American Literature Robert Creeley
by
Alexandra J. Gold
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0244

Introduction

Robert White Creeley (b. 1926–d. 2005) was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, to Genevieve and Oscar Creeley. Creeley’s early life was marked by tragedy, as the poet suffered both the loss of his left eye in an automobile accident and the loss of his father by age five, after which he was raised by his mother along with his sister, Helen. He would go on to matriculate at Harvard College before dropping out to serve as an ambulance driver with the American Field Service in World War II. On return, Creeley married his first wife, Ann McKinnon, with whom he had three children; the couple settled on a New Hampshire farm before venturing abroad to France and Spain. Throughout this period, in the 1950s, Creeley established himself as a serious writer, engaging in correspondence with influential poets like Denise Levertov and Charles Olson, publishing verse and fiction in little magazines, founding his own Divers Press, and teaching at the experimental Black Mountain College alongside other avant-garde luminaries. Following his Black Mountain stint and a divorce, Creeley moved to New Mexico, where he lived and worked throughout the 1960s as a poet, secondary school teacher, and later professor. There, he met his second wife, writer and artist Bobbie Louise Hawkins, with whom he shared two daughters and two stepdaughters. His first major poetic volume, For Love, also appeared in this period. Though he had previously published several small volumes and numerous essays and stories, it was For Love (1962) and the subsequent Words (1967) and Pieces (1968) that crystallized Creeley’s role as a significant postwar American poet and earned him greater acclaim. On the heels of these volumes, in the late 1960s, Creeley took up a teaching post at SUNY Buffalo, where he remained for over three decades and established a renowned poetics program. During this time, from the mid-to-late 1970s through the early 2000s, Creeley divorced Hawkins, met and married his third wife, Penelope Highton (with whom he had two more children), and enjoyed a prolific poetic career, publishing volumes like Hello (1976), Mirrors (1983), Echoes (1994), and Life & Death (1999), among myriad other collaborations, chapbooks, and projects. In 2003, Creeley joined the Brown University faculty where he taught until his 2005 death from pneumonia; his final collection, On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay (2006), was posthumously published.

General Overviews

Following the success of his 1960s volumes, For Love, Words, and Pieces, scholarly interest in Robert Creeley took off in the mid-to-late 1970s, continued steadily, if at a slightly slower rate, through the 1980s and 1990s, and peaked again in the mid-to-late 2000s soon after his 2005 death. In the years since, critical attention to Creeley has become comparatively sparser, though his reputation as an essential postwar American poet and his undeniable influence on future generations as both an artist and teacher persist. Indicative of these trends, the 1970s saw the emergence of three important primers to Creeley’s work––Tallman 1973, Edelberg 1978, and Ford 1978––as well as a two-volume special issue of the academic journal Boundary 2. Featuring a mix of Creeley’s poetry, literary criticism, and personal reflections, the Boundary special issue, Spanos 1978, offers an expansive look into Creeley’s early career and remains crucial reading for any scholar interested in his work. Nearly a decade later, Wilson 1987 offers a retrospective view of extant Creeley criticism and commentary, compiling reflections on his work by other poets and scholars dating back to the 1950s. Fredman and McCaffery 2010 provides a similarly retrospective glimpse at the poet’s long career through essays that offer both personal reflections from those who knew Creeley well and scholarly discussions of his verse by leading poetry critics; growing out of a gathering at SUNY Buffalo in honor of Creeley following his death, this volume has become one of the definitive works of literary criticism on the poet. More broadly, the PennSound website hosts a highly accessible, wide-ranging multimedia archive of Creeley materials, affording interested scholars a uniquely interactive introduction to and presentation of the poet’s work, often relayed in his own voice (“Robert Creeley”).

  • Edelberg, Cynthia Dubin. Robert Creeley’s Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.

    One of the first pieces of literary criticism on the poet, this important critical introduction to Creeley traces his development from the early For Love and Words to the more formally innovative Pieces and A Day Book.

  • Ford, Arthur Lewis. Robert Creeley. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

    Early critical monograph that focuses on the poet’s 1960s work, both in poetry and prose, positioning the author in the broader context of contemporary American literature.

  • Fredman, Stephen, and Steve McCaffery. Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010.

    Indispensable critical primer compiling ten original essays on the poet by leading scholars in the field loosely organized around its three titular themes that solidifies Creeley’s position as an essential American poet.

  • Robert Creeley.” PennSound: Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania, n.d.

    Wide-ranging online resource that houses dozens of audio recordings of Creeley interviews, readings, lectures, conversations with and about the poet, and other ephemera arranged in reverse chronological order from most recent to oldest.

  • Spanos, William V., ed. Special Issue: Robert Creeley: A Gathering. Boundary 2 6/7(Spring/ Fall 1978): 11–76.

    Essential reading, this two-volume special issue offers early critical insight into Creeley’s work, reproducing a few Creeley poems alongside an interview, several essays, and a handful of less formal reflections on his life and work from both scholars and fellow poets.

  • Tallman, Warren. Three Essays on Creeley. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1973.

    Three essays on Creeley by a significant early critic (and one of the organizers of the now-famous Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963). Essays dissect Creeley’s “rimethought”—a notion akin to the rhythm of his thinking—in his fictional short stories and poetry in For Love, his collection of self-portrait stories “Three Fate Tales” from The Gold Diggers, and his novel, The Island.

  • Wilson, John, ed. Robert Creeley’s Life and Work: A Sense of Increment. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987.

    Organized chronologically and thematically, this collection of selected writings compiles excerpts from letters to Creeley, short scholarly commentary on specific poems, book reviews, and critical essays, offering an overview of extant Creeley scholarship through the late 1980s.

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