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On "I Know a Man"

Cid Corman

I think one would have to be deaf dumb and blind to miss the wallop of Creeley's poem and not to feel the subtle handling of it, the way words and feelings are "scored" freshly.

[. . .]

It is a trait of Creeley s best work, as here, that it makes us hold judgment in abeyance, makes it seem superfluous, irrelevant. The event is so immediate and true. The speed, in this poem certainly, that the abbreviated notation implies, seems wholly consistent with what is going on. Part of the dissolution.

[. . .]

Creeley, even within the growing complexity and difficulty of the situation, where we are, sings. How simple! And how movingly concentratedly profound! How that broken "surrounds" envelops us, the self-criticism and the obsessiveness of "... because I am / always talking ... ", the loneliness and projection of "which was not his / name," the excitement in the penultimate stanza and the sharp painful braking of the last, the urgency of it, the feeling of near disaster, throwing us back upon the futile wish of "a goddamn big car." Every syllable pulls its weight and no punch pulled. There isn't "time," least of all to embroider.

From a review of For Love in KULCHUR (1962)

Charles Altieri

The particular events Creeley treats and the nature of his line, however, are essentially symptoms whose underlying causes can be discovered in those poems where Creeley encounters the actual dynamics of the void, dynamics stemming in large part from the problem of finding or creating an adequate language. His most famous poem on this theme, "I Know a Man," perfectly illustrates the interconnections between the traditional sense of the void and failure of communication: 

[quotes poem]

The speaker's generalized angst here actually intensifies the horror of the void. His vague speech gives us nothing concrete to hold on to and instead further broadens the gap between human subjectivity and the world with which it must come to terms. Drunkenness becomes the poem's metaphor for inauthentic speech that deepens the darkness evoking the speech in the first place. Drunken speech stems not from perception, but from the need to fill voids, to put off silence. Unlike speech which is devoted to some referential order, speech that strives to communicate a feeling or perception, drunken speech takes off from its own momentum. Each succeeding statement is born from some associative speech pattern, not from any referential logic. The protagonist becomes the passive and helpless victim of his own powers of speech, and his failure is most clearly portrayed when he utters an octosyllabic line (1. 9). To Creeley the long line courts the void by not defending itself, by trying simply to cover the void, and by suggesting possible coherences and orders it cannot really manage. The only reply is the one "John" gives—keep your eye on experience; live in it and avoid the purely verbal universe.

from "The Unsure Egoist: Robert Creeley and the Theme of Nothingness." Contemporary Literature 13.2 (Spring 1972).

Robert Kern

"I'm given to write poems" (QG, 61), Creeley says in one of the most comprehensive of his statements on poetics, and any investigation of his work as critic or theorist properly begins with the recognition that his primary sense of the poetic act is that he is its object, the humble witness rather than the organizing manipulator of the poem's occasion. This distinction in itself—that between humble witness and organizing manipulator—might serve as a fruitful point of departure, since open form poetics is often predicated upon the conviction that it is the order and value out there, in the external world, that is important, as opposed to what immediately issues from the poet's private creative imagination, the poem itself regarded as the locus of value. Of course this conviction depends upon a prior one—the assumption that there is in fact an immanent order and value in external reality, or at least that there are forces outside the poet that ultimately control and indeed permit the act of composition—forces which the poet must recognize in order to write at all.

The emphasis here falls on the notion of the poet as medium more than as maker, an emphasis that is clear in Denise Levertov's statement, "I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays." Although she goes on immediately to qualify this remark by saying that poets are "also makers, craftsmen," whose responsibility it is to communicate what they see, the act of making seems temporally distinct in her definition from the act of recognition, or seeing, which is primary, prior to any making, and without which making would be impossible or trivial. Thinking of the poet as both medium and maker, in any event, does not prevent Levertov from defining her own mode of "organic" poetry as a method "of recognizing what we perceive" that is based, in turn, on "an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake" (PW, 7), where the important point is clearly that there is an order in experience which not only transcends but provides a ground for the conventional forms of poetic tradition, and which it is the poet's fundamental task to disclose.

