that a poet, whose job is generally to convey meaning in some way through language, would suggest that sometimes not understanding is best. Marica’s indication that there is something to be learned from a lack of understanding itself indicates that there is something besides words at work in a successful poem; it is not always imperative that we understand the words to capture the emotion or human element in a poem. When asked what her inspirations are, Marica explained that there were many, but finished by saying simply that she is “interested in people.” She writes to capture stories, and stated that “memory is not truth, it is invention,” indicating that the facts are of less importance than the essence of a person or a moment. She commented also that she is against structured interpretation and that there is “no answer, just a way” in interpreting a poem, which seems to suggest to me a surrender of imposing a meaning on her readings in favor of extending them an invitation to join her on an exploration of humanity that leaves behind the words on the page.
Creeley seems to run into a similar issue with his poems in that he cannot make his words capture precisely the correct emotion, particularly regarding love. Altieri’s article dicusses this concept in rather dark terms, stating that because of this lack of perfect precision in language that “language itself is one of the primary villains, for it promises a wholeness it cannot fulfill… The words stand emptied of us…” (Altieri 174). Altieri cites Creeley’s poem I Know a Man to support this concept, looking to the “angsty” tone and the language (for example, sd and yr for said and you’re) to connect Creeley’s frustrations with language to the void created by Creeley’s struggle to pin down his identity.
I wonder, however, if Altieri is entirely correct in his gloomy view of language as a villain. Looking at Creeley’s poem Language, he seems less ready to condemn than to lament. Language opens with the command to “Locate I/ love you some-/ where in// teeth and/ eyes,” and it closes with the statement that “Speech/ is a mouth.” These lines suggest that the words we say are reduced, ultimately, to their physical existence as sounds created by the body. The words “I love you” are located not in the heart or the soul but in the purely physical teeth and eyes. Speech itself is not only just located in the mouth, but it IS a mouth; words are confined in some way to their origin. The lines “you/ want so// much so / little.” are ambiguous but seem to suggest that what the lover wants, which appears here to be to hear the words “I love you,” is at once everything and nothing. The meaning of the words would be so much; the word themselves are so little. Creeley’s next line is “words say everything,” but followed by “I/ love you/ again,” and then a question – “what/ is emptiness/ for. To// fill, fill.” Were we to read these lines literally we might think that Creeley would have us believe that words truly are everything and have the capacity to run out emptiness, but he continues – “I heard words/ and words full// of holes/ aching.” The repetition of “words” in such a short poem emphasizes that the words are plentiful, but rather than filling the emptiness they are full themselves – of holes. The concept of being “full of holes aching” is beautiful but sad. These words, these things that “say everything,” are still so painfully lacking. They are the best we have, but they ache with the void that they are unable to bridge. The poem concludes with Creeley’s assertion that “speech is a mouth,” reminding us again that words are reduced to their vocal capacity.
Of these three writers, there are three distinct views expressed regarding the ability of words to capture emotion. Marica Bodrozic seems undeterred, Altieri frustrated, Creeley saddened – I wonder where in this debate our previously studied poets fall? Where do we?