Reflexivity and Authenticity in Louis C.K.'s Horace and Pete

Emily Izsak


22 April 2016

Reflexivity and Authenticity in Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete

            On January 30th, 2016, without any prior announcement, comedian Louis C.K. released the first episode of Horace and Pete via his personal website. On February 4th 2016, C.K. added an “about” letter to his website in which he states:

Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself. As a writer, there’s always a weird feeling that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.

Also because we are shooting this show in a multi-camera format with an emphasis on a live feeling, we are able to post it very soon after each episode is shot. So I’m making this show as you’re watching it. (

Horace and Pete is sparsely edited and shot in long takes to preserve that “live feeling” (C.K.). C.K. as Horace often over-emphasizes his facial expressions as if he were performing for the back row. The show takes place over two acts and each episode contains an intermission. The addition of cameras to what feels like a staged theatre piece calls attention to the artificiality of performance itself. Without the refinement of heavy editing, close-up shots conflate the audience’s expectations of theatre and their expectations of television. In addition, the show’s paucity of editing creates an immediate disparity between Horace and Pete and more traditional multi-camera programs. Its long takes and bare production stand out against heavily edited sitcoms as well as television shows that have adopted the popular “mocumentary” trend. C.K. opts for self-reflexivity over feigned realism. He achieves Bertolt Brecht’s “Verfremdungseffekt” or distancing effect by including flubbed lines in the final cuts of episodes, calling attention to the staged feel of the show, casting actors in multiple roles, and sometimes breaking the fourth wall. Artificiality becomes central to the content and plot of Horace and Pete as well. Throughout the ten episode series, C.K. presents a constant barrage of revelations. As some truths are revealed, others are called into question: Can pills generate true happiness? Can we tell a person’s gender from their appearance? Is the beer really apple juice? Through this constant engagement with and attack on artificiality, Horace and Pete arrives at authenticity. Although C.K. employs Brecht’s self-reflexive methods, his goal is not to create an active audience who will leave their computer screens to do his political bidding. Brecht theorized that his “Verfremdungseffekt” would cause audiences to notice similarities between the constructed and therefore changeable nature of his plays and the constructed and changeable nature of their sociopolitical circumstances. C.K. uses Brecht’s distancing effect to establish similarities between performance on stage and screen and the inevitably performative quality of all human interaction.

 Horace and Pete locates the face as a site of both deception and credibility. The ability to read and interpret faces becomes integral to the discovery of truth for characters within the show. C.K. repeatedly points out that characters who are unable to physically see or accurately interpret faces cannot be fully informed. Familial resemblance or the lack thereof becomes a communicator of truth. And yet, we as spectators become acutely aware that none of the actors are truly related. In a single motion, we are asked to both suspend disbelief and contend with skepticism. While Brecht advocates for a move away from Aristotelian drama and emotional realism, Horace and Pete offers several verisimilar, emotional performances among a number of histrionic performances.  C.K. creates constant tension between Brechtian distance and staunch emotional realism. Each moment of emotional realism is undercut by a moment of absurdity or self-reflexivity. Horace and Pete understands that it is impossible to achieve authenticity while attempting to mimic reality. C.K. chooses not to lie, not to pretend that he can capture reality on film, and in doing so he establishes a sense of trust with his audience. C.K. exposes the artifice behind representation and asks his audiences to engage with the emotional content of the show anyway. By heightening our awareness of the performed quality of his show, C.K. heightens our awareness of the performative nature of all communication. By allowing us to engage emotionally with the show despite that awareness, he demonstrates that harmony and connection are possible despite artifice.

Illusions and hallucinations feature heavily in Horace and Pete. Pete’s mental health issues cause him to see “a snake headed thing” with big teeth in the first episode of the show. Throughout the series, both illusions and hallucinations are depicted as upsetting, frightening, and unwelcome. In Episode 8, Pete learns that Propetol, the antipsychotic drug he has been taking, is being recalled due to adverse side effects. Following this news, Pete explains, “There are monsters that you gotta look at whether your eyes are open or closed and y’know they’re made of your very own fears. They never leave you alone and you never get used to it.” (Episode 8) When Horace replies, “It’s not as bad as you’re saying it is” and suggests that Pete could “fight against it in [his] mind,” Pete says, “you’re just saying that because you saw A Beautiful Mind and now everybody thinks you can just learn to live with it. Yeah, well that guy had a little girl following him around and two weird guys; try the floor has teeth and it’s biting you.” (Episode 8) Steve Buscemi as Pete criticizes an Oscar winning biographical drama for falsely representing schizophrenia. A Beautiful Mind does not self-reflexively call attention to its inaccuracies. Although director Ron Howard admits that the film was never meant to be a literal representation of schizophrenia or John Nash’s life, A Beautiful Mind was shot and marketed as a traditional drama. Audiences expected the film to provide insight into mental illness and Nash’s experience. Horace and Pete’s serious discussion about Pete’s prognosis is immediately followed by Tricia’s entrance into the bar. Tricia as a character perfectly embodies C.K.’s careful juxtaposition of sincerity and absurdity. Her relationship with Pete is nuanced and loving, and Maria Dizzia delivers an honest, verisimilar performance, yet Tricia’s vulgar, exaggerated outbursts (due to Tourette’s Syndrome) play as constructed and absurd. Her exclamation, “fifteen cocks and cunts in the market” (Episode 8), interrupts Horace and Pete. It cuts the emotional tension of the moment and reminds viewers that they are watching a performance. In A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht writes:

This detached state, where [the audience] seem[s] to be given over to vague but profound sensations, grows deeper the better the work of the actors, and so we, as we do not approve of this situation, should like them to be as bad as possible. As for the world portrayed there, the world from which slices are cut in order to produce these moods and movements of the emotions, its appearance is such, produced from such slight and wretched stuff as a few pieces of cardboard, a little miming, a bit of text, that one has to admire the theatre folk who, with so feeble a reflection of the real world, can move the feelings of their audience so much more strongly than does the world itself. (Brecht 6)

Brecht opposed Aristotelian catharsis as well as the emotional trance it creates. His plays reveal their artifice in order to dissuade from emotional engagement and ultimately distance or alienate audiences. Brecht sought to prevent illusion. He claimed that causing audiences to view the play objectively and critically would lead them to realize their own ability and responsibility to take social action in the world beyond the theatre. While Tricia’s outburst can be read as an instance of  “Verfremdungseffekt,” C.K. allows viewers to “be given over to vague but profound sensations” before her entrance (Brecht 6). The structure of this scene in Episode 8 closely resembles a scene in Episode 1 in which an emotional discussion between Horace and his daughter is immediately followed by an absurd and jarring monologue from a recently released convict. Horace and Pete avoids the emotional realism of A Beautiful Mind but does not entirely adhere to Brecht’s ideology. By allowing audiences to feel pathos for Pete and become emotionally invested in his character, C.K. shows that empathy and an awareness of performativity can be generated simultaneously.

            Pete’s monstrous hallucinations are never made visible on screen like the hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind; however, in Episode 2, Horace’s hallucination of his father’s lover, Marsha, appears fully realized. The first time Horace has a hallucination of Marsha at the beginning of the episode, it is not made clear whether their interaction is real in the context of the show or not. Later in the episode, Jessica Lange playing Horace’s hallucination of Marsha enters Horace’s apartment and the two characters discuss Horace’s sexual fantasies. Horace asks Marsha, “do you have any, like, gross fantasies?” to which she responds, “why don’t you go down and ask her.” Horace replies, “Oh yeah, you’re me.” C.K. allows his viewers to believe that Horace has a real sexual encounter with Marsha at the beginning of the episode before he later reveals that this version of Marsha is part of Horace’s imagination. This trick acts as a warning to viewers early in the series. We are not to trust appearances; everything is not as it seems. However, C.K. doesn’t maintain the illusion. He is ultimately honest with the audience. The Oedipal tone of this scene in combination with its self -reflexivity also connects Brecht’s epic theatre to traditional Aristotelian drama. Brecht criticizes Oedipus, the archetypal Aristotelian tragedy, for its emphasis on fate and its inability to portray society as changeable: “The theatre as we know it shows the structure of society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium). Oedipus, who offended against certain principles underlying the society of his time, is executed” (Brecht 7). C.K. adapts Oedipus into a fantastical conversation in which Horace, the Oedipal figure, understands that this sexualized version of father’s girlfriend is a product of his own mind and therefore both infinitely changeable and inherently constructed.

