Poet Creeley Dies at 78

Robert White Creeley, a respected and innovative poet known for his brevity and unique use of phrasing, died last Wednesday at a hospital in Odessa, Texas. He was 78.

Creeley had been on leave from Brown University to attend a two-month literary residency in Marfa, Texas when he became seriously ill. He died of complications from pulmonary fibrosis.

Creeley was admitted to Harvard University in 1943 but left to become an ambulance driver in India for the American Field Service during World War II. Though he dropped out shortly before his 1947 graduation, he taught poetry at Harvard during the summer of 1972. He had also been invited to speak at this year’s Harvard Phi Beta Kappa ceremony.

“[Creeley’s relationship to Harvard] was more of a love-hate relationship,” recalled Louisa Solano, the owner of the historic Grolier Poetry Book Shop on Plympton Street—a place Creeley frequented as an undergraduate.

Solano said she knew Creeley well and was greatly distressed by the death of such a “warm” and “compassionate” man.

“I feel that the world of poetry has been shaken by his death,” Solano said. “The pantheon of modern poetry—[Allen] Ginsberg, Creeley, and [Phillip] Levine—is slowly passing away. I don’t think there is anyone to replace them and the energy and passion they had for life and articulation.”

Solano says she is proud of her store’s bookmark, which features a 2000 quote from Creeley.

“Poetry is our final human language and resource. The Grolier Poetry Book Shop is where it still lives—still talks, still makes the only sense that ever matters,” reads the bookmark.

Grolier’s held a special memorial for Creeley on Saturday evening. The less than 10 attendees offered personal reflections, favorite stories about Creeley, and of course—poetry readings.

Friends at the memorial noted that Creeley was known for his emotional and intellectual techniques and his surprising resistance to revisions—claiming to have written his poetry intuitively rather than through a process of rewriting and revising.

Ruth Lepson—a poet and teacher who says she views Creeley as her mentor—recalls how he was often asked how his ideas flow so easily onto the paper.

“‘When you are swimming in the ocean you can’t control it,’” Lepson recalled Creeley saying.

“Spare as his poems are on the page, their large-heartedness is everywhere apparent,” said Stephen R. Williams ’06, noting the great respect and care he has for Creeley.

“I think of him as a truly wise person, genuinely committed to finding, or creating the rare ‘common places of feeling,’ as [Creeley] wrote,” said Williams.

Memorial attendees also discussed that Creeley knew and was known by many of the days greatest poets.

They specifically mentioned that he worked closely with Black Mountain poet Charles Olson on the effect of natural breath impulse and phrasing.