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Robert Creeley

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.