“I Know a Man” can be found in The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975 as well as an increasingly growing number of anthologies. Few 12-line poems in the history of American poetry have produced the volume of critical analysis and scholarly analysis as the four three-line stanzas of Creeley detailing an event that is almost literally over in the blink of an eye.
Since publication, “I Know a Man” has become one of Creeley’s signature poems that manifest much of the rest of his body of work in miniature. The subject is expansive—“the darkness that surrounds”—while the treatment is engaged with a wry sense of humor and the form and structure suggests a hesitant uncertainty. “I Know a Man” is snapshot of a moment in in time inside a car in which the loquacious suddenly digresses from the conversation to ponder the philosophical uncertainty of how to respond to that surrounding darkness only to be harshly pulled back down from the philosophical realm to the real world by his passenger to avoid an accident.
Through the use of literary license and poetic devices ranging from words lacking letters to enjambment which breaks up a single thought from one stanza to the next, meaning becomes more open to interpretation than the simple scenario might suggests. In addition, the driver calls his passenger John just before informing us that this is not actually his friend’s name which effectively endows the verse with an instability of that is also a recurring theme in the poet’s canon. The digressive quality of the compositional structure also serves to make the conversational content of “I Know a Man” a less sturdy foundation than one might expect from such a short poem covering such a limited distance in time and space.
One of the literary devices Creeley introduces effectively as a means of creating confusion and ambiguity is caesura, which is essentially a pause between words without using the standard punctuation of a period to notionally indicate it as such. In this case, the caesura is the first word of the first line of the last stanza, separate from the clause preceding in the third stanza and from what immediately follows it by a comma. The tricky part is that this single word “drive” can be applied with equal appropriateness to both the lines spoken by the driver before it and the lines spoken by the passenger after it. When Creeley himself would recite the poem the timing of the pause would indicate quite clearly that it was the poet’s narrator saying “drive” and not John, the passenger, who is not really John.
Such a distinction is not made so clear in the poem’s written form, thus indicating yet another them running though Creeley’s work: the difference between how a poem sounds on the page and how it sounds when spoken out loud.