Robert Creeley has said that presenting people with both poetry and visual art "shifts the emotional center." Speaking of artist Francesco Clemente, he said, "Any person reading what I've written and seeing what he's made is moving back and forth between two emotional fields."
With over 45 collaborations with visual artists—many of them displayed at the New York Public Library and other museums across America in 2000 and 2001—Creeley has been able to push the limits of genre. A Black Mountain School poet and longtime champion of unpredictable high- and low-culture approaches to poetry, it seems only natural that Creeley would approach visual collaborations with the idea of getting people to see poetry and art differently, perhaps to set them off balance. Whereas many lesser poets might have succumbed to writing captions, Creeley creates texts to accompany the paintings that make the words as vital as the images. He has said, "It's not a question of understanding the paintings, but of picking up their vibes—more like playing in a band." As a result, his collaborations with artists such as Francesco Clemente, Robert Indiana, Rene Laubies, Jim Dine, R.B. Kitaj and Sol LeWitt have taken varied approaches to the idea of collaboration. In some, he has responded to works already in existence, in some the image and words exist side by side, and in some, the text was written first and incorporated into the visual work as it was being made.
Among his first collaborations were the books The Immoral Proposition (1953), created with the French artist René Laubies, and All That Is Lovely in Men (1955), with Dan Rice. Both were published by Jargon Press, run by Jonathan Williams at Black Mountain College. These are true collaborations—text mixing with image rather than existing beside it. Creeley’s famous collaboration with Robert Indiana beginning in 1968 involved long correspondence between the poet and the artist. The result is a series of responses to Robert Indiana’s poster-like pop art paintings of numbers, his famous image "Love" (which has since been immortalized on postage stamps) and paintings for pop-culture figures as varied as Marilyn Monroe and Pablo Picasso. The poem that accompanies the number "One" seems to be a parallel exploration of similar themes rather than a description of the painting, but includes similar formal structures and an acknowledgement of the geometrical forms and flat colors present in the painting:
One thought of integrity
wants it to be
an intrinsic, indestructible me, a one and only—
but misses it's one
into which all has gone
and from which all has come—
cannot look back,
see the star's, the square's lack,
the interminable circle surrounds the fact.
Poet and art historian John Yau said in the catalog for the exhibition that, for Creeley, "collaboration has become a way for him to both designate and discover the particulars inherent to time and space. The point, as [Creeley's] recent book Life & Death (New York: New Directions, 1998), makes clear, is to keep one's eyes open, to be attentive to reality, and the self amidst it, for as long as humanly possible." Creeley himself would put it differently, but the result is the same: a varied and unusual approach to such disparate media as music, painting, and even the internet. "In some sense," he once said, "if I could write poems as clear as Hank Williams's lyrics, I would be very pleased. That's not just feeling down-home or something. I don't really like or enjoy the classic boundaries."
Image credit: Robert Indiana's "One" courtesy 2River. Used with permission. Visit www.2river.org to find more of Creeley's collaborations with Robert Indiana, Francesco Clemente, and Donald Sultan.