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Stratégies de la métaphore

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Pierre Gault

Robert Creeley and the Problem of Metaphor

D. Michael Veitch

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"Language is not reality but another of the instruments by which man engages reality..."

  • 1 . Claude Richard, "Destin Design, Dasein, Lacan, Derrida and 'The Purloined Letter'." Iowa Review. (...)
  • 2 . Olson's "indebtedness" to Pound and Williams is zealously expressed (in albeit somewhat less than (...)
  • 3 . Olson's 1950 essay appears in the Selected Writings of Charles Olson, ed. Robert Creeley (New Yor (...)

1So wrote the American poet Charles Olson in a letter, now lost, to beginning prose writer (but poet-to-be) Robert Creeley early in 1950. Olson was insisting, as a poet outside the American academic community so deeply saturated in the thinking of T. S. Eliot, on the absolute necessity of a language for poetry that revealed and illuminated the real, actual world of things—rather than a language that, following the influence of the French Symbolists (Mallarme's desire "to find the flower that is in no bouquet") upon Eliot (and his well-known "objective correlative"), would entrap poets in "an age that has asserted with unusual energy that we are language, nothing but language", indeed, Lacan's dictum that "the only master is the signifier."1 No--Olson wanted more than that for poetry. He sought a language which went far beyond the level of the "signifier," words that formed bridges not only between each other in the poem, but with the things of the world--words which contacted things in William Carlos Williams's sensual sense, not words which merely "stood for" them. Following Pound and Williams,2 Olson in his seminal essay "Projective Verse"3 launched his call for language as instrument, as sensual as the eye and ear, as organ-ic as beating in in · the heart and breathing from the lungs, language that would permit a poet, a living person, to center himself bodily in the poem-as-world, rather than leave him outside it, and alone. "Word as handle," rather than idea: language as speech-act giving us access to the world in which "metaphor" is revealed as a discovered relationship among things, rather than a created relationship between words.

2Young Creeley got the message, so strongly that he opened his essay "Notes for a New Prose" with Olson's "language as instrument" proposition, and followed directly with his own analysis of the current literary situation:

  • 4 . Robert Creeley, A Quick Graph, ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970), p (...)

We had been led to believe that connotation was this: the suggestions of "meaning" beyond the supposedly exact, denotative meaning which custom of usage had put upon the phrase or word in question. Then, by way of the opening created by "associational" content of phrase, gesture, practice, ways, in short, METHOD--connotation became meaning versus meaning, became the fight for sense, in shorthand, (Some call this "symbol..."4

  • 5 . A Quick Graph, p. 12. Olson so liked Creeley's expression of this necessity that he made it the c (...)
  • 6 . See Crane's "General Aims and Theories;" pp. 75-79 in Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, eds., The (...)
  • 7 A Quick Graph, p. 77. In this essay, "Hart Crane and the Private Judgment," Creeley acknowledges C (...)
  • 8 . A Quick Graph, p. 13.

3…Or we might also call this "metaphor"--that sense that emerges from "meaning versus meaning," Yet this was a far too "literary" definition for Creeley. Real "sense," Creeley reckoned, ought to spring from the sensual--literary form, if it was to mean anything at all, could only emerge as "the extension of content,"5 as "meaning" revealed objectively, not formulated subjectively. What Hart Crane had called "'the logic of metaphor', which antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension"6 was surely, as Creeley recognized in his own reading of Crane, consciousness of something more vital than stylistic questions."7 But that vitality, for a Greeley not as yet ready to declare himself for poetry, seemed possible only in the continuous activity of prose-writing, poetry, he noted as "the formulation of content, in stasis, prose, as the formulation of content, in a progression, like that of time.''8 The distinction he makes is significant. Poetry seemed, then, too fixedly cerebral, a kind of, momentary recognition that lacked a certain vital force because of its "literary" quality; only prose seemed to offer to Creeley a way of actual-ly coming into the world as it moves through time. As Olson noted:

  • 9 . George F. Butterick, éd., Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, vol. I (Sa (...)

