Robert Creeley

By Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview
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Robert Creeley


Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Although Robert Creeley once remarked that he was "given to write poems" (Collected Essays 496), he began with the expectation that fiction would be his primary preoccupation. Recently his output of creative prose has slowed to a trickle, but in the early decades of his career fiction served as a crucial counterbalance to his poetic writing and increasingly evolved as a means of moving beyond the impasses of his poetry. Creeley began as a writer of decidedly distinctive short stories, but the trajectory of his prose would culminate during the early 1970s in works that operated in an area where prose and poetry converge, a difficult to define hybrid writing that subsequently has had considerable, if underappreciated, influence.

Robert Creeley was born in 1926 outside Boston in Arlington, Massachusetts, but grew up in a farming community farther out and has thus always identified more with the New England countryside than with cities. His father, a doctor, died suddenly when Robert was just four, leaving the family in straitened if still respectable circumstances. The other traumatic incident of his early years was a serious injury from a shattered car window that would eventuate in the loss of his left eye at age six. During the war years, Creeley attended Harvard, interrupted by a period as an ambulance driver in the India-Burma theater with the American Field Service. While at Harvard, he was active in the student literary scene and knew a remarkable circle of aspiring writers that included John Hawkes, William Gaddis, Mitchell Goodman, and Kenneth Koch. From early on, Creeley and his friends reacted strongly against the dominant conservative modernism under the aegis of T. S. Eliot, many of whose major propagators taught at Harvard, and Creeley was active in editing the alternative student journal, the Harvard Wake. Also during his student years, Creeley became keenly interested in the new jazz, especially of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, whose improvisation and subtle sense of rhythm would be an important model for his own work.

Creeley left Harvard just short of earning a degree, but confirmed in his determination to be a writer. With his first wife, Ann McKinnon, he attempted to live by subsistence farming in New Hampshire, where in 1950 he began a crucial and voluminous correspondence with Charles Olson, whom he would not actually meet until 1954. Through this correspondence, which is much taken up with discussions of fiction, Creeley and Olson worked out their aesthetic positions, critiqued each other's work, and, most importantly, offered mutual moral support at a time when they were largely working in isolation and had yet to establish a clear direction for themselves as writers. In 1951, partially to save money, Creeley and his family, which now included two sons, moved to southern France and then to Majorca where he would remain until 1955. Here he maintained numerous literary and artistic contacts, self-published his first collections of poetry and stories, and, at Olson's instigation, began editing the Black Mountain Review. However, Creeley's difficult marriage finally collapsed, and he sought refuge by taking a teaching position at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he would become more closely identified with the broad spectrum of antiestablishment poets who would eventually make their official public appearance in Donald Allen's 1960 anthology The New American Poetry. From this time, Creeley continued to live a fairly peripatetic life, primarily supporting himself through various teaching positions, most importantly at the University of New Mexico and the State University of New York at Buffalo at various times throughout the 1960s, until he finally settled permanently at the latter institution in 1973. In 1957 Creeley married for a second time, to Bobbie Louise Hoeck (later Hawkins), a writer and artist with whom he would do a number of collaborative works in the 1960s.

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