|DEATH OF A GREAT AMERICAN POET
This past week, America lost one of the best minds of a generation in poet Robert Creeley, whose work helped carry the American tradition rooted in New England poets like Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau into the modern era. A member of that group of poets which came of age during WWII - including Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, John Ashbery, & Amiri Baraka - Robert Creeley exerted a nearly unparalleled influence on contemporary poetry for half a century.
Robert White Creeley was born in 1926 in Arlington, MA. As a young child, he lost an eye in an accident. At the age of four he lost his father, a local physician. Later, he attended Harvard University, which he left for a year to work as an ambulance driver for the American field service in Burma and India. He returned to Harvard after the war, but returned a changed man. Shattered by the senseless violence he witnessed and driven by an ambition to make his mark on American writing, he married, dropped out, and embarked on a career that would change poetry forever.
Three key relationships, maintained mostly through correspondence, formed the basis for Creeley's early development as a poet. Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, the former serving time for treason at St. Elizabeth's, the latter working as a family physician in Patterson, NJ, were important correspondents and supporters of the young poet, while Creeley's correspondence with Charles Olson is one of the most significant and enduring in 20th century letters.
From Pound (and later Louis Zukofsky), Creeley learned music. Taking Pound's idea that poetry should abandon traditional metrical patterns and develop a closer relation to musical form, Creeley wrote toward music, specifically toward the improvised rhythms of jazz. As he writes in his 1987 essay, "Form":
So it isn't writing like jazz, trying to be some curious social edge of that imagined permission. It's a time one's keeping, which could be the variations of hopscotch, or clapping, or just traffic's blurred racket. It was what you could do with what you got, or words to that effect.
Each poem, with its broken lines, stuttered syllables, short breaths, and often disruptive commas, has the feel of a verbal improvisation moving headlong in an unknown and therefore dangerous direction.
From Williams, he took to heart the statement that "A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words." The idea that a poem was a "made" thing rather than simply the transcription of a divine inspiration was (and in many ways still is) revolutionary. Equally important, Williams was the most inventive poet of his generation in terms of the free verse line, and Creeley's precise and at times jarring use of line breaks owe much to him.
It was at the suggestion of Williams that another poet, Charles Olson, made contact with Creeley in 1950. These two men, whose poetry couldn't be more different, became the measure of one another over the next twenty years. Olson, expansive in every way, wrote the epic, The Maximus Poems, which is three inches thick in book form and covers several million years of history. Creeley's poems, on the other hand, are short, tightly written, almost ashamed to go on too long - though anyone who ever spoke to the man knows they could have - and stay focused on the personal, the subjective, the familiar.
Despite these differences in approach, the two shared a determination to move American poetry away from its entropic combination of European formalism and repressed Puritan sexuality. Each in his way sought a poetry rooted in the body. Creeley's famous statement that "form is never more than an extension of content" made its way directly into Olson's manifesto, "Projective Verse," which outlined a new stance toward poetry and reality. For both men, a poetry of the body meant an emphasis on process, action, breath, and desire.
In the late forties and early fifties, Creeley and his first wife, Ann Mckinnon, lived in New Hampshire, where they briefly tried their hand at farming, then in France, where they made the acquaintance of poet Denise Levertov, and finally in Mallorca, where Creeley began publishing Divers Press. In 1954, while his first marriage was falling apart, he took up a position at Black Mountain College, at the behest of Olson, who was then rector of the school. There he edited the Black Mountain Review, which published many of the most important poets of his generation, including Robert Duncan, Hilda Morley, Ed Dorn, Larry Eigner and John Wieners.
Leaving Black Mountain in 1956, Creeley lived and taught in many places over the next decade, including San Francisco, where he met many of the beats - among them Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg - New Mexico, and Guatemala. During this time he also married a second time, to Bobbie Louise Hawkins.
For Love: Poems 1950-60 was published in 1962. Taut expressions of intimacy, rage and despair, the poems in For Love are by turns existential, lyrical, ecstatic, funny, abstract and conversational. Many of them, especially the heavily anthologized "I Know a Man," "After Lorca" and "The Warning," have found their way into mainstream consciousness, no mean feat in an age of poetry-deaf television.