            In the first half of the final episode of the series, C.K. plays Horace’s father, Horace the 7th, and Steve Buscemi plays a younger version of Alan Alda’s character, Uncle Pete. A different group of customers sit at the bar, one among them played by magician David Blaine. After young Uncle Pete asks Blaine’s character to pay for his drinks, Blaine performs a magic trick. He turns a one dollar bill into a twenty dollar bill in front of Uncle Pete and his customers. Uncle Pete’s responds by demanding to see how the trick was done. Blaine’s character answers, “I don’t know any tricks. I just watch nature happen.” (Episode 10) He then breaks a glass with his teeth before Horace and Uncle Pete throw him out of the bar. Illusions without explanation are not welcome at Horace and Pete’s bar, nor are they welcome in Louis C.K.’s series. In this scene, C.K. disturbs the illusion of Horace and Pete itself with double casting. In A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht writes:

This principle — that the actor appears on the stage in a double role, as Laughton and as Galileo; that the showman Laughton does not disappear in the Galileo whom he is showing; from which this way of acting gets its name of ’epic’ — comes to mean simply that the tangible, matter-of-fact process is no longer hidden behind a veil; that Laughton is actually there, standing on the stage and showing us what he imagines Galileo to have been. (Brecht 9-10)

For Brecht, double casting is another way of revealing the constructed nature of drama to audiences. It causes audiences to become hyper-aware of the performed nature of the action on stage. C.K. uses double casting, like Brecht, to show the “matter-of-fact process… behind [the] veil” (Brecht 10).

            In Episode 9, a hallucinatory conversation takes place between Pete, who has gone missing, and Uncle Pete, who committed suicide several episodes earlier. Uncle Pete tells Pete about his childhood and the time he chose to play hockey instead of baseball. Uncle Pete asks Pete if he remembers the incident, and when Pete says that he does, Uncle Pete replies, “No you don’t. Because it never happened” (Episode 9). They continue:

“What? No. I remember it.”
“No, you just crazied that up. That never happened any more than you were chased by that fucking snake in the Port Authority, that first time when they put you in the hospital.”
“What? “

“ Or any more than any of this is real here.” (Episode 9)

Here C.K. displays unreality on multiple levels. Uncle Pete is a figment of Pete’s imagination causing Pete to question his own perception of reality in a hallucination in a fictional series. In this scene, C.K. heightens Brecht’s alienation effect by calling into question not only the representation of reality on screen, but also how the characters on screen represent reality to themselves. We as viewers are simultaneously compelled to empathize with Pete’s condition and realize the highly constructed and meta-fictional nature of the scene. Pete reveals to viewers that he knows he is hallucinating. Uncle Pete says, “Why do you think you're here? I mean, you know you're not here, right?” Pete replies, “I know. I know” (Episode 9). Uncle Pete reminds both Pete and C.K.’s audience that the action on screen is not real. Pete’s response mirrors our own. This is the penultimate episode of the series and we know by now to be skeptical of appearances. As the episode ends, Pete asks his father, “But can you just let me have this right now? Would you please? Just let me have it. Just a little piece.” Uncle Pete replies, “Okay, son. You go ahead and have it. And you sure did play hockey. I was just fucking with you” (Episode 9). Uncle Pete gives Pete (or rather Pete gives himself) a moment of catharsis, and somewhere in between the layers of illusion and disclosure, C.K. allows us to become emotionally attached to the characters on screen. Although we are aware that we are watching an actor perform a hallucinatory version of a fictional character, we are allowed to “have this right now… Just a little piece” (Episode 9).

Horace and Pete constantly considers the performativity and readability of facial expressions. In Episode 1, Horace and his daughter, Alice, discuss Horace’s inability to read the complexities of the human face. Alice tells her father, “No, it's like, you are not aware of anything, you know? You, like, look at a person's face, and if they're smiling, you're fine, and if they're not, then you're sad.” Horace replies, “It-- isn't that normal?” Alice answers, “Yeah, for a five-year-old, but you're 50, you know?” (Episode 1). Alice understands that outward expressions of emotion are performed and are not accurate representations of true or authentic emotion. In the next episode, Uncle Pete discusses his friend’s experience of liberating a concentration camp during WWII. Uncle Pete tells his customers,

He's walking into the camp with his platoon and they see all these people starving and dying, you know? And the whole platoon starts crying, only he can't cry. He's not crying 'cause he's, you know, he's stunned. He can't get a tear out. And everybody's, you know, crying their eyes out and the camp prisoners are all just looking at these people crying and he still can't cry. So he feels, like, self-conscious and guilty, you know? So he starts trying to think about things, like his mother or his kids, you know? Still can't cry. Finally, he thinks of "Bambi.
Yeah, it came out in 1942, you know, right before he shipped off to war.
So he's thinking about how Bambi's mother was shot, you know? Cries like a baby. (Episode 2)

Although Uncle Pete’s friend felt genuine emotion, he wasn’t able to accurately display that emotion on his face. In order to achieve an appropriate facial response, he summoned the memory of a sad cartoon. Uncle Pete’s anecdote re-enforces Alice’s conception of facial expressions as artificial and performative. Uncle Pete’s friend uses a method acting technique to help him emote in a real situation. In Training and Exercises Lee Strasberg, the leading figure in the development of method acting, writes, “Re-living a specific traumatic or joyful emotional experience is the way to access a sequence of behavior and express emotions when certain scenes are particularly demanding. The emotional memory is the actor’s weapon to create a complete reality on stage” (Strasberg 27). Uncle Pete’s retelling of his friend’s experience establishes a connection between the way actors in Horace and Pete perform and the way all people perform emotion as a form of communication. Leon, a customer at Horace and Pete’s, tells Uncle Pete that he “did the opposite”:

“I was watching "Bambi" with this girl I was seeing, she was a ballerina. And when Bambi's mother got shot, she started crying, the ballerina. And I wanted to cry with her, you know, to show her I had feelings, but-- but I didn't care.”
“Wait, so what, you used the Holocaust so that you could cry about Bambi?”

“It's sad. Isn't it sad?”

“Which one, "Bambi" or the Holocaust?”

“It's sad that it's so hard to show your feelings when you really want to”

Again, a character admits to using a method-acting technique in order to convey a situationally appropriate emotion. In both cases, characters understand crying as a form of communication. They don’t cry because it is a natural expression of emotion but because it is necessary for the communication of emotion to others. Performance is portrayed as necessary for human connection. Horace and Pete’s self-reflexivity and persistent exposure of illusion allows viewers to recognize illusion and performativity in all human interaction. However, C.K. allows certain components of Aristotelian drama into Horace and Pete including climactic catharsis, narrative structure, tragic characters and “incidents arousing pity and fear” (Aristotle 9). By combining dramatic theatre and epic theatre in a filmed production, C.K. exposes the shortcomings of both while constructing a new “theatre” that addresses performativity and artificiality without minimizing “our enjoyment of the theatre” (Brecht 3).

            Episode 3 opens with a nearly ten minute monologue shot in uninterrupted close-up. Horace’s ex-wife, Sarah, played by Laurie Metcalf, tells an off-screen listener (later revealed to be Horace) about her ongoing affair with her new husband’s father. Metcalf’s believable, naturalistic acting is made even more impressive by the uncut and unadorned presentation of the scene. After Metcalf’s intense and graphic monologue, C.K. cuts to a close-up shot of Horace’s stunned face. The close-up of Horace reveals C.K.’s not quite stage— but not quite screen acting style. C.K.’s facial expressions as Horace are less subtle than Metcalf’s. He gapes, open-mouthed, squints, furrows his brow, and frowns in close up. Often C.K. provides a quick close-up shot of Horace’s facial expression; however Horace’s verbal reactions to Sarah’s confession often happen while Horace’s face is off camera. Horace says, “you never lied to me” (Episode 3) during a close-up shot of Sarah. C.K. includes close-up shots of Horace purposefully to show and magnify his facial expressions, not simply because he is delivering a line at a given moment.  These two characters in conversation personify the dialogue that Horace and Pete creates between epic theatre and dramatic theatre. This subtle juxtaposition acts as an equalizer of two opposing acting styles. Although Metcalf’s acting is superb, nuanced, and naturalistic, it calls attention to itself as an achievement in performance because of the unedited, theatrical tone of the show. Because Horace and Pete does not often make use of close-up shots, Metcalf’s long close-up monologue stands out as a magnified performance. C.K.’s comparatively more histrionic performance also calls attention to itself as acted.

