Authors: Robert Creeley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet and editor

May 21, 1926

Arlington, Massachusetts

March 30, 2005

Odessa, Texas


Robert White Creeley became arguably one of the most influential English-language poets and editors of the late twentieth century, at least partly because he was associated with so many schools and movements of poetry. His name cropped up in relation to the Beat poets, to the San Francisco renaissance, to the language poetry school, to the “Deep Imagist” poets in homage to William Carlos Williams, and, most logically, to the Black Mountain school associated with Charles Olson. {$I[AN]9810002051} {$I[A]Creeley, Robert} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Creeley, Robert} {$I[tim]1926;Creeley, Robert}

Some of these associations were a bit tenuous; the one that made the most sense was his relationship with the Black Mountain school, or those poets and artists who were in residence at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the 1950s. In 1954 Olson hired Creeley to teach poetics there and edit the Black Mountain Review. Their relationship prospered, with Creeley writing the introduction to Olson’s Selected Writings, publishing a multivolume set of correspondence between the two, and finally editing the posthumous Selected Poems by Olson. Creeley left Black Mountain in 1956, one year before it shut down.

When Creeley was a boy, he was struck in the eye by a stone thrown by a passing car. His parents invested the resultant insurance settlement, thereby assuring that Creeley could attend Harvard University as an undergraduate. As Creeley himself noted, if not for the accident, which caused him to lose the eye, he probably never would have gone to college. In 1944 he interrupted his college education to spend a year in Indian and Burma with the American Field Service. Creeley left Harvard for good during his final semester.

Creeley was a curious young boy and young man. He was drawn to the classics; he also quickly took to modernist influences. He became a prolific correspondent and teacher, and he wrote, edited, or contributed to more than sixty books, including works of poetry, fiction, essays, and drama. Following his initiation as a teacher at Black Mountain, he held visiting positions across the United States and taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1966 to 2003 before joining the faculty of Brown University.

Influenced by Charles Olson’s important 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” Creeley began writing poetry in several different forms, but with a view toward objectifying experience and removing the narrative first person from the center of his poems. Unlike Olson’s, many of his poems were extremely short and therefore more imagistic, hence his association with the Imagists. He also wrote longer poems, usually using forms of notehand and dialectic utilized by Olson. In the classic book Mayan Letters (between Olson and Creeley when Olson was in Guatemala), both poets were equally enthused over the possibility of finding a people with the experience of no personal identity, of not knowing the meaning of a first-person voice in the Western sense. Though Olson’s investigations in this realm remained inconclusive, he was able to view the ancestors of the Mayan people almost as he viewed their petroglyphs, disassociated from personality. Creeley urged Olson on, and his poetry of the time reflects similar interests.

Creeley did not allow his poetry to be solely associated with a singular style, reflecting that a poet wants to be known most as an individual, not as part of a group. His poems were gentle and never overbearing; they relied more on images and direct experience than on a person’s relationship to experience. Creeley’s wide range of interests led him to direct his energies toward some disparate forms of poetry as editor, and his experiences in this role were probably as broad as his writing. Creeley wrote criticism, often as an introduction to a particular book, and he wrote both a novel and a “book of days.”

One of Creeley’s poems, “Drive, he sd,” by way of a Jeremy Larner novel, was the inspiration for a 1971 film directed by Jack Nicholson. Some of his writing has become part of the American mainstream, and his poetry has inspired countless doctoral dissertations—and imitators. Creeley will be remembered as an important, unique voice in twentieth century poetics.

Creeley was in residence at a writers’ retreat in Texas when he died on March 30, 2005, at the age of seventy-eight. He is survived by his third wife, Penelope (Highton) Creeley, whom he married in 1977, and eight children.

