In an unpublished autobiographical note written in 1966, Robert Creeley talks about the tragedies that shaped his childhood:
I was raised in Massachusetts for the most part, having been born in Arlington, May 21, 1926, son of a physician who died when I was four. That and the loss of my left eye when I was a little younger mark for me two conditions I have unequivocally as content, but which I have neither much bitterness about nor other specific feeling. I did miss my father certainly. With him went not only the particular warmth he might have felt for me, but also the whole situation of our life as we had apparently known it.
Dr. Oscar Creeley had been a prominent physician, and his death altered his son's "situation" considerably. Creeley grew up on a small farm in West Acton that his father had bought to serve as a quiet country home. His mother, a reserved woman who was Dr. Creeley's third wife, worked as a public health nurse to support Robert and his older sister, Helen. Because his mother was "distracted" by her commitment to earn a living, Creeley turned to their housekeeper, an impoverished, inarticulate immigrant his father had rescued from a state home for the mentally retarded. He describes her as the "emotional center" of his early life. Although in retrospect he feels that it took him "a curiously long time to come into a man's estate" because he was raised in a fatherless household, that he "always came on too strong to people casually met" because he grew up in relative isolation, and that he was particularly vulnerable because he had a glass eye, Creeley looks back to his childhood as a generally happy period in his life. One of his fondest memories is of the woods in West Acton: "I could go out into those woods and feel completely open. I mean, all the kinds of dilemmas that I would feel sometimes would be resolved by going out into the woods . . . . "
Creeley was awarded a scholarship to Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire. This school, he recalls, "was so generous in its understanding" that he feels the "most relevant" part of his education was the time he spent there. His experience at Harvard was less satisfactory: "I found little place despite the various friendships I made [with John Hawkes, Mitchell Goodman, Seymour Lawrence and Jacob Leed, among others]. Only one teacher, Fred McCreary, gave me any sense that I might have possibility as a writer." By late 1944 his life, as he phrases it now, was "'rapidly deteriorating." He had been suspended from Harvard for stealing a door from Lowell House, his relationship with Ann MacKinnon, who would become his first wife, was chaotic, and his job as a copy boy in Boston was intolerably tedious. He welcomed an American Field Service assignment as an ambulance driver in India as a "great adventure," a liberation from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When the war was over, Creeley returned to Cambridge, where his family was then living. His feelings about his family and his education had been ambivalent before he went to India; by the time he returned his sense of alienation was intensified by what he characterizes as a pervasive restlessness: "Everyone was looking for where it was happening and desperately wanted to be accepted by it, because frankly the society as it then was, coming back from the war and realizing home and mother just wasn't no matter how lovely, any great possibility."
Creeley felt cut off from "the society as it then was." "Return," written during the winter of 1945, was the first of his poems to be published. In it, he expresses his relief at finding his "door" on an otherwise "endless" street and, simultaneously, his sense of feeling apart.
Quiet as is proper for such places; The street, subdued, half-snow, half-rain, Endless, but ending in the darkened doors. Inside, they who will be there always, Quiet as is proper for such people-- Enough for now to be here, and To know my door is one of these.
The first five lines of the poem sketch a cold, dark insular society of "quiet" places and people "who will be there always." Repetition and alliteration suggest a rigidly patterned, predictable circumtaance to which the poet almost, but not quite, belongs. The dash ending line 5 separates the speaker from "such places" and "such people." Furthermore, his "door" should be "one of those" to satisfy the expectation set up by the sound of "know," but, it turns it, his "door" is "one of these." Formally, there is at least one word in each line of "Return" which anticipates the sound of the final word in the line--"as is" : "Places"; "half-snow" ; "half-rain"; "darkened" ; "doors"; "They" ; "always"; "proper" ; "people"; Enough for now" : "and." "These," the last word of "Return," designates the poet's "place," which is conspicuously alone.
When Creeley returned from the American Field Service, he was reinstated at Harvard. Looking for "where it was happening," he became involved in the activities surrounding the publication of Wake, a magazine started by Harvard undergraduates the year before as an alternative to the Harvard Advocate, a publication Creeley and his friends felt was misguidedly sympathetic to the New Criticism. He was the associate editor for the Cummings issue (Spring 1946), which published "Return." His friendship with the editors of Wake led to the publication of several other of his early poems as well. But more important, according to Mary Novik, whose biographical sketch is the most complete account to date of Creeley's life, "Wake was for Creeley virtually the only example of an alternative little magazine dedicated to the publication of new writing, however ephemeral. It was with this audience in mind that he first began seriously to write and to identify himself as a vriter."