Sarah tells Horace about her sexual encounters with her father in law, Roger. She mentions that on one occasion, Roger was doing housework downstairs while she stayed upstairs. She reports that the two of them participated in mutual masturbation while they were on different floors of the house:

I start touching myself and I let my own sounds drowned out his and I assumed that he’s doing the same but of course I don’t know. I don’t know anything. For all I know he’s guessing what I’m doing up there and the poor guy is just sitting there totally shocked or he has no idea that any of this is going on. (Episode 3)

Because Sarah is unable to see Roger’s face, she feels as though she is lacking vital information. She is guessing at his intentions and emotions. Throughout Horace and Pete, C.K. shows that faces and facial expressions have the ability to communicate necessary truths. Although both C.K. and Metcalf’s performances in this scene emphasize performativity as a function of human interaction, Sarah’s story shows that without access to the faces of other people, it becomes even more difficult to interact effectively. Although Horace and Pete establishes that facial expressions are ultimately artificial and constructed, the show also reveals the face’s ability to communicate concealed truths. In Episode 7, Horace tells Rhonda that he got his ex-wife, Sarah and her sister, Rosemary pregnant at the same time. Rosemary “took off” and Sarah raised both children on her own. When Rhonda asks if the children found out, Horace replies, “you can lie to kids about who their mom is, you can actually pull that off, but, uh, you can't pretend that they're twins” (Episode 7). While technically fraternal twins would be no more identical than ordinary siblings, Horace suggests that a lack of resemblance between his children prevented him from lying to them. Horace’s children do not resemble each other and their facial differences reveal the truth of their parentage. Familial lineage recurs as a theme throughout Horace and Pete, however, because of the self-reflexive tone of the show and its constant unveiling of artificiality, audiences become acutely aware that none of the actors in the show are actually related to each other. Horace’s assertion that it’s possible to lie about family relationships reminds audiences that Horace and Pete presents Louis C.K. and Edie Falco as full siblings even though they are not truly related. This lack of resemblance between characters who are supposed to be related appears in C.K.’s earlier work as well. In his FX show, Louie, Susan Kelechi Watson, a black actress, plays C.K.’s character’s ex-wife and mother of their two white children.  While faces in Horace and Pete reveal truth, the actors’ faces reveal to us the truth that the entirety of the series is made up of performances.

            After Horace tells Rhonda about his children, Rhonda suggests that she may be a trans woman. Although Rhonda tells Horace that he “had sex with a woman last night” (Episode 7), she refuses to straightforwardly answer his nervous question, “And always was a woman?” (Episode 7)  Rhonda allows Horace to question the correlation between her gender expression and her gender identity. Whether or not Rhonda is actually a trans woman remains ambiguous. If Rhonda is not a trans woman, her interaction with Horace is performative. She allows Horace to believe that she may be trans by momentarily taking on the role of a trans person. If Rhonda is a trans woman, her gender expression is still performative according to performance theorists such as Judith Butler. Butler understands all gender as a performative. In her paper, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler writes, “Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself” (Butler 311). Horace is unable to determine Rhonda’s gender despite having been physically intimate with her. Rhonda’s possible performance as a trans woman, as well as Horace’s inability to determine whether or not she is performing, serves a heightened dramatization of gender performance theory. Horace and Pete demonstrates that physicality is not an accurate representation of identity. Gender is always “imitation” (311) and theatrical in nature. We can never be certain of a person’s gender, just as we cannot be certain of a person’s true emotions. Outward expression fails to accurately communicate both identity and inner feelings.  

             In Episode 10, after Horace has been informed that Pete has likely died, he conducts an interview with Maura, played by Amy Sedaris. Maura notices that Horace is upset. She tells him, “God, it's driving me crazy, your eyes are, like, soaking wet.
They're, like, soaking wet. Do you have an allergy problem or something?” (Episode 10) She then begins massaging Horace’s eyes, face, and temples. During his conversation, Horace becomes visibly happier. Maura tells Horace, “look at that, you're smiling! Look at that smile. See, you use every muscle in your face when you smile” (Episode 10). Maura’s energy alters Horace’s attitude, however she also physically molds Horace’s sad face into a happy one. An outer physical force (and Maura is a force) changes not only Horace’s face, but also his inner emotions. Method acting proposes that conjuring a sad or emotional memory in the mind can make facial expressions appear more real and believable. This interaction between Horace and Maura shows that facial manipulation can create real, believable emotion. Horace begins the conversation as a man devastated by his cousin’s probable death and leaves the conversation ready to move to Chicago and begin a new life with Maura. Performativity and emotional realism are not diametrically opposed. Performance or artificial manipulation of the face can create emotional realism.

            In the first episode of Horace and Pete, customers at the bar discuss liberal and conservative politics. One customer mediates a conversation between a self-identified liberal and a self-identified conservative. After the liberal and the conservative both verbalize how they unfavourably interpret the other’s party. The mediator replies, “See, the fact that you start out by seeing each other like that, I mean, how could you possibly ever respect each other or agree on anything?” (Episode 1) After both customers favourably describe their own parties, the mediator asks,  “So, if you start by taking his definition of himself and he starts with your definition of you, don't you stand a better chance, have a better shot at getting to some sort of consensus?” (Episode 1) Horace and Pete does not claim that the inevitability of artifice and illusion results in a complete dissolution of communication. Effective communication is made possible by recognizing artifice and addressing its impact. At the end of Episode 10, after the credits, C.K. and the cast of Horace and Pete take a final bow. C.K. exclaims, “That’s a wrap on Horace and Pete, everybody!” (Episode 10) The inclusion of this curtain call, displaying the crew, cameras and lighting on screen, acts as a final reminder of the show’s artifice. Yet, at the same time we are reminded of the show’s real impact, of the real people who participated in its creation, and of the value of illusion.






Works Cited

Aristotle. "The Internet Classics Archive | Poetics by Aristotle." The Internet Classics Archive | Poetics by Aristotle. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

Brecht, Bertolt. "A Short Organum for the Theatre." Brecht on Theatre; the Development of an Aesthetic. Trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. N. pag. Print.

Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. By Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina. Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. N. pag. Print.

C.K., Louis. "About Horace and Pete." | Horace and Pete. N.p., 4 Feb. 2016. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

C.K., Louis. "Horace and Pete." | Horace and Pete. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

Strasberg, Lee, and Lola Cohen. "Training and Exercises." The Lee Strasberg Notes. London: Routledge, 2010. N. pag. Print.

Clarke to Clark

John (Jack) Clarke carried out an extensive correspondence with Tom Clark while Clark was writing Charles Olson: The allegory of a poet’s life. Clarke initiated the exchange, which runs to some 200 typewritten pages, in hopes of influencing Clark’s increasingly hostile relation with the subject of his biography. He was unsuccessful. This letter was written toward the end of the correspondence after the book was published and the first reviews using Clark’s book to attack Olson began to appear.


