In Memoriam to Robert Creeley
Born: May 21, 1926, Arlington, Massachusetts
Died: March 30, 2005, Odessa, Texas
Texas Observer soon after Bob Creeley died. It's on the TO website as well as elsewhere, but I just realized it's been a few days over five years now since he died, and I wanted it here on my blog too. Creeley, one of the most influential American poets of the 20th Century, died in Odessa, Texas at the age of 78. He had just begun a two-month residency in Marfa as a resident of the Lannan Foundation when he took ill and was rushed to the hospital in Odessa. Among his many awards, he has received the prestigious Bollingen Award in 1999 and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. Creeley has always been a crucial influence on my work as a poet, writer and publisher.
“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. . . . I mean the words as opposed to content.”
—Robert Creeley, somewhere around 1960
POET ROBERT CREELEY died in Odessa, Texas, of all places. A Creeley poem would have smiled at the irony, wondering in short gasping breaths about sadness in the Ukraine at the edge of the Black Sea, wondering if that human sadness was the same sadness he saw in the face of the black nurse in Texas who was watching him die. Then a few days later the Pope died in Rome. Where he was supposed to die. The media made sure that the whole world followed the Pope on the journey to his new status as Holy Cadaver and Future Saint. But news of Creeley’s death, not withstanding his importance to American cultural history, was muted, traveling mostly by short newspaper obituaries, emails and telephone calls. For poets of my generation the news was like a switchblade slicing across the chest. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did happen. Quickly, almost painlessly.
During the extravagant media-driven spectacle of the Pope’s dying while still carrying my own personal sadness for Creeley’s death, I was reminded of Paul Blackburn’s poem “Obit Page.” There, in a few short lines, Paul coupled the deaths of Roger Hornsby, the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time, and the great American poet William Carlos Williams who had followed Hornsby into the void. Blackburn’s short eulogy was a celebration of pure Americana and the American idiom. WCW had entered the Hall of Fame where he belonged. But Creeley and the Pope within a few days of each other? Creeley was an existentialist poet, a romantic, a believer of words as he wrote them on a blank white page or on a computer screen when that time came--nouns and verbs transforming into a poem, content and life always in a state of change and becoming. Here he was riding in a rickety boat crossing the River Styx with El Papa, the last great Sun King, the man who had been perched atop the monolithic throne where truth and answers were promised packaged neatly in a book. This image is the antithesis of Blackburn’s elegiac celebration. It’s more like a good lucha libre bout on Mexican television.
Creeley was 78 when he died, a member of the remarkable generation of poets that Donald Allen immortalized in the Grove Press anthology The New American Poetry, 1945—1960. In the 60s I was young man at the University of Arizona BCW (Before “Creative Writing”) first experimenting with the making of poems. Creeley and a host of his peers came through to read, thanks to the largesse of the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center and its board of teachers and writers like Keith Wilson and Barney Childs who were plugged into the Allen anthology. We heard folks like Creeley, Robert Duncan and Gary Snyder, among others.
And Creeley became my hero. His poems were intense personal revelations that seemed so accessible at first reading, but the closer I got to them, the more mysterious and deep they became. His poems--and this is still what I find so extraordinary about Creeley and his generation of poets--reflected exactly the poet who was writing them. Form was the constant subtext, his poems seemed to say, the place where a true revolution was being waged. The “new American poem” was an organic mechanism, a reflection of the poet in constant flux, but more like staring into a creek or a lake than staring into a static mirror. The “New American Poets” gave my generation this gift, and they had received it likewise from Williams and Pound who had received it from Whitman.
Creeley was a handsome and charismatic guy in a disheveled and very personal sort of way. He had been blinded at an early age, so he wore a patch over his bad eye, which made him even more attractive. He loved fervent conversation, especially about poetry. He took young poets seriously and easily invited us into his circle. He would sit down, elbows on the arms of the chair, hands clasped; he would lean forward and peer at us at us with that one eye; and he would answer our questions about how a poem is made. He would talk about content becoming form and form becoming content, about using a typewriter or a pencil, about legal-sized pads of yellow paper opposed to notebooks, about all these many things. And he would tell us stories about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charles Olson and Williams Carlos Williams. Not gossiping stories, but stories with an intent to reveal something about poetry and living life like a poet with eyes and ears wide open. His stories became parables in our hearts. It was a paradise. I wanted so much to be a poet.
