Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"I Know a Man"

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.

by Robert Creeley

OK--I'll try my hand at this poem tonight. I'm not an expert on Creeley, by any stretch of the imagination, so these thoughts are pretty free-floating. I do like the poem very much, and since someone asked, I'll share some thoughts.

As I was typing it in, I was thinking that this is a poem of negative space. The lines "because I am / always talking" imply that John is not that sort, for example. What "John" does say is limited to commonplaces: "for / christ's sake" and "look / out where yr going." I'm not 100% sure, because of the line breaks, that John does say the word "drive." It could be the unnamed narrator--another example of negative space. And, in fact, we don't know what "John"'s name really is, as the speaker tells us that was not his name. Words are also condensed into a sort of dialectical shortened form: "sd" for "said", "yr" for "your".

People with no names--and "john" at once one of the world's most common male names, slang for a hooker's client, and the name of one of the four authors of the gospels. I don't know that anything reinforces any allusions to prostitution. So that seems out. Unless the speaker is a woman, I suppose. It's interesting, too, that the speaker doesn't say "not his real name"--no, "which was not his / name". Again, negative space--there's no "beneath" here, the man could be nameless.

The word "christ" sparks the sense of Biblical reference, of course. The beginning of the Gospel of John echoes the beginning of Genesis:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not."

This passage of the gospels has always attracted me--its language is mysterious, poetic, very different from the other gospels--more enigmatic, more abstract. And this is also the language of negation, or negative space. Is litotes the name of this rhetorical figure? I can't remember. What we know or what we sense is a matter of separating or sifting it through what we can disregard or "not" know. To separate the truth from darkness is to recognize it, to see it peel away from what it is "not." That's my best shot tonight.

John was "not" the name of the man in the poem, because he stands for some other concept or figure that is more important--in Christianity, of course, that would be Christ. But John of the gospels makes this a little more complicated--Christ springs from the Word of God, becomes a living manifest of not God's nature, but God's speech.

In Creeley's poem, I think there is a subtext relative to the gospels--how could there not be? The speaker says that "the darkness sur- / rounds us". John comes into the world, preceding the "light," right? And there's nothing you can "do against / it"--or so I think. You must emerge from it, separate yourself from it. The word "surrounds" is hyphenated in that unusual way, for what reason I am not certain--for three stanzas, there's the same syllabic count in the first and second lines, but that breaks down. It isolates the word "round" embedded in "surround", but I'm not sure what to make of that late at night.

So, if you read this against the opening paragraphs of the gospel of John, the speaker's decision to "buy a goddamn big car", which feels very spontaneous, given the stagger of the syntax that precedes this line--off the cuff, just thought of it--if you read this against those opening paragraphs, the speaker is just not getting it. Does the car protect? It's big. And very American-sounding. That's what Americans do, they buy "goddamn big cars". But what does it buy them? Growing up in Vermont, some of the poorest people had some of the biggest and nicest cars--people who lived in trailers drove Buicks--that's then the image they would project of themselves on the world.

"John" in the poem seems to point out some of the problems with this reasoning--you must "look" and for that you need light.

Regardless of what seem to be religious implications, the poem has always had for me a sense of blind rushing forward, with full awareness of the consequences of such foolish action. Emerging from the darkness is not the same as cocooning yourself within it, whether wrapping it to surround you, or stepping into another pod within it (a car). Even though it was written in the 1950s, I started reading it again as the Iraq War started because it seemed like such a perfect figure for what we were doing wrong there: not looking where we were going, driving madly ahead without thought of consequence or tomorrow. The ironies of American optimism--that's one of the things the poem points up that endears it to me.

I hadn't really explored the religious parallels until this evening, although a connection between "john" and the gospels had dimly occurred to me in the past--the two profanities ring a religious bell, I suppose. Again, negative space b/c the profanities are "taking God's name in vain" and profanity seeks to empty words of their true content, substituting something ugly or meaningless. So there you go again, back to the gospel and the "Word."

There's a lot you can make of this poem on all sorts of levels. It's a curiously wrought piece, and certainly worth its place in the emerging late 20th century canon.

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