                                                                                         June 28 1991

Dear Tom,[1]

                     Like you, I'm losing strength over this, but wanted to give you the context, as I guess I must not have.  Before they left town, Pen & Cass were on the phone, Pen said did we see the Disch dis,[2] Cass said yes, Gerrit[3] sent it, but did you see the Dawson[4] letter, no sez Pen, Robert and Fee no longer speak; and so they agree he's an asshole etc., so when she tells me I take it to mean they want to see it, Fee's letter for the joke it is (as she said Bob's response to the Disch was laughter), which is why I sent it to them.  Actually, there were three "unexplained" enclosures (mailed with intent.).  Charlie Palau[5] had tried to deliver by hand but Bob had already split for Me.) a fax from Bill Sylvester,[6] which had been put in my box at the Dept. by mistake; a letter from a would-be subscriber who said he didn't want any intent. (pay for) which didn't have RC in it, which I thought Bob might get a laugh out of; and 3) the Dawson.  There was no need to send Cook's[7] response to Disch as he had already sent a copy to Creeley (Al said).  None of these needed, I thought, explanation, so were simply stuck in, as Palau had returned them in the envelop, especially not Fee's effluviam, or as I take it Creeley thinks to call "filth," though I don't see why you call my sending it to him "second hand slime"?  Nor do I see how 2 people getting it constitutes "circulation"?  This construed question of the great UNEXPLAINED ENCLOSURE is a red herring anyway.  (I'm sure Pen told him of the conversation so knew it was possibly coming.)  Bob's piss-off, if that's what to call it, is from other reasons entirely, I'm sure.  He has you know now withdrawn from the Curriculum (by letter to me and to Glover), so to him it is the end of 20 yrs.  It all started of course with Duncan's failed Olson Memorials[8], which both Harvey and I cancelled, if again that's a word to use w/out getting into it, Duncan for, and Bob went with Duncan on the question obviously (that is, as it should be, he wasn't there, plus wasn't that close to Duncan - his invitation I think coming out of that Bard Bl. Mt. thing Duncan read at); next thing was the Olson Memorial by "that minister of Berkeley" (RC), which Bob cancelled - and the whole issue is over the "spiritual" (the Curriculum as you know is of the Soul) - when we were starting out with the Cof S Robt Kelly put the project down for dredging up the old question of the soul again and Charles cancelled him, "never darken my door again…"  (Fee he cancelled for the Bl Mt Bk mostly) - Creeley & I have always "parted company" on this issue, but it wasn't openly stated because there was no occasion - till now); now, finally, this groundswell of resentment and possessiveness" (RC) has become the occasion, the occasion of the public exposure of different "frames" (Bob's word) of Olson by people who knew him at different "times" in his life.  And any "special view" of Olson might be called possessive of him, but I think what has "spooked" Bob (his word) is this what he regards as religious contexting of Olson.  When Blake in old age had disciples they called him The Intepreter.  That nicely neutral, the man is simply one who interprets things better than anyone else around, someone you can go to etc.  Now we all know there are other matters involved here, other transmissions etc.  Our problem all along, & maybe Kelly was right in a way, was to leave or propose things in a, for lack of a better term, spiritual vocabulary of enthusiasm in a time of the end of existential humanism.  This of course began for me and most others of the CofS long before any association with CO.  What is problematic for Bob I think is including his Olson in such drek (his word), when he has been at pains for some time to "edit out" the kook strain and make Charles available to all (problem is it hasn't worked out that way - by expunging the real agenda of O's  work - in the "church forever" - in fact any theoretical side to it (and you know how such "dogmatic" statements as that which exists through itself etc can be heard as essentially of an existential context as in Creeley's things come and go so let them poem, which is terrific but of another orientation than the Golden Flower say, among many possible) as extraneous to what the poem itself is saying (sometimes true, but not as agenda) - anyway the upshot is that O's work, except for the Ca tomes, is almost unavailable and he's being taken out of anthologies he was once in).  I don't see limiting Charles to poetry as such or except as such or certainly to Bl Mt Movement in same or whatever as being useful to keeping him in print and available.  On those criteria he may not even make it.  Creeley's and Duncan's initial response to his verse was the wastebasket.  They responded to his unquestioned authority.  From whence does it derive?  You say Fate (not influence), so be it.  At least that's a contexting beyond reality as "the shifting face of need" (Bob's definition back in The Island, if you remember?)  It seems to me Bob loves the line from The Librarian, say, but would have no interest (public) in what is buried there (& I don't mean George's love-kins), but the actual "metaphysics" of the question (in overall context of the work).  And this so-called or thought-of theoretical side to it does influence this side, e.g., was that even Lufkin's diner Creeley was in 1966? or had it already become the one that's there now?  As I recall it was already changed (I'll check with Gerrit who will know).  I drove John to Panna's[9].  Mary & I had our honeymoon there.  Panna had not yet arrived.  Saw Charles the next 2 day-nights through (he put Mary to bed in Charles Peter's room).  We are breakfast at the diner the morning we left, Charles doing the Lord's Prayer, which Mary could of course remember better than he could.  And I don't think it was Lufkin's anymore, no it wasn't.  Point is, as in the Moebius Strip, one side turns into the other easily, and back.  And if you don't have or propose the two, what have you got?  Certainly not Olson, who was a stickler on this point.  Biomorphism, the fusion of the 2 sides into one.  He taught, as you know (eg. Last Lectures) always the 2, whether genetics and morphology or etc., but never what Blake accused WW of, the atheism of the world of nature.  Part of his quarrel with this age is its putting an a- before everything.  Take that out as irrelevant & what have you got?  Charles suckered everybody into the idea he cared about what the world thought, but by his life, the choices he made, willy nilly even, you know he didn't really.  He was driven surely to & by another outcome.  In the end, although Bob's Olson is more mainstream he doesn't enter the mainstream.  That's the paradox.  You both may think "my" Olson is off the wall, but I'll bet it will bring him in faster than trying to do it the other way, though it may take awhile (usually at least 100 yrs).  Otherwise, this is all just a fight to see who the anthologies and schools will proclaim the successor to Pound & WCW.  My Olson is not in that line, but in the Homer-Hesiod-Dante line, but bigger obviously (& not because of God or the gods etc.) - when does 1-A get him home, when the public works dept. changes the road, not likely.  Only if you make, like Seymour Knox, money, do you get yr own road home (route 400 it's called).  Yet we do demand it, for all.  Otherwise we're asking Charles to accept the way it was, Route 128 or whatever, when it ain't, which we all know.  enuf.  Oh, that Vedic thing, that wasn't scholarship, only common sense, I thought, because we were 120 AD not BC, & Charles had paired the Arabs & Norse in the CofS, "Veda than" is way back, unless you stress the than, or late Buddhist perhaps???  Nothing since sense.  Signing off, JACK.

[1] Tom Clark.

[2] Tom Disch, primarily known as a sci-fi author, wrote a review of Clark’s book in which he dismissed Olson as a power hungry, manipulative, cult leader using Clark’s portrait of the poet. His review of Clark’s book first appeared as “Iambic Megalomania” in the Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1991. It was reprinted as “The High Priest of High Times” in The Castle of Indolence, NY: Picador USA, 1996.

[3] Gerrit Lansing.

[4] Fielding Dawson, also referred to as “Fee.”

[5]  A local Buffalo figure involved in the poetry and music scenes.

[6] William Sylvester, a poet and scholar at SUNY Buffalo.

[7] Albert Cook. Cook was a poet and classicist. He was the first Chair of the new English Department at SUNY Buffalo from 1963-1966 and was responsible for hiring a number of literary luminaries, including Charles Olson,  Lionel Abel, John Barth, Robert Creeley, Carl Dennis, Irving Feldman, Leslie Fiedler, Dorothy Van Ghent, Mac Hammond, Norman Holland, John Logan, and Bill Sylvester. He published a review critical of Clark’s book and Disch’s use of it.

[8] The Charles Olson Memorial Lectures were held annually from 1979 to 1989. Robert Duncan, 1979; Michael McClure, 1980; Ed Dorn, 1981; Joel Oppenheimer, 1982; Ed Sanders, 1983; Philip Whalen, 1984; Diane Di Prima, 1985; Tom Clark, 1986; Robin Blaser, 1987; Allen Ginsberg, 1988; Duncan McNaughton, 1989. Duncan McNaughton’s final lectures were a kind of dull parody of lectures designed to shame McNaughton’s friends and announce his allegiance to Robert Creeley in the argument over Tom Clark’s biography of Olson.

[9] John Wieners and Pana Grady.


Robert Creeley's Anger

By Michael Boughn            


“Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,

The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,

My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,

If this be nothing."                     

