Robert Creeley: A Mainer at Heart

Robert Creeley's death in March 2005 cannot have been a shock to the many people who knew him - he was 78 years old - but his absence will be felt everywhere poets are at work in America, including in Maine where he owned a house and made frequent appearances at the university in Orono.
Creeley grew up in eastern Massachusetts, attended Harvard but didn't graduate, served as an ambulance driver in India during World War II, then bounced from one enterprise to another, including chicken farming in New Hampshire, publishing in Mallorca, and teaching. He was longest at the State University of New York at Buffalo, but over five decades spent various amounts of time at many other places, most famously Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There he, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan and others forged a now legendary poetic community tightly knit with the Beat scene. Everywhere he went, he centered his attention and disposition on testing the forces of language.
This was clear in his affable, meandering, quietly forceful speech. I first met himin 1985 when I was a graduate student and he was a visiting professor at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Like many students, I was bewildered for weeks by the apparent haphazard wandering of his classroom speaking style. Then one night I heard him read his poems for the first time. In his rhythms - which are pictured in the short sharp lines of most of his poems - his ideas suddenly cohered, and his classroom stories and insights seemed no longer haphazard, but crystal. His poetry sprang directly from the subtleties of his own speech, just as his mentors Olson and William Carlos Williams urged.

What happens when
the house is at last
quiet and the lights
lowered, go finally out?

Then is it all silent?
Are the echoes still,
the reflections faded,
the places left alone?

What seemed like aimless nonsense in the classroom was in fact astonishing emotional coherence. It may eventually be decided that his most influential works are not his poems, but his many transcribed interviews and conversations, which are fascinating to read.
Few who knew Bob Creeley will deny, I think, that the emotional core of his impulses to poetry and human relationships was extraordinarily endearing and real. There was hardly a pretentious bone in his body. He came face to face with the poseurs, hangers-on, wannabes and fakes who have crowded American letters for decades and longer, and treated them generously. "Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" He rose above them all. His authenticity of feeling, together with a profound willingness to uncover and face the obscurest parts of himself and evoke them in rhythms and startling grammatical and semantic tropes, is what made Creeley one of our great 20th century poets.
Creeley thought of himself as a New Englander, and in the visits I made to his house in Waldoboro he spoke with warmth of his sense that at heart he was a Mainer. Although all of us who have ever taught literature talk a lot, few of us realize we talk too much; but Creeley understood the paradox between living the life of trying to put everything in words and knowing that hardly a thing you say can really be understood. The affinity he felt with Mainers, he once told me, was our disposition "to say as little as possible as often as possible." These words helped me, when I was in China where everyone is out of the cradle endlessly talking, explain to them why I seemed so weirdly taciturn. We are Mainers, where language is frequently the method of last resort.
This is how Creeley's influence worked - deep, enduring and concise. He visited the University of Maine often to give workshops and readings, and had spent a term as a visiting professor, similar to the appointment he was fulfilling when he died March 30 in Odessa, Texas. He lit up Orono and every place he visited with understated stories, wry and often ironic humor, remarkable insights into the inner life, and a compassion unusual in - let's say it straight out - its beauty in the human universe.
What will be missed are his words, the few and the many, and inseparably, his presence. Robert Creeley was one of America's exemplary poets and people. "Onward."

© Dana Wilde 2007; Bangor Daily News, 2005.

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Photo swiped from University of Buffalo website.