Poetry; Robert Creeley Voice Box, South Bank, London

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The voice of the American poet Robert Creeley sounded splintered by pain and hurt and loss when he read at the Voice Box on Tuesday. He hesitated on the threshold of every syllable as if teetering on the brink of some emotional precipice.

Creeley is 69 years of age now, the age at which a man sets about memorialising his own life in earnest - all those dear friends who died, great spirits all; the chances life offered, then snatched back; the royalties that never came through - and he has been a force to be reckoned with in American poetry since the 1950s. Sometime editor of the Black Mountain Review, it was Creeley who took William Carlos Williams as his principal role model, learning exemplary habits of direct address, plain diction, and a kind of emotional low-key. The poems he wrote in those years were exquisite miniatures, emotionally probing, honest, laconic.

This week he was relaxing into the dignities of esteem, of knowing that the things he talked about would be touchstones for the young, no matter how inconsequential they may once have seemed. "Yes, they were such benign, generous and forgiving spirits," he said, taking a rag to his eye. He was talking about Sorley Maclean and Hamish Henderson, two old poet friends he'd met again at Keele University this week, and with whom he'd been reminiscing about the 1940s. Sweet. Dear. Loyal. Generous. These are all favourite Creeley words, and they help to overlay almost everything he says with a kind of patina of sentiment. His English publisher had been loyal, too. "I want to thank Marion Boyars for publishing Echoes, this new book of mine," he said. "She has been the most loyal and determined of publishers since... my God, 1964! This year my royalties were so meagre she told me that the cheque would probably be less than it would cost to mail it."

This statement came as something of a surprise to the loyal Creeleyites present. But, as Creeley himself reminded us, it's always been that way with good poetry. "Wallace Stevens - now he was one of the great heroes - his Harmonium sold so poorly, he almost gave up poetry. There was just no take."

After reading a few short poems from the new collection, Creeley settled into a longer new work called "Histoire de Florida": "The setting is New Smyrna Beach," he said. "The very name seemed to me to have a curious echoing sweetness... I'll read for maybe 20 minutes. It will give me a chance to stretch out, have some space."

Twenty minutes later, he stopped and looked up. "What time is it? Time to go home yet?"

"Another 20 minutes," instructed a literature officer.

n Robert Creeley reads 8pm Fri, Morden Tower, Stowell St, Newcastle (0191- 477 4430)