...the reason why, at this juncture, of time, Creeley fights so hard for prose. Is, that it enables him to get in, to go by, that head of his, to let it play over, his things, outside objects...9

  • 10 . Selected Writings of Charles Olson, p. 46.
  • 11 . This is, in fact, the title of Olson's 1958 essay cited above.
  • 12 . The words "As real as thinking" open Creeley's Pieces (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969). (...)

4To contact "outside objects" and reveal them in their actual condition required a relinquishment of the ego that the younger Creeley could perhaps envision, and write about in prose, but could not yet enact in poetry. Olson's proposals on "stance"--for Keatsian "Negative Capability" as the necessary habit of mind allowing the poet to "stay in the condition of things"10--were difficult to absorb for a young writer so anxious to "enter" the world in poetry, but so trapped in "that" head of his"--thinking about the world from a position outside if. The problem, literally: how to enter the "field" of poetry? How to make verse "equal, that is, to the real itself"11--or as Creeley himself would later put it, verse "as real as thinking"?12

  • 13 . See "The Immoral Proposition" in For Love (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962), p. 31. See a (...)
  • 14 . Robert Greeley, Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971, ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas: Four Seasons (...)
  • 15 . Contexts of Poetry, p. 167.

5Verse "as real as thinking"--a difficult task for a young poet willing, to admit himself as an "unsure/egoist"13 in his work. Poetry that would itself be the metaphorical link between the "real," and the "thinking"--the former of wich Creeley was "unsure" of contacting because he found himself trapped in the latter--"thinking" and static, he thought in his early poetry--wanting "to get out of that awful assumption that thinking is the world"14--where metaphors, created in the mind, drive the poem with "a torque that's created by that systematization of experience"15--the ultimate egotism. Poetry, then, that would be "thought-less (in the sense of "thinking" as metaphor-construction) but still "thought-full" in a way parallel to and contiguous with-the. ''real"--moving with the actual rhythms of thought-as-act rather than thought-as-fact. Poetry that would not be the product of "thinking" (one thought, in all its isolated momentary-ness), but instead an actualization of the process of "thinking" in time, where the poet might be able to think in his poem. not about it.

6What Creeley was seeking, in other words, was a metaphor for the "act of thinking" itself--a metaphor for the metaphor-making that thinking is. An impossible task?

7A passage from Hannah Arendt's illuminating inquiry The Life of the Mind, Thinking makes clear the excruciating difficulty of Creeley's problem:...

  • 16 . Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Thinking (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 123 (...)

...the chief difficulty here seems to be that for thinking itself--whose language is entirely metaphorical and whose conceptual framework depends entirely on the gift of the metaphor, which bridges the gulf between the visible and the invisible, the world of appearances and the thinking ego--there exists no metaphor that could plausibly illuminate this special activity of the mind, in which something invisible within us deals with the invisibles of the world.16

  • 17 . The Life of, the Mind, p. 106.
  • 18 . Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1939), p. 19· This study and (especially) P (...)

8And yet within Arendt's discussion of metaphor lie some indications of ways out of Creeley's dilemma. She makes brief reference to The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry, "a little-known essay by Ernest Fenollosa, published by Ezra Pound and so far as I know never mentioned in the literature on the metaphor."17 But Creeley was surely aware of it, through his attention to Pound, who had praised Fenollosa's efforts at "trying to explain the Chinese ideogram as a means of transmission and registration of thought."18

  • 19 . The Poetics of the New American Poetry, pp. 16-17ff.

