Utter Measure
Sarah Campbell

I couldn't keep my temper easily.  My mother used to say, count ten.  My friends had an endless variation of ritual for not letting them get at you.  I would be fine for awhile but then it would just blow up in my head, and I'd jump. -Robert Creeley (Presences 3.1)


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It's one of the first language games children learn.  It's ritualized and makes rituals out of mundane tasks (shoe buckling, door knocking) or those once-mundane tasks (picking up sticks).  It's preparatory: --, --, --, go!  It is order.  Numbers, first figure as an invention.

    Robert Creeley's Pieces follows Words and is about counting and progressions, numbers and the social, accumulation and work-what to do with words (and numbers) to make a poem.


           Simple, to be said, a life

           is nothing more than itself,

           and all the bodies together

           are, one by one, the measure.        (CP 418)


"The measure" is not "a life," but "all the bodies together" (though not taken en masse).  The measure of bodies together can only be made by counting "one by one."  Creeley early on decided the way to go "one by one" is to write of relationship.  He writes, "I am given as a man to work with what is most intimate to me-these senses of relationship among people.  I think, for myself at least, the world is most evident and most intense in those relationships.  Therefore they are the materials of which my work is made" (Contexts 97).

The "Numbers" sequence exemplifies the kind of poetic accounting that Creeley undertakes in the abstracted, ordinary language poems of Pieces (1969). Cardinal numbers appear elsewhere in the book (and in other books), amplifying and extending what is perhaps most distilled in "Numbers," and what I take to be not only a crucial scaffolding for the book's interests, but an emblematic instance of the turn Creeley's writing took in the mid-60s.1


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           It is true that a mathematician who is not also something                of a poet will never be a perfect mathematician.

                                -Karl Weierstrass


The way a mathematician says "poetry" may be the way a poet says "numbers"-the currency, changing hands and crossing fields, its value gets reconfigured.  Certainly, poetry and numbers are bound up in traditional metered verse, where syllables are counted and the line measured.  William Carlos Williams, in writing of measure, uses the word "mathematics," a comment singled out by Creeley in his 1954 review of Williams's just published Selected Essays.  Williams: "Verse-we'd better not speak of poetry lest we become confused-verse has always been associated in mens' minds with "measure," i.e., with mathematics" (qtd. in Creeley, CE 36).  Using the terms of Elizabethan Samuel Putman, Creeley distinguishes between two types of rhythms: the numbers-and-measure kind (arhythmus) and that rhythm found in poems (rhythmus).  He declares that scanning certain kinds of poems (those giving attention to words and the rhythms they carry in them (37)) is beside the point.  It's not about metrics, he says.  Pound's circular "It must be measured to be in measure" and Williams's "relatively stable foot" are confusing the matter because they arrange, for Creeley, a limiting either/or choice: "'metrical construction' (?) versus some other means" (38).  The review closes with a dismissal:  "So much for Îmeasure' (which has nothing to do with rhythm . . .) " (39).  Clearly, Creeley at this point is as dissatisfied as Williams, but at least in the tone of his review, he stakes out a slightly differentiated ground from that of Pound and Williams, one that isn't haunted.  Or maybe it's more a case of holding the field they've taken, and feeling the ghosts differently.

His response to Williams' "On Measure" extends into the poems he's writing, reverberating a decade later at the end of Pieces:

           Why the echo of

           the old music

           haunting all? Why


           the lift and fall

           of the old rhythms,

           and aches and pains.


           Why one, why two,

           why not go utterly

           away from all of it.       (CP 445)


He's taking pains here to reject a retrograde bar of value, and despite how he terms his reaction to "On Measure," he and Williams are essentially calling for a very similar thing: Williams asks for a new measure, Creeley for a new sense of measure.  What had been cast as dismissal ("so much for Îmeasure'") turns out rather to be a specific farewell: goodbye to the old measuring "music haunting all" to make way for an "utterly" new activity.  The word itself-"measure"-he holds onto; it's dear to him, surfacing repeatedly as one of his closest, characteristic words, often used in estimation of a thing or person. 

