Poet Robert Creeley, 78, dies

April 1, 2005

Robert Creeley, a leading figure of post-modern American poetry who was known for his spare, concise language and a free-form style that distilled powerful emotions into verse, died March 30 at a hospital in Odessa, Texas, after a brief illness. He was 78.

Creeley had been struggling with a lung ailment and died of complications of pneumonia, according to a spokeswoman for the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he taught for 37 years.

A prolific poet and critic who wrote more than 60 books over the last five decades, Creeley had been a distinguished professor of English at Brown University in Rhode Island since 2003. He had gone to Texas on a two-month writing residency funded by the arts-based Lannan Foundation, which maintains the writers retreat in Marfa, Texas, where Creeley had been working.

A 1999 recipient of the Bollingen Prize, poetry's top honor, Creeley was an early participant in movements that helped set the stage for the countercultural revolution of the 1960s. He was closely allied with writers of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, for whom he typed what may have been the first copy of the epic poem "Howl."

He also was associated in the 1950s with the "Black Mountain Poets," whose other notable members included Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan. He emerged in the 1960s as a seminal figure in what became known as New American Poetry.

Creeley's death "has robbed American poetry of one of its last great bohemian modernists," Dana Gioia, a poet and chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, told The Times Thursday. "At his death he was a mainstream canonic figure, but he emerged and lived on the margins of American poetry."

Using what the Bollingen Prize judges praised as the "stubbornly plain language that makes a Creeley poem instantly recognizable," he wrote frequently about emotions as expansive as love and events as wrenching as aging and death. His best poems often were about those closest to him -- his mother, his wives, his children -- a preoccupation that caused poet and critic Robert Graves to dismiss him as a "domestic poet."

Creeley embraced the distinction. He assumed an intimacy with readers, one that bred extreme brevity to the degree that he often used incomplete sentences and his own abbreviations, such as "sd" for "said." His unorthodox style was pronounced in "I Know a Man," one of his most anthologized poems, which presents a complex philosophical statement as a casual conversation between two men in a car:

As I sd to my

friend, because I am

always talking,-John, I

sd, which was not his

name, the darkness sur-

rounds us, what

can we do against

it, or else, shall we &

why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for

christ's sake, look

out where yr going.

To some critics, such experimentation was a fatal flaw. "There are two things to be said about Creeley's poems," critic John Simon once wrote. "They are short; they are not short enough."

To others, his economy of language was a virtue. "If Mr. Creeley can get his point across with fewer syllables, so much the better," wrote David Kirby in a 1991 review of Creeley's "Selected Poems."

Creeley's central contribution was an organic notion of poetry, one that insisted that "form is never more than an extension of content," a radical reversal of the prevailing view in post-World War II American poetry.

Instead of setting down ideas within a preordained frame or rhythmic pattern, such as the iamb or trochee, Creeley agitated for freedom of form. He championed the principle that form should follow or evolve out of the idea.

This principle resulted in "a very personable kind of poetry that . . . followed the rhythm of one's own heart," said Michael Basinski, curator of the poetry collection at SUNY Buffalo, who knew Creeley for 33 years as his student and later as a colleague.

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Creeley's sensibility was formed at North Carolina's Black Mountain College, where he earned a degree and taught English in the mid-1950s, a decade after dropping out of Harvard. Black Mountain was a hotbed of experimental artists such as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham. Most influential on Creeley was poet Charles Olson, who collaborated with Creeley on the idea that poetry should be a process unhindered by the forms favored by the previous generation.

"His method is more like a jazz improvisation than a classical music composition. He invents as he goes along," said Charles Bernstein, a poet and critic at the University of Pennsylvania and a former longtime colleague in Buffalo

Creeley was born in Arlington, Mass., the son of a doctor. When Creeley was 2, he lost an eye in a freak accident involving flying glass. Before he was 5, his father died, an event that plunged the family into poverty.

Insurance money from the accident and his father's death enabled him to attend Harvard, where he drank and smoke heavily and floundered academically. He left in 1944 to become an ambulance driver in Spain.

He went to Black Mountain College at the invitation of Olson, who was the college rector and earned a bachelor's degree in 1955. He later earned a masters degree at the University of New Mexico.

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Creeley's favorite expression, according to Conte, was "Onward!" He was constantly on the go, giving as many as 50 readings a year. In one of his last appearances a few weeks ago in Charlottesville, Va., he delivered a compelling performance despite being hooked up to an oxygen tank and spoke honestly of his frailties.

When he died, his wife, Penelope, and two of his eight children were at his side.

In his last years he often wrote of the anxieties of aging with humor, bite and wistful anticipation, as in "Goodbye":

The century was well along

when I came in

and now that it's ending,

I realize it won't

be long.

But couldn't it all have been

a little nicer,

as my mother'd say. Did it

have to kill everything in sight,

did right always have to be so wrong?

I know this body is impatient.

I know I constitute only a meager voice and mind.

Yet I loved, I love.

I want no sentimentality.

I want no more than home.