For Creeley, the jazz clubs around Boston provided another altemative to "society as it then was": "This was the time of the whole cult of the hipster" and Charlie Parker was "the hero of that possibility."The form of Parker's improvisational compositions derived from the unique flux of the immediately felt experience which prompted the music. Although it would be years before Creeley could do so himself, he learned from the jazz cult that "you can write directly from that which you feel." These musicians, who experimented with rhythm and silence, showed him "how subtle" and "how refined that expression might be." In his preface to All That Is Lovely in Men (a slim volume published in 1955 and later incorporated, in part, into For Love) Creeley acknowledges his debt:
line-wise, the most complementary sense I have found is that of musicians like Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. I am interested in how that is done, how "time" there is held to a measure peculiarly an evidence (a hand) of the emotion which prompts (drives) the poem in the first place.
Against the background of these restless times, Creeley married Ann in the spring of 1946. It was a tense relationship from the start. Ten years later it ended in a bitter divorce. Thinking back to the spring of 1946 from the vantage point of the present, Creeley tries to understand his decision to marry:
One of the sad dilemmas of that time was that the content of that war experience was in no way locatable among the people of my life. I remember not long after going over to see if I could relocate an old girlfriend at Radcliffe. I came in this battle dress and I'm sort of given a charming flash response from these young ladies. I'm wearing a black patch at that time and I looked kind of dramatic. Well, again, it was useless to me. I really wanted something to locate me. I've been through this extraordinary chaotic time. It isn't that I felt I was owed anything but my college background up to that point had already been dislocating. My relation with my family was warm and emotionally good but it was that characteristic dilemma of inability not because they didn't want to understand what it was that I wanted to do or what I thought I had as a possibility or what I really had in mind to accomplish. To add to the chaos of being a college student at that time was now this whole war scene which you couldn't report to people. I didn't feel smug--like, you people don't know what I went through. I didn't feel any drama or heroism but I felt I can't get these two realities to be in the same world and, even more to the point, I can't find my own situation as relates to either one.
I did literally locate this girl who was as dislocated as I was. Really I all but--no, I don't think I forced her to marry me. I think we had the mutual need for somebody to locate so we grabbed on to each other. I think I really did insist upon marriage just to be real, to take up a real role as I assumed it to be.
The Creeleys moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, shortly after their marriage. They came to the bohemian community on the strength of Creeley's friendship with Slater Brown, a writer and one-time friend of E. E. Cummings, Allen Tate, Malcolm Cowley, and Hart Crane. Brown had fascinating stories to tell, and he encouraged Creeley's decision to become a writer. But living in Provincetown had its drawbacks. Creeley left Harvard shortly before graduation because the open-bar commute on the ferry to and from Cambridge proved a distraction. And, too, he began to feel that the course work was useless to him. After a year in Provincetown, the Creeleys moved to a farm near Littleton, New Hampshire, where he spent his time reading, writing, and breeding pigeons for exhibition (an interest of his since childhood). It was at this point that Creeley initiated his lengthy correspondence with Charles Olson.
The Creeley-Olson letters were especially important in strengthening Creeley's resolve to pursue a literary career. They began shortly after Creeley heard Richard Wilbur read his own poems on Cid Corman's radio program, "This Is Poetry." He wrote to Corman (and to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, who also responded) asking about potential contributors for a planned literary magazine. The magazine was to be a sympathetic outlet for new writing "free of the current imposition of the literary hierarchy," an alternative to the Hudson Review and Kenyon Review. Corman put Creeley in touch with Vincent Ferrini, who had gathered several of Olson's poems for his own periodical and sent them on. Creeley replied to Ferrini: "To tell the truth, I'm rather put off by Mr. Olson's language which doesn't seem to come to any kind of positive diction. . . . there's the looking around for a language, and the result is a loss of force." Then Olson to Creeley--to whom he would dedicate The Maximus Poems:
my dear robert creeley; so Bill W. too says, write creeley, he has ideas and wants to USE 'em so what do i do? so i write so ferrini sends creeley a lovely liquid thing and creeley says, he's a boll weevil, olson, just a lookin’ for a lang, just a lookin' nuts, and i says, creeley, you're off yer trolley; a man god damn well has to come up with his own lang., sytax and song both, but also each poem under hand has its own language, which is variant of same. (THIS IS THE BATTLE: i wish very much, creeley, i had now to send you what PNY publishes summer issue PROjective Verse vs the Non-projective: the argument pitches here (I've dubbed the alternative to composing by inherited forms "composition by field"--it needs more examination than I give it in that kickoff piece) )
When the Creeley-Olson exchange of letters began during the spring of 1950, Olson had not yet completed "Projective Verse" or written "Human Universe," his seminal essays, or The Maximus Poems, his three-volume sequence; he had, however, been thinking seriously about poetic composition for a long time. When Olson was Director of Foreign Nationalities Division of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., he often visited Pound in St. Elizabeth's Hospital ("Olson saved my life") and talked with him about "projective" poetry, which many observers of contemporary perspectives in literature, like Michael Reck, Pound's biographer, feel "derived from Pound anyhow." Olson passed along to Creeley in a barrage of letters the substance of his much discussed ideas about making the line a true register of a poet's individual speech pattern and thought process. This process of clarification was mutually profitable. Creeley recalls:
And then those letters actually became incorporated finally in that essay on projective verse--in the first section, where he is talking about the significance of the syllable, the sense of breathing, the sense of where the intelligence is operating and the choice of the language where the whole physiology of man is at work in the poem.
