Creeley’s “Myself”

When I suddenly find a number of poems I like clustered together after reading the previous hundred pages and scarcely finding one I liked, I wonder if it's me or the poet that's at fault. Have I been reading in some kind of mental daze, unable to recognize a masterpiece when I see it?

Generally, I end up dismissing such self-doubts because to admit them would require me to re-read far more than I have time to read. Instead, I surmise that, like me, poets sometimes discover the right vein and mine it for all it's worth until it finally runs out.

Whatever accounts for such a phenomena, I suddenly found a dozen or so of Creeley's poems that I like in the last 150 pages of his Selected Poems. Since I'd already typed "Myself" by the time I found the others, I'll just pretend this is my favorite in this section:

MYSELF

What, younger, felt
was possible, now knows
is not - but still
not changed enough -

Walked by the sea,
unchanged in memory -
evening, as clouds
on the far-off rim

of water float,
pictures of time,
smoke, faintness -
still the dream.

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost,
why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

Shelley is dead and gone,
who said,
"Taught them not this -
to know themselves;

their might could not repress
the mutiny within,
And for the morn
of truth they feigned,

deep night
Caught them ere evening . . ."

I must admit that the poem seems flawed because of, to me at least, an awkward opening stanza. While I like gnomic lines better than most, the stanza comes off like a badly-written telegram rather than a poem.

The poem is redeemed, though, by "I want, if older,/ still to know/ why, human, men/ and women are/ so torn, so lost,/ why hopes cannot/ find better world/ than this." Who, in old age, and, youth, too, for that matter, has not felt "so torn, so lost" after such great hopes at the beginning, as if the beginning inevitably contains within itself seeds of despair that inevitably come to full bloom at their appointed time.

While it's these middle stanzas that I like best, I'm also attracted to the final quotation from Shelley, a quotation from "The Triumph Of Life," the poem Shelley was working on at his death. The recognition that this same question has preoccupied past generations adds resonance to the feelings expressed here. We realize it is the human condition to fail and to despair in that failure unless in the end we are able to truly understand ourselves and our needs.

3 thoughts on “Creeley’s “Myself”

  1. That’s an interesting poem on many levels. I think you’re right that it’s about knowing yourself, but it seems he’s also saying that ultimately even this won’t help. He opens the poem with observations about a “feeling” that has been constant throughout his life- concern for others and sadness over the shortfall of achievement in reaching dreams and happiness. He knows himself. Then he quotes Shelley, but not just Shelley. He quotes Shelley who’s “dead and gone.” The quote is from another spokesman in Shelley’s poem, Rousseau, who was dead when Shelley wrote the line and speaking from the grave. The fact that Creeley deliberately misquotes the words (mutiny instead of mystery) signals that the real message in Creeley’s poem is something other than what Shelley wrote; it strikes me as a bit of mockery, but that’s not the right word. It’s like he’s seeing past or through the poem.
    I’m reminded again of McLean’s short piece I quoted earlier about the “Big Man That Dropped Dead” : “So there you go, eh, poetry.”
    In James Richardson “Vectors 2.0” he writes: Know thyself [italics]. Ok, so?
    You’re right that the contrast in the writing style from beginning to end is jarring. There’s something going on with that “telegram” type of speech (a great description). I thought maybe it was to pump the eloquence of Shelley’s writing, but maybe it’s another way for him to say that however you dress them up, there aren’t any truths that will change the outcome. The fact that Shelley’s poem starts at dawn and Creeley’s at dusk is another signal that the arrangement and styling of the piece is utlimately irrelevant. We’re all headed to the grave.
    Yikes.

  2. I got that sense, too, Tom which is perhaps why I added that last line, kind of like whistling in the dark when you’re a little afraid but don’t want to admit it to yourself.

    Certainly “understanding ourself and our needs” is a big caveat.

  3. Good point. Last night, I thought further about the piece (it kind of sticks in your head, doesn’t it), and thought my assessment may have been unfairly bleak. His description of self-discovery in the second stanza is, as you note, beautiful, and it’s clear the speaker values it. But it still has a kind of flatness, a matter-of-fact quality (I want to know why men and women are so torn and lost) that I think he’s trying to set up against the grander sentiments in Shelley’s poem. Anyway, the poem was a VERY good pick and I enjoyed your insights.

What do you think?