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One had the company: on Robert Creeley

“One had the company …”

… he used to say. And now Robert Creeley’s gone. And thus the company has shrunk, strangely enough or not so strangely, much more than the departure of just one would have led one to believe. Robert Creeley was a major presence for so many – in and beyond a community of poets, artists and musicians that stretched over at least three generations. There’s a profound sadness, a surprised sadness for how could someone so vital, so much there, I mean HERE, so much in the, in our, present, all of a sudden up and go? Damn it, Bob, the arete (as Olson would have said) of your eye and hands are needed here; your conversation too – you were one of the best talkers ever, would talk it all for hours on end, never an end in sight to the night talk, the day talk, the noon talk. A strange and wonderful doubleness: the expansive, rolling, flood-like talk in engaged dialogue or attentive polylogue, and the tight mono-voiced poems, the clipped line, the cork-screw motion of the abbreviated syntax, down the page, to drive (he said) on down, into earth, into the real. From the real of experience through the real of language to the real of your experience of the poem.  In that equation the poet is in the middle, in medias res, the mediator, responsible for and to language. As he said: “I believe in a poetry determined by the language of which it is made. I look to words, and nothing else, for my own redemption.”

The real as the particular of the moment faced, in responsibility, as simply what a life is and has to be to be full, entire. Robert Creeley starts his autobiography thus: “I’ve spent all my life with a nagging sense I had somehow the responsibility of that curious fact, that is, a substantial life, like a dog, but hardly as pleasant, to be dealt with no matter one could or couldn’t, wanted to or not.”  The facts, briefly noted, are as follows: Robert White Creeley, born 1926 in Arlington, MA, lost his left eye in an accident at 2, his father a very few years later, was brought up in a household of women, went to Harvard, dropped out, joined the American Field Service and spent the last years of WWII as an ambulance driver in Burma. The emerging writer would move between rural New Hampshire (where he tried to make a living raising chickens) and the bohemian jazz city-scapes. Creeley remained a traveler all of his life, living for periods of time on the island of Mallorca, on a coffee plantation in Guatemala, in Placitas, New Mexico, Bolinas California, Finland and New Zealand – though the East Coast would reclaim the New Englander again and again: after many years living and teaching in Buffalo, New York, he moved to Brown University and  Providence, R.I. in 2002, with summer spent in beloved Maine. Married three times, he leaves eight children. Bob’s wife Penelope and their children, Will and Hannah, were with him when he died from complications of pneumonia in Odessa, Texas – he had been writer-in-residence in nearby Marfa at the Lannan Foundation.

Robert Creeley was the author of some 60 books – mostly poetry, but including also a novel (The Island), a volume of short stories (The Gold Diggers), and several collections of essays and interviews. Endlessly curious and fiercely energetic, he loved to collaborate with painters (from Robert Indiana to Marisol, from Susan Rothenberg to Francisco Clemente) and musicians (most formidably with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy). His close association with Charles Olson from 1950 until Olson’s death in 1970 (Creeley also taught at Black Mountain college during Olson’s time as rector there), helped formulate the post-Poundian poetics of what came to be known as the Black Mountain school of poetry. Their friendship and intense intellectual collaboration also gave us one of the most essential American literary correspondences of the second half of the 20C, ten volumes of which have been published to date.

The testimony of poets to Creeley’s enduring importance — & to the importance of the man as an incarnation of the poet in the world – is unassailable. Clayton Eshleman, for one, suggests that in Creeley’s work what is essential is “the commonwealth of language, that spoken by all rotated so as to make uncommon sense of the world,” so that “a Creeley poem unfolds more or less at the shifting speeds of thinking, with the human assumption that the reader is right there, with him, and does not need hints, symbols, or italicization.” It is a directness that links Creeley to William Carlos Williams – and yet, beyond Williams’s “No ideas, but in things,” Creeley’s ability to think abstractly within the most particular and concrete language is enormous, as encompassing as that of, say Wallace Stevens.  His best known statement on poetics is no doubt the phrase “Form is never more than an extension of content” – quoted thus by Olson in his “Projective Verse” essay. One should, however, not forget that the full statement included the corollary “and content is never more than an extension of form.”  It is a double hinge, an in-forming of world by word, of word by world – or as Creeley put it in an interview: “To me, as Olson would say, the cutting edge is always at that place where the inside moves to the outside or confronts the outside or vice versa, that edge where the message of that outside is experienced, is transmitted.”

Creeley the poet was formidable – as was Creeley the man. The poet Ken Irby wrote to me recently: “He was for me certainly the most kind and generous with his time and attention of all poets I have known, indeed of all men I have known, and from the moment I first met him, over 40 yrs ago in Ed and Helene Dorn’s kitchen in Santa Fe, onward.  And the man I guess I felt embodied, showed, articulated what it was to live as a poet more intensely than almost anyone I’ve known and with an angle of perception unlike anyone else I will ever encounter.  Who thought with his speech and conversation and interchange, again intensely, particularly, unceasingly.  And whose poetry articulated that but in its own singular way that was not the same as the speech, the talking, yet of the same man.  A critical intelligence surpassed by none.  An integrity in all he did.” His company will be much missed. But, as the poem “Consolatio” puts it:

What’s gone is gone.
What’s lost is lost.

What’s felt is pulse –
what’s mind, what’s home.

Who’s here, where’s there –
what’s patience now.

What thought of all,
why echo it.

Now to begin –
Why fear the end.

But Creeley wouldn’t want us to be sad-sack either. He used to close his letters and emails with a salutation I often thought rhymed with Olson’s description of him as the “figure of outward,” a salutation I want to close with also, now, here, in his memory: “Onward!”