Creeley's articulation of similar intuitions puts even greater stress on the humility demanded by the act of composition regarded as a process of recognition:

I have used all the intelligence that I can muster to follow the possibilities that the poem "under hand," as Olson would say, is declaring, but I cannot anticipate the necessary conclusions of the activity, nor can I judge in any sense, in moments of writing, the significance of that writing more than to recognize that it is being permitted to continue. I'm trying to say that, in writing, at least as I have experienced it, one is in the activity. . . . (QG, 61)

Seemingly more radical than Levertov, Creeley is implying that he does not know where he is going until he gets there, a notion of the creative process that brings to mind his frequent use of the example of driving a car as an analogy for writing, where it is the external road that determines the driver's decisions from moment to moment and that he must strictly attend to if he is to maintain himself in not only a unified relationship with his experience but literally a safe one. Consider the friend's reply to the speaker in Creeley's well-known poem "I Know a Man":

[quotes poem]

In remarking on the poetic process in an interview with Charles Tomlinson—remarks that lead to yet another use of the driving metaphor—Creeley observes that his conception of writing is "an awfully precarious situation to be in, because you can obliterate everything in one instant. You've got to be utterly awake to recognize what is happening, and to be responsible for all the things you must do before you can even recognize what their full significance is" (CP, 26). In the poem, the friend is attempting to bring the speaker back into immediate relationship with the experience at hand by breaking into the speaker's self-distracting—and potentially self-destructive rhetoric of metaphysical despair and escapist fantasy.

Creeley's position, then, is one which allows no temporal gap between writing and experience—or what Levertov calls making and seeing—no separation between poesis and mimesis, so to speak. What a poem is about is literally its own making or unfolding. The poet, in such a conception, is inside the act of composition, which is entirely self-limiting, a record of the circumstances of its own occasion.

from "Composition as Recognition: Robert Creely and Postmodern Poetics." boundary 2 6:3 and 7:1 (Spring/Fall 1978).

Robert Hass

What else is experience in the second half of the twentieth century about, but the sense of a world run by people with insane assurance who manipulate large and unmanageable forces over which they have almost no control? "The unsure egoist," Creeley wrote, "is not good for himself " But if he makes us conscious of the process by which ego comes into being, tries to make some purchase on the experience of its emergence, defines exactly what that purchase is and is not, he may be the writer above all worth listening to. It is also not a coincidence that Creeley wrote the poem of the decade about a world gone out of control and the crazy assumption of control that the ego makes:

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

From a review of Creeley’s Collected Poems in Threepenny Review (1984)

Charles Altirei

Many of the poems in For Love try to survey the underlying conditions that create the explicit voids and the torments embodied in the style. As the style indicates, language itself is one of the primary villains, for it promises a wholeness it cannot fulfill. Language in ideal form promises to make the self objectified and communicable to another, yet its reality entraps us in webs of meanings which we do not intend. The words stand emptied of us and we face them turning once more on a self we can neither fix nor possess. "I Know a Man" contains Creeley's most fundamental dramatic statement on the problem of language and its relation to the void:

[. . . .]

The speaker's generalized angst here actually intensifies the horror of the void. His vague speech gives nothing concrete to hold on to; instead it further broadens the gap between human subjectivity and the world with which it must come to terms. Drunkenness becomes the poem's metaphor for inauthentic speech that deepens the darkness evoking the speech in the first place. Drunken speech stems not from perception, but from the need to fill voids, to put off silence. Unlike speech that is devoted to some referential order, speech that strives to communicate a feeling or perception, drunken speech takes off from its own momentum. Each succeeding statement is born from some associative speech pattern, not from any referential logic. The protagonist becomes the passive and helpless victim of his own powers of speech, and his failure is most clearly portrayed when he utters an octosyllabic line (1 .9). To Creeley the long line courts the void by not defending itself, by trying simply to cover the emptiness, and by suggesting possible coherence and orders it cannot really manage. The only reply is the one John gives--keep your eye on experience; live in it and avoid the purely verbal universe.

From Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Associated University Presses, Inc.

Lynn Keller

[M]ost of the line breaks in "I Know a Man," coming midphrase, create hesitations one would not find in relaxed conversation:

[. . . .]

Because of the asyntactic line breaks, the first syllable of each line receives extra emphasis. The crowding of stresses and the unnatural pauses communicate both the speaker's anxious restraint and his need for release, well before he mentions the threatening darkness or the car in which he might escape it. The unexpected break in "the darkness sur- / rounds us" -- sounding as if the speaker were almost suffocating or breathless with fear and forced to inhale midword -- conveys his heightened panic. When the speaker hits upon a possible solution, the poem's rhythms reflect his momentary confidence and sense of liberation; "buy a goddamn big car" is the poem's only phrase of any length that flows unimpeded. In "John" 's cautionary rejoinder, Creeley returns to midphrase junctures that interrupt ordinary speech rhythms; the abrupt, heavy stresses of this lineation register the urgency of "John" 's warning -- "for / christ's sake, look / out where yr going."

By the late 1950s, when he was composing the poems in A Form of Women, Creeley had established his own distinctive blend of colloquial and flatly abstract diction and had learned to manipulate the rhythmic possibilities of the vernacular. At the same time he had settled into a characteristic mode, one -- as Duncan has pointed out -- defined by Williams: "the common-speech song with a persisting convention of two, three, or four-line stanzas, highly articulated to provide close interplay and variation." That deft articulation involves manipulating not only the speech patterns and line junctures I have already examined, but also the broad range of sound patterns that Creeley, following Pound as well as Williams, includes within the category of "rhyme."

From Re-making in new: Contemporary American poetry and the modernist tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press.

Michael Davidson

The speaker is caught between two conflicting positions: whether to solve his existential despair by escaping from the world (by buying a "goddamn big car") or by paying a greater attention to what is immediately in front of him. Despite the poem's title, he cannot truly know anyone -- either himself or another -- because he is constantly talking and thus avoiding recognition of the other. He does not really know the other's name, nor is he able to differentiate himself from his interlocutor. His despair is generalized ("the darkness sur- / rounds us"), and to drive and thus escape such despair is an inadequate solution to a problem of much greater proportions.

The poem's last tercet introduces a voice of reason that urges the speaker to pay attention to what is happening: "for / christ's sake, look / out where yr going." But the terse and enjambed lines, the highly subordinated quality of the syntax, and the confusion of speaker and interlocutor conspire against the ostensible solutions these lines proffer. Adding to the general instability of the lines is the fact that the word "drive" could equally be a continuation of the previous lines (Why not buy a car and drive somewhere?), or it could be the beginning of an imperative spoken by "he" ("drive . . . look out where you're going"). Such ambiguities enact at a structural level the very conditions that prevent the "I" from "knowing" anyone. The poem, then, demonstrates one kind of attention -- poetry's power to embody contradictory states of feelings and emotion --while denying another.

Creeley states in compressed form some of the dilemmas that can be found in the work of many Beat writers. The world is perceived as alien and hostile, an undifferentiated "darkness" created and maintained by forces beyond the individual's control. The hipster's endless talk becomes a tentative way of countering that darkness and of acknowledging, if inadequately, the need for dialogue. Another solution, one found in many another American literary work, from Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick to On the Road, is to take the open road, "drive" away from Aunt Polly or the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit toward some indefinite freedom. Most accounts of the Beat myth stop here, at the edge of the highway, where the vast spaces of the West offer the illusion of escape. But Creeley's conclusion offers a salutary warning to pay attention in the midst of distraction and abstraction. This moment of self-consciousness, however tenuous, represents a side of the Beat myth seldom acknowledged: the recognition of solitude and vulnerability despite the competing claims of participation and communalism.

from The San-Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press.