9Fenollosa's real object was poetry, the medium of the Chinese language only a vehicle to that end. As such, his use in resolving Creeley's problem of finding a Metaphor for thinking in the poem is considerable, for what Fenollosa reveals are the actual roots of poetry lying buried in language. Chinese ideograms, he says, carry within them a "verbal idea of action"--indeed, "motion leaks everywhere" from within language because its roots are organic and "a true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature."19 Language is inherently poetical precisely because words are "alive and plastic, because thing and action are not formally separated." Words, thus, don't merely describe things static in the world, rather, words enact a world in constant motion, things changing in flux--the invisible rhythms of life itself. Language allows us to pass,

from the seen to the unseen by exactly the same process which ail ancient races employed. This process is metaphor... but the primitive metaphors do not spring from arbitrary subjective processes. They are possible only because they follow objective lines of relations in nature herself.

10It remains for scholars to "feel painfully back along the thread of our. etymologies and piece together our diction in order to discover metaphors hidden beneath the "anaemia of modern speech"--and so to discover poetry buried in nature, in the language that springs from it.

  • 20 . A Quick Graph. p. 62. In. this essay, "I'm given tο write poems," Creeley recognized the "possibi (...)

11Thus, when Creeley says he is "given permission" to enter into poetry, he means that he is permitted (in Robert Duncan's sense of relinquishment: "Often I am permitted to return to a meadow"20) to enter the "field" that is the poem itself, and there to discover the world in its inter-relatedness because the words themselves grant him their natural metaphors--their "meanings"--in the act of selecting them for use. Poetry can thus be "thoughtless" because the words themselves are enacting the "thinking"--the metaphor-making contact between seen word and unseen thing. The poet is relieved of the need to "think up" metaphors from a position outside his poem: for when he is in his poem, the words he finds there, in effect, do his "thinking" for him. And so Creeley's sought-after "metaphor for thinking" becomes something there--already existent in the very nature of language and waiting to be discovered in the words themselves--that he only need recognize and recover and bring "here" in his poem. But the poet must act--he must find his words and place them in his poem as they "are," free from interference of the metaphor-making ego.

12To this end, Creeley has followed Williams, whose introduction to The Wedge (1944), he exclaims, was "a revelation":

  • 21 . A Quick Graph, pp. 64-65.

When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them--without distortion which would mar their exact significances--into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. It isn't what he says that counts as a work of art, it's what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.21

  • 22 . The poet's "selection" of words "as he finds them" is granted through the recognition that the wo (...)
  • 23 . See Merwin's "The Widow" in The Lice (New York: Atheneum, 1974), p. 35.
  • 24 . The Poetics of the New American Poetry, p. 138.

13Williams's emphasis on "making" is-the key here--"making" as selection22 of words (words inherently metaphorical, inherently poetic) rather than "making" as "saying something" (i.e. creating" metaphors). Composition is thus the discovery of the interrelatedness of words which mean on their own (Williams has implicit confidence in Fenollosa's formulations--and puts them to use), their "exact significances" being "signifiers" that reveal and illuminate the objects they signify. Meaning, for Williams, is discovered through perception, not from prior conception. What the poet brings to his poem is life itself, whose; rhythms exist within him and--happily--without him, as recognized in W. S. Merwin's ultimate relinquishment of the ego, "everything that does not need you is real."23 And so Creeley, following Williams, becomes freed of the burden of "thinking" and opened to the real activity of the mind as poetic imagination--to "dance" with the world-in-motion through employing a language whose "movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character."24 And to join in Olson's recognition that.

  • 25 . This is how the poet finds his place in Olson's; "Human Universe." See The Poetics of the New Ame (...)

There is only one thing you can do about kinetic, re-enact it. Which is why the man said, he who possesses rhythm possesses the universe. And why art is the only twin life has--its only valid metaphysic.25

14Or to return at last to Arendt's formulation of Creeley's "problem"--we find her offering the very solution articulated by Fenollosa and Williams and Olson in their insistences on life as the source of all metaphors, even the illusive metaphor for "thinking" itself.