Nearly fifteen years after the Selected Essays review, it's as if Creeley, in writing "Numbers," has taken Williams's and his own complaints, both, quite literally, seriously, and playfully into the body of the number poems.  As if he puns on tradition's "quantitative verse" forms by composing poems that the reader can actually "count."  He had criticized those who would take "quantitative verse" too literally; with "Numbers," Creeley's joke is to do precisely that.  Then he nods to Williams's demand for poetry that matches the modern social condition by infusing the numbers with social significance, by establishing a correspondence between numbers and lives.  "Love one. / Kiss two" (Creeley, CP 433). 


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For Wittgenstein, both math and everyday language proceed by means of language games and agreement.  The games only work if those who play-speakers, calculators-have agreed to the rules. But,


Suppose one day instruction no longer produced agreement?


Could there be arithmetic without agreement on the part of the calculators?


Could there be only one human being that calculated? Could there be only one that followed a rule?


It only makes sense to say "and so on" when "and so on" is understood.  I.e., when the other is capable of going on as I am, i.e., does go on just as I do. (WittgensteinVI-45, 349)


Reading Wittgenstein slant against Creeley's number poems, calculating and communicating become phenomenological and ethical puzzles hinging upon agreement, recognition of the other and self, and an acute awareness of the forms that language takes in games and in love.  By composing with the terms of two games at once-verbal and numerical-Creeley's poems are agreement and lawlessness at once.  In playing two games simultaneously, he follows and breaks the rules of both.

    Wittgenstein's question, "Could there be only one human being that calculated?"-can be read as an ontological question in kind with, at the heart of, Creeley's Pieces.  The poem had asked,



Why one, why two,

why not go utterly

away from all of it.        (CP 445)


But, agreement and lawlessness at once, Creeley's rhythmic departures stay-don't "go utterly / away from all of it."  What endures throughout the numbers poems is emotion, is the particular dilemma of the one and the two, the one and more than one, which is to say these are crowd poems and love poems-specifically, love abstracted via numbers to the condition of being one and one among many (numerousness, counting). 


The concerns are, first, what constitutes one-"one by / itself"?


Who was I that

thought it was

another one by

itself divided or multiplied

produces one.               ("One" CP 395)


Proceeding, what happens to the one, when one moves to two (love)?


When they were

first made, all the

earth must have

been their reflected

bodies, for a moment- . . .


What you wanted

I felt, or felt I felt.

This was more than one.          ("Two" CP 396)


All the while, one's mind knowing,


The substance of one

is not two.  No thought

can ever come to that.


I could fashion another

were I to lose her.

Such is thought.  (CP 445)


The dilemma of the one and more than one is not resolved.  And questions about human relations can be questions about poetry's relations as well: is the poem only ever one thing or can it be more?  How might poetry be, returning to Creeley's estimation of Whitman's poetics, of "necessity multiphasic," registering "a day in which various things did occur, not simply one thing."  "Who was I that thought" one divided or multiplied "produces one"?  And yet, "The substance of one / is not two.  No thought /  can ever come to that."  Thought may never come to that, but perhaps emotion could.  For love would never "fashion another / were I to lose her."  "Such is thought," not love.

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ÎHow shall I love you? Let me count the ways' is too often a proposed calculus of possibilities; and that, alone, is no good.  In despite, relationships, here as elsewhere, continue, serving a common need for survival and growth.  The issue is the poem, a single event-to which, as to the Battle of Gettysburg, or the Pan American Highway, many men may well contribute.  (Creeley CE 110)


To count, or give account, tell or tally, continuingly seems to me the occasion.
CE 535)


In "Numbers," the poems' measures are as much a way of getting along, as much about survival, as much an answer to "how many," as much a counting-as counting-and may be more.






CE = The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley

CP = The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945 - 1975


Creeley, Robert and Marisol.  Presences.  New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976.

Creeley, Robert.  The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley.  Berkeley: University of California

Press, 1989.

---.  The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945 - 1975.  Berkeley: University of California

Press, 1982.

---.  Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961 - 1971.  Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973.

Terrell, Carroll F.  Robert Creeley: The Poet's Workshop.  Orono, ME: National Poetry

Foundation, 1984.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig.  Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.  Cambridge, MA: MIT

Press, 1983.