Friday, May 04, 2007

photo by Tom Raworth

We are no doubt going to see a fair number of books quite like Mark Jay Mirsky’s memoir, Creeley, published as a chapbook by Pressed Wafer of Boston. When someone who is important to a lot of people dies, the survivors stand around and tell stories – in eulogies, over drinks at wakes & later in memoirs. The stories are loving & a few of them might even be scandalous, as their point isn’t to discuss the poet’s oeuvre or career, but rather the person. And hardly anything humanizes an individual more than their flaws. Many of the New American Poets have been the subject of terrific memoirs, most notably Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara & Ted Berrigan. Creeley, who functioned more or less as the dean of American poetry for close to 40 years, is certain to have his.

The novelist Mark Jay Mirsky isn’t necessarily the person you would expect to be the first one out of the chute with such a venture, perhaps because his aesthetics don’t seem especially Creeley-esque, or because he seems such a quintessential New York guy, or just because he’s 13 years younger than his subject, young enough so that Bob was always going to be the Elder in that relationship. Elder brother, as it happens – Mirsky seems to have turned to Creeley as much for life lessons as for those concerning writing, and – like so many other younger writers – discovered a remarkably open & generous person, willing pretty much to share anything.

So we see Creeley very much in the mode that will be familiar to so many younger writers – and at 60, I’d include myself and anyone in my own age group there as well. Creeley was born the same year as my own mother, one ahead of my father, which means that he went through his life tasks pretty much at the same time as did they, although my own dad got through his three marriages much faster than Bob.

But we also get to see Creeley the drunk & Creeley the brawler, even more so than in Ekbert Faas’ abortive bio. This is a side of Creeley that I never saw personally, tho it was impossible not to hear about it in the 1960s. I recall one discussion among young poets in the 1970s as people tried to guess just how much Creeley spent on alcohol each month – the final consensus was something like $300. Mirsky’s take on this actually is much less lurid than the tales one heard – he describes Creeley’s friends in Bolinas getting out of his way at the bar as he tried to take on anyone who would fight, Creeley literally falling against the pool table, blackening his one good eye & only the next day discovering that nobody had clocked him one in legitimate combat.

For such a short book – just 24 pages – Mirsky is quite a rambler. Some episodes are here not because they’re about Creeley so much as the fact that they’re simply good stories. The best example of this is a tale involving the British novelist Ann Quin:

Bob was reading with Ted Hughes and, I think, Auden, at that grand theatre by the Thames, Festival Hall, during that season’s poetry festival. Ann and I for some reason came late. In the massive lobby, bewhiskered guards in costume – were they wearing the distinctive medieval costumes of the Tower of London – did they have pikes or am I imagining it? I remember uniforms and rows of military medals. Very imposing. The reading had begun and one of the guards, a handsome, strapping, paternal figure, motioned us into a small foyer between the main lobby and the vaulting hall itself. We were asked not to push into the hall until applause signaled that one of the poets had concluded and another was about to begin. Three were two huge gleaming nickel chrome cuspidors filled with sand, of a kind that mostly harbored cigarette butts but were originally spittoons. As the foyer’s leather doors, studded with brass nails, closed leaving us alone, Ann suddenly hoisted herself up on one of these spittoons, lifted her dress and “went to the bathroom.” I looked away – afraid we were going to be hauled off to the Tower. The applause broke out before anyone else joined us and we pushed into the hall to hear Bob read. As I glanced back, I saw two long turds sitting in the sand.

Some years later, Ann walked into the sea.

Creeley may be the occasion for this tale, but it’s hardly about him. We never learn what he read, nor how he comported himself alongside such hobnobs of British conservatism as Auden or Hughes, nor functionally anything else about this reading. Indeed, not only is this not a book about Creeley the writer, but I’ve virtually never come across a memoir that shed less ink on that side of a poet’s life.

One area where Mirsky does cast new light concerns something I’d never thought of in quite this way before – the breach between the New Americans and the Boston Brahmins that was so central to the division between post-avant & School of Quietude poetics over the past half century. Mirsky cites Roger Angell

the quintessential Harvard man of a certain period, hair meticulously combed, suit and tie with the touch of modesty that bespeaks the glass of fashion

– being genuinely vicious about the country bumpkin Creeley. Creeley’s father had been a doctor, but had died when Bob was quite young, leaving the family pretty much in poverty with only the mother’s inadequate salary as a nurse to sustain them. Olson’s father had been a mailman. Indeed, hardly anyone among the Black Mountain crowd came from “money” when compared to the likes of Lowell or Angell or Sexton. When you think about it, it makes sense that the School of Quietude has a class orientation – it’s precisely their relationship to Olde Money that links them to the trade presses – and it explains why some people can go to Harvard or Yale & come out with just an education, while somebody else gets fast-tracked through Slate, The New Yorker & the Paris Review, & has their first book out from FSG at 31. Angell, an editor at The New Yorker as well as the most over-rated sports writer of all time, is the quintessential figure. Creeley, like Olson or even Frank O’Hara, never had his Pygmalion moment, never got straight which fork goes where in the place setting. Mirsky contrasts Angell’s breathless idealizations of athletes with Creeley’s own last mention of a baseball game, having the mustard spilled all over him. (Mirsky could have added George Plympton’s arch-rich kid stunts as a faux athlete while editing The Paris Review to this contrast as well.) The anglophilia of the Brahmins fits this context like a glove, a white glove or perhaps one for riding.

So Mirsky’s Creeley isn’t the whole of the man & doesn’t even approach the writing, as such. But it’s a useful – and voyeuristically enjoyable – road in to thinking about one of the two or three most influential poets of the past half century, and the elements that went into making him the particular poet he became.