Creeley and his poems were addictive. If you read too much Creeley, which I of course did, then you started writing like him with short perfect lines, simple nouns and verbs, short little ditties that were oblique and tantalizing with innuendo. Opening up any poetry magazine of the time you could find young poets scattered across the United States who had been snorting and smoking too much Creeley. But if you were serious about your craft, and you understood Creeley’s ideas about form, then you would go find other poets and sources that led you back home to yourself. It was exhilarating.
As the years passed I’d bump into Bob Creeley in various places. We’d talk like old friends and compare notes, we’d drink wine and laugh, and he’d tell me stories about poets and poems, peering at me through that one mysterious eye. The cadences of his conversation were the same cadences of his poetry. I was always scuttling back to his poems, more sure of myself, reading them and being amazed. And I would always be reminded of the sense of a community of poets that Creeley had passed along to me and my peers. I still feel that when I hear and read poems I like, and when I write poems, or an essay like this. I feel like I am participating in community. That together we are feeding the luminous beast which is poetry.
Ezra Pound said poets and artists are the antennae of their race, and Creeley loved to remind his listeners of that statement, wondering aloud what it meant. That’s why I put Creeley and Pope John Paul II together on Charon’s rickety boat floating on the River Styx toward the other shore. The Pope feels confused and out of place afloat the dark waters. His tenure on the Spaceship Earth was as the spiritual leader of a feudalistic institution that wields enormous sway in the world he has just departed, but its symbols and paraphernalia of a God-ordered universe no longer seem to catch hold. Its power and majesty are subsiding. In the quiet of his heart the Pope understood that the struggle was about ideas and mythos, but he was never able to grasp evolutionary theory and the New Physics. Those ideas didn’t fit comfortably inside the Cathedral. And now the Pope sits facing his companion, a goofy one-eyed poet with an unkempt beard. The guy seems nervous and unsure of himself, but he’s scribbling on a piece of paper.
“What are you doing?”
“Writing a poem.”
The poet leans forward and says, “Well, I don’t know yet. I let the poems bubble up from the mud. It’s sort of like everything else.”
“But what does your poem say so far?”
“It says, Death is so much emptiness, huh?”
“Well, maybe,” the Pope says.
Charon, the ancient ferryman, dips his pole into the dark water and pushes his boat toward the other shore.
He says absolutely nothing.
He never will.
An excellent place to begin researching Robert Creeley’s work can be found at the Electronic Poetry Center here. And there's a wonderful electronic archive of poetry readings here. I'm pasting below a photo that I copied off poet Larry Goodell's facebook page (Larry is publishing all sorts of wonderful photos from back in the day) when Creeley and Bobbie Creeley (aka Bobbie Louise Hawkins) and kids lived in Placitas, NM, above Albuquerque. Larry is hunkered down, poet Ron Bayes is the third man in the photo. Below the photo is a poem I wrote not long after Bob died. His poetry was echoing around in my thoughts. Lee and I were driving I-10 east, south of Odessa, north of Marfa. For Love, of course, was Creeley's first big book, a collection of poems. I have my original copy of that book somewhere, all dog-eared and used up.
For Love on I-10, West Texas
Ivan Ilych was dead before we got to Ozona.
He answered his koan.
His bones began to rattle like my mother’s rattled.
And then, like my mother, he let go.
I started thinking about Robert Creeley.
He died up north of here in Odessa—
Strange place for a poet to die.
No big car to drive, his hip New England riff
Useless in all this emptiness of sky.
Then our van ran out of gas.
A sheriff’s deputy—
Big square-jawed man in a cowboy hat—
Showed up with 5 gallons in a red plastic can.
He had two sidekicks, a white guy and a black guy.
Big smiles all around.
Is this the 21st century dream of Texas?
I hope so.
All three of them nursing an adrenalin rush.
They wanted to help somebody.
They had just cleaned up a bloody mess on the highway.
An SUV going east, a young couple and their three kids,
The front right tire blew out, the vehicle rolled
It was ugly, the deputy said.
The emptiness surrounds us. Nothing
To do but drive, he said.
We shook hands all around. The black guy said,
Look out where you’re going.
And I thanked them for the gas.
I didn’t ask how many people were killed.
I didn’t want to know.
What kind of news would that be?
How would it get us to Ozona?