The University of Maine is a place where one of the world's most
distinguished living poets feels at home
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
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
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,"
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
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
"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
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.