Creeley says he learned from those letters to make the length of the line reflect the stress complex that compelled it because, as he says, Olson "started to show me where habits and attitudes toward the line were really not only blocking the particular emotional intensity that I was working for, but he showed me how the whole way of speech was not true to the way I was thinking." In other words, Olson helped Creeley to find his own voice: "Olson, I believe, was a decisive influence upon me as a writer, because he taught me how to write. Not how to write poems that he wrote, but how to write poems that I write. This is a very curious and specific difference."
Olson insisted that the line of the poem truly record the poet's actual speech pattern. He convinced Creeley that the end-stopped line he had used in "Return" was artificial because no one speaks consistently in complete sentences. Olson went further than proposing a theory of composition. When Creeley sent him poems in manuscript form, Olson either suggested ways in which the line might be changed or he changed the line himself. Therefore, it is not altogether possible to know which poet's voice we hear in Creeley's earlier poems. The poem "Helas" is a case in point.
Creeley wrote "Helas" in February 1951, and sent it to Olson for comment. "Helas" shows Creeley entering the world of letters as an eiron, the stock character of Greek comedy. This pose enables him to make outrageous use of techniques, words, and interests associated with Olson, Pound, and Williams. But "Helas" ends unconventionally with a final irony; having exposed and exploited the flaws of his mentors, Creeley finds himself defeated at the end of the poem by essentially the same problem he had at the start: "The shapes of light [sacred words]/ have surrounded the senses,/ but will not take them to hand."
Helas! Or Christus fails. The day is indefinite. The shapes of light have surrounded the senses, but will not take them to hand (as would an axe-edge take to its stone ... )
It is not a simple bitterness that comes between. Worn by these simplicities, the head revolves, turns in the wind but lacks its delight.
What, now, more than sight or sound could compel it, drive, new, these mechanics for compulsion
(nothing else but to bite home! there, where the head could take hold . . .)
which are vague, in the wind take no edge from the wind, no edge or delight?
"Helas" is based on Williams's "The Wind Increases," which Creeley quotes directly in the second parenthetical passage: "(nothing else but/ to bite home! there where/ the head could take hold . . .)." When the letters between Creeley and Olson are published they will show that Olson put in the parentheses around "as would an axe-edge/ take to its stone . . ." but did not explain his motive. Without the parentheses, the phrase suggests a comfortable and purposeful action connected with farming. With the parenthesis, the phrase is by association, a literary allusion. It is, in fact, a quotation from Olson's poem "La Torre," also written in 1951. Thus "Helas" implies that Olson's voice is as important as Williams's. In effect, Olson changed the meaning of Creeley's poem. Perhaps "Helas" is an extreme instance. Yet it raises questions that might be answered when the Creeley-Olson correspondence is published. To what extent did Olson suggest alternative patterns of lining? To what extent did he actually put into Creeley's poems Cummings-inspired devices of presentation that were also identified with his own technique, such as open parentheses, variant spellings like thot, wd, cd, broken sentences, and unconventional spacing? To what extent did he alter Creeley's meaning? And, finally, to what extent was Creeley aware of this ?
The voluminous Creeley-Olson correspondence during the early fifties--at one point Creeley calculated he "was spending a full eight hours a day writing them"--was typical of the way in which most of the poets first associated with Corman's Origin and later with Creeley's Black Mountain Review managed their relationships through the mails. For instance, the published portion of Olson's letters to Corman, which have chiefly to do with the events leading up to Corman's final editing and publication of Origin I, devoted to Olson's work, and Origin II (July 1951), "featuring Robert Creeley," give us insight into the working of this vast network of communication through which, Creeley says, the poets began "to realize" themselves, "to get location, to realize what other writers were particular to our own discriminations." These friends wrote about aesthetic theory. They reviewed each other's work. They exchanged comments about editorial policy and the logistics of publication.
