At the memorial service for celebrated poet and professor of English Robert Creeley held in the Salomon Center Friday, friends, relatives, colleagues, students and admirers of his work were welcomed by the sound of his voice in recorded readings of his poems, unmistakable with their simultaneous simplicity and complicated rhythms.
Creeley, who joined the Brown faculty in 2003, died March 30 at the age of 78 in a hospital in Odessa, Texas. Associated with both the Beat and Black Mountain poets, Creeley remained prolific until the end of his life. According to Forrest Gander, professor of English and director of the Literary Arts Program, Creeley did not write on a regular schedule. “Things would come to him, and he would always be ready for the muse when it came,” Gander said. Creeley published over 60 books of poetry during his lifetime.
The memorial’s program included readings of Creeley’s work by his colleagues, students and friends. The service ended with a series of video and audio clips of Creeley sharing his poetry and his life stories.
Gander opened the readings with an as-yet-unpublished poem titled “I think.” But before beginning the recitation he explained how difficult it was to read Creeley’s work – with its complex line breaks – in front of the poet’s wife, Penelope, and daughter, Hannah, because they had heard him read it the “right way.”
Professor of English C.D. Wright read “Goodbye,” a poem from Creeley’s book “Life and Death,” which ends with the lines: “I know this body is impatient./ I know I constitute only a meagre voice and mind,/ Yet I loved, I love./ I want no sentimentality./ I want no more than home.”
Michael Gizzi, also a writer, said of Creeley,”I don’t think I ever met a more real human being. I think that’s why we all miss him so much – you don’t run into such real characters every day.” Gizzi worked with Creeley on the Downcity Poetry Series, a monthly public poetry reading at Tazza Caffe that Gizzi started with Michael Magee in 2004.
Gizzi’s description of Creeley was vividly apparent in the video clips of interviews with and poetry readings by the author. In them, Creeley spoke freely, candidly and – above all – humorously about his life and his work, frequently interrupting himself in the middle of reading a poem to share colorful personal anecdotes.
Magee said he had never lost “that kid in a candy store feeling” when in Creeley’s presence. He added that part of Creeley’s legacy lay in his insistence that “poetry should be in the community and public and open at every turn.”
Gander said that, unlike many famous individuals, Creeley “had no interest in taking on the role of being an icon.” He was incredibly approachable and always connected with others on direct and honest terms, Gander said.
Ming Holden ‘06.5 also said Creeley never showed any signs of pretension. “He was totally committed to anyone he was having a dialogue with,” she said.
Creeley supervised Holden’s independent study project last year – she took rough journal work from a semester spent at a nonprofit sustainable forestry unit in Siberia and turned it into more formal pieces. “It basically meant I got to spend one hour each week sitting on the floor of his office talking about life,” she said.
Stan McDonald MFA ’03, who now works for Media Services, called Creeley “the most informative, inspiring and welcoming teacher,” although he was never officially one of his students. In the spring of 2004, after he had graduated from Brown’s MFA program, Creeley gave McDonald permission to sit in on one of his classes.
He said Creeley would never directly answer students’ questions but rather “orbit around” them. “What he was doing was injected into you and allowed to incubate over time … and all the things he would say would slowly produce answers,” he said.
More than anything, Gander said, Creeley was characterized by his “generous and inclusive” mind. “He possessed a terrific openness to everything that could feed an imagination and a mind.”