k a m a t e k a o r aa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
|issue 9, march 2010|
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.
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.
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.
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:
Others render a sense of Creeley’s physical appearance. Peter Crisp in the student newspaper Craccum (5 April 1976):
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:
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.’
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:
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.
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.’
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)
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:
In such situations, relationships with other people become paramount.
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.
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:
Or, ‘for Pen’:
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.’