Hold still, lion!

By C. D. Wright / July / August 2005
May 3rd, 2007

What you do is how you get along.

What you did is all it ever means.

from "Place to Be" in If I were writing this (2003)

By the time I knew the poet Robert Creeley well enough to call him my friend, he had long been poetry's emblem of bonhomie. A mundane sandwich with Robert, who died on March 30, would prompt a swift e-mail: "Thanks again for the good company and soul-securing lunch." In his company I felt poetry's sturdiness and purpose. The solid barns and stone walls of New England come to mind. And that old, comforting word hearth. He was where we gathered to get warm. He was a great provider is the phrase once used of a man who brought home the money, or bacon, as it was carnivorously called. Robert provided in the word's largest sense: not only for his family but for his company, and he was concerned that his provisions be adequate - meaning he cared for what he cared about - his family, the human family, and poetry, the family of poetry. No one asked him to assume such a role, but no one else took it on, and he stepped up. He stepped up.

The years in which I spent the most time with him were the last ones. When a young man, he acquired a reputation equally for his intellect, his talking, his humor, his temper, and for all the other uncurbed excesses of a nervous, cerebral, alienated individual. In the last large third of his life, he was otherwise occupied. He always wanted to do things right. Now, he wanted to do the right thing. He wanted to get it all right: Hold still, lion! / I am trying / to paint you / while there's time to. This ageless poet became as central a voice of age as Yeats:

The seeming fractures of a self

grow ominous, like peaks of old

mountains remembered but faint

in the obscuring fog. Time to push off, do

some push-ups perhaps, take a walk with

the neighbors I haven't spoken to in years.

from If I were writing this (2003)


And the essential poet of the final passage:

When it comes

it loses edge,

has nothing around it,

no place now present

but impulse not one's own,

and so empties into a river

which will flow on

into a white cloud

and be gone.

from Life & Death (1998)

When I wrote to poet Rosmarie Waldrop regarding Robert Creeley's death, she responded, "It is the end of a world."

In post-World War II America there were several loosely affiliated, overlapping strands of poets who began publishing - poets who rejected the epistemological and Anglophile models of W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot for something more concretely American. They were known variously as the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats, and the Black Mountain poets. They came up on the heels of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and along the spur of the Objectivists, who included Louis Zukofksy, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Lorine Niedecker. Robert Creeley was the bridge. He distributed the differences and sounded parallel concerns. He began corresponding with Pound and Williams in 1949. He and John Ashbery were seated two desks apart at Harvard. In Mallorca, his Divers Press published Robert Duncan and Paul Blackburn. He typed Allen Ginsberg's Howl, which was then mimeographed in an edition of twenty-five.

Born May 21, 1926, in Arlington, Massachusetts, Creeley, whose doctor father died when he was four, grew up on a farm in West Acton. He went briefly to Harvard before leaving to work for the American Field Service in Burma and India. He returned but left again, a few credits short of graduating. At the legendary and now gone Black Mountain College, he studied with Charles Olson and earned his successorship. There Creeley edited the Black Mountain Review and picked up the degree he had managed not to complete at Harvard. (He also earned a master's at the University of New Mexico.) Over the years he would edit works of Charles Olson and George Oppen (and Robert Burns and Walt Whitman), as well as anthologies of new American writing. His correspondence was carried on at a rate and level not to be believed. The Olson/Creeley letters alone consume ten volumes. He wrote tense stories and a superb short novel along with scores of word-perfect essays. He published around seventy books. Search for his name on Amazon.com and 223 titles come up. His collaborations with such artists as Francesco Clemente, Elsa Dorfman, Sol LeWitt, R. B. Kitaj, and Susan Rothenberg were the occasion of fine-edition volumes and traveling exhibitions. His work with musicians such as Steve Lacy and Steve Swallow was performed for packed, hip audiences and often recorded. He could - and did - fill London's Royal Albert Hall, yet he had no qualms about reading to a gathering of four. He was just as willing to talk extemporaneously in lieu of giving a promoted reading. He was not there to accommodate anyone's expectations - he was there to discover the direction of his own thinking. And in that, as he often said, quoting William Carlos Williams, lay the profundity.

