Armed Descent, 1961
Her Body Against Time, 1963
Axon Dendron Tree, 1967
A Joining: A Sequence for H. D., 1967
Twenty Poems, 1967
Finding the Measure, 1968
Songs I-XXX, 1968
The Common Shore, Books I-V: A Long Poem About America in Time, 1969
Kali Yuga, 1970
Flesh, Dream, Book, 1971
The Pastorals, 1972
The Mill of Particulars, 1973
The Loom, 1975
The Lady Of, 1977
The Convections, 1978
The Book of Persephone, 1978
The Cruise of the Pnyx, 1979
Kill the Messenger Who Brings Bad News, 1979
Spiritual Exercises, 1981
The Alchemist to Mercury, 1981
Under Words, 1983
Not This Island Music, 1987
The Flowers of Unceasing Coincidence, 1988
A Strange Market, 1992
Mont Blanc, 1994
Red Actions: Selected Poems, 1960-1993, 1995
The Time of Voice: Poems, 1994-1996, 1998
The Scorpions, 1967
The Cruise of the Pnyx, 1979
A Transparent Tree: Fictions, 1985
Doctor of Silence: Fictions, 1988
Cat Scratch Fever: Fictions, 1990
Queen of Terrors: Fictions, 1994
In Time, 1971
The Garden of Distances: Drawings and Poems, 1999
Robert Kelly may be the most prolific major poet in contemporary American literature. He has published more than fifty books of poetry and several of prose. He is also well known for his editorship of three literary journals: Chelsea Review, Trobar, and Matter. Along with poet Jerome Rothenberg, he cofounded what has come to be recognized as a uniquely American school of poets who practice what they call the poetry of “Deep Image.”
Robert Kelly was born in Brooklyn in 1935 to a middle-class family. His father worked for the city of New York, and his mother taught elementary school for many years. Because both parents worked, young Robert spent much time alone, reading the books he borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library. During the years 1943 and 1944, however, he seemed to be losing his eyesight, and his parents forbade him to read any longer. The family later discovered that he was suffering from a simple case of myopia. A greater loss, though, was the loss of the family home as a result of financial problems; the family subsequently moved to a poorer neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Kelly pursued his secondary education at Brooklyn Prep, a prestigious Jesuit high school. Though he experienced some typical teenage alienation–he began to skip school until the law intervened–he discovered writers who would continue to influence his spiritual and intellectual development for the rest of his life: T. S. Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ezra Pound, the French Surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He also discovered during these years the great musical sources of his inspiration, composers such as Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Alban Berg and the operas of Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi, and Vincenzo Bellini.
During his years at the City College of New York, he met his first wife, Joan Lasker, and fellow poets Rothenberg, David Antin, and Jack Hirschman. While later studying in the graduate program at Columbia University, he came under the strong influences of seventeenth century scholars Marjorie Nicholson and Pierre Garay and medieval scholar Roger Loomis. He maintained his interests in these areas, and much of his poetry shows direct connections to these rich historical periods.
After coediting The Chelsea Review with fellow writers George Economou, Ursule Molinaro, and her husband, Venable Herndon, Kelly had a semivisionary experience walking down Lexington Avenue after work in October of 1958. He claims that he experienced a profound understanding that if he committed himself to the poet’s calling, all would be well with him. He vowed, then and there, “To write every day . . . To attend to what is said. To listen. To prepare myself for writing by learning everything I could.” His early book Armed Descent records Kelly’s surrealistic probings into the deep images of his own mind and those of the collective unconscious, while Axon Dendron Tree explores the role of language as a linguistic tree–that is, how language creates, rather than records, experience.
Finding the Measure further extended Kelly’s linguistic proposals. In 1964, he met the poet Charles Olson and was greatly influenced by Olson’s geographical mappings of the spiritual origins of American history. Kelly’s long poem The Common Shore confronts the breakdown of America’s spiritual core as revealed in the Vietnam War, ghosts of the Civil War, and the Newark and Watts riots of the 1960’s. His The Mill of Particulars further explores his interests in painting, music, and mythology as “languages”; he opens the volume with the statement, “Language is the only genetics.”
It is in his 415-page poem The Loom, however, that Kelly definitively synthesizes all of his linguistic, mythological, and spiritual concerns into satisfactory relationships by interweaving the warp of his autobiography with the woof of the many spiritual and intellectual traditions that make up his life in poetry. Figures in The Loom’s elaborate landscape include Jesus Christ, Siegfried, Odysseus, Arjuna, Kore, Kali, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, among a cast of hundreds.
The volumes The Convections and Kill the Messenger Who Brings Bad News concern themselves with aspects of love and passion and on the dawning realization that ideal love can exist only in the realm of the fictive. Both works come out of the disintegration of his second marriage. Much of Kill the Messenger Who Brings Bad News examines sacred and profane versions of mythic women, specifically the Blessed Virgin Mary. His next major volume, Spiritual Exercises, demonstrates the crucial interaction of text and speaker as language becomes the guide to the imagination.
In 1981, Kelly became a Tibetan Buddhist, entering a spiritual tradition in which he found relief from the intellectual and religious dualities of Judeo-Christian traditions. In Under Words, many of the poems concern themselves with “what lay beneath . . . the things I said and meant and used . . . to build poems.” He calls Under Words and Not This Island Music journeys into his “personal underworld,” but some of the poems in Not This Island Music and A Strange Market record the deep sorrow he experienced with the death of Mary Moore Goodlett, a woman with whom he lived and worked from 1985 to 1990. Red Actions: Selected Poems, 1960-1993, published in 1995, is an editing and revision of poems from fifty volumes.
Robert Kelly continued to teach in the creative writing program at Bard College, and he received an honorary doctor of letters degree from the State University of New York in 1994. He made his home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with his wife, Charlotte Mandell, a well-known and highly respected translator of modern French literary and cultural criticism.