              Leontes, The Winter’s Tale I.ii.293-6


Robert Creeley was a man of extraordinary, unrestrained, often contradictory intensities. He was astonishingly kind and generous in every way imaginable. Rachel Blau DuPlessis tells of how, when she was a young mother, Creeley came to her aid at a conference when, on stage, her two-year old child threatened to fatally disrupt the event. While Ginsberg heckled from the audience, Creeley suddenly appeared on stage beside her to help manage the gear-and-child-laden retreat with some dignity, and to stay with her in the playground outside, keeping her and her child company while the conference concluded. That attention and sensitivity to the intractable human dilemmas of others and his willingness to give whatever he had to help in whatever situation was a constant determination of his person. After he came into the possession of institutional largesse in the form of a funded chair at Buffalo, he spread it far and wide, freely, liberally, a veritable Johnny Appleseed of funding, with no attempt to use it as a form of power or control. He bestowed without question resources on young poets and scholars to help fund their emerging energies. He kept money flowing to perennially destitute poets with no means of support beyond their poetry. There is no telling how many poets Creeley supplied with necessary sustenance over the years. That generosity extended to an openness, curiosity, and an infectious sense of humour he shared freely with everyone. He was the very image of Emerson’s poet, common, democratic, generous, and essential to the measure of the times.

Poetry was his life, absolutely inextricable from his being. It was never a means to an end, whether that end was some meagre appointment or some equally meagre prize. He breathed poetry. It pumped through his veins. It did matter to him that his accomplishments were recognized, especially when the lack of recognition was grounded in a hostile aggressive ignorance by an empowered old guard fighting last ditch battles to defend the bastions of their reactionary verse. The idea, however, that like current manufacturers of Commercial Poetry Products,  he “jockey[ed] around for fame and position” is laughable. That proposition is advanced by Robert Archambeau in a pair of essay/reviews on Creeley’s recently published Selected Letters. He weaves a story out of the letters depicting the poet as a vindictive, jealous, resentful man who never got beyond the hostilities of the 60s and 70s and whose anger was a compulsive expression of an insatiable hunger for attention.

Archambeau is right that one of Creeley’s notable intensities was his famous, often unrestrained anger, especially as a young man. The stuff of his poetry, literary legend, as well as critical analysis, the poet’s anger was featured in stories that flourished in Buffalo in the 1980s when I lived there, much of that time spent as Creeley’s assistant at SUNY Buffalo. One of my favourite stories, which may have come from Betty Cohen, although I can’t recall for sure if it was she, and will never know if she, if it was she, had scrambled it or even made it up, she wasn’t above that, related how some straight up academic at a faculty reception for a writer insisted on dissing John Coltrane to Creeley while grazing at the ubiquitous cheese platter, wine glass in hand. After trying unsuccessfully to explain Coltrane’s music to the man who simply dismissed it as noise, Creeley, in a rage, picked up a knife from the table and chased him around the room trying to stab him until cooler heads intervened and disarmed the wild poet. Another story involved Creeley and Amiri Baraka drinking at the bar at the Central Park Grill. At that time, the windshield wiper factory still operated in the Tri-Main building next door, and at their break, as was their habit, a group of workers came in for a liquid lunch. Standing next to Creeley, one of them muttered, “Who let the nigger in?” or words to that effect. Creeley immediately smashed his beer bottle against the bar, shoved the jagged end against the man’s throat, and instructed him to apologize to Baraka. Which, needless to say, the man did – expeditiously. Creeley did not suffer fools lightly.

 Neither of these events may have taken place as narrated here, in this world, if at all. In the manner of urban legends or myth the stories circulate with a life of their own and “facts” have very little to do with the truths of their narrative force and form. The fact that they circulate is the only fact required, given the almost mythic quality the young Creeley’s anger assumed both in the world and in his work. That anger came up front and centre in the recent articles by Robert Archambeau who spins a narrative focussing on the poet’s angry dismissal of other poets and writers – “spewing bile” Archambeau calls it – using about 4 of the 6 pages of the review to detail what he calls Creeley’s “combative and intolerant” behaviour. Archambeau does nod to other narratives in the letters, especially their story of “a network of the isolated few reaching out and supporting one another,” but Creeley’s anger and virulent vindictiveness in relation to other poets is the main show. And he comes out looking bad – competitive, arrogant, narcissistic, whiny, ungrateful, endlessly jealous.

Archambeau rightly frames this portrait of Creeley in the context of the “poetry wars” that began in the 50s and arguably, contrary to Archambeau’s assertion, never ended, although they have morphed into different formations. Creeley, as Archambeau notes in the title of his review, was a warrior. Archambeau even formally acknowledges the different moment and its attendant hostilities and power struggles. The levers of power – the magazines, the teaching positions, the prize committees – were all in the hands of a conservative cabal suckled at the teat of T.S. Eliot’s cultural and literary criticism and Creeley’s anger was a response to the systematic exclusion of poetries that didn’t fit the Eliot mold. What Archambeau doesn’t acknowledge – or perhaps simply doesn’t understand – is that poetry mattered then in ways that have since been lost in the fog of “creative writing” that has enveloped the literary world.

Eliot’s legacy was mired in a reactionary response to the historical developments of modernity as its contradictions bred a world of commercialized value and the degraded effervescence of popular culture. His solution – condemn the changes and become a high Anglican – shaped his equally reactionary attitude toward poetry. While Pound, H.D., and especially Williams, sought ways forward, understanding poetry as a particular mode of knowledge that could reveal new perspectives and relations to the changing cosmos, Eliot holed up the church, condemning “strange gods” and turning his poetry into a kind of linguistic censer. At the heart of the difference was the understanding of prosody. For Eliot, the ghost of a meter was the sign and form of stabilized value, the antithesis of Williams’s variable foot which located the imagination in the constant acts of attention to and in/forming of the unfolding world.

It was no accident, then, that many of the poets of the New American Poetry, notably Duncan, Olson, Dorn, and Ginsberg, among many others, were deeply involved in various ways in the anti-war resistance of the 60s and 70s. Their poetry was part of what was called the Movement; it roused crowds; it was read to others on the street; people carried it with them in demonstrations and confrontations. Even Creeley, who agonized over not being able to write explicitly political poetry, was active in that resistance. Meeting him for coffee with Robin Blaser in Montreal in 1969, I was naively shocked to witness his near self-flagellation over his inability to write “political” poems like Ginsberg or Dorn. He was genuinely upset, while Blaser patiently and comfortingly reassured him that the mere form of his poetry was deeply political. I understood that to mean that the specific attention it required reoriented the mind outside the War Machine and its daily habit. And that was/is deeply political. Poetry was understood as a mode of thinking, and prosody was its soul. Olson’s “Projective Verse” had the force it did not only because it lifted the darkness and opened composition to the limitlessness of the imagination, but because it treated prosody and thinking/being as one. Poetry mattered.

It still does, but not in the public sphere Archambeau is part of where it has been displaced by the Commercial Poetry Product and its doppelganger, the self-branded avant-garde Text, both of which abandon poetry as a mode of thinking and turn it into a commodity to be used in pursuit of art booty – prizes, grants, academic positions, invitations to the White House. Poetry mattered because, as Olson and Creeley hammered away at in their correspondence, it measures the world. It is not a pretty little thing made out of seven types of some established trope or some copied commercial text and laid out in all its accomplished, if ironic, finery in a prestigious, display case journal with “Review” somewhere in its title. Writing to Olson in 1950, early in their correspondence, Creeley said: “I get so sick of mags like PR, with piece after piece trying to finish themselves off, to fit an arbitrary form, never growing from the nerves of the man, always / – like the 4 Quartets –  / adjusting / themselves.” The question here is not so much about organic as about dynamic, where Emerson takes it, into energy. The stake is the world, one that is “finished off” or one that encounters you as you encounter it open/ing to the formations open/ing to encounter.

This is not the world that Archambeau operates in. A sucker for sociology, he invokes Pierre Bourdieu to caricature Creeley’s poetry as a “career” choice, proposing Creeley’s anger as a manifestation of the “social aging of art:” “ . . . a process in which one group – generally marginal, young, or both – seeks to discredit those who practice the art differently.” Creeley’s anger is reduced to competitive resentment. There was a reason that Charles Olson wrote that “sociology is shit,” and this is a good example of it. Not that Archambeau is alone in this reductive endeavor. Even Michael Davidson, a fine poet who ought to know better, pulls out the sociology machine to make Creeley’s anger at least partly the result of the “feminization of masculine space.”