Author Works Poetry: A Form of Women: Poems, 1959 For Love: Poems, 1950–1960, 1962 Words, 1967 Pieces, 1969 The Charm: Early and Uncollected Poems, 1969, 1971 The Finger: Poems, 1966–1969, 1970 A Day Book, 1972 (includes poetry and prose) Robert Creeley: An Inventory, 1945–1970, 1973 Thirty Things, 1974 Hello, 1976, expanded as Hello: A Journal, February 29–May 3, 1976, 1978 Selected Poems, 1976 Later, 1979 The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945–1975, 1982 Mirrors, 1983 Memory Gardens, 1986 The Company, 1988 Window: Paintings, 1988 (paintings by Martha Visser’t Hooft) Windows, 1990 Selected Poems, 1945–1990, 1991 Life and Death, 1993, expanded edition 1998 Echoes, 1994 So There: Poems, 1976–1983, 1998 For Friends, 2000 Drawn and Quartered, 2001 (with Archie Rand, artist) Just in Time: Poems, 1984–1994, 2001 If I Were Writing This, 2003 Long Fiction: The Island, 1963 Short Fiction: The Gold Diggers, 1954 (expanded as The Gold Diggers, and Other Stories, 1965) Mabel: A Story and Other Prose, 1976 Nonfiction: A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and Essays, 1970 A Sense of Measure, 1970, 1972 Contexts of Poetry: Interviews, 1961–1971, 1973 (edited by Donald Allen) Presences: A Text for Marisol, 1976 Was That A Real Poem and Other Essays, 1979 Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1980–1996 (10 volumes) The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, 1989 Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953–1978, 1990 (edited by Ekbert Faas and Sabrina Reed) Tales Out of School: Selected Interviews, 1993 Day Book of a Virtual Poet, 1998 Edited Texts: Mayan Letters, 1953 (by Charles Olson) New American Story, 1965 (with Donald M. Allen) The New Writing in the U.S.A., 1967 (with Donald Allen) Selected Writings of Charles Olson, 1966 Leaves of Grass: Selections, 1973 (by Walt Whitman) Going On: Selected Poems, 1958–1980, 1983 (by Joanne Kyger) The Essential Burns: Selected and with an Introduction by Robert Creeley, 1989 (by Robert Burns) Selected Poems, 1993 (by Olson) The Best American Poetry 2002, 2002 George Oppen: Selected Poems, 2003 (by George Oppen) Miscellaneous: The Collected Prose, 1984 (novel, stories, radio play), 2001 Bibliography Altieri, Charles. “Robert Creeley’s Poetics of Conjecture: The Pains and Pleasures of Staging a Self at War with Its Own Lyric Desires.” In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Brilliant discussion of a key element in Creeley’s work: the struggle between representation and the activity of representing. The imperatives of this struggle, says Altieri, connect Creeley’s poetry to the romantic attempt to create a language, a rhetoric, that can express “the opposition between thinking and thought.” Altieri, Charles. “The Struggle with Absence: Robert Creeley and W. S. Merwin.” In Enlarging the Temple. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979. Altieri provides a useful discussion of Creeley’s aesthetics of presence, an epistemological inquiry into the dialectics of presence and absence in his writings. “Creeley …is trying to resolve the dualisms of man and nature, subject and object, and embody their harmonious inter-relationships…. But [his] solution tends to be solipsistic.” Bernstein, Charles. “Hearing ‘Here’: Robert Creeley’s Poetics of Duration.” In Content’s Dream: Essays, 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986. This essay features an approach, incorporating, without specific attribution, many phrases and sentences from Creeley’s writing into Bernstein’s arguments. Focuses on how language intervenes in any investigation—even or especially the investigation of the self conducted by Creeley. Qualifies Creeley’s “heroic stance” in interesting ways. Clark, Tom. Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place: Together with the Poet’s Own Autobiography. New York: New Directions, 1993. A biography from the author’s conversations with Creeley. Includes Creeley’s “Autobiography,” a talk he gave at New College of California in 1991, and photographs of Creeley and family and friends. Faas, Ekbert, with Maria Trombacco. Robert Creeley: A Biography. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2001. Examines the first fifty years in the life of the poet. Faas juxtaposes different perspectives and makes Creeley’s “voice” present in the narrative. Ford, Arthur. Robert Creeley. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A journeyman account of the work up to 1976, with biographical linkages that give this book much of its utility. Strong on the notion of development from For Love through Words to Pieces. Attention is also given to the prose works. Fredman, Stephen. “‘A Life Tracking Itself’: Robert Creeley’s Presences: A Text for Marisol.” In Poet’s Prose: The Crisis in American Verse. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. An excellent study of Presences in the larger context of the new form of prose poetry. Fredman remarks that Creeley views autobiography as a form of conjecture—in the poet’s own words, “in and out of the system …of valuation, habit, complex organic data, the weather, and so on.” Hrebeniak, Michael. “Robert Creeley.” The Guardian, 5 Apr. 2005, Accessed 6 Sept. 2017. Creeley’s obituary. Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. A collective group portrait covering a significant amount of twentieth century literary and intellectual history. Rifkin investigates the career choices of writers and the development of the literary canon. Smith, Dinitia. “Robert Creeley, 78, Groundbreaking Poet, Dies.” The New York Times, 1 Apr. 2005, Accessed 6 Sept. 2017. Creeley’s obituary. Von Hallberg, Robert. “Robert Creeley and John Ashbery: Systems.” In American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Von Hallberg’s piece is exceptionally interesting, illuminating Creeley’s oeuvre from a striking perspective: that of the systemization of American thought and culture.

Categories: Authors