Leverett T. Smith, Jr.

The second poem, "I Know a Man," is without doubt Creeley's best-known. A phrase of it has served as the title of Jeremy Lamer's novel Drive, He Said and of the movie made from it. More recently the poem has served as the epigraph of the final chapter of Stephen King's fantasy about American automobile culture, Christine. In this chapter, the book's narrator, Dennis Guilder, attempts to destroy the possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury Christine by battering her to death with a large pink tanker truck. In spite of a badly injured leg, Dennis tells us, "I was going to drive" (486). But driving only seems a solution to Dennis's problems, just as it seems one in the poem. Here it is:

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.
                (Collected Poems 132)

It is significant that Robert Bly includes this poem in his anthology Forty Poems Touching on Recent American History, thereby asserting a significance beyond the personal for it. In his introduction, Bly defines the political poem in such a way that we may understand "I Know a Man" as political. He says that "the poet's main job is to penetrate that husk around the American psyche, and since that psyche is inside him too, the writing of political poetry is like the writing of personal poetry, a sudden drive by the poet inward" (10). Later he concludes that "a true political poem is a quarrel with ourselves" (13) and continues as follows on the subject of the American psyche:

The life of the nation can be imagined also not as something deep inside our psyche, but as a psyche larger than the psyche of anyone living, a larger sphere, floating above everyone. In order for the poet to write a true political poem, he has to be able to have such a grasp of his own concerns that he can leave them for a while, and as he returns he brings back plant-seeds that have stuck to his clothes, some inhabitants of this curious sphere, which he then tries to keep alive with his own psychic body. (12-13)

Bly may have described here what any truly memorable poem achieves, and he certainly means us to apply it to "1 Know a Man."

"I Know a Man" is concerned with an essential human problem: how to cast light on the darkness which surrounds us, how to "run order through chaos," as Henry Adams put it. Most who have commented on the poem—and there are many—have arrived at this conclusion. Ross Feld says that "Creeley's best known poem is a good example of how postwar French existentialist doubt became transposed into American Beat fear; how the closed cafe turned into the semienclosed, more vulnerable automobile" (99). Wyatt Prunty, in an essay remarkably unsympathetic to the poem, says that the task of all contemporary American poetry "continued to be that of ferreting order out of apparent disorder" (80). Peter Stitt speaks of it as "poking fun" at "old existential sibboleths" (644). Charles Altieri feels that Creeley "encounters the actual dynamics of the void" in the poem (163). Finally Stephen Stepanchev speaks of an "awareness of the dangers of the world" (152). All these seem efforts to conceptualize the condition expressed in the phrase, "the darkness sur/ rounds us."

The poem contains three different alternatives to this problematic state. The first is proposed by the narrator: "buy a goddamn big car." The poem hints here at the silliness of the way most of Creeley's contemporaries in the United States deal with the problems they encounter—by buying something. (Notice how the stanzaic form of the poem keep separate the two verbs of the narrator's sentence: "buy" and "drive.") At this point the speaker's solution is that of most citizens of commercial post-World War II America, and the poem implies a satirical comment on the propensity of Americans to make their lives meaningful by reference to commerce and technology. But if the poem rejects this solution we need also to balance that rejection by examining Creeley's own excitement at acquiring a car in the 1950s, communicated in a letter to Charles Olson. He has just purchased a 1928 Hupmobile for $15 (not exactly the "goddamn big car" the reader of the poem imagines) and hopes it will be the solution to some of his difficulties: "To make visits in without spending money on truck, etc." He concludes his remarks on the car with a generalization which suggests that he himself may be closer to the narrator's friend John ("which was not his/ name") than to his narrator. He writes Olson "1 don't want to go fast anymore. I just want to get there" (Correspondence Vol. 3 122).

