new zealand electronic poetry centre

k a   m a t e   k a   o r a  

a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
issue 9,  march 2010


Virginia Gow

In 1976

KC and the Sunshine Band, ‘That’s the way I like it.’

The first poem of Hello, Robert Creeley’s 1976 travelogue, seems to breathe from the page. Sounds, and echoes of sounds, form a sort of ripple effect across time and space.

         That’s the way
                     (that’s the way

         I like it
                     (I like it



Out to the syncopated sound of KC and the Sunshine Band’s American disco hit ‘That’s the way (I like it)’ then in. Openings, and within, openings again.

Clouds coming close
(Hello: A Journal 1)

The aeroplane from Auckland (and before that Fiji) touches down in Wellington, bringing Robert Creeley to visit New Zealand in person for the first time.


Did the young
couple come
only home
from London?

Where’s the world
one wants.
(Hello: A Journal 2-3)

According to The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, it is poet Alistair Paterson’s sense of the ‘increasing irrelevance of the British tradition’ that inspires him to ‘attempt bringing a leading contemporary American poet to New Zealand […] to act as a catalyst for increasing the momentum of change in New Zealand writing and the ways in which New Zealand critics were thinking.’ (Robinson and Wattie 117)

Building on Paterson’s groundwork, the ‘New Zealand Tour,’ as it is called, is co-managed by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and the New Zealand Student Arts Council. Financial support is also given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such that Creeley receives a fee and living allowance for the four weeks he is in New Zealand touring the university cities, from Dunedin in the south to Auckland in the north.


In contrast to the apparent undervaluing of American poetry in New Zealand’s formal literary criticism, Creeley’s New Zealand tour receives ‘enormous coverage’ (Kirkland) in the media, from television interviews through newspaper articles.

Helen Paske’s write-up in the Sunday Star Times (28 March 1976) is one of the more sensitive responses:

You want to keep him here, because New Zealand is short on people like him, people who love to talk, people who know how to talk, people who will keep you up all night and send you to bed with your throat burning from too many cigarettes, your mind reeling with an overload of information and ideas and passionate caring.

Others render a sense of Creeley’s physical appearance. Peter Crisp in the student newspaper Craccum (5 April 1976):

the hip clothes, worn with dandyish disregard […] the long ankle-length blue coat, blue cloth shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons, the blue trousers and the floppy khaki hat.


I’m not there.
I’m really here,
with my hat on.

It’s a great day
in New Zealand
more or less.
(Hello: A Journal  9)


Robert Creeley on the cover of Islands 15 (1976). Captioned by Russell Haley: ‘American poet Robert Creeley and friend, at Hamilton.’
The ‘friend’ is an Irish Setter, barely visible in the shadows. Image source: Ross Kettle.


Despite the best efforts of those organising Creeley’s 1976 visit, the tour is not without argument.

The archive reminds us, for instance, that an apparent confusion over arrangements will bring Auckland writer Russell Haley and writer and University of Auckland professor CK Stead into momentary opposition (see Stead).

The ‘Parish Spleen’ page of Red Mole’s irreverent performance magazine Spleen has a field day:

The Bob Creeley Tour has stirred up a hornets’ nest in Auckland. Commissioner Haley (The Walled Garden) is hosting Bob (The Finger) Creeley despite Karl Stead’s offer of his luxurious West Coast Villa. Don Stead (Quesada) has organised a reading featuring himself, David Mitchell (Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby), Allen Curnow (Collected Poems), and Creeley. Haley is trying to set up an alternative reading. (Spleen 2)

Nonetheless, Bruce Kirkland (principal organiser of the trip on behalf of the New Zealand Student Arts Council) will report the Creeley tour as ‘our most successful venture for some time. In the midst of the big tours (Split Enz and Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee), it stood out as a wholly meaningful exercise.’

“Sonny Terry,
“Brownie McGhee”

in Dunedin (in
(Hello: A Journal  5)

Moving beyond the tension surrounding the Auckland reading, Kirkland continues: ‘The highlights of the tour were the university classes and the readings’ – a sentiment echoed by Bill Manhire, who remembers Creeley’s lecture at Victoria University of Wellington:

He held them for 50 minutes simply by talking about the importance of line-breaks. ‘Imagine,’ he said, ‘that I read a line, then go for a walk around the block … then come back five minutes later and read the next line. Then I walk around the block again.’ (IIML Newsletter


and talking.

and drinking.
(Hello 5)

Alan Loney's 1976 setting of Hello at Hawk Press (then located at Taylors Mistake near Christchurch) is in some respects the first published ‘reading’ of Creeley’s New Zealand poems.

In contrast to the New Directions edition (Hello: A Journal)which covers Creeley’s extended tour of Southeast Asia in 1976, the Hawk Press book indents (lends time and space to) each alternate line in the first and last New Zealand poems. This is also in contrast to the manuscript of ‘So There’ now online at Creeley’s author page at nzepc.

