Saturday, May 13, 2006


Creeley's "Token"

Critic Leslie Fiedler, in one of his dispatches--"The New Mutants" I suppose--from the thick of the High 60s, mentioned how much his students loved Robert Creeley's "The Token" because it so succinctly reflected their doubts about the value of Language. The thrust of this poem seems very clear, just what Fiedler & his young friends said it was. But a mistake I once found myself making in remembering the poem--it's so short and catchy that many, many people must have memorized, or thought they memorized, each word, as also with Creeley's "I Know A Man"--helped me towards a sense of its complexity.

For I thought the poem said "what//can I say to/you but words, words", a simple sense that language is inadequate. Do you know how Creeley's poem actually reads? Best to quote the entire poem:

A Token

My lady
fair with
arms, what

can I say to
you--words, words
as if all
worlds were there.

You see? The contemptuous repetition "words, words" can be considered an interruption of what has been said before at the same time as it is a continuation. "words, words" continues the sense of the speaker's doubt about what he can achieve with language in this situation--wanting to create a meaningful "token" of affection--as it makes it clearer that this problem arises not only from the possible verbal inadequacies of the speaker but also from something wrong with langauge itself. But it also may be considered an interruption of the rhetoric that comes before. For to state that there is absolutely nothing worthy one can say about the that which one finds gripping and mysterious might ironically also be a confusion provoked by words.

It's like this.

Everyone, I hope, will admit that there are indeed "worlds" of experience that can hardly be captured by words. But one might too easily slide from the sense that language is Limited to the proposition that it is Inadequate, useless for any statement about that which is most important to oneself.

The poem certainly exhibits the delights and powers of language. With three simple words--"My lady/fair"--we are plunged into an atmosphere of perhaps anachronistic "courtly" emotion. Then the word "arms" jars us, because we had been expecting something more traditionally praised, if one attribute of a Lady is to be saluted. We expect maybe some word like "eyes" or "smile" after "soft"--something that might be thought of as revealing the woman's Soul. Or elsewise maybe "breast" or "skin".

And the very contrast of "words" and "worlds" displays Language's considerable delight of sound interacting with sense.

So the poem considers the limits of Language AND its insistent pleasure. We can perhaps think of the "fair" lady the speaker addresses as someone who's "fair" to "all worlds" that exist--whether they be verbal or non-verbal. With her "soft/arms" we can think of her as having a will to embrace them all.

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God, I miss him!

His early work especially was so concise and exact. He did nothing (nothing) that had no meaning.
This is a beautiful concise reading.
Is it also that there's a whole world, or there are whole worlds, in her arms, worlds that words can hardly begin to "touch" and "experience."

(Is this Steve Tills?)

That's exactly what I myself was trying to say: that the woman in the poem can be imagined as embracing ALL realms, those that words can touch and those that words can't.
Yes, that's me, Stephen, and I think we're definitely reading this very similarly.

Your comment that "the contemptuous repetition 'words, words' can be considered an interruption of what has been said before at the same time as it is a continuation" also makes much sense to me and just now reminded me about the "inadequacy" of language, too: i.e., The "words" interrupt what might otherwise have been physical intimacy at the moment... Which is a funny thought, I think, too, such that this poem is, perhaps, humourous, as well as serious.

:) Steve Tills
Now you're cooking. A very nice twist, Mr. Tills.
The poem achieves its effect partly, I notice, by the rhyme of "fair" with "there." Another effect involves the rhetoric of denial: the poem strongly and ruefully implies that all worlds are not "there"; but the very word "there" is after all a word -- and a word that points to a thereness somewhere -- somewhere beyond words, but evoked and brought into the mind by a word, the despised thing that yet proves effectual (amid its very self-denial, the self-nasysaying of language that in process permits or empowers itself to function ultimately somewhat as desired); or is the satisfaction of such rue a substitute for the imagined satisfaction of a language wherein all worlds could indeed reside? The sentense asks for a language so capable and powerful that all worlds would be contained in words, words; it castigates itself for not embodying such a language. The reader's satisfication though in the line "as if all worlds were there" is the satisfaction of a glimmery glimpse of such language -- in the very line that denies it. The rhyme is a device that calls this up: the harmony of the sounds evoking the sense of worlds within words, no?
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