Robert Creeley (1926-2005), one of the most important American postmodern poets of his era, belongs to the world. But he also was — and continues to be — a Buffalo treasure.
His verses celebrating love and loss and joy are most often detached from time and place, but they have a quiet quality that resonates with the meditative, sometimes brooding atmosphere of his adopted hometown on a winter’s day. And when, very occasionally, one of his writings is definitively set in Buffalo — “The kids in the time before dinner are playing, sliding on old ice”; “of my fellow and sister poets, of my neighbors on Fargo Street” — anyone who has lived here will instantly recognize it.
Already renowned as the dashing, iconoclastic author of genre-busting poems like “I Know a Man” when he arrived to teach at UB in 1966, he was a key part of the university’s star-studded English department. In those days the city had an enviable reputation as an artistic and academic bohemia, an “acropolis of the avant-garde,” according to Time magazine, and at UB Creeley joined such cutting-edge writers as Carl Dennis, Leslie Fiedler, John Barth, Charles Olson, Bruce Jackson and, later, Diane Christian, Susan Howe and many others.
As the years went by Creeley became a fixture on the cultural scene well beyond the walls of academe, in the city itself. He read, lectured, spoke at conferences and held court at his home, a converted firehouse on Amherst Street. He was friends with some of the leading painters of the era, like Jim Dine, Francesco Clemente, Susan Rothenberg, Robert Indiana. He collaborated with a wide range of musicians, jazz, experimental and rock. Some were his former students, like Mercury Rev, the indie band that would go on to international fame. (Even today, Creeley’s many recorded readings continue to inspire musicians.)
He won literary prizes and was named poet laureate of New York State. He helped organize UB’s Poetics program, still a prominent force in contemporary literature today. He mentored generations of students, nurturing in them a love of poetry and the confidence to find their own voice.
And there were always more poems. Creeley published continuously throughout his 37 years in Buffalo, a steady, beautiful stream of work by turns poignant, sexy, elegiac, funny and wise, often all at the same time.
Creeley left UB in 2003. He died two years later, but his legacy at the university lives on in the Poetics Program — and, every spring, in the Robert Creeley Lecture and Celebration of Poetry, an annual festival of spoken word, film and music that is as free, open to the public and as much about community as it is about poetry.
Creeley would have loved it.
“Buffalo Evening” reproduced and performed by permission of the University of California Press. Excerpted from The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1975-2005, by Robert Creeley, © 2006 by the Estate of Robert Creeley.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Narrator: Susan Banks
Robert Creeley: Joey Giambra
Trumpet: Joey Giambra
Saxophone: Steve Rosenthal
Voice recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)
Music recording: Steve Rosenthal
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)