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Robert Creeley: Taking Five

Robert Creeley (in middle)

In the 1950s, Robert Creeley was known as one of the “Rebel Poets of the 1950s,” with Allen Ginsberg and the like. Creeley is also a jazz poet. He has long listened to jazz and has been influenced by its rhythms and cadences. Creeley’s latest spoken-word and music album, Have We Told You All We’d Thought to Know? (Cuneiform), is a collaboration with bassist Steve Swallow, guitarist David Torn, saxophonist/clarinetist David Cast and drummer Chris Massey.

JazzTimes: You’ve said that jazz influences the rhythms of your poems. Does the influence manifest itself more in your text or your out-loud reading of that text?

What I was trying to make clear was that jazz gave me a model for rhythmic patterns and possibilities finally more useful than what I was getting from the usual 1940s models of what was supposed to be good poetry. A lot of it was, in fact, terrific-[William Carlos] Williams, [Ezra] Pound, [Wallace] Stevens-but none, with the exception of Williams, came close to the way I’d say or write things.

It was the phrasing, the cadence, that most occupied me. Something as simple as a “backbeat” was curiously outside the usual concerns of poetry. Everyone was talking about “meaning,” or “figures of speech,” “ambiguity,” etc. I was interested, literally, in sound and rhythm, no matter what I then thought about it or even knew. I listened to the classic records of the period-all the stuff coming up to bebop and then the great initial releases circa 1945 of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, [big] bands like Tadd Dameron and Boyd Raeburn, singers like Sarah Vaughn. I’d track, not didactically, as with a ruler, but intuitively, “by ear,” as poet friend Charles Olson put it, all those shifts and changes, all built usually on the most simple of melodic lines. I wish some poet then had been doing with “Mary Had a Little Lamb” what Bird was doing with “I’ve Got Rhythm”!

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