Anger as a product of sociology and/or psychology typifies the systematic materialism of modernity, a world without remainder explained through determining mechanical forces. It was not Creeley’s world. A lot has been written about his poetic stance, with which his anger is intricately entangled. Perhaps most famously, he is known, after Charles Olson’s dedication of the first Maximus volume, as the Figure of Outward. Years ago I puzzled over that being unable to imagine a more inwardly dedicated poetry than Creeley’s. Olson sails out into the universe in a box, but every torsion and twist in Creeley’s writing is in, forces the inner toward a further detail, articulation, or intensity. But of course outward isn’t a function of the “content,” but its arrangement in words as they emerge in Creeley’s attentive composing. “He’s way out there,” Olson said of his friend. The outward, then, as the outward-ing of that inner intensity. And at a level that transports the words and events to an extreme register that sometimes manifests in rage and violence. Donald Wellman pinpoints Creeley’s outwardness, describing him as “an epistemological poet always reaching with the finger of his mind to the edge of thought: ‘Birds sing still at the edges of hearing.’” The appropriateness of epistemology to Creeley’s prosody may seem counter-intuitive, given his militant presence-ing and insistent simplicity, but in so far as it describes informing relation, it is crucial. Precisely the relation of knowing determines the movement of Creeley’s language.  

Will Montgomery calls it “refusal:” “Refusal becomes, sieved through Creeley’s formal choices, a refusal of communicative plenitude. Ellipsis, compression, syntactical uncertainty, and the insistent breaking of the line make hesitancy and undecidability integral to the overall effect of the poetry.” The refusal goes beyond communicative plenitude to the existential, the stuff of the poem’s knowing and Creeley’s being-in-the-world. “There is no giving,” Creeley wrote. “The mind / beside the act of any dispossession is // lecherous. There is no more giving in / when there is no more sin.” The refusal of the “lechery” of “possession” and the imagination of its resolution in the end of sin become a state of giving/not giving in – the tension of uncertain presence, although whether the end of sin is more than a hopeless wish remains unstated, continuing to hang over the irresolution, the refusal, of the end, of possession. In any case, it is state of rigourous, singular  encounter/attention/ engagement. A state of intensity.

Creeley disdained the measured, on-the-other-hand, self-reflexive pretense to objectivity that Archambeau idolizes in his description an unnamed scholar’s criticism of a paper Archambeau read at some conference: “C had taken a step back and seen not only the irksome text in front of him, but seen himself looking at it.” Did he also see himself seeing himself looking at it? See himself seeing himself seeing himself? At what point does the divided self stop dividing in the interest of fictional disinterest and just get on with it? The notion that somehow Creeley would or could “stand outside himself,” as Archambeau fantasizes, looking “not at those he despised, but at himself looking at them,” betrays a breathtaking ignorance of Robert Creeley’s work and of the fundamental stance that oriented it, while remaining blissfully blind to Archambeau’s own hidden moralisms, as if “detachment” was actually a state of superior intellectual achievement rather than a disguise for a hidden system of arbitrary valuations and power relations. Creeley’s intensities were engaged, interested, attentive – outward.  But also finite, and when the energy of the intensity flagged, as it always must, it yielded to a kind of abjection followed by anger.

John Clarke, in his masque, Blake, the 7th book of A Curriculum of the Soul, situates a specific world of poetic relation in the early 70s in a mythic Bolinas where poets enact the dynamics of the then current poetry world as figures from Blake’s poetic cosmos. A fourfold text, it negates sociology in its complexity, resonant with meanings that expound/expand Blake’s thought while making apparent (apparencing) the forces and forms that drive the dynamic we call here. These forms of the poetic imagination intersect our lives, informing them, charging relation. In a wild narrative that includes portraits of Tom Clark, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Kenneth Rexroth, Don Allen, Charles Olson, Ted Berrigan, Joanne Kyger, and John Thorpe among others, Clarke locates Creeley as Ulro, a character wracked by guilt and a sense of sin that alienate him from the world. In Blake’s mythology, Ulro is the embodiment of single vision, a state of being grounded in the binary division of the world into exclusive opposites. “Monological” in so far as its duality is rigourously one-dimensional, it admits nothing further than the implacable opposition of opposites. Ulro is the spirit of modernity as theorized by Descartes, Newton, and Locke, grounded on the establishment of an unshakable distinction between subject and object, inward and outward, self and (knowable/unknowable) world.

In Blake, Ulro/Creeley embodies the impossibility, within a monological frame, of marriage, that ancient gendered trope of the iconic union of opposites in a potential plenitude. Beulah, Ulro’s wife, discovers Ulro and Oothoon dancing naked, “displaying their giant limbs to all the winds of heaven.” This flagrant and intense lechery, as Creeley has it in “Rain,” this sexual indulgence, negates the potentiality that marriage opens into, violates its intimacies. In one drawing, Blake has Ulro as a man and a woman tied together back to back in a fruitless bond. Beulah, on the other hand, is the force of prodigality, the overcoming of compulsive, sterile binaries in the intimacy of marriage, the next-to-ness of relation, as Thoreau has it. The divided impossibility of Ulronic intimacy yields an empty world, a world without content.  “No spirit,” Ulro proclaims in Blake, “but the receptacle, the container, or cabinet of the spirit, where in it lies . . ..” But whereas for Descartes, Newton, and Locke that world submitted itself to the measuring control of mind, for Creeley it was a continual provocation, a constant reminder of impotence, the withdrawal of presence.

All his life, Robert Creeley held in contempt any easy proposition of meaning which left the world descriptive. Intensity yielded an elusive presence, a confrontation beyond description, but it dissipated into empty forms and containments and had to be constantly recharged. He kept the world, sphinx-like, in front of him, utterly, persistently, tantalizingly all that is the case, but that must be said and resaid without ever being able to say it, since as soon as it was said, he hated it for its containing failure. It was a hole that swallowed poetry. As a spiritual discipline – Creeley would hate that designation – or, say, an active epistem/ontology, a discipline, such a stance/poetics relies on a state of constant tension which is impossible to maintain and so leads to the despair of isolation from the immediacy necessary to the tension: “All night the sound had / come back again, / and again falls / this quiet, persistent rain. // What am I to myself / that must be remembered, / insisted upon / so often? Is it // that never the ease, / even the hardness, / of rain falling / will have for me // something other than this, / something not so insistent – / am I to be locked in this / final uneasiness.”

Built into this line of inquiry is the unspoken issue neuro-scientists refer to as “the hard problem,” i.e. what is consciousness? What is a self? If once it was a divine spark, and later an epiphenomenon of neuronal activity or a social construction, Creeley’s perennial unease, his unanswered question, addresses it as “nothing further” than this relational intensity and the aroused language of its articulating elusiveness. One possible source of relief is love. This love is spare and hard, however, not a resolution or transformation of the situation, not the accomplishment of plenitude beyond the world’s stony reticence, but as company in resignation: “Love, if you love me, / lie next to me. / Be for me, like rain, / the getting out // of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi- / lust of intentional indifference. / Be wet / with a decent happiness.” To lay next to him, as he pleads for her to do, only yields mutual isolation, side by side, company, but conditional at that (if you love me), and of a sad order of use (Be for me) that finally yields only further despair.

For Creeley, this tension that poetry held was a moral force in a world given to degraded language, mindless war, endless spectacles, and spiritual gluttony. A lot of his anger begins here, in outrage over the corruption of American life.  But the fierce moral vision leads to a further dilemma. As he wrote to Olson in 1950: “My impotence. To either shake off or get beyond the sense of this current biz. It revolts me, turns my stomach, sickens altogether. I hate the whole of it, despise, loathe & feel contempt for every damn one who deals in it. The nation: fucking idiotic lying/: perverts. Perverts in the head/rotten, filth, hate hate, hate. Voices: oily, & shrewd, know, exact, how to lie attractively to each and every one. Against that, just that, we put a handful of sounds/one feeling, two, a complex: love.” The morality does not lie in some proposed solution, but in the act of engaging and revealing an integrity whose multiple intensities continually resists reduction to any final articulation. A pristine morality of refusal he identifies with love.