  • 26 . The Life of the Mind, p. 123

Thinking is out of order because the quest for meaning produces no end result that will survive the activity, that will make sense after the activity has come to its end.... The only possible metaphor one may conceive " of for the life of the mind is the sensation of being alive.26

15What had blocked Creeley at the onset of his poetic career was just this: that "thinking" could not produce poetry that would survive the act of thinking itself--because there" was no metaphorical way-to transfer that "thinking" from outside the poem into the poem. What he needed· was a Way to actualize thinking inside the poem, and-so to arrive, in fact, at Arendt's conclusion that "the·sensation of being alive" was the only possible equivalent for "the life of the mind." But "the sensation of being alive" is--and here Creeley departs from Arendt--something we don't "conceive of." Rather, it is physical sensual, tactile, rhythmical—it is; in short, what poets must enact, demonstrate; present; The search for a "metaphor for thinking" thus ends in renouncing that very quest and simply feeling. Creeley had to learn to feel his way with/in the poem and give up any. search for that elusive, metaphor (or any way of "thinking about thinking")

16Thus, while Creeley is willing to construct metaphors of the "act of writing," his often referred-to "driving metaphor.

  • 27 . Contexts of Poetry, p. 26.

You've got to be utterly awake to recognize what is happening, and to be responsible for all the things you must, do before you can even recognize what their full significance is. It's like going into a spin in a car--you use all the technical information you have, about how to get that car back on the road, but you're not thinking "I must bring the car back on the road," you are bringing the car back on the road or else you're going over the cliff.27

17--he renounces metaphor within the poem and opts for sensuality instead.

How your breasts, love,
fall in a rhythm also familiar,
neither tired nor so young they

  • 28 . Pieces, p. 76. Here is evidence of what the act of writing actually is for Creeley: "life trackin (...)

push forward. I hate the, metaphors.
I want you. I am still alone,
but want you with me.28

18Indeed, the phrase "I hate the metaphors" stands out in the passage as the "thought" that is "out of. order"--it doesn't "undulate" (to employ Williams's word), and it lacks the physicality intrinsic in the sexual and emotional rhythms which infuse, the rest of the passage. Here "love" is an object--a name--called) into being by "your breasts"--not a metaphorical abstraction for that unnamable complexity of desire. "Love" is "you" in motion. in rhythm--and the intensity, of "I want you. I am still alone/but want you with me" is registered in that it's something said to "you"--a speech-act--not merely a literary statement. The real "push forward" is toward the real thing desired, "you with me." "Wanting" is no idea "as real as thinking": it is alive here in the poem as the actual condition of "love" as Creeley finds it; wanting "you" wanting "you with me." Only the emotion endures. Love "thought about" cannot. For Creeley, this is the kind of "poetic intelligence" that makes poetry possible.

Notes

1 . Claude Richard, "Destin Design, Dasein, Lacan, Derrida and 'The Purloined Letter'." Iowa Review. 12 (Fall 1981), p.2.

2 . Olson's "indebtedness" to Pound and Williams is zealously expressed (in albeit somewhat less than complimentary terms) in Marjorie G. Perloff, "Charles Olson and the 'Inferior Predecessors': Projective Verse Revisited," ELH, 40, No. 2 (1973). 285-306.

3 . Olson's 1950 essay appears in the Selected Writings of Charles Olson, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp. 15-26.

4 . Robert Creeley, A Quick Graph, ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970), p. 11·

5 . A Quick Graph, p. 12. Olson so liked Creeley's expression of this necessity that he made it the central principle of his "composition by field" theory in "Projective Verse," declaring large: "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT" (see his Selected Writings, p. 16). The Anglo-American poet Denise Levertov, a friend of both Olson and Creeley and fellow postmodernist, would later amend this fundamental principle to read: "Form is never more than a revelation of content"--a change which pushes the distinction between form and content to its fullest. See Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World (New York: New Directions, 1973), p. 13.

