Robert Creeley’s reach across time and space was generous, and he touched lives from one side of the planet to the other. Here one of Australia’s leading poets reflects on a meeting with Creeley in Sydney in 1976, and the intense literary and personal friendship that developed. This piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 April 2005. You can read Robert Creeley’s author notes page here, which has direct links to seven pieces by Creeley in Jacket magazine.
Robert Creeley, who has died at 78 from pneumonia and complications from lung disease in Odessa, Texas, was one of the major American poets of the 20th century. He was a teacher, a scholar, and a fierce presence: “I look to words, and nothing else, for my own redemption either as a man or poet.”
Just days before he died, he gave his final reading — in Charlottesville, Virginia — breathing from what he called “portable wee canisters of oxygen about the size of champagne bottles”. In between the poems Creeley said very simple things that rang true: “There has been so much war and pain during the last century. We need to learn how to be kind; kindness is what makes us human.”
Creeley lived in Providence, Rhode Island, and was a distinguished professor of English at Brown University. The director of Brown’s arts program, Peter Gale Nelson, said of him: “Rare enough to be a great poet, even rarer to be a great person, as Robert was. He was a vibrant presence.”
Previously, Creeley had been a professor at Buffalo University, New York State, for more than 20 years. Charles Bernstein, a poet and former Buffalo colleague, commented that “Creeley’s place in American poetry is enormous.”
”You can’t help but love a world in which a Robert Creeley happens,” wrote the poet Tom Pickard, a friend of his in Britain.
Creeley had a strong influence on Australian poetry. He visited Sydney in 1976 and many remember his readings and lectures, along with his passionate and articulate performance. He wrote 60 books, of which The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945–1975 (University of California Press) and his recent book, Life & Death (New Directions, 1998), are widely available here. (New Directions published his last book, If I Were Writing This, in 2003, but it is not widely available around the world.)
Creeley turned around many students heading for self-destruction in one form or another. He changed my life when he came to Sydney by pointing out that my Australian accent was infinitely more right than the language of my poetry at the time — heavily influenced by another American poet, Robert Duncan. After he left Sydney I wrote one of my most popular books, Where I Come From. It was as easy as speaking because Creeley had given me permission to be myself in my writing.
Robert White Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts. He lost the sight in one eye in a car accident when he was two years old. His father, a prominent local doctor, died of pneumonia a couple of years later. After this setback his mother had to go back to full-time work as a nurse. They moved to a farm outside town and times were hard.
The loss of his eye and his father affected Creeley profoundly. For the first half of his life he travelled as an outsider, his heavy drinking often leading to brawls with friends and strangers. Creeley was sometimes an angry young man who wanted “the world to narrow to a match flare”.
He was accepted into Harvard University in 1943 but when his lecturers made it impossible for him to study Hart Crane and Walt Whitman he began attending jazz clubs where he listened to Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. He read Ezra Pound and Coleridge, along with the English Jacobean lyricists who were to influence his poetry. The poet Delmore Schwartz, one of his teachers, introduced him to the 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan, who became an abiding influence.
The young Creeley found university uninspiring, and as his love of jazz grew his grades fell, until he finally decided to leave altogether. Unable to sign up for World War II because of his sight problem, he joined the American Field Service and drove ambulances in India and Burma.
He returned home with two medals, and although he was accepted back into Harvard he dropped out before graduation in 1947. He married his first wife, Ann McKinnon, and moved to a farm in New Hampshire where he bred Birmingham Roller pigeons and attempted to establish a poetry magazine. He wrote to the poets Pound, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky and asked them to contribute work. They all sent contributions but the magazine didn’t get off the ground.
However, the poets he wrote to became friends and life-long influences, especially Olson, with whom Creeley conducted one of the great correspondences in modern poetry. Olson introduced him to fellow poets Duncan and Denise Levertov, who became lifelong friends. Creeley lived in France, Spain, Finland and Guatemala for periods, then settled for several years in New Mexico.
He enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina at the invitation of Olson, the school’s rector, and while earning his bachelor of arts he edited Black Mountain Review, the college’s literary magazine which published not only the Black Mountain poets but Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg.
Black Mountain, established in 1933 as an independent, co-educational, four-year college, was America’s first experimental college. Featuring democratic self-rule, extensive work in the creative arts and interdisciplinary academic study, its staff and students included the painter Josef Albers, composer John Cage – who staged the first multimedia “happening” there in 1952 — and the architect Buckminster Fuller who built his first geodesic dome there in 1948. Its board of directors included Albert Einstein and Carlos Williams.