Robert Creeley, Distinguished American Poet, UB Professor for 37 Years, Dies in Texas

Release Date: March 30, 2005 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Robert Creeley, 78, former SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of Poetics at the University at Buffalo, died today (March 30, 2005) in a hospital in Odessa, Texas, where he was conducting a writer residency funded by the Lannan Foundation. He died from complications of pneumonia.

Creeley, often cited as one of the most important and influential poets of the last half-century, was a member of the UB faculty from 1966 to 2003, when he left to become a Distinguished Professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

A public memorial reading in honor of Creeley will be held in the UB Poetry/Rare Books Room, 420 Capen Hall, on the UB North (Amherst) Campus from 3:30-5 p.m. April 7. The reading will be sponsored by the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries curated by Michael Basinski and by Steve McCaffery, David Gray Chair in Poetry, a chair formerly held by Creeley, and director of the UB Poetics Program. The public is invited to attend, read favorite poems by Creeley and share reminiscences.

Creeley was an originator of the "Black Mountain" school of poetry, named after the North Carolina college from which he held a bachelor's degree and where he once taught with poets Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, both of whom also had lasting relationships with UB. Black Mountain established a new and anti-academic poetic tradition that has been reflected in the work of many poets who have come to occupy significant places in the 20th-century literary canon.

Creeley wrote more than 60 books of poetry and criticism and is known as well for the diversity of his collaborations with artists outside of his own authority. These include records with two decisive jazz composer/musicians, the bassist Steve Swallow and the saxophonist Steve Lacy, and the alternative mix rock group Mercury Rev. He also worked for more than three decades with visual artists including John Altoon, Robert Indiana, Jim Dine, R.B. Kitaj, Francesco Clemente, John Chamberlain, Georg Baselitz, Alex Katz and Susan Rothenberg.

At UB, Creeley was highly regarded as a teacher and founded both the university's nationally recognized Program in Poetics and its Wednesdays at 4 PLUS Literary Reading Series, which continues, and has brought hundreds of the world's most distinguished poets and prose writers to the campus. His leadership drew such distinguished literary stars as Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe to teach at UB.

Creeley was a generous and active member of the Western New York literary community, deeply involved with local literary efforts, particularly the Just Buffalo Literary Center, as well as CEPA Gallery, Hallwalls and other institutions for which he often held benefit readings. Among his community efforts was helping to establish a computer program with City Honors High School, usually on his own time and involving his own money.

"He was a friend to me and to many at UB and in Buffalo, particularly those of us in the literary community and we will miss him very, very much," said Basinski.

Creeley was the recipient of many major honors and distinctions. Among them are the Bollingen Prize, the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writers Award, several Fulbright Awards and the America Award in Poetry.

He was a member of the board of chancellors of the American Academy of Poets and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which honors distinguished experts and intellectuals from many fields. He was a recipient of UB's highest honor, the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, and in 1988 received the Walt Whitman Citation from the New York State Writers' Institute and, in accordance with the citation, was named New York State Poet Laureate for 1989-91

At the time he left UB in 2003, Creeley had lived and taught in this community for 37 years. He said that he had not sought the Brown appointment, but that although he benefited greatly from his relationship with UB, his New England roots were broad and deep. He was born in Arlington, Mass., raised in West Acton, Mass., and famously lost his left eye in a childhood accident. He attended Harvard University, tried subsistence farming in New Hampshire in young adulthood and long had a home in Maine.

Creeley said it would be difficult to leave UB and Buffalo, noting that "after all the years here, the great, enduring company, the wonderful colleagues and the terrific students who continue to impress me with what they do and get done -- no one leaves such a generous company without regret."

He added: "UB gave me my first defining appointment as a teacher, and made me a full professor no less (the first year "visiting," the next tenured) -- and that was in 1966.  The university I'd come from had me down as a "lecturer," so it was an almost incredible leap of faith on Buffalo's part to zap me so through the ranks. 

"In any case," Creeley said at the time, "I am forever grateful and be very sure I will never forget what a great life we have had here and all those who were so much its company and occasion, and its wonderful heart."

Creeley is survived by his wife, the former Penelope Highton, and nine children, seven of them from previous marriages.

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