Robert Creeley, poet and distinguished professor of English, died Wednesday morning after a bout of pneumonia exacerbated an existing lung condition. Creeley, 78, joined the University faculty in 2003, but his contribution to the Brown community – as a landmark contemporary poet, professor and friend – was significant despite his brief term.
Born May 21, 1926, in Arlington, Mass., Creeley studied at Harvard College until he left school in 1944 to work for a year as an ambulance driver in the American Field Service in India and Burma. Creeley began corresponding with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in 1949. Fellow poet Charles Olson invited Creeley to teach at Black Mountain College in 1954, an experimental arts college in North Carolina from which he ultimately received his B.A. As editor of the college’s influential and innovative literary journal “Black Mountain Review,” Creeley continued the Modernist tradition of Pound and others, and developed, along with Olson, a theory of “projective verse” – free verse that took form while being composed.
“He brought a rhythm that no one had seen in poetry before, a rhythm that perfectly enacted a complex kind of thinking,” said Professor of English and Director of the Literary Arts Program Forrest Gander. “What you see in his poems is like a mind in movement, and you feel the rhythm of that mind in movement. … So despite the fact that he was an innovator and associated with the avant-garde, he never distanced himself from communicating emotional, powerful feelings.”
Creeley’s willingness to discuss his personal life and experiences particularly differentiated his lectures, said Dan Hernandez ’06, one of Creeley’s students last fall in EL 176: “That Old ‘New American Poetry.’ “
“Just being in his presence was more interesting than anything else we could possibly have been learning,” Hernandez said. He added that Creeley was a historical literary figure himself – he typed the first edition of Allen Ginsberg’s classic Beat text “Howl” – and referred to many of the Beat poets by their first names. “These people were his friends,” Hernandez said.
Although associated with both the Beat and Black Mountain poets, Creeley “didn’t get stuck there (in the ’60s),” Gander said. “He was always at the forefront of the mutual arts, and in two short years he totally infused Brown with a larger dialogue about art and community.” Among other things, Creeley started a reading series at downtown cafÃ© Tazza.
Since Creeley’s death, Gander has received dozens of e-mails from people around the world touched both by Creeley’s work and his friendships.
Greg Mazurek ’06 met with Creeley frequently as a mentor even though he never took one of his classes. “He was a person first and a professor second,” Mazurek said. “He was greatest not staying in the professor role, but being a friend to the community.”
Prior to his arrival at Brown, Creeley also taught at the University of British Columbia and San Francisco State College and spent 37 years at the State University of New York-Buffalo. Creeley remained prolific as a poet throughout his teaching career, and his extensive body of work includes more than 60 books of poetry as well as prose, essays and drama.
A recipient of the Frost Medal, Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, Shelley Memorial Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, Creeley was consistently recognized throughout his life for his contribution to American poetry. From 1989 to 1991, he served as New York State Poet, and was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of America Poets in 1999.
“He was a one-man civilization,” Gander said.
Creeley died in the hospital in Odessa, Texas, where he had gone for a two-month residency at the Lannan Foundation in nearby Marfa. His wife, Penelope, and Will and Hannah, two of his eight children, were at his side in the hospital. An “intimate” memorial service open to the University community will be held April 15, Gander said, and will be one of several to take place around the country in the coming weeks.
“He was this vastly important person living quietly in our midst,” Hernandez said.
Involved in many projects at the time of his death, Creeley l focused largely on mortality. In an as yet unpublished poem “When I think,” he pondered the meaning of his own life: “When I try to think of / things, of what’s happened, of what a life is, / and was, my life, when I wonder what it meant / …it’s what it always is or ever was, just then, just there.”