The letters about the difficulties involved in finding sympathetic publishers led Creeley to establish the Divers Press in Mallorca which began by issuing Origin III in the spring of 1953:
I wanted a press that would be of use to specific people, including myself. I printed two of my own books [A Snarling Garland of Xmas Verses and The Kind of Act of], two of Blackburn's and I printed Olson [Mayan Letters], Irving Layton [In the Midst of My Fever and The Blue Propeller] and so on. We had to. We had to have the dignity of our own statement. We had to have it in a form that could be available to other people.
Perhaps the most life-ordering significance these thousands of letters held for Creeley was of a personal nature. Olson invited him to teach at Black Mountain College and to edit Black Mountain Review as a result of the relationship they initiated and sustained solely through their correspondence.
By 1954 Olson was an established figure at Black Mountain College. This experimental college in North Carolina, founded by John Andrew Rice in 1933, began under the influence of John Dewey: the faculty worked "to understand the community" with "everybody participating" in the application of Dewey's social ethic. The school also survived the next influx of teachers who came during the late thirties and were more concerned with the "functional concept of the arts and of the organization of the intelligence generally." This spirit continued to dominate the college after Josef Albers, the director, left Black Mountain in the late forties to become the head of the Yale School of Design. Olson's association with the school began in 1945 when he commuted back and forth from his government job in Washington, D.C., to Black Mountain College to take over his friend Edward Dahlberg's teaching position. He became rector in 1951 and in that capacity saw the college through its final days in 1957. Under his direction the school was owned and operated by the teaching body, a group made up of people intimately associated with some creative activity (Franz Kline, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Paul Goodman, among others) who were expected to share their experience with students who were similarly involved. The promise was compromised by the reality; Black Mountain College was unaccredited and, more important, it was on the verge of bankruptcy.
By 1954 Olson was struggling to keep the college alive. He decided that if Black Mountain had thirty-five students, fifteen more than actually enrolled, it could be self-supporting. He hit on the idea of Black Mountain Review. Olson hoped this promotional publication would be the most effective yet least expensive way of reaching people who might be interested in a Black Mountain education. Cid Corman wanted to be its editor. Because be and Olson were close friends, Corman had reason to expect the job. More to the point, he had devoted Origin I entirely to Olson's work and be made virtually every subsequent issue available to Olson as well. Nonetheless, Olson chose Creeley, the poet he said was "worth more than all the rest of us," the writer he said he "learned more from . . . than from any living man." In a letter to Corman (December 14, 1954) Olson speaks about his decision and about the projected format of Black Mountain Review:
The point is, i hope i am the first to tell you that Robt is coming here as of March 29th, not only as an addition to the faculty in writing, but as editor of a new quarterly, to be called "The Black Mt. Quarterly, 100 pages, big review section, and planned to compete with Kenyon, Partisan, NMQ (what else is there, are Hudson & Sewanee, still in existence?) Anyway, that sort of thing. And with a circulation of 2500 to be shot at. Also, To carry ads.
While Olson was wrestling with the problems facing Black Mountain, the Creeleys were living on the Spanish island of Mallorca with their three young children. From the start of their marriage they lived on a small income Ann received from a trust fund. This financial imbalance generated a particular kind of tension Creeley often refers to in his writing. As he put it in a letter to Williams: "I was going to be a writer, and we lived on 215 a month she got from a trust fund. . . . Embarrassed continually, that I did not 'support' her and the children--but equally endlessly covetous and anxious of the time it gave me."
"Embarrassed continually" yet "endlessly covetous," Creeley defended his usefulness by admitting inadequacy and then capitalizing on the confession. Although it seems contradictory, self-effacement is an effective weapon in the hands of a skilled practitioner of negative power, as Creeley's first published story, "The Unsuccessful Husband," demonstrates. The "businesses" the husband "so carefully guided into failure" are presented as evidence of his well-meaning determination to satisfy his cruelly insensitive wife. The Creeleys' life in Mallorca (November 1952 to March 1954) is the subject of The Island, his only novel. Again, the husband is unsuccessful, financially dependent on his wife, and quick to say mea culpa. As Creeley's poetry and prose of the early fifties make plain, his marriage was on the verge of collapse. He was looking for a viable alternative; the idea of a job at Black Mountain was an attractive possibility. He quickly accepted Olson's offer to join the writing faculty and to edit the magazine.