In 1966, Creeley took a job at SUNY at Buffalo after Charles Olson left following the death of his wife in a car accident. Creeley would teach at the university for the next 37 years, though for many years he would split his time between Buffalo and Albuquerque. In the sixties and early seventies he produced one important collection after another. Alongside For Love, Words (1965) and Pieces (1968) stand out as two of the finest collections of poetry from the second half of the 20th century.
His second marriage broke up in the early seventies, but his relentless poetic output continued. The decade saw the publication of A Day Book, Hello, Away, Presences, Thanks, and Later, among others. In 1976, he married his third wife, Penelope Highton, whom he met in New Zealand, and with whom he would have two children, Will and Hannah. The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, itself two inches thick, appeared in 1982.
Throughout his career, Creeley's restless nature led him to travel incessantly. Until the day he died, he kept a touring schedule that would exhaust a twenty-year-old, reading in Stockholm one week, Los Angeles the next, performing with seemingly boundless energy. After he died, a report appeared on the Buffalo Poetics listserv saying he had given a reading only recently in Virginia while connected to the oxygen tank his lung condition had forced upon him.
Despite the constant touring, the poet's life seemed to settle somewhat with his third and final marriage. Until 2003, when he rather suddenly took a position at Brown University, the couple and their children lived in Buffalo, where in the early nineties they purchased a converted firehouse in the Black Rock neighborhood, which performed dual functions as home base for the Creeleys and pilgrimage site for poets traveling through the area.
In his role as professor, he served as friend and mentor to at least two generations of younger poets in Buffalo. One could often find Creeley in local cafés or bars or in his office at the university discussing poetry with students, poets and friends a third his age, or discover him at a reading of a young (or old or middle-aged) poet, sitting quietly in back, enjoying the fact of being in a room full his cherished "company." He was equally supportive of the local small press and reading scenes, generously using funds from his endowed university chair to fuel current discussion of poetry and poetics.
Several changes take place in Creeley's later poetry. His subtle use of rhyme increases in both frequency and complexity. His famous short, enjambed lines begin to lengthen. While rarely growing into something resembling traditional metrical lines, they become longer, looser, less fragmented. An obsession with death, both the poet's own and the deaths of his generation of poets, who started dying with what must have seemed an alarming regularity beginning in the 1980's, haunts the later work. Much of it takes the form elegy, of lamentation.
Later life also saw Creeley get some of the institutional recognition he deserved. He was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1987. From 1989-91 he served as the New York State Poet Laureate. In 1997 he won the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, a prize first awarded (quite controversially) in 1948 to his mentor, Ezra Pound, a fact which Creeley noted with pride upon accepting the award. The following year he was awarded a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1999, he was elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Other Awards included the Frost Medal, the Shelley Memorial Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation.
For poets who knew Creeley, or read him, the accolades are the least important and least interesting thing about him or his poetry. In addition to his poetry and fiction, Creeley's critical essays on other writers, as well as the hundreds of printed interviews published in his lifetime serve as how-to guides both for thinking about poetry and for acting as a poetic citizen of the world.
Anyone who saw him read will recall his absolutely unique reading style - long, rambling anecdotes punctuated by short, intensely emotional poems and short, intensely emotional poems dissolving into long, rambling anecdotes. He seemed to always be "in" the action and feeling of the poem as he read, often pausing to make a joke or to choke back tears as he read poems addressed to dead and living friends.
Creeley was fond of quoting Pound's saying that "only emotion endures,"
and with his passing, one can't help but feel how enduring his work is.
His free verse lyrics mine human subjectivity and its concomitant violence,
compassion and love with an often embarrassing specificity. Reading a
Robert Creeley poem can be startling - at first you can't believe what
you've seen, but after truth's initial shock has passed, a more profound
appreciation of the pathos and joy of being human comes to take its place.