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The Inaesthetics of Robert Creeley: Poetic Thought and Presence

Colton Valentine

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Colton Valentine

Harvard College


The Inaesthetics of Robert Creeley: Poetic Thought and Presence


Despite their acclaim, Robert Creeley’s poems are often dismissed as works of the sensible rather than the intellectual; his lyrics are considered fodder for enjoyment rather than serious analysis. Alain Badiou’s theoretical inquiry in Handbook of Inaesthetics, in contrast, extols a handful of challenging “literary” poets, such as Stéphane Mallarmé for his hermeticism and Fernando Pessoa for his syntactic difficulty. Creeley and Badiou seem, then, incompatible if not dialectically opposed. Here, I argue against this conventional viewpoint, maintaining that Creeleys preoccupation with the mechanisms for producing poetic thought and utterance resonate strongly with Badiou’s idea that “through the visibility of artifice, which is also the thinking of poetic thought, the poem surpasses in power what the sensible is capable of itself” (21). Employing Badious inaesthetic lens informs an alternative and more affirming reading of Creeleys oeuvre as investigating languages peculiar presence in a non-empirical world. In particular, I examine Creeley’s creation of a fundamentally ambiguous space, depiction of language’s bizarre and ungrounded power, use of syntactic and formal elements that force an entrance into the poem’s thinking process, and crude or erotic images as moments that border on the poetic void. Ultimately, my analysis also reflects back on Badious ideology, expanding his poetic configuration to include and validate greater stylistic diversity.


            I want

            to, now I

            can’t wait any

            longer. Talk


            to me, fill

            emptiness with

            you, empty


                        “The Hole” by Robert Creeley


Robert Creeley and his fellow Beat Generation and Black Mountain poets seem at first glance great fodder for an aesthetics focused on the sensible. Entrance to their poetic worlds requires little intellectual labor, and their language tends to illicit a strong emotional effect in the reader. The final two stanzas of “The Hole” strike some as crude, while others find them a gorgeous articulation of intimacy and loneliness. Either way, the poem seems to follow Gilles Deleuze’s artistic prescription in “Painting and Sensation,” in which art’s (positive or negative) effect on the senses remains the preferred mode of analysis. This typical way to approach Creeley and his cohorts, however, strikes as frustratingly reductionist. Too often, these poems are deemed to deserve no more than a cursory reading, and this “superficiality” or “ease” inevitably places them in a lower poetic stratum than, say, T.S. Eliot. While an aesthetics of the sensible may not directly induce this division, its framework does support the process; those who seek to separate Creeley from his “high-art” cousins simply label him a poet of the sensible rather than of the intellect. The famous Beat Generation truism “first thought, best thought” becomes, at best, an endearing facet of a low-art mindset; at worst, it equates Creeley’s poems with the angst-filled lyrics found in a teenage journal.

            If an aesthetics of the sensible validates a dissatisfying reading of Creeley’s poems, what theoretical grounding should we look to instead? Despite offering a fervent critique of Deleuze, Alain Badiou’s Handbook of Inaesthetics might at first appear incompatible with or inapplicable to Creeley’s work. The manifesto’s poetic analyses ineluctably return to Stéphane Mallarmé, whose “hermeticism” is radically different from the more accessible beatnik style. While Badiou explores a few other poets, he both ties them back to Mallarmé and confines himself to “the greats” of a given region or generation: Czeslaw Milosz, Fernando Pessoa, and Labîd ben Rabi’a in successive chapters. Yet Creeley’s preoccupation with the mechanisms for producing poetic thought and utterance open his poems quite well to a reading informed by Badiou’s inaesthetics that claim that “through the visibility of artifice, which is also the thinking of poetic thought, the poem surpasses in power what the sensible is capable of itself” (21). Employing Badiou’s inaesthetic lens informs an alternative and more affirming reading of Creeley’s oeuvre as investigating language’s peculiar presence in a non-empirical world. In this formulation, Creeley’s crude or erotic images no longer play the role of weak entry points for hermeneutic or psychoanalytic aesthetics; instead, these elements become moments where the immediacy of thought borders most closely on the poetic void. Not only does Badiou thus present a route to reframing and validating Creeley’s poetry, but the latter’s close affinity reflects back on Badiou’s work. That “first thought, best thought” investigates, much as Mallarmé does, the bizarre presence found within the poetic “configuration” or group of artworks that points to a greater artistic diversity permitted within Badiou’s framework than his own sparse applications imply.

            Badiou’s assertion that artworks in the poetic configuration investigate the creation of thought frames Creeley’s works as contending with cognitive artifice rather than merely existing in the realm of the sensible. Creeley’s untitled poem, “[As real as thinking],” begins:


As real as thinking

wonders created

by the possibility--

forms (1-4).


