The most important American love poet in living memory, and certainly one of the most important American poets tout court, Robert Creeley was born in 1926 and raised in eastern Massachusetts. His early life was marked by two devastating losses: the death of his father in 1930 and the removal of his left eye the year after, when he was 5. In 1944 Creeley left his studies at Harvard to drive an ambulance in Burma, and at war’s end he returned to Cambridge. Then, in 1947, just before graduating, he dropped out, married Ann MacKinnon, tried raising chickens on a New Hampshire farm and eventually went to Mallorca, where he and MacKinnon started a small literary press. There he found the vocations of writing, traveling, editing and, eventually, teaching that he would follow the remainder of his rambling, rambunctious and often difficult life–a life that included two more marriages, raising children, the accidental death of a young daughter and periods of settling in New Mexico, Bolinas, Buffalo and Providence. Throughout these years, he journeyed around the world to read his poems and stories and pursued collaborations with a range of artists, from Jim Dine and Francesco Clemente to the legendary jazz soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Creeley died during a sojourn on a fellowship in Marfa, Texas, in March 2005.
Abridged from his last poems and the two volumes of Collected Poems published in 2006–the first extending from 1945 to 1975, the second from 1975 to 2005–this Selected Poems began as a project by Creeley and his former student Ben Friedlander and was finished by Friedlander after Creeley’s unexpected death. Friedlander has updated the poet’s earlier Selected Poems of 1991 by including more than thirty poems from four later books. Creeley famously wrote in his first Collected Poems, published in 1982, that he felt his poems were all of a piece and he would omit none of them so as not to “miss the factual life they had either made manifest or engendered.” Readers new to Creeley, or simply those who want a more portable edition, will therefore welcome this new sampling.
Because Creeley was a friend of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac, he was often identified as being part of the Beat generation. Yet his main early poetic influences were, to put them in historical order, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan–the last two forming his immediate company at Black Mountain College, where he taught in 1954 and 1955. Just as important is the fact that their influences were often some of his. Creeley’s early poetry shows a Poundian affinity for the troubadours and poets of the dolce stil nuovo, but his love of what might be called an English American English–the New England speech patterns that were his native legacy–can clearly be heard in his echoes of Campion, Herrick and Anglo-American ballad and song traditions. The spareness of Creeley’s poems is Puritan as much as ’70s Minimalist, and perhaps only a Puritan could celebrate the body and its ambivalent desires quite as well as he does. His well-known mantra “Form is never more than an extension of content,” which he honed in his extensive early correspondence with Olson on issues of form and line, can be viewed not only as the outcome of a Modernist rebellion against Victorian meters and narrative structures but also as a late-twentieth-century version of the concept of organic form, which reaches from German Romanticism to Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare to the New Criticism of the 1950s.
Often on the margins of social life, Creeley was at the exact center of a poetic tradition that stretched from the twelfth century to the present. But unlike other twentieth-century poets who wore their learning heavily, Creeley had a touch as light as a song, a touch that could only come from internalizing the whole tradition and letting it come naturally to him. Here is a proclamation from his early poem “Heroes”:
In all those stories the hero
is beyond himself into the next
thing, be it those labors
of Hercules, or Aeneas going into death.