Robert Creeley (May 21, 1926 - March 30, 2005) was an American poet, author of more than sixty books, and usually associated with the Black Mountain poets, though his verse aesthetic diverged from that school's. He was quite friendly with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, John Wieners and Ed Dorn. He taught for many years at the University at Buffalo. He lived in Waldoboro, Maine, Buffalo, New York and Providence, Rhode Island, where he taught at Brown University. He was a recipient of the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and was much beloved as a generous presence in many poets' lives.
According to Arthur L. Ford in his book Robert Creeley (1978, p. 25), "Creeley has long been aware that he is part of a definable tradition in the American poetry of this century, so long as 'tradition' is thought of in general terms and so long as it recognizes crucial distinctions among its members. The tradition most visible to the general public has been the Eliot-Stevens tradition supported by the intellectual probings of the New Critics in the 1940s and early 1950s. Parallel to that tradition has been the tradition Creeley identifies with, the Pound-Olson-Zukofsky-Black Mountain tradition, what M. L. Rosenthal [in his book The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (1967)] calls 'The Projectivist Movement'." This "movement" Rosenthal derives from Olson's essay on "Projective Verse".
Le Fou, Creeley's first book, was published in 1952, and since then, according to his publisher, barely a year passed without a new collection of poems. The 1983 entry, titled Mirrors, had some tendencies toward concrete imagery. It was hard for many readers and critics to immediately understand Creeley's reputation as an innovative poet, for his innovations were often very subtle; even harder for some to imagine that his work lived up to the Black Mountain tenet -- which he articulated to Charles Olson in their correspodnence, and which Olson popularized in his essay "Projective Verse," -- that "form is never more than an extension of content," for his poems were often written in couplet, triplet, and quatrain stanzas that break into and out of rhyme as happenstance appears to dictate. An example is "The Hero," from Collected Poems, also published in 1982 and covering the span of years from 1945 to 1975.
"The Hero" is written in variable isoverbal ("word-count") prosody; the number of words per line varies from three to seven, but the norm is four to six. Another technique to be found in this piece is variable rhyme -- there is no set rhyme scheme, but some of the lines rhyme and the poem concludes with a rhymed couplet. All of the stanzas are quatrains, as in the first two:
- Each voice which was asked
- spoke its words, and heard
- more than that, the fair question,
- the onerous burden of the asking.
- And so the hero, the
- hero! stepped that gracefully
- into his redemption, losing
- or gaining life thereby.
Despite these obviously formal elements various critics continue to insist that Creeley wrote in "free verse," but most of his forms were strict enough so that it is a question whether it can even be maintained that he wrote in forms of prose. This particular poem is without doubt verse-mode, not prose-mode. M. L. Rosenthal in his The New Poets quoted Creeley's "'preoccupation with a personal rhythm in the sense that the discovery of an external equivalent of the speaking self is felt to be the true object of poetry,'" and went on to say that this speaking self serves both as the center of the poem's universe and the private life of the poet. "Despite his mask of humble, confused comedian, loving and lovable, he therefore stands in his own work's way, too seldom letting his poems free themselves of his blocking presence" (p. 148). When he used imagery, Creeley could be interesting and effective on the sensory level.
In an essay titled "Poetry: Schools of Dissidents," the academic poet Daniel Hoffman wrote, in The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing which he edited, that as he grew older, Creeley's work tended to become increasingly fragmentary in nature, even the titles subsequent to For Love: Poems 1950-1960 hinting at the fragmentation of experience in Creeley's work: Words, Pieces, A Day Book. In Hoffman's opinion, "Creeley has never included ideas, or commitments to social issues, in the repertoire of his work; his stripped-down poems have been, as it were, a proving of Pound's belief in 'technique as the test of a man's sincerity.'" (p. 533)