Born: May 21, 1926, Arlington, Massachusetts
Died: March 30, 2005, Odessa, Texas
Robert Creeley, one of the most influential American poets of the 20th
Century, died March 30th in Odessa, Texas at the age of 78. Creeley had just
begun a two-month residency in Marfa as a resident of the Lannan Foundation
when he took ill and was rushed to the hospital in Odessa. Among his many
awards, he has received the prestigious Bollingen Award in 1999 and the
Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. Creeley has always been a crucial
influence on my work as a poet, writer and publisher.
"I believe in a poetry determined by the language of which it is made. I
look to words, and nothing else, for my own redemption. . . . I mean the
words as opposed to content."
Poet Robert Creeley died in Odessa, Texas, of all places. A Creeley
poem would have smiled at the irony, wondering in short gasping breaths
about sadness in the Ukraine at the edge of the Black Sea, wondering if that
human sadness was the same sadness he saw in the face of the black nurse in
Texas who was watching him die. Then a few days later the Pope died in Rome.
Where he was supposed to die. The media made sure that the whole world
followed the Pope on the journey to his new status as Holy Cadaver and
Future Saint. But news of Creeley¹s death, not withstanding his importance
to American cultural history, was muted, traveling mostly by short newspaper
obituaries, emails and telephone calls. For poets of my generation the news
was like a switchblade slicing across the chest. It wasn¹t supposed to
happen, but it did happen. Quickly, almost painlessly.
During the extravagant media-driven spectacle of the Pope¹s dying while
still carrying my own personal sadness for Creeley¹s death, I was reminded
of Paul Blackburn¹s poem "Obit Page" where Paul bemoaned the death of Roger
Hornsby, the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time, and then shortly
thereafter the great American poet William Carlos Williams followed Hornsby
into the void. Blackburn¹s short eulogy was a celebration of pure Americana
and the American idiom. WCW had entered the Hall of Fame where he belonged.
But Creeley and the Pope within a few days of each other? Creeley was an
existentialist poet, a romantic, a believer of words as he wrote them on a
blank white page or on a computer screen when that time came transforming into a poem, content and life always in a state of change and
becoming. Here he was riding in a rickety boat crossing the River Styx with
El Papa, the last great Sun King, the man who had been perched atop the
monolithic throne where truth and answers were promised packaged neatly in a
book. This image is the antithesis of Blackburn¹s elegiac celebration. It¹s
more like a good lucha libre bout on Mexican television.
Creeley was 78 when he died, a member of the remarkable generation of poets
that Donald Allen immortalized in the Grove Press anthology The New American
Poetry, 1945<1960. In the 60s I was young man at the University of Arizona
BCW (Before "Creative Writing") first experimenting with the making of
poems. Creeley and a host of his peers came through to read, thanks to the
largesse of the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center and its board of teachers and
writers like Keith Wilson and Barney Childs who were plugged into the Allen
anthology. We heard folks like Creeley, Robert Duncan and Gary Snyder, among
And Creeley became my hero. His poems were intense personal revelations that
seemed so accessible at first reading, but the closer I got to them, the
more mysterious and deep they became. His poems find so extraordinary about Creeley and his generation of poets exactly the poet who was writing them. Form was the constant subtext, his
poems seemed to say, the place where a true revolution was being waged. The
"new American poem" was an organic mechanism, a reflection of the poet in
constant flux, but more like staring into a creek or a lake than staring
into a static mirror. The "New American Poets" gave my generation this gift,
and they had received it likewise from Williams and Pound who had received
it from Whitman. Etcetera.
Creeley was a handsome and charismatic guy in a disheveled and very personal
sort of way. He had been blinded at an early age, so he wore a patch over
his bad eye, which made him even more attractive. He loved fervent
conversation, especially about poetry. He took young poets seriously and
easily invited us into his circle. He would sit in his chair, elbows on the
arms of the chair, hands clasped; he would lean forward and peer at us at us
with that one eye; and he would answer our questions about how a poem is
made. He would talk about content becoming form and form becoming content,
about using a typewriter or a pencil, about legal-sized pads of yellow paper
opposed to notebooks, about all these many things. And he would tell us
stories about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charles Olson and Williams
Carlos Williams. Not gossiping stories, but stories with an intent to reveal
something about poetry and living life like a poet with eyes and ears wide
open. His stories became parables in our hearts. It was a paradise. I wanted
so much to be a poet.