But the nothing-further becomes just-nothing when the inevitable dispersal of the intensity leaves only a hole where the world was. One of the most angry, violent, painful moments in Creeley’s early poetry is “The Hole.” The poem begins peacefully, in the silent moment of the inception of the poem and the thought of filling it. It then moves to anxiety about spilling, to a story of complete release recalling swimming naked and peeing into the lake, then, from urine to feces, to the injunction, “Wipe / yourself, into / the tight / ass paper is pushed.” The shock of transition is painful. It is as if the pleasure of the previous moment of release couldn’t be allowed to persist without a brutal, penetrating correction. The implicit violence of the “is pushed” in relation to the hole is amplified when it leads to the memory of Fatty Arbuckle raping a girl with a Coke bottle. From there, the poet fingers his own ass, forces anal sex on a partner who screams in pain, and notes his family’s and a teacher’s sexually charged anatomical details. A phantasmagoria of anal/genital pleasure, pain, and violence that locates composition in its shadows (the filling of the hole), the poem ends with a claim for pleasure it immediately negates: “Everywhere / there is pleasure, / deep, / with hands / and feet. // I want / to, now I / can’t wait any / longer. Talk // to me, fill / emptiness with / you, empty / hole.” The “wanting” may yearn for the pleasure of release, of orgasm even, but the “can’t wait any longer” realizes nothing, merely expresses frustration while preserving the tension. Only some hopeless attempt to fill the emptiness of the absent world with come, or talk, or poetry, or the violence of a coke bottle remains, a world of endlessly deferred articulations, a hole of meaning which is by this point a cosmological arsehole. In “Anger” he has it as “an open/ hole of horror, of // nothing as if not / enough there is / nothing.  A pit – . . ..”

Creeley’s anger dwelled and bred in this pit. It was no ordinary anger. People get mad, at one another, at situations they find themselves in, but those moments usually don’t lead to a category of critical attention without assuming unusual proportions – Creeley’s anger, or even as Michael Davidson has it, Creeley’s rage, is a repeated point of attention in various discussions of the poet and his work, if only because he insists on it. Anger ran deep in his life. He related it to the loss of his left eye at 2 years old, compounded by the circumstances of its removal when he was 5, and the death of his father when he was 4 years old which his mother never explained to him. Thereafter, the revelation of the hole of the world occupied his attention. The eye, although wounded, wasn’t removed till after his father’s death. The excision was arranged secretly by his mother who kept him in the dark. At 5 years old, just months after his father’s death, as he struggled with that incommensurable loss which was a literal disappearance, she delivered him to the hospital where unbeknownst to him, a surgical team waited. Left alone, confused, a 5 year old child, he was taken away by staff. When he awoke, his eye was gone like his father was gone, into the hole. The missing father, the missing eye, become entangled with an anger that finds its object in another absence, the absence of meaning, a missing or inarticulate world. A profound loss, it takes on the near heroic energies of a stance, an epistem/ontology of refusal. In his autobiography, Creeley notes that the tracks of the ambulance that took his father away into silent absence, a hole, marked for the child “the end of that previous time entirely.” The understatement is excrutiating.

In “The Hole” anger defines Creeley’s cosmology. The empty hole at the end of the poem aggressively connects mouth, asshole, vagina, and world in a multi-valenced image of spent sexual power, emptiness, and the violent attempt to fill it. The anger rises out of the hole, out of the emptiness, but also becomes the intensity that always unsuccessfully tries to fill it. It is a monological vision of a world of nothing further whose emotional substance is fundamentally anger. Creeley sometimes connected that vision of senselessness to his singular eye. He was fond of pointing out how both he and Robert Duncan, who had a famously wandering eye, literally saw the world differently than most people. One eye will not yield three dimensions, much less four or more.

Anger was also a method, a discipline of (momentary) rupture/rapture. The commonplace of anger, as Creeley put it to Tom Clark, violently breached the containment of self that. By way of example, Creeley told Clark a story from the current news of a schizophrenic child kept in a cage during violent episodes by her mother. The caged child at one point acquires a knife, lashes out through the cage, and stabs her captor/caregiver: “And you think,” Creeley says, “is that the imagination – is that the providence necessary within the commonplace? That having anger is the only system that can quote ‘deal with’ the commonplace of anger?”  

Creeley’s often quoted poem, “Anger,” begins with the commonplace, a house full of family settling in for the night, “The children / sleep, the dog fed, / the house around them / is open, descriptive.” Descriptive is a funny word here, seemingly locating the house now as some set piece whose description pre-exists it, which is never a good sign with Creeley. When truck lights suddenly illuminate it – “lights bright there, // glaring, the sudden / roar of its motor, all / familiar impact // as it passed / so close” – its descriptiveness is called to attention. Not surprisingly, “He / hated it.” The intense outburst violently rejects the signs of intimacy, as if any familiarity betrays the intensity necessary to integrity. Intimacy is based on the acknowledgment of closeness that is impervious to knowledge imagined in terms of certainty. Creeley rejects that acknowledgement as “descriptive,” the failure of the integrity of a state of nothing-further. The cage of the self suddenly lights up around him. The rage that follows in the argument with his wife satisfies and frustrates, both is a hole and fills a hole, until the speaker becomes dissociated from himself and pronouns proliferate in a strange transcendence into the open-but-empty: “Then / as the shouting / grows and grows / louder and louder // with spaces / of the same open / silence, the darkness, // in and out, him- / self between them, / stands empty . . ..”  The deep urge to find a home, a familiar place, with another, a wife, a love, complete, as if meaning were a fulfillment of relation, a prodigality of union that is beyond union, drives “Anger.” But meaning, and even sense which is its ground, dancing beyond the face of the moment, yields to a completion, a description, that is the death not just of sense, but of life itself. Anger lashes out through the bars, slashing. Pitched high enough, it is a beyond the self, a face of the infinite, the open. Till the anger releases, and the bars return.

Like Leontes in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Creeley holds himself back from an intimate commitment with the world because any certainty is a delusion, but without certainty relation itself is at best a function of fluctuating intensity. Leontes’ rage comes from his inability to know unequivocally that Hermione has been true to their marriage vows and that his son is truly his son. It is the eternal quandary of patriarchy. All criteria fail his test of knowledge as certainty. Nothing can convince him that the boy he had lived with and who resembles him is actually his son. As a result his wife and son both die and his daughter is lost to him. The world is annihilated by his refusal to simply acknowledge it. Stanley Cavell calls it “a portrait of the skeptic at the moment of the world’s withdrawal from his grasp” and argues that it is “not an ignorance but an ignoring, not an opposable doubt, but an unappeasable denial, a willful uncertainty that constitutes an annihilation.” Creeley’s anger, like Leontes’ rage, is both the response to and the practice of a radical skepticism, an epistem/ontological knot. “The Shakespearian portrait,” Cavell says, “lets us see that the skeptic wants the annihilation that he is punished by, that it is his way of asserting the humanness of knowledge, since skepticism’s negation of the human, its denial of satisfaction in the human (here in human conditions of knowing) is an essential feature of the human, as it were, its birthright.”

Although Creeley’s anger calmed in his later years, it never went away, and the radical skepticism of Creeley’s monological vision remained militantly determining. Creeley, in his last essay on age and Whitman, took Whitman to task for his 1859 lines, “You tides with ceaseless swell! you power that does this work! / You unseen force, centripetal, centrifugal, through space’s spread.” Whitman recapitulated the rhythmic vision of creative force that had informed his poetry since the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass with its merge and merge and ceaseless merge. Creeley will have none of it. “The sea,” he says, “can’t be put to such a simplifying reference – it’s too real.” But it is only Creeley’s assumption that Whitman’s is a “simplifying reference,” as if there could be no question that such a phenomenon might actually be manifest in the sea, an integrally entangled force of creation, not unlike Charles Olson’s sense of “migration” as a specific fact of a movement that drives continents and galaxies as well as populations and individuals. Not a reference at all, but a profound recognition. Nor is Creeley’s “too real” which is defined by his skepticism any more real than Whitman’s. “Too real” for Creeley was just another way of saying nothing-further.

Creeley’s anger was integral and necessary to his cosmology, his stance as the figure of outward. It didn’t evaporate after his recognition and success because it was tangential to that whole business. If he continued to get angry it was because he continued to care about poetry, and because his militant, existential cosmology never wavered. It continued to inform his judgments of what poetry could and should do. He may have mellowed, but he didn’t change. Poetry mattered to him. Really mattered. In ways that Archambeau and his cohort of creative writers cannot even begin to imagine. And although Archambeau claims that the poetry wars ended and that Creeley’s anger was a lingering “resentment” that outlived its occasion, in fact, Archambeau’s review is proof that the poetry wars are very much alive and well, and the enemies of Creeley’s poetry are still at the wheel, even if they are more “detached” now, less forthright.

