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Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley
The University of Maine is a place where one of the world's most distinguished living poets feels at home


The National Poetry Foundation's legacy
By embracing the experimental and extreme, the National Poetry Foundation (NPF) at The University of Maine has nurtured the development of poets whose innovative use of language has shaped modern poetry for more than three decades.

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Robert Creeley has had ties to The University of Maine for more than a quarter century. Since UMaine's National Poetry Foundation (NPF) was established in 1971, Creeley has embarked on regular visits to Orono to participate in conferences and readings, or to work as a visiting writer.

Now in his third year as a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Poetry and Poetics at UMaine, the man who has produced more than 75 volumes of poetry and was awarded the prestigious Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award last year is a comfortable fixture in UMaine's community of faculty and student poets.

So comfortable, in fact, that Creeley who lived in Northeast Harbor, Maine, when his mother was a Red Cross nurse there in the early 1940s is conscious of the common bonds he shares with many UMaine students.

"I find UMaine students very tender. They have a classic shyness about the world to the south. I remember that feeling very well. But this University can certainly give them the confidence that lets them go anywhere in the universe," Creeley says.

Creeley is instilling that sort of confidence in students. Indeed, they say it's easy to forget his towering stature in the literary world when he is teaching them in the UMaine classroom, or conversing with them in a local pub.

"He's one of the most important American poets, so he could have an intimidating persona if he wanted to," says Ben Shockey, a graduate student in English. "But he's so easy to listen to and talk to. He'll meet you right where you are."

The very form of Creeley's poetry creates a rapport with students. Creeley writes in the "plain style," a decision he says was influenced by a desire to identify with people like his grandparents, who were Mainers.

Generous Life
by Robert Creeley

Do you remember the way we used to sing
in church when we were young
and it was fun to bring your toys with you
and play with them while all the others sung?

My mind goes on its own particular way
and leaves my apparent body on its knees
to get up and walk as far as it can
if it still wants to and as it still proves able.

Sit down, says generous life, and stay awhile!
although it's irony that sets the table
and puts the meager food on broken dishes,
pours out the rancid wine, and walks away.

"The plain style is a tradition of poetry that attempts to use a rhetoric and diction open to all imaginable readers, but that does not talk down. My real influences were my grandfather and grandmother. I didn't want to be isolated by some rhetoric from the very people I lived with. I didn't want to be separated from them in a way that they couldn't understand or recognize as their own.

"My mother's family moved from Stonington (Maine) to Natick, Mass., in the early 1900s. There were many family stories about Maine. My grandfather went to sea from Belfast as a 12-year-old cabin boy, and sailed in classic clipper ships around the Horn. My way of thinking about the world, and my factors of speech, were influenced by Maine," Creeley says.

Students and members of the community fill the University's Soderberg Center to capacity when Creeley gives a reading, which typically consists of his poems and those of others, as well as his commentary on poetry in general.

"The students hear a familiarity in his voice," says Steve Evans, an assistant professor of English and the coordinator of NPF's poetry reading program, the New Writing Series. "They say he sounds like their father or their grandfather."

Creeley says he tries to help his students understand how poetry allows them to express themselves in ways that other forms of literature don't.

"I don't teach poetry as an isolated focus or subject. It's obviously a particular mode of literature, a particular activity, but I like to think of it in its communal aspects the way it relates to people.

"I like to ask, what does poetry do?" he says. "How does poetry respond in ways that other modes of saying things don't? For instance, after Sept. 11, poetry has had a very relieving effect. It says something that one has felt, but hasn't found words for. It's a way of recognizing the world."

Creeley's students appreciate the freedom that his approach grants them, unleashing their creativity to both interpret and produce poetry.

"He says that the meaning of a poem is found in you, the reader. That reflects his personality and everything about him," says English graduate student Megan London.

"He told us that the reader knows more than he does," says sophomore Melissa Armes. "He respects what people reading his work think."

Creeley, for his part, has been impressed by the insights of his UMaine students.

"In a seminar the other day one student was really brilliant. He was reporting on one aspect of Charles Olson's activity as a poet, which had to do with the senses of time and history. It was quick and clean, and in 15-20 minutes he had located more active information than most people do in a lifetime. That's a very unusual student," Creeley says.

Creeley was born and raised in Massachusetts. Today, his primary residence is New York, where he is the Samuel P. Capen Professor of Poetry and Letters at the State University of New York Buffalo.

Creeley and his wife Penelope maintain a home in Waldoboro, Maine; many relatives live in other small communities in the state. He says he values the way his poetry and teaching connect him to Maine.

"Last summer, the postmistress from the Waldoboro post office came to one of my readings. That meant as much to me as the Lannan Award. To be accepted, taken in, made me very happy. It's very sweet to be involved at UMaine. I like the sense of having a practical relation to a state university that has had so much to do with me feeling real."

Creeley says he values the contributions the National Poetry Foundation has made to the development of the experimental, open form or free verse tradition of American poetry. That sort of poetry wasn't always recognized by the mainstream literary world or the major academic institutions.

Creeley, who published his first poem in 1946, had established himself as one of the pioneers of that form of poetry long before the establishment of NPF. During the 1950s, Creeley joined Olson at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught and edited its literary journal, Black Mountain Review. There, Creeley contributed to the development of the Black Mountain School of poetry, designed to transmit meaning through natural speech rhythms and lines determined by pauses for breathing.

"There was an exceptional cluster of artists gathered at Black Mountain. People there were more interested in what they didn't know than what they did. It could be a volatile cluster," Creeley says. Similarly, NPF became a forum where Creeley and others pushing the limits of poetic expression gathered to contemplate their craft and communicate insights.

"The National Poetry Foundation started a whole tradition that was unique in the country. It has been the most active center for the investigation of American poetry and that continues," Creeley says.

With Creeley on campus, the tradition is even stronger.

"On a list of great poets of the 20th century, Robert Creeley's name is at the top," says graduate student Ben Priest. "It's amazing to have him here. But you forget that after awhile, as he becomes your teacher."

by Gladys Ganiel
November-December, 2002

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