6 . See Crane's "General Aims and Theories;" pp. 75-79 in Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, eds., The Poetics of the New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1973). p. 78. This is still the best collection of theoretical essays laying bare the roots of post-modern American poetry: it also includes a reprint of Olson's "Projective Verse" (pp. 147-158). as well as Williams's "Introduction to The Wedge" (pp. 137-139) and portions of Ernest Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry (pp. 13-35). mentioned later in my essay.

7 A Quick Graph, p. 77. In this essay, "Hart Crane and the Private Judgment," Creeley acknowledges Crane's debt to the French Symbolists, but applauds Crane's later movement away from their dependence on irony in favor of more genuine emotional attachments between words and things.

8 . A Quick Graph, p. 13.

9 . George F. Butterick, éd., Charles Olson & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, vol. I (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press·1980), p. 89.· The fact that Creeley again included this passage from one of Olson's letters to him in his "Notes for a New Prose" (A Quick Graph. p. 15) indicates his awareness of the prescience of Olson's critique of his situation. It is important to note, too, that when Creeley finally does declare himself for poetry, two of his early "dedicational" poems are in thanks to Crane and Olson respectively--and enact Creeley's emergence from "that head of his" into the world. In "Hart Crane" (For Love, p. 15) :
There are ways beyond
what I have here to work with,
what my head cannot push to any kind
of conclusion.
An in "Le Fou (for Charles.)" (For Love, p. 17):
we are moving
away from (the trees
the usual (go by
which is slower than this, is
(we are moving!
goodbye

10 . Selected Writings of Charles Olson, p. 46.

11 . This is, in fact, the title of Olson's 1958 essay cited above.

12 . The words "As real as thinking" open Creeley's Pieces (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969). p. 3, and express the point of departure in this work, literally, made of "pieces" of writing that enact the poet's way of entering the world more fully than earlier books For Love (1967) and. Words (1967) permitted.

13 . See "The Immoral Proposition" in For Love (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962), p. 31. See also Charles Altieri's excellent discussion, "The Unsure Egoist: Robert Creeley and the Theme of Nothingness," Contemporary Literature, 13 (Spring 1972), pp. 162-185.

14 . Robert Greeley, Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971, ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973). p. 166.

15 . Contexts of Poetry, p. 167.

16 . Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Thinking (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 123. Arendt's discussions "Thinking and. doing: the spectator" (pp. 92-98), "Language and metaphor" (pp. 98-110), and "Metaphor and the ineffable" (pp. 110-125), are particularly relevant here.

17 . The Life of, the Mind, p. 106.

18 . Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1939), p. 19· This study and (especially) Pound's Make It New (New York: New Directions, 1934) were basic texts for Creeley.

19 . The Poetics of the New American Poetry, pp. 16-17ff.

20 . A Quick Graph. p. 62. In. this essay, "I'm given tο write poems," Creeley recognized the "possibilities" given to him through the efforts of both predecessors and contemporaries: Williams, Duncan, H.D., Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Olson, and Crane.

21 . A Quick Graph, pp. 64-65.

22 . The poet's "selection" of words "as he finds them" is granted through the recognition that the world outside himself is not chaotic, but rather moves in a natural order and rhythm with which the poet and his language are in intimate contact. As Olson puts it: "If unselectedness. is man's original condition (such is more accurate a word than that lovely riding thing, chaos, which sounds like what it is, the most huge generalization of all...)... selectiveness is just as originally the impulse by which he proceeds to do something about the unselectedness...." (The. Poetics of the New American Poetry, pp. 167-168).

23 . See Merwin's "The Widow" in The Lice (New York: Atheneum, 1974), p. 35.

24 . The Poetics of the New American Poetry, p. 138.

25 . This is how the poet finds his place in Olson's; "Human Universe." See The Poetics of the New American Poetry, p. 169.

26 . The Life of the Mind, p. 123

27 . Contexts of Poetry, p. 26.

28 . Pieces, p. 76. Here is evidence of what the act of writing actually is for Creeley: "life tracking life."

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1985

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