In the late 80s and early 90s, Creeley’s anger turned toward a group of poets and students of Olson’s from Buffalo. Wanting to continue the work they started with Olson, they organized the Institute of Further Studies. Jack Clarke compared them to Novalis’ Novices of Sais. After Olson’s death, they initiated the Curriculum of the Soul project based on Olson’s poem of the same name. Part eulogy, part celebration, part scholarship in the spirit Olson inspired, the Curriculum was to be a kind of epic, according to Albert Glover. Jack Clarke assigned 28 topics from Olson’s poem which together would constitute the curriculum. Creeley initially agreed to take on the topic of “one’s own mind” although he delayed it for almost 20 years before finally withdrawing.

In the meantime, in 1991, Tom Clark published his biography of Charles Olson and sparked a vigorous, sometimes rancourous debate over its ultimate representation of the poet. Creeley supported Clark’s vision of an Olson deeply flawed by narcissism, sexism, and bullying. Jack Clarke, Harvey Brown, Al Glover, and especially Ralph Maud, found reason to criticize the biography for incorrect facts and uncharitable and sensational caricatures of complex issues (the Library Journal reviewer wrote that it “reveals that Olson grappled with homosexual impulses, took hallucinogens and dominated those around him, seeking periodic release from inner demons in frenzied floods of images”). Ralph Maud spent much of the rest of his life detailing word by word every inaccuracy (and they are legion) in Clark’s book, although Clark simply ignored him and reissued the biography in 2000 with all factual errors intact.

For Creeley, I think, the issue was complicated. Poetry was part of it, but it also had to do with both how his friend would be perceived going forward, and also how Creeley would be perceived in relation to him. Olson was a powerful, oracular poet and his writing of the world, its details, its history, its persistent, mysterious otherness, attracted various kinds of attention, as power will, everything from friendship, to love, to a kind of abjection before “the master.” The latter mode of relation became generalized by Olson’s critics as representing the whole range of relation to him, leaving poets like Creeley, Duncan, and Dorn to defend themselves as Olson’s “equals.”

It was complicated by the fact that a kind of community, a new form of collective relation to the work (perhaps what Giorgio Agamben calls “the coming community”) was at the core of the Institute’s practice. To traditional scholars and thinkers operating within the habitual thought of the sanctity of something called the Individual, it looked like the abandonment of a related idea called “independent thought” which immediately fits into an anti-clerical bourgeois morality play. Tom Disch, in a review of the first edition of Clark’s biography, summed it up when he called Olson a “high priest” with a “knack for creating disciples.”

Arguably, the Institute was actually attempting an opening into a new form of work nurtured outside the frame of the modern cosmology of discrete, autonomous, possessive identities. But the attack on Olson’s work, led by Marjorie Perloff’s dismissal of “Projective Verse” as plagiarism once Olson was safely buried, was in full swing and there was no room for subtle thinking. In some way, the rhetoric tied into Creeley’s own anxiety about the perception of his relation to Olson. In the introduction to the second edition of Clark’s biography, Creeley refers to Richard Elman’s description of him as Minimus to Olson’s Maximus, and insists – correctly, but clearly with some anxiety – that “our ‘life in print’ had been remarkably shared.” They were, he insists, equals, and the Institute of Further Studies and its Curriculum became for Creeley an abandonment of that equality in some kind of worshipful relation.

It wasn’t, but it was easy enough to make it look like that and it served Creeley’s purpose to do so in order to better locate himself as not that. When he describes Olson in the introduction (ignoring the lurid aspects of Clark’s narrative) he only addresses the early Olson with his central concern for “historical geography,” the Olson of the correspondence of the 1950s. Creeley ignores the late Olson, the reader of Henry Corbin and Avicenna, the Olson of Dante and the rose of the world, the Olson of “A Curriculum of the Soul” and “Poem 143. The Festival Aspect.” One looks in vain in Creeley’s writing about Olson for reference to “the end of the World Tree,” or “Out of the light of Heaven   the flower / grows down, the air / of Heaven,” or “the left hand is the calyx of the Flower / can cup all things within itself.” For him Olson was never oracular, prophetic, or mystical. He was an ordinary, fucked up but brilliant guy, not unlike Creeley himself, who was solely attentive to “[a] tracking of the earth in time.” That may be, but if you look, it is hard to miss the Olson increasingly concerned with the eruptions of eternity into that time.

But the poem and the world of the poem was also at stake. Creeley’s militant commitment to refuse plenitude, to address a world of no-further never faltered. Olson’s poetry increasingly opened into the otherness of the world. His reading of Avicenna and the Visionary Recital influenced not only his writing, but arguably led to the ta’wil he performed in Berkeley in 1965 that alienated many poets, notably Duncan, who walked out, and Creeley. Creeley points out that Olson “moved the art to an exceptional capacity for thinking itself,” so that “poetry had no longer a simple literary or cultural practice.” But he needed for his own purposes to keep it located in some monological frame. To grant authority to the students of some further Olson was to undermine in his mind the integrity of his own stand. And worse, to become identified with it.

I encountered (rather than witnessed, which I also did) Creeley’s anger the year before his death when in a phone call our conversation turned to Clark’s biography. After some back and forth, with, to me, uncharacteristic but increasing intensity, even checked anger, he demanded that I declare myself in support of it. It was, after all, as he stated in his introduction, “the story”: “The story matters, all of it – and what Tom Clark gathered here, in a way he acknowledges and I respect, is as much of it as I or anyone else seems to know.” I demurred, pointing out that its documented errors were legion, that the story Charles Boer told in Olson in Connecticut was of a different man, and that Jack Clarke, in his reviews of the biography, seemed to know, if not more, then at the very least, other dimensions of Olson’s person that qualified or contradicted Clark’s narrative in significant ways. But Bob was having none of it. His anger was palpable over the phone as he pushed me one last time to sign on, and when I told him that I couldn’t do that in good faith, he told me that I would no longer be hearing from him. I was stunned, but knowing of the volatility of his relations, and that other friends thus cut off were later reembraced, I expected the time would come when we would move beyond this difficulty. Unfortunately, he died the following year. We never spoke again.



Works cited


Archambeau, Robert. “Hating the Other Kind of Poetry.” Coppernickle Fall (2015): web, Viewed November 9, 2015.

-- “Poetry Warrior: Robert Creeley in His Letters.” Rev. of The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, ed. Rod Smith, Peter Baker, and Kaplan Harris. Notre Dame Review Summer/Fall 2015: p. 251-255. Online at

Cavell, Stanley. “Recounting Gains, Showing Losses: Reading The Winter’s Tale.” In Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Clark, Tom. Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place. New Directions, 1993.

Clarke, John. Blake. In A Curriculum of the Soul. Canton, NY: Institute of Further Studies, 2010.

Creeley, Robert. “Anger.” In Collected Poems (1945-1975). Berkley: University of California Press, 1982.

“Introduction.” In Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. 2nd ed. NY: W.W. Norton, [1991] 2000.

“Reflections on Whitman in Age.” In On earth: Last poems and an essay. Berkeley: U of California P., 2006.

“The Kind of Act of.” In Collected Poems (1945-1975). Berkley: U of California P, 1982.

-- “The Hole.” In Collected Poems (1945-1975). Berkley: U of California P, 1982.

-- “The Rain.” In Collected Poems (1945-1975). Berkley: U of California P, 1982.

Davidson, Michael. “The Repeated Insistence: Creeley’s Rage.” In Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Poetry. Ed. Stephen Fredman and Steve McCaffrey. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2010.

Disch, Thomas. “Iambic Megalomania” Rev. of Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life. Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1991. Rpt. as “The High Priest of High Times” in The Castle of Indolence, NY: Picador USA, 1996.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “The Hole: Death, Sexual Difference, and Gender Contradictions in Creeley’s Poetry.” In Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Poetry. Ed. Stephen Fredman and Steve McCaffrey. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2010.

Montgomery, Will. “Robert Creeley’s Refusals.” Caliban – French Journal of English Studies 35 (2014). Online at

Olson, Charles, and Robert Creeley. The Complete Correspondence. Ed. George Butterick. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1980.

Wellman, Donald. “Creeley’s Ear.” Jacket 2, No. 31 (Oct. 2006). Web. Viewed November 11, 2015.