Though this phrase may be read in several ways. The use of “thinking” as a metric for “realness” in the poem’s first lines establishes the significance or actuality of rumination. One way to parse these lines is that the first three are a complete phrase that modifies the noun “forms”: forms are equally real as the process of thinking (of) possibility-induced wonders. Alternatively, “as real as thinking” could modify “wonders created by the possibility,” in which case potentiality (i.e. what an open form could be seen as) is equally real as producing thought. In either case, the process of rumination is deemed real, yet connected to an open potential, an unfilled form; it lies somewhere between the void and existence. The poem goes on to typify poetic language as “saying/ something/ as it goes,” linking the peculiar process of forming thoughts to the poem’s own utterance, particularly through the parallel of the two gerunds “thinking” and “saying” (10-12). The question becomes, for Creeley, how does the poem think itself into existence?  “[As real as thinking]” thus situates itself in the “modern poem” configuration that Badiou says, “identifies itself as a form of thought” (20). Creeley’s work, far from being a pure appeal to the sensible, both names itself as a thought-procedure and explores the conditions for that procedure.

            A central element of this exploration in Creeley’s oeuvre is how poetic utterance exists in a fundamentally ambiguous space. By couching his lyrics in empirical uncertainty, his work explores the underlying subjectivity of the poetic configuration’s thought-artifice. Creeley’s “The Dream” is filled with syntactical and linguistic ambiguities that slowly undermine the speaker’s objectivity; the reader is never certain whether the images or events exist in the speaker’s reality or in his dreams. This unpredictability comes to fruition in the poem’s final section when the speaker says:




was to have been,

it was,

such I thought,


thinking (90-4).


Here, the speaker first moves from expectancy (“was to have been”) to certainty (“it was”) but then quickly looses confidence by reflecting on how what has occurred really only takes place in his mind. Rather than end by saying he “thought” these things, however, the speaker draws attention to the production of that thought with the word “thinking.” Not only does Creeley’s language deal with its own process (“thinking”) rather than its product, but it also links the procedural creation of thought within the poem to the occult and subjective dream world. This poem thus responds to Badiou’s claim of modern poetry: “it is not just the effective existence of a thought offered up in the flesh of language, it is the set of operations whereby this thought comes to think itself” (20). For “The Dream,” these “operations” include a fundamental enigma and uncertainty that underlie the way the poem thinks itself into being.

            Yet Creeley’s poems do more than display the subjectivity that lies behind the artifice of poetic thought. Employing Badiou’s prescription that the poem’s unutterable wonder (its “unnameable”) is the peculiar presence it maintains in a non-objective space reveals how Creeley’s poems grapple with the similar ungrounded power of language. Despite undermining the legitimacy of his assertions, the speaker in “The Dream” returns to proclaim basic physical facts, saying first “There was hair,/ it hurt, I felt/ the pain,” then reiterating, “I felt I did.” (97-9). The empirical truth of the speaker’s thought may have been marred by its placement in an oneiric space but that does not dissuade the affirmative force of his “I did.” A similar assertion of presence takes place in “[As real as thinking],” when, after ruminating on “All words,” the speaker asks, “is an event only/ for the observer” (15, 19-20). While this Kantian and skeptical consideration seems to undermine the poem’s own ontology, the speaker quickly shifts back, saying, “No one/ there. Everyone/ here” (21-3). Though one might read this answer as locating “everyone” within the perceiver’s mind, the “event” this poem scrutinizes is its own thought production, thus casting “here” as the poem’s own immediacy. “[As real as thinking],” then, examines the oddity of poetic presence: the idea that everyone is “here” within the artwork’s very own lines. These affirmations of linguistic potency, however, do not verge on the idealism of Badiou’s romantic schematic, for they continue to reside in a non-empiric space. The final line of “The Dream”--“If this is where we are”--implies that every previous statement in the poem is fundamentally contingent and uncertain (108). Reconciling the presence of ambiguity seems impossible, yet this is the precise wonder of lyric Badiou identifies when he says, “poetry is the song of language qua capacity to make the pure notion of the ‘there is’ present in the very effacement of its empirical objectivity” (22). Creeley’s speaker continuously asserts the immediacy of his experience and utterance, while simultaneously subverting the “empirical objectivity” of that utterance.

