Features | The 2005 Phi Beta Kappa Poem
Robert Creeley ’47 died on March 30, shortly after being named the poet for the Literary Exercises conducted annually by Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter during Commencement week. In his memory, at what would have been a fitting homecoming (Creeley was born in Arlington, which borders Cambridge, and first published his poetry in an undergraduate literary journal), portions of a recent work, “Caves,” were read during the ceremony.
Phi Beta Kappa vice president Judith Vichniac noted that the prolific Creeley had published more than 60 books. Her brief narrative also hinted at the wide geographic reach of his energetic life: he left Harvard in 1944 to become an ambulance driver in India and Burma for the American Field Service. He returned for a year, married, and dropped out again without completing his degree. Later stopping points included a farm in New Hampshire; France and Majorca; the experimental Black Mountain College, famously associated with Franz Kline, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Goodman, where Creeley taught and edited the Black Mountain Review; the San Francisco of Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and other poets; the University of New Mexico; SUNY-Buffalo; and, most recently, Brown University. Citing the Bollingen Prize judges, Vichniac noted the “stubbornly plain language” of Creeley’s “instantly recognizable,” pared-down poetry.
Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, who read the selections, made it clear that “plain” need not mean simple or easy. In 2004, Creeley visited French caves renowned for their prehistoric paintings, and, she said, was moved to consider the impact and influence of caves, their stone walls as a medium, and the paintings made upon them.
As an introduction to her reading, Vendler briefly interpreted her four selections in light of that experience. The first section recalls a child’s love of caves and spaces where he found solitude and room for the making of art. The third captures the astonishing experience of entering the caves in France and seeing the works that unknown artists were compelled to make on those dark walls. The difficult fourth section metaphorically recapitulates life from the birth passage to death, as the poem moves toward the suggestion that art is the legacy to posteritythe answer Creeley found to the “what’s left” at the conclusion of the sixth and final section, where he explains the difficulty of art-making: the struggle to keep current with life even as one captures its echo passing by.
“Caves” appears here, complete, by courtesy of Penelope Creeley, who married Robert Creeley in 1977. She was present in Sanders Theatre for the reading on June 7.
So much of my childhood seems
to have been spent in rooms
at least in memory, the shades
pulled down to make it darker, the
shaft of sunlight at the window’s edge.
I could hear the bees then gathering
outside in the lilacs, the birds chirping
as the sun, still high, began to drop.
It was summer, in heaven of small town,
hayfields adjacent, creak and croak
of timbers, of house, of trees, dogs,
elders talking, the lone car turning some
distant corner on Elm Street
way off across the broad lawn.
We dug caves or else found them,
down the field in the woods. We had
hacks we built after battering
at trees, to get branches, made tepee-
like enclosures, leafy, dense and in-
substantial. Memory is the cave
one finally lives in, crawls on
hands and knees to get into.
If Mother says, don’t draw
on the book pages, don’t color
that small person in the picture, then
you don’t unless compulsion, distraction
dictate and you’re floating off
on wings of fancy, of persistent seeing
of what’s been seen here too, right here,
on this abstracting page. Can I use the green,
when you’re done? What’s that supposed to be,
says someone. All the kids crowd closer
in what had been an empty room
where one was trying at least
to take a nap, stay quiet, to think
of nothing but oneself.
Back into the cave, folks,
and this time we’ll get it right?
Or, uncollectively perhaps, it was
a dark and stormy night he
slipped away from the group, got
his mojo working and before
you know it had that there
bison fast on the wall of the outcrop.
I like to think they thought,
though they seemingly didn’t, at least
of something, like, where did X put the bones,
what’s going to happen next, did she, he or it
really love me? Maybe that’s what dogs are for,
but there’s no material surviving
pointing to dogs as anyone’s best friend, alas.
Still here we are no matter, still hacking away,
slaughtering what we can find to, leaving
far bigger footprints than any old mastodon.
You think it’s funny? To have prospect
of being last creature on earth or at best a
company of rats and cockroaches?
You must have a good sense of humor!
Anyhow, have you noticed how everything’s
retro these days? Like, something’s been here before
or at least that’s the story. I think one picture is worth
a thousand words and I know one cave fits all sizes.
Much like a fading off airplane’s
motor or the sound of the freeway
at a distance, it was all here clearly enough
and no one goes lightly into a cave,
even to hide. But to make such things
on the wall, against such obvious
limits, to work in intermittent dark,
flickering light not even held steadily,
all those insistent difficulties.
They weren’t paid to, not that we know of,
and no one seems to have forced them.
There’s a company there, tracks
of all kinds of people, old folks
and kids included. Were they having
a picnic? But so far in it’s hardly
a casual occasion, flat on back with
the tools of the trade necessarily
close at hand. Try lying in the dark
on the floor of your bedroom and roll
so as you go under the bed and
ask someone to turn off the light.
Then stay there, until someone else comes.
Or paint up under on the mattress the last
thing you remember, dog’s snarling visage
as it almost got you, or just what you do
think of as the minutes pass.
Hauling oneself through invidious
strictures of passage, the height
of the entrance, the long twisting
cramped passage, mind flickers, a lamp
lit flickers, lets image project
what it can, what it will, see there
war as wanting, see life as a river,
see trees as forest, family as
others, see a moment’s respite,
hear the hidden bird’s song, goes
along, goes along constricted, self-
hating, imploded, drags forward
in imagination of more, has no
time, has hatred, terror, power.
No light at the end of the tunnel.
The guide speaks of music, the
stalactites, stalagmites making a
possible xylophone, and some
Saturday night-like hoedown
businesses, what, every three
to four thousand years? One
looks and looks and time
is the variable, the determined
as ever river, lost on the way,
drifted on, laps and continues.
The residuum is finally silence,
internal, one’s own mind constricted
to focus like any old camera
fixed in its function.
Like all good questions,
this one seems without answer,
leaves the so-called human
behind. It makes its own way
and takes what it’s found
as its own and moves on.
It’s time to go to bed
again, shut the light off,
settle down, straighten
the pillow and try to sleep.
Tomorrow’s another day
and that was all thousands
and thousands of years ago,
myriad generations, even
the stones must seem changed.
The gaps in time,
the times one can’t account for,
the practice it all took
even to make such images,
the meanings still unclear
though one recognizes
the subject, something has
to be missed, overlooked.
No one simply turns on a light.
Oneself becomes image.
The echo’s got in front,
begins again what’s over
just at the moment it was done.
No one can catch up, find
some place he’s never been to
with friends he never had.
This is where it connects,
not meaning anything one
can know. This is where
one goes in and that’s what’s to find
beyond any thought or habit,
an arched, dark space, the rock,
and what survives of what’s left.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert Creeley