Riddles of Form/ Three
Call me on my mobile ...
Robert Creeley & Alexander Calder
In Vezelay there is a new modern art gallery. With its chic modernist interior and artworks it seems out of place in a French town so steeped in an older age, the houses and shops mounting to the hill top from where the church has a commanding view of the surrounding area.
I remember standing in one of the gallery rooms, watching a Calder mobile turn in the breeze coming from the open window and the disturbances in the air caused by the visitors coming and going. The view through the window was more fitting for a Bonnard or some ‘paysagiste’ surely not this “contrivance of wires”.
That afternoon, I happened upon this poem by Robert Creeley and gradually the confusion I had felt in the morning - the incongruity of the mobile, the room, the landscape - started to disappear.
How mistaken it is to judge simply by appearances. We have to think – feel – through to the underlying form.
Still Life Or
that the wind can catch at,
a leaf or a contrivance of wires,
in the stairwell,
to be looked at from below.
We have arranged the form of a formula here,
have taken the heart out
& the wind
is vague emotion.
To count on these aspirants
these contenders for the to-be-looked-at-part
of these actions
these most helpful movements
a strong & constant wind.
That will not rise above the speed
which we have calculated,
that the leaf
that the wires
be not too much shaken.
NOTE: Blogger is incapable of respecting the line layout required. You'll have to go to the poem on the page. Sorry!)
Unlike several books working connections between poetry and painting, I have absolutely no intention of suggesting that Robert Creeley had a particular Calder mobile in mind or that this poem is ‘about’ a Calder mobile (or any other for that matter). Nor do I want to make a simple connection between Creeley’s disposition of lines and the dispersed form of such wire sculptures. The purpose is to look ‘through’ the poem to its compositional principles: we’re after the “form of the formula” here.
Nevertheless, the visual layout of the poem is immediately striking and not that common for Creeley (Charles Olson’s pages possess more of this sense of ‘scatter’). Like a mobile, Creeley’s poem seems to work with its surrounding space, in this case the white expanse of the page is equivalent to the three-dimensional space of a room. Significantly, the ‘space’ between poem and ‘outside’ the poem is made permeable. Creeley’s title is and is not part of the poem itself. The lines are disposed down and across the page in a way resembling a mobile – words drift to the right, are weighted back hard left, liberated from the strict conventions of a traditional iambic pentameter line. This is an early poem and Creeley will go on to explore and develop the possibilities of a line and enjambment throughout his career.
That’s enough of the eye. Let’s look at mobiles with the ear. Imagine Creeley is actually constructing a mobile not with coloured shapes – like Calder – but sounds. Or, rather, for Creeley shapes are sounds.
I’m going to dismantle the Creeley mobile and make piles of some of the constituent sound-shapes.
Going back to the poem it becomes apparent how Creeley is arranging his sounds, the ‘shape’ of sounds. How “mobile” relates to “below” which in turn relates to “emotion” to then connect to “most”. Creeley’s sophistication as a poet is to avoid crude rhyme. “Mobile” does not rhyme exactly with “below”. Instead the ear detects the shared sound – the long ‘o’. Subtle, too, the way Creeley works different parts of a word, the sound sometimes occuring in the first, second or last syllable.
Then there’s the ‘at’ syllable sound which occurs so often and yet it’s easy to miss. Why? Since Creeley audaciously works it with words we typically overlook: “that” and “at” (we tend to focus more on nouns, verbs, adjectives). I’m reminded of Louis Zukofsky’s caution to “those ... too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words”.
One of the delights of this poem – as many of Creeley’s poems – is to see such functional items of vocabulary being given poetic distinction. A fact that reaches deep into the modesty and care of Creeley’s art. For it becomes clear that Creeley requires a care-ful reader: in the sense of one who “will not rise above the speed/we have calculated”, timing reading to allow sounds to work as well as one who will take the trouble to pay attention, to care enough about words and poems and to value language. Thus the modesty and ethics of Creeley’s art.
Notice, again, the subtlety whereby “can” is just close enough to “contrivance”, which in turn resembles – but not exactly – “count” – and the “con” syllable sound returns in “contenders” and “constant”. In musical terms, Creeley takes a central chord and then plays progressions – related yet augmented ((apologies for rather clumsy appropriation of musical terminology – Robert if you’re reading!)).
Such is the delicacy of Creeley’s ear that the reader is drawn ever more into the acoustically mobile space of his poem. Sounds have been set in motion, harmonies heard ‘just off’ perfect resolution, the notes ‘turned’ as sound-shapes in the breathing breeze of reading.
Creeley arranges proximate sounds such as the ‘t’ and ‘th’ in the line:
that the wind can catch at,
Read it out loud and feel how the tongue works works with the teeth and alveolar ridge. Delicate little operations in themselves but which acquire greater value in contrast to the open vowel and rounded lip shape of ‘o’ in “mobiles” (line one) and the sibillant frictions of “against itself”. Listen, too, for the softer ‘th’ consonants against the harder ‘c’ and ‘t’ consonants. Similar effects can be heard at work in:
We have arranged the form of a formula here,
Here, it’s the delicacy between ‘v’ and ‘f’ as well as the playful yet serious “formula” emerging out of “form”.
Creeley works his sounds at microsopic levels of attention as well as larger scales (as, for instance, the ‘o’ chain which stretches throughout the poem and modulates from “mobile” to – appropriately – “movements” and “too”. How, here, to separate sound from sense?).
Once again, hardly any attempt has been made to ‘explain’ the poem, what it means. It seems to me that any reader actively engaged in Creeley’s writing – the pleasures offered by the tug and release of the lines, the delicate modulations of the sounds, the physical enjoyment in the voicing of the words – finds ‘meaning’ enough. If a mobile is a structure of weights and balances in movement – has not Creeley crafted a poetic structure which has its own sculptural logic? An artifact which is and works in its own terms. As Charles Olson said at the Berkeley Conference – Creeley speaks of this in an interview with Linda Wagner – :
“that which exists through itself is what is called meaning, that kind of meaning, that kind of signification, is what a poem is. It does so exist through itself, through agency of its own activity; therefore, is; therefore, has meaning.”
It was Ted Berrigan who reminded his students of the Italian derivation of ‘stanza’ – a little room. Reading Creeley’s poem, I am led back to the room in the galleryin Vezelay. Yes, Creeley’s poem is like the mobile in the room. Yet, at the same time, it is also the room – the space – in which the words turn.
“Emotion” involves motion. As with many of Creeley’s poems one senses what is unspoken – being said between the lines (how apt the cliche is for once!). This is a poetry about making the words move and being moved – by love, friendship, happiness, misery. Furthermore, it’s also about not being able to blurt things out. Might this be one of the poem’s precoccupations? The room needed to breathe – whether for words to be spoken (“the wind to catch at”) or for people to feel at ease, at home, in touch yet also free?
Thus, Calder’s mobile was not out of place. Its shapes cut the space, created new shapes in the surroundings and was simultaneously of itself and a bringing into relation of all around it: the walls, the window frame, the hills beyond, the visitors, the currents of air, my own presence in the room, even my own breath.
For Creeley, too, I think, the poem is of itself and in relation. Still life (fixed on the page) yet there’s still life ( the language is alive, we’re alive!). It is a moving between: messages, wires, calling and receiving. Words are in the air all around us. A spoken sense of community.