IN PRINT - IN APPRECIATION - Poet's lyric brilliance, generosity of spirit touched friends, fans


7 April 2005

The Providence Journal


© 2005 Providence Journal/Evening Bulletin. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

When poet Robert Creeley died last week, of pneumonia in Odessa, Texas, the news sent shock waves through the literary world, but was overshadowed elsewhere -- even here in Providence, where he lived -- by the death of Pope John Paul II. We asked Michael Gizzi, a longtime friend and colleague of Creeley's, to tell us why it mattered.

- Doug Riggs, Books editor

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Since Robert Creeley's death last week, his friends and fans throughout the world have set all systems of communication humming: newspapers, phones and the Internet; people sharing his poems over drinks and coffee. Tributes are being scheduled across the country and Internet sites have been mounted to express the sense of loss and appreciation for this most generous of poets. Novelist Rick Moody is asking fellow artists and writers to post memories, tributes and thoughts about Creeley at the literary Web site , which has been dedicated specifically for this purpose. It would seem, in death, that he has ignited the very essence of his favorite word "company." Seldom does one witness such an outpouring of sympathy among artists.

Many were first introduced to his concise, lyric brilliance with the publication, in 1960, of Donald Allen's groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry. That same year saw the publication of Creeley's For Love, one of the most influential and pivotal works of the postwar period.

For love - I would

split open your head and put

a candle in

behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us

if we forget

the virtues of an amulet

and quick surprise.

I remember as a young man seeing this book in everyone's apartment. Its gray covers with red lettering seemed to inhabit all sympathetic space, a talisman for poets and lovers alike. Photos of Creeley from this period were also particularly evocative, the handsome, dark-haired poet with an eye patch -- he'd lost the use of his left eye as a child. He seemed a cross between Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe.

I've seen more than one obituary refer to Creeley as a Beat poet. It's true he was a great friend to Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso; and over the years Creeley prefaced many reprints of Kerouac's voluminous works. They'd been friends and running mates in the '50s, lived together and drank together. Bob told me that once during this period he'd been locked up for disorderly behavior and called Jack to bail him out. Kerouac, who didn't drive, walked five miles in the middle of the night to spring Bob and deposit him back at his rooming house. "You would have known him," Bob said. "He was a very sympathetic character."

CREELEY WAS DEFINITELY a hipster, but he was more than that. He left Harvard in 1947, shortly before graduation, moved to a farm in New Hampshire to raise racing pigeons, and then, with his first wife, headed to Mallorca, where he edited Divers Press and the Black Mountain Review. It was at Black Mountain College in North Carolina that Creeley's influence really took root.

Spearheaded by the 6-foot-10-inch author of The Maximus Poems, Charles Olson, Black Mountain was the spawning ground for an entire school of poetics. Among those associated with this school were Paul Blackburn, Robert Duncan, Larry Eigner, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, John Wieners and Jonathan Williams. It was with this group that Creeley's work was represented in Allen's The New American Poetry.

Though he would have been 79 in May, Bob was never an "old man." He had more energy than 10 young people combined; just keeping up with his comings and goings could wear one out. He closed all his correspondence with the word "Onward." Hardly a week passed that he wasn't traveling across country or abroad. He was a mentor to every subsequent generation of poets. He was eminently approachable. He wrote countless letters of recommendation and championed the careers of many young writers. His collaborations with artists and musicians are legion. Poet C.D. Wright told me that Amazon has listed more than 170 Creeley titles. In addition to his own poetry, essays, a novel and short stories, there are collaborations with Alex Katz, Francesco Clemente and Susan Rothenberg, and CDs with such jazz giants as the late composer and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.

CREELEY JOINED THE faculty at Brown in 2003, after 37 years at SUNY Buffalo, where he directed the poetics program and helped launch the careers of many of today's distinguished younger poets. Bob loved Providence; he was excited about it. He said he felt as if he'd finally come home. He was less than 60 miles from his hometown of West Acton, Mass., where each year they celebrate Robert Creeley Day. He told me how in the '40s, after his mother finished her night shift as a nurse in Cambridge, he would drive the family car down to Providence to play pool and hustle a few dollars so he and his buddies could have breakfast before heading home.

He was an inveterate talker and the most sensitive of listeners. Bob's heroic talking sessions seemed the perfect foil to his concise, diamond-like poetry; after all that compression, he just needed to stretch. I've never known a less pretentious or more generous man, who so enjoyed the company of others.

I experienced some painfully personal difficulties this past winter. It was Bob who stepped into the breach. We had lunch every week, made excursions to the sea, had marathon discussions around his kitchen table and swapped our favorite jazz CDs. He and his lovely wife, Penelope, simply weren't going to allow me to ruminate in isolation. It was difficult to comprehend how this hero to so many could be thus invested in my well-being.

I know I speak here for countless others who have been on the receiving end of his singular friendship and goodwill. I can't bear to think that I'll never again hear that beautifully particular New England timbre of his, but there are tapes and, yes, there are memories. And the poems, which will outlive all of us.

Michael Gizzi of Providence is a poet, an editor, and a visiting lecturer at Brown and Roger Williams University.

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* Friends and colleagues describe internationally known poet and Brown University professor Robert Creeley, who died last week, as a generous man who was a mentor to a subsequent generation of poets.