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Robert Creeley

Poet of 'vigilant minimalism'

Wednesday 06 April 2005 00:00 BST

Robert Creeley was a major figure in an alternative movement in American poetry that is now mainstream. It worked to undermine the then dominant formalism, which it found excessively academic, Anglocentric and élitistly "literary".

Robert White Creeley, poet: born Arlington, Massachusetts 21 May 1926; married 1946 Ann McKinnon (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1955), 1957 Bobby Louise Hall (three daughters; marriage dissolved 1976), 1977 Penelope Highton (one son, one daughter); died Odessa, Texas 30 March 2005.

Robert Creeley was a major figure in an alternative movement in American poetry that is now mainstream. It worked to undermine the then dominant formalism, which it found excessively academic, Anglocentric and élitistly "literary".

Locating its forebears in Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and the plain- speaking work of William Carlos Williams, this movement prospered in the second half of the 20th century, until it became subsumed itself into the admittedly thin power structure of the poetry establishment. The rebel poets (including Creeley) became rulers.

Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, in 1926 of Yankee stock. His father was a prominent local doctor, but by the time Creeley was five his father had died and he had lost the sight in one eye. The effect of these two losses was dramatic and lifelong; it made Creeley feel perennially an outsider, outwardly aggressive but inwardly insecure, worried, edgy. It also changed his circumstances, for his mother was forced to return to full-time work as a nurse, and the family moved to a farm which had originally been purchased by Creeley's father as a vacation home.

Bright at school, Creeley won a scholarship to a New Hampshire boarding school and then attended Harvard, where his contemporaries included the political activist Mitchell Goodman and the novelist John Hawkes. His teachers at Harvard were uninspiring (though he affectionately recalled being taught by the poet Delmore Schwartz), but Creeley read widely, particularly among early English poets - Vaughan was a particular favourite.

Unable to sign up in the Second World War because of his eye, Creeley joined the American Field Service and drove ambulances in India and Burma. He returned to Harvard, and became involved in a student magazine started as an alternative to the Harvard Advocate, but he did not graduate, spending his time in Boston jazz clubs and with Ann MacKinnon, a girl he later described as "as dislocated as I was . . . we had the mutual need for somebody to locate so we grabbed on to each other".

After an abortive effort to farm in New Hampshire, Creeley and his wife moved to Europe, where living was then much cheaper, and settled in Majorca in 1951, living off a small trust fund of MacKinnon's. He was writing poems and beginning to send them out to other writers, and in 1950 he had began a voluminous four-year correspondence with the poet Charles Olson, then busy formulating his famous Projectivist tenets.

Although Olson is often cited as a mentor for Creeley, the influence cut both ways - Olson himself said he had learned more from Creeley "than from any other living man". Both poets were working against a dominant Anglo-American tradition of poetic forms, and struggling to create a new aesthetic for a freer kind of poetry.

Looked at in retrospect, much of the theory of Projective Verse seems nebulous and unconcrete - and Creeley himself subsequently downplayed the role of a formal poetics in his own work. But the thrust was clear: both writers espoused an organic poetry, in which "form is never more than an expression of content"; they advocated a poetry which was immediate and therefore somehow more "real"; both looked happily outside literature for inspiration - Creeley to jazz and painting.

When his marriage fell apart, Creeley returned to America in 1954 and at Olson's invitation taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as well as editing The Black Mountain Review. The college had been founded in 1933 and despite a roll-call of artistic talent on its faculty - Franz Kline, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Cid Corman, Olson - was on its last legs. But it showed Creeley that, despite an innate shyness, he could teach - and like teaching. Moving on to San Francisco, he soon made friends with the members of its "renaissance"' - Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth among them - and included samples of their work in the final issue of Black Mountain Review.

Creeley's early work was either self-published or appeared only with small presses, but For Love: poems 1950-1960 was published by Scribners in 1962, and brought him national attention - as did his appearance in Donald Allen's groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960). He also published a novel, The Island (1963), based on his own unhappy first marriage and set in Majorca, but, despite Olson's belief that Creeley would write mainly fiction, he never wrote another. Having spent time as a tutor in Guatemala, Creeley conceived of a novel to be set there and received a $500 advance for it, but, as he said later, the political realities of a country where you could have anyone killed for $25 overwhelmed his fictional ideas.

A prolific writer (he published more than 60 books) Creeley was none the less a writer of such intense distillation that the critic Hugh Kenner once noted his poetry was sometimes so minimal that it was almost not there; less charitably, the waspish critic John Simon said there were two keys facts about Creeley's poems: "They are short; they are not short enough."

But what one critic called his "vigilant minimalism" can have powerful effects: as Creeley said, "You can't derail a train by standing directly in front of it . . . But, a tiny piece of steel, properly placed . . ." His best-known poem, "I Know a Man", shows his concision at its best:

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

Interestingly, despite its Kerouac-like spirit, the credo here is in fact more measured than many critics have suggested. As Creeley himself commented, the poem is about "going for it" but with a most un-Beatnik sense of restraint - "look / out where yr going" is key.

Unlike the Beats, and paradoxically unlike those more Formalist writers such as John Berryman and Robert Lowell, who had begun to write very personal "Confessional" poetry, Creeley in his work is decidedly impersonal. As the poet J.D. McClatchy notes, Creeley seems "troubled by the problem of mediated utterance". In his poems, he seems always working to remove himself, striving, in Melville's phrase, "for the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things".

Now I recognize

it was always me

like a camera

set to expose

itself to a picture

or a pipe

through which the water

might run

After the rumbustious wandering of his early adult years, Creeley settled down, teaching for the rest of his life at a variety of universities, including for 25 years at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where colleagues included the critic Leslie Fiedler and the novelist John Barth.

In 2003 he went to Brown University, where he taught for two years, and at the time of his death he was at a writer's retreat in Marfa, Texas, where the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd had his studio. After his second marriage ended in 1976 (more peacefully than the first), Creeley was married for a third time in the following year, very happily, to Penelope Highton.

Creeley mellowed as he grew old, though he lamented the lack of ambition he found in many younger poets, finding them "curiously faint". His later poems are gentler, though more troubled, imbued by regret and a sense of loss at "witnessing one's friends going". His anti-establishment stance as a young man largely dissolved with the receipt of so many establishment garlands: he received both Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, won the Bollingen Prize (1989), was nominated for a National Book Award, and even served as a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets.

As his status as a maverick figure diminished, the very real quality of his best poems has emerged. For his work is intensely human, its tone endearingly vulnerable, yet restrained by what the poet Hayden Carruth called "an inner decorum which is even courtly at times".

Andrew Rosenheim

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