With the 1962 publication of For Love, Creeley became a world poet, an icon, albeit in the American grain. "I was reading Robert Creeley to girls pretty much from the getgo," writes poet Jeffrey Skillings. So, on long night drives, my husband often recited "The Rain" to me, most winningly. Creeley's line break, which marked his rhythm, provoked sudden recognition. Readers routinely recall their first hearing of a poem. A poet from Missouri describes how, when a nineteen-year-old soldier in Vietnam, he indolently fished a Creeley title from the bottom of the mailroom's book box: Binh Dinh province, 1968, discovering Creeley. "I know a man" is surely one of a handful of the most quoted and recited short poems of the twentieth century, along with Pound's "In a Station at the Metro," Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar," and Langston Hughes's "Harlem." A current graduate student told me that when a high school teacher first read the poem before her, it registered as a moment when she felt her hair being blown straight back.

The Creeley line inevitably alerts and pleases our motor impulses. Creeley attributed the delay in his line to Charlie Parker. He also credited the musician for his active treatment of silences. I liken the poet's jarring line to stepping off an unseen curb and righting oneself midair. His prose syntax had the formal air of a previous era, yet it held to the same hard definition as his poetry - nothing superfluous. The complex he called poems simply made their moves faster. The writing stayed with the experience, stayed with the making. It was autobiographical, of course, but in the sense that "writing could be an intensely specific revelation of one's own content." The seriousness of his project kept to a continuum. He lived, he lives, his life in words, "bringing all the world to one instant of otherwise meaningless 'time.' "

Robert Creeley taught for thirty-seven years at SUNY Buffalo before joining Brown's faculty in 2003. He also taught on a finca in Guatemala, at an academy in New Mexico, and at San Francisco State, the University of British Columbia, and other schools. His abbreviated resume lists more than thirty countries in which he read, and he averaged fifty readings and lectures a year. Famous for crisscrossing borders, he lived in Massachusetts, France, Mallorca, Finland, Germany, Guatemala, British Columbia, North Carolina, New York, New Mexico, California, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. He married three times and is survived by eight children.

On March 19 he served on a panel on Whitman and read at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, receiving a standing ovation. He had earlier completed a residency in Wilmington, where he became ill with pneumonia, and begun a two-month residency in Texas, returning east for the Virginia Festival. On March 25, after he was back in Texas, I phoned him to get a straightforward sense of his condition. The prognosis was discouraging, but it was not yet evident that death was imminent. I e-mailed him simply that I loved him. The next morning, again by e-mail, came, "Thanks for that reassuring information! One quick question, do you guys know a simple lawyer there in the ÔProvidence area'? We need to make a new will, since we've changed residence from NY to RI. Always something to do! Love to you all." Bob famously loved the Internet. Small wonder. Finally some thing actually existed that could facilitate his wonderful rapid-fire mind and keep up with his ever-widening affections. At his death from pneumonia in Odessa, Texas, five days later, his beloved third wife, Penelope, and their children, William and Hannah, were at his side.

The reading he was to give this spring for Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Awards was delivered in his name by the critic and scholar Helen Vendler. The prize he was to be given in June in Modena, Italy, was awarded, death notwithstanding. The memorials began almost immediately, and a host of eulogies and elegies were posted on Web sites and blogs to the ends of the literate world, which is the end of a world. So there. With the deaths of his original mentors and so many of his dearest peers, he felt "the company," as he called the body politic of poetry, getting smaller: "Now no one seems there anymore." In the instance of Robert Creeley, the company was still growing.

We poets are also his company, and his persistent voice made us and has kept us so. Embarrassed, as many are, by the designation poet, he became one "by virtue of the act of writing." And for him, it became not only "a place to be" or "a consistently present reality," but the place, the reality. He did not play at being a poet - though pleasure was central to his preoccupation - he worked at it, locating himself altogether in words. He was a man of his words. He was given to write poems.

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July / August 2005