The first issue of Black Mountain Review (Spring 1954) was printed on Mallorca by the Divers Press just before Creeley left his home there to teach at the College from March to July 1954. Although Creeley had twice before planned to edit a magazine, he never actually did and he knew practically nothing about teaching. Olson had, quite simply, rescued his intellectually stimulating friend from a difficult time in his marriage. Creeley recalls:
I didn't meet Olson, until I went to teach at Black Mountain in 1954--which job saved my life in many ways, and certainly changed it altogether. Living in Mallorca, despite the ease and beauty of the place, I'd begun to feel I was literally good for nothing--and Olson's offer of a job, and equally his giving me the magazine to edit, changed that subject completely.
In July 1955, Creeley returned to Mallorca to find, sadly, that his relationship with Ann could not be reconciled. Olson rescued him a second time by asking him to teach at Black Mountain for the fall term. Again, Black Mountain was "a place to go." Ann left Mallorca shortly after she supervised the printing of Duncan's Caesar's Gate, the last publication by the Divers Press. Creeley taught at Black Mountain until January 1956, when Robert Duncan came and took over his responsibilities. The Creeleys were divorced in New York during the winter of 1956. In a letter to William Carlos Williams dated August 8, 1956, Creeley says that shortly after this painful and bitter divorce he went west on a "poor man’s odyssey" to search for the "means to my supposed redemption."
Creeley went west, stopping first in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and finally on to San Francisco, where he met Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Kenneth Rexroth, and Philip Lamatia, among others. He put together samplings of their work for Black Mountain Review, No. 7, the final issue of the magazine. In this way Creeley became part of the San Francisco "renaissance." His "poor man's odyssey" was worthwhile for still another reason. He returned to Albuquerque, where, in January 1957, he met and within two weeks married Bobbie Louise Hall.
At the time Bobbie Hall had two daughters, Kirsten and Leslie. In the two years that followed, the Creeleys had two more daughters, Sarah and Katherine. A sense of family, a teaching job at a small day-school for boys in Albuquerque, and graduate work at the University of New Mexico, taken together, gave Creeley a measure of stability in his life that he had lacked for some time. The tone of the poetry he wrote during the late fifties reflects that change accordingly. By the sixties, the urgency and despair that had, either explicitly or by implication, marked his earliest work yielded to a more composed mood and a more philosophical purview.
At the same time that Creeley's personal life was settling into a more manageable style, his professional life was becoming more secure. Although his work had been admired by the poets associated with Origin and Black Mountain Review, the appearance of his poems in Poetry made his work available to a wider reading public and opened the way for academic acceptance. In fact, an account of Creeley's recognition by Poetry magazine during these years provides a convenient index by which his increasing stature as a poet can be measured. In August 1957, his first poem appeared in Poetry. In the May 1958 edition of this journal, Louis Zukofsky reviewed Creeley's The Whip, a collection of thirty-eight poems culled from the earlier slim volumes. In April of 1959, eight poems appeared in Poetry, and in May 1960, ten new poems were published for which Creeley received the Levinson Prize. The June 1964 issue of Poetry brought out thirteen new poems, which won him the Levinson-Blumenthal Prize.
Aside from being a prolific writer during the last twenty years, Creeley has been an active member of the literary community. He has participated in many Writers Workshops and poetry conferences; the Vancouver Poetry Festival (Summer 1963) and the Berkeley Poetry Conference (Summer 1965) were perhaps the most significant. Creeley has taught in a variety of places including a finca in Guatemala, the University of New Mexico, the University of British Columbia, and the State University of New York at Buffalo. In April 1964, he read with Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and since that time he has read at virtually every major university in the United States and Britain. He often joined other writers in their protest against the Vietnam war though he did not take up this issue in his poetry.
In 1970, the Creeleys moved to Bolinas, California, a community of artists and writers. A sampling of work by poets who identify themselves with Bolinas can be found in On the Mesa: An Anthology of Bolinas Writing (San Francisco: City Lights, 1971). On the back cover of this volume, the editors explain: "Several divergent movements in American poetry of the past 20 years (Black Mountain, San Francisco Beat, 'New York School' of poets) have come together with new Western and mystic elements at the unpaved crossroads of Bolinas." In poems written during his years in Bolinas, Creeley refers to it as a literal place in which he and his family live and as a mystical place in which he finds a profound sense of peace and wonder.