Robert Creeley the poet behind the poems
The old brick firehouse in Buffalo where working poet and UB English professor Robert Creeley lives was once home to the men and horses of Engine Number 15. The walls of what was originally the stables are painted evergreen now, and the high ceilings are tracklit. It is a warm and comfortable space that today serves as the Creeley family's living room. One side of the room is lined with the wooden doors of what used toobe stalls, converted now to closets for books (even a renowned poet has a Norton Anthology or two) and music; along another side, running the entire length of the wall, is Creeley's narrow, claw-foot desk, layered in books and papers.
It is an idealized image of how one would envision a poet at home-right down to the last comfortably cultured detail. Sheet music on the piano is open to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata"; a big, gentle, Belgian Bouvier-who, one suspects, has helped rambunctious younger Creeleys beat the leather furniture into worn submission-lies stretched out, oblivious and sighing, on the Oriental rug; works of art are everywhere.
But it's a romantic image with a twist: Robert Creeley is an artist who is very connected to the realities of everyday life. On his desk is a computer with its attendant high-tech paraphernalia, and the exuberant cacophony of his two teenage children coming home after school with friends in two is no artistic illusion. His wife, Penelope, is hard at work doing the business of poetry, boxing and labeling the past four or five years' worth of his papers so they can be sent off to his collection at Stanford. And it would take more poetic license than even an award-winning author like Creeley could accept to describe his neighborhood as either pretty or privileged; Buffalo's Black Rock section is hardscrabble and industrial, and he likes it that way.
The poet sits almost camouflaged in a green sweater in his green room, his beard fuller now than in his hipster goateed days. In his 70 years he's been to Harvard, driven an ambulance in World War II Burma, lived in Spain and in Aix-en-Provence, married three times, been named official New York State Poet Laureate, garnered many prestigious literary honors, and taught at UB for the past 30 years. Litereature critics have called him a "domestic" poet, and although he does seem wholly integrated into his lair, his art, and his home front, it wasn't always so.
Originally a New Englander, Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts on May 21, 1926. When his father, a doctor, died, the family was left poor. "We lived in a very self-conscious way after my father died. Our whole way of living was gone," he remembers, adding, "Odds and ends were still there," the holdovers of affluence, which left him with a haunting sense of feeling "not quite authentic." "There was this unknown father still echoing for a long time," he muses.
He credits his older sister with helping shape his future as a poet. She was "vivid and terrific and articulate," he says, and she "directed my early reading" (which included Dostoyevsky and Conrad at age 13 or 14). "She was the reader in the family, and a poet of real authority.
"I loved reading, and wrote easily and confortably," Creeley continues, "but throught I'd be a veterinarian. I had a Jude the Obscure sense." Thanks to scholarships, as well as money he received after an accident that cost him an eye, he entered Harvard.
"Boy, was that disheartening," he sighs. "All the phony ego business was just aweful." The good news about Creeley's experience at Harvard is that he met fellow poet Kenneth Koch there. He is modest about it, however. "We had no great expectations, and although we thought we were the greatest in the world, we didn't expect anyone else to."
In 1966, armed with a B.A. from Black Mountain College (where he had helped found the "Black Mountain" school of poetry, a new and anti-academic poetic tradition that emphasizes the process of art over the final result) and an M.A. from the University of New Mexico, Creeley arrived at UB. It was an exciting period in the history of the university's English department, he recalls, when working writers-as opposed to scholars-were being hired to teach literature. "I was dazzled. THere was an extraordinary coming and going." He runs names off so quickly it's hard to catch them all-Gregory Corso, John Barth, Irving Feldman, and the late John Logan are some. Of his career at UB, Creeley says humbly, "I have absolutely felt lucky to find employment that gave me respect and leeway and was immensly accommodating of the needs I might have. I can't think of any place that I would have taught that would have been as supportive."
This past autumn, the UB community celebrated Robert Creeley's 70th birthday with days of readings and concerts by such artists as Amiri Baraka, Eileen Myles, John Ashvery, and Steve Kuhn, people whom Creeley describes as "friends who began as I did, who had similar sympathies...part of a company, a cluster of friends. I have never felt remarkably singular; it's like a neighborhood, or like jazz musicians. I feel pleased to play with them." He is at ease with where he is and with being feted, nor at all arrogant. "The vibes were extraordinarily happy," he says of the birthday festivities, speaking hipster poet, beatnik, as naturally as a Southerner might drawl.
For three intimidating nights during his 1989-1991 tenure as New York State's official Poet Laureate, Creeley found himself booked as the "Poet in Concert" at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City. It was there, he says, that he finally shook his half century's worth of feelings of inauthenticity. "It was a moment of consummate truth, of 'You presume to have this title, man, you better do something,'" he laughs. "I had this tacit worry that I couldn't measure up in city terms, that I was just this country man." Instead, he says, the experience gave him "the confidence to go on."
This spring he'll be teaching UB undergraduates again, trying tooopen their eyes to some of the ways that the world can be seen or felt or experienced. He sees it as his "responsibility" and "capability" as a poet "to give means to the invitation of life, to believe in the ultimate powers of imagination." He hopes to infuse his students with language, and with new ways of seeing and connecting.
The famous poet has observed, "It is so hard to unsentimentally and truly get connected to the community." But he himself seems to have achieved it beautifully, right here in Buffalo.
Erin St. John Kelly, now based in Buffalo, writes for The New York Times, The Buffalo News, and other publications.