Loney describes his ‘projective’ approach to the compositor’s craft as follows: ‘the design comes from my responses to the text, & not from any abstracted ability to design books, without reference to the actual content of the text.’ (Spleen 5) In Creeley’s words, famously quoted by Charles Olson in his 1950 manifesto ‘Projective Verse’: ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ – or later, ‘form is what happens.’ (Lammon 63)

Hello is writing on the move and in the tradition of Creeley’s ‘In London,’ an earlier travel sequence in which ‘three dots indicate that that was the end of a day’s accumulation, and the single dots most usually indicate division in the writing as it’s happening, as I was sitting down to do it.’ (Edelberg 143)


Kees Sprengers, ‘Hamilton Hotel.’ Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 1981.
Acc no: C1994/1/499. Reproduced with permission of the artist.


Is there any change in Robert Creeley’s style or poetics as a result of visiting New Zealand in 1976?

Creeley notes in the introduction to Hello that he knew ‘intuitively, a time had come in myself for change. I don’t mean simply clothes, or houses, or even cities or countries or habits. I mean, all of it – whatever it ever is or can be.’

Step out into
space. Good
(Hello: A Journal 1)

The poems look like their predecessors. They also sound similar, and they attend to the particularity of local words and accents: ‘to make that present, and actual for other[s], is not an embarrassment, but love,’ as Creeley put it in ‘A Note on the Local.’ (Collected Prose 480)

Even if
again home
no roam
(at the inn)

(Hello: A Journal 16)

However, a shift begins somewhere here towards a greater place for memory and the historical passage of time in a poetry otherwise actively seeking to locate the self in the present. (Gander)

It is no secret that much of the poetry Creeley writes during the New Zealand tour is to the soundtrack Breaking up is hard to do, as a relationship of almost twenty years with his second wife, Bobbie, comes to an end.

No doubt the shift in mind could have occurred anywhere, but the ‘giant step, as far from what’s known as one can manage’ (Hello) happens to be to New Zealand.

Robert Creeley is not simply ‘here’ in New Zealand in Hello, but also consciously where he has been and will no longer be. In Hamilton (New Zealand), for example, he is haunted by long-ago memories of the south of France:

here in Hamilton –
years and years ago
the house, in France,

called Pavillion des Magnolias,
where we lived and Charlotte
was born, and time’s gone
so fast –
(Hello: A Journal 17-18)


Will you be dust,
reading this?

Will you be sad
when I’m gone.
(Hello: A Journal 14)

In such situations, relationships with other people become paramount.

If, in no glib way you’ve traveled you know that some needs are common […] you need, in no overbearing sense, you need people, not to tell you you’re great, but at least to recognize that you’re there …that you are now, whether they like it or dislike it – they react in endless ways – but at least you’re acknowledged as being present. You’re here. (Clark and Creeley 88)


So the next day he and I are having a classic lunch and drinking beer in a woeful place down in the city, which is a small one, and Margot comes in, and so we’re all having lunch and she’s very bored. So she calls up Penelope and says, ‘Why don’t you come over, these guys are just talking about America or something. Just come keep me company.’ So Penelope comes over, and that’s it, we’ve been together ever since. (Cunningham and Creeley 21)

Maybe that’s what this essay really is. A love story.

For a poet whose writing comes so much from an embodied personal experience, Robert Creeley’s marriage to Penelope Highton, a New Zealander twenty five years younger than himself, cannot go without mention.

And I wondered … Was I simply trying to be younger by marrying someone younger? And I recognized paradoxically that the marriage let me be not ‘older’ but let me be as old as I am in age let me be my age. (Spanos and Creeley 32)

Ron Silliman suggests, for example, that Creeley’s later work is ‘easier going & the quest isn’t so much to change poetry – Creeley had already accomplished that – as it was to always stay attentive to the immanence of daily life.’ (Silliman)

In other words, Robert Creeley’s poetry begins to settle down and to focus more and more on the commonplace – which he describes as ‘an attempt – in mind, at least – to bring feeling into the common reference of a commonly experienced world.’ (Clark and Creeley 84)

In ‘After,’ published in 1979, for example:

I’ll not write again
things a young man
thinks, not the words
of that feeling.

There is no world
except felt, no
one there but
must be here also
(Collected Poems II 104)

Or, ‘for Pen’:

I want the world
I did always,
small pieces
and clear acknowledgements.


But to have it
be echo, feeling
that was years ago –
now my hands are

wrinkled and my hair
goes grey – seems
ugly burden
and mistake of it.

So sing this
weather, passing,
grey and blue
together, rain and sun.
(Collected Poems II 105)

If nothing else, the meeting of Robert Creeley and Penelope Highton changes the details of his travel itinerary. He does not board Flight 410 for Christchurch from Dunedin at 7 pm, to arrive at 7.45 pm. Instead, Penelope drives him there.

Hello: A Journal, February 29-May, 1976 will be dedicated, simply, ‘for Pen.’

Moving on. Mr. Ocean,
       Mr. Sky's
got the biggest blue eyes
       in creation –

here comes the sun!
       While we can,
let's do it, let's
    have fun.

Last updated 13 September, 2010