            That Creeley’s formal and syntactical choices, such as heavy enjambment and shortened lines, similarly engage with the artifice of poetic thought corroborates his work’s movement beyond the sensible and into Badiou’s inaesthetic domain. When discussing how Pessoa’s poetry signals the reader to enter into its mechanisms for producing thought, Badiou says, “there is a constant syntactical machination whose complexity prohibits the hold of sensation and natural emotion from remaining sovereign” (42). He charges Pessoa’s difficult “syntax” with moving the language beyond the “hold of sensation” or only sensible consideration. For Badiou, “the enigmatic surface of the poem” that Mallarmé crafts forces a similar active engagement and entrance into how the artwork thinks (29). While Creeley’s poems are, at times, enigmatic, they actively engage the reader primarily through heavy enjambment and extremely shortened lines. Aside from requiring more effort to gloss the poem’s meaning, this technique unveils the halting and uncertain production of thought that lies beneath the language’s surface. Looking once more at verses 90-94 in “The Dream,” the suspended phrases and words in each line seem to represent half-spoken or half-thought ideas. Perennially uncertain, the speaker refuses to let his language flow freely and without hesitation. In this way, Creeley’s line-level constructions address the artifice behind the poem’s foregrounded thought; beyond the appearance of “presence” lies an uncertain and self-correcting speaker. The enjambment prevents the reader from coasting superficially through the poem; he must wrestle with the speaker’s occult process of articulation and remove himself from Deleuze’s realm of the sensible. Like Pessoa’s or Mallarmé’s, Creeley’s formal choices force an entrance into that thinking process: a recognition of the uncertain speaker who lies behind and “thinks” the poem’s glossy surface.[1]

            Badiou’s system of analysis thus radically reorients our reading of Creeley’s poetry, elevating its investigation of thought, utterance, and presence as (philosophically) complex rather than simply sensible. Reading Creeley in this way also reframes the erotic moments in his poems as expressing the proximity of thought to the void rather than as instances to employ hermeneutics or psychoanalysis. For instance, when the speaker says in the fourth section of “The Dream,” “At night it/ is the complex” he provides language ripe for a Freudian take on the text (73-4). “At night” or in dreams, this reading would say, the psychologically problematic (Oedipal) “complex” will emerge. The poem’s allusions to the speaker’s mother and father further such a take. Alternatively, one might use the speaker’s description of bodily parts and sexualities,


cunts and cocks

as eyes, noses, mouths,

have their objects:


hermaphrodite, one

sexed, bi-

sected in that lust (79-84)


as material for hermeneutic unpacking. The romantic aesthetic would investigate the equality (“as”) of sexual and nonsexual organs, how these organs “have” one’s sexual identity as an “object,” and what that reveals of the speaker’s secret identity. While these are valid modes of analysis, the strong links between Badiou’s inaesthetics and Creeley’s work offer a different understanding of these erotic moments: as paths to engage with the production of poetic thought. Rather than revealing a secret desire or meaning, their honesty and sense of immediate utterance draw attention to their proximity to the language-less void. They would be, we imagine, the closest and most immediate language to spring from that void. Creeley’s erotic is primal in a way that draws it to the brink of thought and articulation, prompting us to enter an inaesthetic investigation of the poem’s potency and uncertainty close to that brink. Thus Badiou opens new avenues with which to approach sexuality in Creeley’s poems, one that departs from didactic, romantic, or classical schema and instead casts the erotic as a further investigation into the poem’s production of thought.

            While using Badiou as a lens for Creeley’s work elevates it as a philosophically complex rumination on thought production and poetic presence, the theoretical application reflects back on Badiou’s manifesto as well. Discussing the duty of both poem and reader, Badiou says, “The rule is simple: To enter into the poem--not in order to know what it means, but rather to think what happens in it” (29), prescribing a relatively stringent mechanism with which to approach this art form. While his exaltation of Mallarmé’s and only a few other artists’ abilities to follow this rule might seem similarly restrictive, the applicability of his inaesthetics to Creeley broadens Badiou’s cannon considerably. Revisiting the beatnik platitude “first thought, best thought” with an inaesthetic framework reveals how it offers a unique way for the reader to enter the poem’s cognitive structures and their proximity to the thoughtless void. Creeley and his contemporaries’ employment of erotic and hallucinatory images explore similar questions of linguistic presence and ambiguity as Mallarmé’s hermetic verses. The poetic “configuration,” it seems, cannot simply be confined to the relatively few instances Badiou affords it, and a far greater range of artworks explore the configuration than Badiou’s few references would imply. Thus while Badiou opens Creeley’s oeuvre in an enthralling way, the process is two-way, and Badiou’s manifesto broadens, as a result, to include and validate great stylistic diversity within the poetic configuration.




Badiou, Alain. Handbook of Inaesthetics. Trans. Alberto Toscano Stanford: Stanford University, 2005. Print.


Creeley, Robert. “[As real as thinking].” The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975. 1982 Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 2006. 379-380. Print.


Creeley, Robert. “The Dream.” The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975. 1982. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 2006. 298-301. Print.


Creeley, Robert. “The Hole.” The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975. 1982. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 2006. 344-5. Print.

[1]  It’s notable, within a Badiou-informed analysis, that Creeley’s unveiling of poetic-artifice is distinctly non-Brechtian. Creeley’s syntax and his displays of ambiguity never alienate the reader, but instead absorb him more fully in the poetic world. Rather than simply disarm aesthetic conventions toward a didactic end, Creeley investigates the wonder of a thought’s emergence from the void, how the speaker arduously pushes language out onto each line.



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