Creeley and his poems were addictive. If you read too much Creeley, which I
of course did, then you started writing like him with short perfect lines,
simple nouns and verbs, short little ditties that were oblique and
tantalizing with innuendo. Opening up any poetry magazine of the time you
could find young poets scattered across the United States who had been
snorting and smoking too much Creeley. But if you were serious about your
craft, and you understood Creeley¹s ideas about form, then you would go find
other poets and sources that led you back home to yourself. It was
As the years passed I¹d bump into Bob Creeley in various places. We¹d talk
like old friends and compare notes, we¹d drink wine and laugh, and he¹d tell
me stories about poets and poems, peering at me through that one mysterious
eye. The cadences of his conversation were the same cadences of his poetry.
I was always scuttling back to his poems, more sure of myself, reading them
and being amazed. And I would always be reminded of the sense of a community
of poets that Creeley had passed along to me and my peers. I still feel that
when I hear and read poems I like, and when I write poems, or an essay like
this. I feel like I am participating in community. That together we are
feeding the luminous beast which is poetry.
Ezra Pound said poets and artists are the antennae of their race, and
Creeley loved to remind his listeners of that statement, wondering aloud
what it meant. That¹s why I put Creeley and Pope John Paul II together on
Charon¹s rickety boat floating on the River Styx toward the other shore. The
Pope feels confused and out of place afloat the dark waters. His tenure on
the Spaceship Earth was as the spiritual leader of a feudalistic institution
that wields enormous sway in the world he has just departed, but its symbols
and paraphernalia of a God-ordered universe no longer seem to catch hold.
Its power and majesty are subsiding. In the quiet of his heart the Pope
understood that the struggle was about ideas and mythos, but he was never
able to grasp evolutionary theory and the New Physics. Those ideas didn¹t
fit comfortably inside the Cathedral. And now the Pope sits facing his
companion, a goofy one-eyed poet with an unkempt beard. The guy seems
nervous and unsure of himself, but he¹s scribbling on a piece of paper.
"What are you doing?"
"Writing a poem."
The poet leans forward and says, "Well, I don¹t know yet. I let the poems
bubble up from the mud. It¹s sort of like everything else."
"But what does your poem say so far?"
"It says, Death is so much emptiness, huh?"
"Well, maybe," the Pope says.
Charon, the ancient ferryman, dips his pole into the dark water and pushes
his boat toward the other shore. He says absolutely nothing. He never will.
**An excellent place to begin researching Robert Creeley¹s life and work can
be found at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/creeley/
THE ABOVE WAS CULLED FROM
Bobby Byrd for The Texas Observer.
America, you ode for reality!
Give back the people you took.
Let the sun shine again
on the four corners of the world
you thought of first but do not
own, or keep like a convenience.
People are your own word, you
invented that locus and term.
Here, you said and say, is
where we are. Give back
what we are, these people you made,
us, and nowhere but you to be.
the sense of trap
as a narrowing
cone one's got
stuck into and
wedges once more--
or quite when,
even with whom,
since now there is no one
quite with you--Quite? Quiet?
English expression: Quait?
Language of singular
impedance? A dance? An
involuntary gesture to
others not there? What's
wrong here? How
reach out to the
other side all
others live on as
now you see the
two doctors, behind
you, in mind's eye,
probe into your anus,
or ass, or bottom,
behind you, the roto-
sees all up, concludes
"like a worn-out inner tube,"
"old," prose prolapsed, person's
problems won't do, must
cut into, cut out . . .
The world is a round but
diminishing ball, a spherical
ice cube, a dusty
joke, a fading,
faint echo of its
former self but remembers,
sometimes, its past, sees
friends, places, reflections,
talks to itself in a fond,
alone at last.
I stood so close
to you I could have
reached out and
touched you just
as you turned
over and began to
snore not unattractively,
no, never less than
attractively, my love,
my love--but in this
curiously glowing dark, this
finite emptiness, you, you, you
are crucial, hear the
whimpering back of
the talk, the approaching
fears when I may
cease to be me, all
lost or rather lumped
here in a retrograded,
self, a uselessness
talks, even if finally to no one,
talks and talks.
The words are a beautiful music.
The words bounce like in water.
loud in the clearing
off the boats,
They look for a place
to sit and eat--