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Most known for his participation in the ”Black Mountain” school of poetry, Robert Creeley produced volumes of poetry, fiction and drama throughout the second half of the twentieth century. His writing is marked by an almost spontaneous feeling, and it captures natural speech pat terns and sparse emotion rather than adhering to standard poetic forms. Creeley participated in the major poetic movements of the second half of the twentieth century, maintained friendships with numerous influential poets and writers, and received numerous awards for his work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Farm Life to Harvard
Robert White Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, and after the death of his father, he moved at the age of four with his mother and sister to nearby West Acton. His childhood was spent in this rural neighborhood, and at fourteen he entered Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire, where he was a scholarship student and contributed to school publications. After three years at Holderness, Creeley entered Harvard in the fall of 1943, leaving after one year to drive an ambulance in the India-Burma theatre of World War ii. He married Ann McKinnon in 1946, commuted to Harvard for a while before dropping out for good, and started a close and fruitful friendship with Cid Corman, who conducted a Boston radio program called ”This is Poetry.”
Having recently survived the Great Depression of the 1930s, in which jobs and housing were scarce, financial stability was always a concern in Creeley’s family, as well as in the nation more generally. Establishing a livable income would drive Creeley’s choices throughout much of his early career.
Writing Influenced by Relationships with Other Writers
During this postwar period, Creeley had been strongly swayed by the ideas in The Wedge (1944) by William Carlos Williams and Make It New (1934) by Ezra Pound, both celebrated modernist poets. Modernist poetry, popular especially in the first half of the twentieth century, questions ideas of progress and religion and finds transcendence in art itself.
In 1951, with children to support, the Creeleys moved to France, hoping to survive more economically on Ann Creeley’s income. Because of the inflation in France the Creeley family moved to Majorca, Spain. on Majorca Creeley and his wife started the Divers Press, an independent press that focused on publishing experimental writers. Creeley’s stimulating relationship with writer Charles Olson, began in 1950, led to Creeley’s association with Black Mountain College in North Carolina when Olson recommended he edit the Black Mountain Review. Creeley taught at Black Mountain College through his divorce from Ann, and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955. Creeley’s time at the college created his most influential work, becoming known as the Black Mountain School of Poetry.
Creeley left Black Mountain in 1956 and went to San Francisco, where he met Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gary Snyder, the giants of the group of emerging experimental writers known as the Beat Generation. These writers were part of the radical movements in the 1960s that questioned traditional social, racial, and gender roles. By the time Creeley received his MA degree from the University of New Mexico in 1960, he had seven books of poems to his credit. The year 1960 was to be of considerable importance for him. In May 1960 Poetry magazine published ten new poems by Creeley and awarded him its Levinson Prize. Donald Allen’s significant collection, The New American Poetry: 1945 1960, published in the same month, included a number of Creeley’s poems. In 1961-1962 Creeley taught at the University of New Mexico, and he became affiliated with universities for the rest of his life, becoming in 1978 Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Creeley attained and accepted the status of an elder statesman of poetry in his later years. Some of his most notable later literary accomplishments include his autobiography, the occasional prose essay, interviews, orally presented poetry, and lectures. Aside from teaching he made literary tours of the United States and the world. His works have been translated and published in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, and France, among other countries. Perhaps most significantly Creeley enjoyed the distinction of having been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He died during an artist’s residence in Texas, in 2005.
Works in Literary Context
The Black Mountain School and Projectivist Poetry
Black Mountain College focused on the performing and traditional arts as well as literature, and produced many students who became influential in the avant-garde movement of the 1960s. Creeley’s poetry is most closely associated with Projectivism, an outgrowth of the Black Mountain School of poetry. Writer Charles Olson, and friend of Creeley, helped establish this style of poetry which breaks down the expectation of a poem to follow any established form apart from the particular piece. Emphasizing the immediacy of the specific poem, Creeley famously established projectivism’s style by stating, ”form is never more than an extension of content.” Under this progressive approach, the creative process is as important as the finished product, the writing of the poem as crucial as the poem itself. Like the Beat poets, projectivist poets focus on the poetic experience rather than more traditional measures of poetry like stanza and measured meter. The Black Mountain poets included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov, whose styles, like Creeley’s, were highly experimental. Their work reflected a new path, away from the formal approach of the New Critical literary tradition of the 1950s, favoring more loosely constructed poetry and prose.
Creeley spent significant time in contact with the Beat poets in San Francisco. The Beats produced experimental writing that placed high value on stream-of-consciousness and performance elements, and Creeley established a lasting connection between them and the Black Mountain poets. The widespread financial insecurity caused by the Depression of the 1930s, together with the huge number of deaths caused by the holocaust and World War II, were defining elements of this generation of writers. This produced what Creeley called ”a sort of terrifying need to demonstrate the valuelessness of one’s own life.” Creeley, with the Beat poets, challenged the formal nature of poetry that dictated the structure of a poem. Like the many political upheavals occurring in the 1960s, including the Civil Rights movement advancing the rights of black Americans, and the social revolution promoting sexual freedom and recreational drug use, Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters 1957-1958 (2000), a series of letters between Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson. Both active writers during the emerging Beat Generation, Kerouac and Johnson write letters that reveal both their deepening relationship and their creative process.
Creeley and the Beat poets did not look to the past for traditional inspiration. Instead they challenged old pat terns by writing poetry that existed in the moment.
Works in Critical Context
With the release of his 1991 Selected Poems, a compilation of over forty years of work, most critics acknowledged Creeley as a major influence on younger writers and an influential voice in American literature.
For Love: Poems 1950-1960
For Love was widely reviewed and generally praised and earned a nomination for a National Book Award in 1962. Its sales, as of 1978, were over 47,000 volumes, making it Creeley’s most successful book commercially. For Love is a considerable achievement, and one of the most celebrated collections of American poetry in its decade. The collection presents many of Creeley’s characteristic concerns, including language and human relationships. The poet, writes Peter Davison in Atlantic, ”has a subtle, almost feminine sensibility, and the best of his poems are those dealing with the intricacies that exist between men and women.” Creeley, Frederick Eckman writes, is ”the most conserving poet I know; he wastes nothing—in fact, at times, rather too little. Creeley’s poems are characterized by constriction, the partially revealed vision, economy of utterance …”
- Allen, Donald M. Robert Creeley, Contexts of Poetry: Interviews, 1961-1971. San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973.
- Butterick, George F. Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1980.
- Clark, Tom. Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place: Together with the Poet’s Own Autobiography. New York: New Directions, 1993.
- Eckman, Frederick. Over the West: Selected Writings of Frederick Eckman, with Commentaries and Appreciations. Linda Wagner-Martin, ed. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1999.
- Edelberg, Cynthia Dubin. Robert Creeley’s Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.
- Fass, Ekbert and Maria Trombaco. Robert Creeley: A Biography. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2001.
- Novick, Mary. Robert Creeley: An Inventory. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1973.
- Sheffler, Ronald Anthony. The Development of Robert Creeley’s Poetry. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.
- Terrell, Carroll F. Robert Creeley: The Poet’s Workshop. Orono, Maine: University of Maine Press, 1984.
- Wilson, John, editor. Robert Creeley’s Life and Work: A Sense of Increment. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1987.
- Davison, Peter. ”New Poetry: The Generation of the Twenties.” Atlantic Monthly (Feb 1968): 141.
- Robert Creeley at American Academy of Poets. Retrieved September 7, 2008 from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/184/.
- Robert Creeley Author Homepage. Retrieved September7, 2008 from http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/creeley.
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