Robert White Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1926, two weeks before the birth of Allen Ginsberg in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were both from families that had been living in New England for generations, and his sister Helen was four years old when Oscar Slate Creeley, a physician married for the third time, and Genevieve Jules Creeley had their second child. When Dr. Creeley took his two-year-old son for a drive in an open car, a piece of coal shattered the windshield and a shard of glass cut Robert’s eye, leading to a series of infections which culminated in the removal of the eye when the young boy was five—one year after his father’s death. His mother moved to West Acton and became a public health nurse when Dr. Creeley died, and for the remainder of his childhood, Robert was raised in the care of aunts, grandmothers, and a maid named Theresa.
In 1940, Creeley entered Holderness School, a small boarding school in Plymouth, New Hampshire, where he published articles and stories in the Dial, the school literary magazine, which he edited in his senior year. Upon graduation in 1943, he entered Harvard University. After two years, Creeley joined the American Field Service and drove an ambulance in Burma and India; he then returned to Harvard for a second try. In 1946, he helped to edit the Harvard Wake’s special E. E. Cummings issue and published his first poem, “Return,” there. During this year, his schoolmates at Harvard included the poets Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery.
Creeley had just married Ann McKinnon, however, and one semester short of his degree in 1947, he left school and moved to a chicken farm in New Hampshire. His son David was born in October, 1948. His wife’s trust fund provided a meager subsistence, and he raised pigeons and chickens for additional income. His first public poetry reading took place in 1950 on Cid Corman’s radio program “This Is Poetry,” and Creeley began to gather manuscripts from contemporary writers for an alternative magazine to be called Lititz Review (for Lititz, Pennsylvania, the home of his coeditor Jacob Leed). Corman told Creeley about Charles Olson, the poet who was about to publish his groundbreaking “Projective Verse” essay. It moved that free verse poetry should embed itself in the process of one perception leading to deeper perceptions in order to attain a heightened sense of compositional energy. Creeley and Olson began a mammoth correspondence in which they both worked out the fundamental strictures of their poetic philosophies, and although the material for the magazine was not used immediately, Creeley placed some of it in Origin I and Origin II in 1951, including the first poems of Olson’s Maximum sequence.
Creeley and his family (now including three children) lived in France from 1951 to 1952 and then on the Spanish island of Mallorca from 1952 to 1955. His first book of poems, Le Fou, was published in 1952, and in 1953 he started the Divers Press, publishing his second book of poems, The Kind of Act Of, and publishing his first book of short fiction, The Gold Diggers, in 1954. In December of 1953, Olson, now the rector of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, asked Creeley to edit the Black Mountain Review. Creeley’s first issue of the influential magazine appeared in March, just before he arrived to teach at the college.
Creeley returned to Mallorca to try to repair his marriage but came to North Carolina to teach and edit the review in 1955 after his divorce. That same year, his volume of poems All That Is Lovely in Men was published by Jonathan Williams. Creeley resigned from Black Mountain College in 1956, traveling to...
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In one of the best reviews of Creeley’s work, the poet and critic Robert Haas said that Creeley’s way “has been to take the ordinary, threadbare phrases and sentences by which we locate ourselves and to put them under the immense pressure of the rhythms of poetry and to make out of that what dance or music there can be.” In a threefold pattern, Creeley used the postmodern reliance on process (language in action) to reduce the chaos of abstraction, applied the analytic power of the mind to draw specific shape out of the promise of the process, and then applied the core instincts of the human heart striving for love to prevent the analytic reductions of the demands of form from turning all to abstraction again. Often...
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