Robert Creeley, “The Puritan Ethos”

Robert Creeley’s experimentation does not always work. Typically when I read him, I feel like I’m in the presence of a much greater intelligence. On the printed page, he can show how to make every line of verse count in a multitude of ways. Maybe you can read every other line of one of his poems and get the same effect as the whole, but from an entirely different perspective. Sometimes, his fragments cry with emotion, even if there’s nothing but a conjunction and a pronoun involved. He can render human experience in the sparsest words, the sparsest forms. This comes at a price. Here’s “The Puritan Ethos,” from 1968:

Happy the man who loves what
he has and worked for it also.

It’s tuneless. I’ve spoken it to myself a number of ways and it doesn’t quite make music. Compare with the Beatitudes, i.e. “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” or “blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” Creeley’s verse follows their pronunciation, has their authority and seriousness. “Loves” and “worked” do receive accents, slightly shadowing each other. “Happy,” “man, “has,” “and” all share a vowel sound; “who,” “what,” “worked” almost give the lines a bit of lift with their “w’s.”

But the biggest problem is tense. “Loves” ultimately refuses to parallel “worked.” If you make the poem sound good, you do it by not lingering over that parallel. Drawing it out causes confusion. I understand why Creeley made the artistic choice he made, as the difference between “loves what he has” and “worked for it also” is the whole poem. If you love what you have, why did you work for anything? If God has given everything, why does one work so hard to preserve it, so hard that preservation slides into acquisition? The “ethos” ultimately does not make any sense because it tries to reconcile two contrasting notions of justice. First, that you should be grateful for what you have. Second, that whatever you have, you should have worked for. On paper, these don’t sound like they conflict at all. Put them together, though, and you’re not allowed to be grateful for anything, as you have to prove to yourself you deserve anything in the first place.

I don’t know how much I like Creeley’s poem, but the thought seems to be Platonic on a fairly sophisticated level. I recently finished reading a paper on Seth Benardete. Benardete holds that Platonic dialogues push you to see how two wholly unrelated things are indeed related; for the Republic, these would be no less than thumos (spirit, will) and eidos (form). Plato goes so far as to use the compound thumoeides, “spirit-like,” a highly unusual term. It’s one thing to say that just as people want to be good at sports and get glory, they want to be renowned at science. It’s another thing to drop “glory” and “renown” and speak of people simply wanting to be good at what they do. And still, it’s almost like Plato introduces a third thing, because the comparison is not necessarily between a warrior full of spirit and one who loves knowledge. The comparison is between spiritedness and objects of knowledge themselves. To say the least, this is very strange, but Plato’s Republic is convincing on this point. We accept it as legitimate to discuss the city in speech, with its philosopher-king and guardians; the cave, with its frankness about our absorption and defense of shadows; the divided line, where the truths of mathematics imply a much greater reality than we ordinarily perceive; the collapse of regimes into one another, where democracy and tyranny stand too close for comfort; the myth of Er, a tale that links the practice of morality to worry about the afterlife. The Republic holds that what we want to know and what we can know are two different things, and complicating this is an additional problem: belief and knowledge do not simply stand to each other as opinions or questions do to true opinion or answers.


Michael Davis, “Seth Benardete’s Second Sailing: On the Spirit of Ideas” The Political Science Reviewer, vol. 34 (2005): 7-21.

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