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Words full of holes - Daniel Silliman

He is the only man I ever met who wore an eye patch. This is not completely true, because I have been to a few Halloween parties where there were men dressed up as pirates, but for Robert Creeley it wasn't a costume. He wore it to cover up his messed-up eye.

He was an old and very famous poet, when I met him (at least as famous as a person can be as a poet), and he was wearing an eye patch, which he doesn't do in most of the pictures you see. I remember having the strong impression that Creeley was actually less like a pirate than any person I'd ever met.

He reminded me more of a fast-talking salesman, who has taken a vow of silence, or a one-time braggart, who's renouncing talking. He was just really quiet, speaking humbly, talking softly, but it seemed somehow ascetic.

Creeley's poetry is known for a sort of restraint. He writes with these sleek, lean lines: American in straightforward bluntness, in appreciation of honesty over formality, and artistically perfect in capturing human depth with minimalist sentences.

He died a couple of years ago. He was remembered, at the time of his death, for his poems, but also for the famous poets he knew and for the schools of thought he represented. He was one of the Beats, the 1950s romantics of excess and experimentation, and also one of the Black Mountain Poets, an experimental school of poets, who linked the length of lines with the space of a breath. The one school seems, historically, to be very loud, and the other very calm. Creeley, in his life, was both of those.

He once told the Paris Review how he had a problem with alcohol and brawling, as a young man, and how he came on with an intensity turning everything around into a devastated, burned-out wake. In the same 1968 interview, though, he talks about how he's better in isolated places, how it's important to find quiet rhythms and breathing spaces, and how he appreciates the order and simplicity of a workman's travelling bag.

The critics, the ones who don't like Creeley and also some of the ones who do, seem to always focus on the quietness, the "domesticity," or on the energy, and the experimentation. They never seem to understand him as someone who does both -- someone who contains a contradiction, who struggles to change, who's trying to find grace and give grace and become better than he naturally is.

When I saw Creeley, he was reading some of his later poems, poems about death published a few years before his own. He read one, "John's Song," and then he read it again a second time. "If ever there is/ if ever, if ever/ there is, if ever there is/ If ever there is/ other than war, other/ than where war was, if ever there is." I don't know why he read it twice, but I thought, sitting there, that he didn't like the way he read it the first time, didn't like the way he stumbled and stalled. It seemed he was willing to read it again, to try, the second time, to try and do better.

Creeley is famous for saying "Speech is a mouth," which is supposed to mean something about how words are spoken, not theorized, and are a part of human life, not an imposition of rules.

What I always find compelling in Creeley, though, is the way he is willing to accept doubt, to always check himself, and how through that he finds grace and joy. The phrase before that often-quoted line about the mouth is one about words. He writes, "words full of holes." I think it was this sort of awareness of limitations and his own weaknesses and frailties that allowed him to access the everyday graces that critics sometimes despise as "domestic." In those domestic poems you sometimes see sheer joy.

It's an old Protestant idea, that if we recognize our own failings and the wanderlust in our own hearts, then we can receive grace and joy. When I sing that song though, about how I'm "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it," I don't often see my way past the doubt, the guilt, and the self-questioning. But Creeley does.

He had these small jokes, he'd write into his poems, sometimes. The kind that would endlessly amuse a kid, silly songs, or crack-up an old man who likes to amuse kids. Like this one:

Hold still, lion!

I am trying

to paint you

while there's time too.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.