The name "John," along with the phrases "goddamn" and "for/ christ's sake," has been seen by critics as suggesting the possibility of an alternate scheme of value—that proposed by traditional Christianity—particularly when we consider that the beginning of the Gospel According to St. John is concerned with presenting God as a source of light, bringing order to a world of darkness. Creeley himself has been particularly enraged by some readings of the poem, remarking in one interview that "it's the most incredible distortion of any intention I felt" (Contexts 207. Creeley gives a summary of his intentions in "I Know a Man" in this interview 207-209). Charles Tomlinson, in another interview with Creeley, comments that critics of this sort (and he refers to a discussion of the poem in a recent issue of the London Times Literary Supplement) who "must somehow try to dig down for something which they think ought to be there and they get frustrated when they find it isn't" (Contexts 15). The words are in the poem, and they resonate, but the poem also rejects traditional Christianity, as it has rejected contemporary American materialism, as a solution of the narrator's problem. When the name "John" is mentioned, we immediately learn that John was not the narrator's friend's name, and this instructs us to beware the solution of traditional Christianity. The question the poem confronts, however, remains a fundamentally religious one.

The poem's words propose a third solution to this problem of how to light the darkness which surrounds us. This is conveyed in the way the problem is stated:

The darkness sur-
rounds us.

The breaking up of "sur-rounds" creates a new word, "rounds," one with more positive connotations. According to the poem (and without the narrator understanding it), the darkness also "rounds" us, helps make us whole, or at least the recognition of that darkness is what enables us to achieve what wholeness we can. The human imagination will transform darkness into light. Wallace Stevens has a similar use of the word "surrounds" in his poem "Anecdote of the Jar". Here is its first stanza.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
                (Collected Poems 76)

The congruence of the word "surround" with the word "round" in Stevens's poem achieves the same paradox which Creeley gets by splitting the word over the end of his line. And we have a vision of the possibility of order within chaos. Creeley has written of himself that 'I am however young [old] writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—" (A Day Book, n.p.) He has this in common with the narrator of his poem.

They also have in common a delight in driving and an impulse to see it as a means of ordering the world. On a couple of occasions in his correspondence with Charles Olson he expresses this delight. Simple activity is the ideal: both Creeley and his narrator seem companions of Jack Kerouac ("John, I / sd, which was not his / name") here:

Feel very much these hot days, like moving—travelling. Two yng men stopped in yesterday, with a car, and talking to them, cd not keep off the subject/where they were going (Hartford & the Tanglewood, they replied . . .),and thought myself—of, say, one of those Lincoln Continentals, rides like an extension of, say, the idea. Anyhow, say, cruising, abt 60/70 miles per: those long, stretches, highways—into the south, down & under. With 1 bottle cool, cool: wine & yr own self—wd be cool. Remember one morning on Morningside Drive, waiting for Bud—he drove up in one of those, sitting between Dizzy Gillespie & the Hawk . . . 'Sunday After the War.' If you want to drive, drive with one who knows: flight. The gig. Used to catch myself pulling/UP/ on the wheel to see, if it cd not be: LIFT ED
             Away, the gig.
Riding on the idea/as Lawrence wd: is the way, in some ways. To be able to move. Riding. Well, not as extension of 'power' but just: 'movement.' Is the thing. (Correspondence Vol. 2 101)

The poem's genesis might well be right in this passage. Creeley imagines himself and Olson in the car, and sees it as a transcendence of ordinary life. In his distinction between movement and power, he distinguishes himself from the commercial American.

A second passage from a later letter, underlines many of the same elements and adds more:

Leave me now turn you on to RainerM/: will be picking up soon again, thinking as I am, of one big black car, sliding along the highway, west, southwest, along those real crazy highways: abt eve, leave us figure it, & the lights begin to pick up things, flash them back at us, & movement, IS move/move/move: 1 gal/wine, on the seat beside, & all the things to see. (Correspondence Vol. 4, 27-28)

Here the darkness is beginning to surround us, and it does appear an active agent in the making of meaning. What these passages omit is the element of warning with which the poem concludes.

from "Robert Creeley: 'A So-Called Larger View.'" SAGTRIEB 7.2

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