Library Honors Poet Robert Creeley
Emma Terhaar | Sunday, February 9, 2014
In June 1996, renowned American poet Robert Creeley wrote a letter to Kurt Vonnegut, thanking him for sending a note to his 12-year-old daughter, Hannah. Vonnegut had come to breakfast at Creeley’s home years earlier and met Hannah, then 8. In 1996, she mentioned having met Vonnegut to her friends and understandably they did not believe her. So her dad mentioned this incident in one of his letters to his friend Vonnegut and he responded by sending a card to Hannah, which she showed to her friends. Creeley’s June 1996 letter thanking Vonnegut for this card is printed in the newly released “Selected Letters of Robert Creeley.” Creeley jokes to Vonnegut “you are not a terrific writer for nothing!” pointing to the irony of a famous literary figure resolving the squabbles of pre-teenage girls.
This volume of Creeley’s letters put out this month by the University of California Press documents many ironies and humorous anecdotes of the beloved poet, his personal life and his network of intellectual confidantes and pen pals. The book, at 512 pages, features just a handful of Creeley’s correspondence ranging from 1945 to 2005. Kaplan Harris, co-editor of “The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley,” explained in a talk Friday at Hesburgh Library the 10-year project that was reading, and choosing which letters of Creeley’s should be published.
Harris was one of three speakers at a special symposium held on Friday in the Special Collections celebrating both the Hesburgh exhibit entitled “Robert Creeley’s Library: The Poet’s Books as Art Museum and Network of Communications,” as well as the publication of his letters. The first speaker of the day was Creeley’s widow, Penelope Creeley. She offered a more personal view of the poet rarely seen by scholars accustomed to viewing Creeley as a poet first, not as a husband and friend. Like the Vonnegut anecdote, Penelope Creeley shared lots of little stories about Creeley formerly unknown. She talked a bit about Creeley’s fondness for libraries. She illustrated some of the famous friendships Creeley had describing him as a shy, reflective man. She said Creeley described how he might reservedly take in a social gathering from a table in the corner with the phrase “dancing sitting down.”
Despite being reserved, Creeley managed to connect with many contemporary writers, artists and musicians. Penelope told another anecdote on Friday testifying to Creeley’s long friendship with Alan Ginsberg. When Creeley’s niece died in a car accident in Maine, Ginsberg came to the small town where her funeral was being held. In order to contribute to the memorial fund, he read some of his erotic, socially uncomfortable poetry at the local library.
Stephen Fredman, a 20th and 21st Century American poetry professor, received a $125,000 grant from the President’s Circle Fund to buy the initial part of Creeley’s library, which included his writer’s copies of his own books and 11 artist’s books, better described as one of a kind, sometimes larger than life pieces of art in the form of a book. Later Fredman worked to acquire Creeley’s entire personal library for the University, grant by grant. The library now contains Creeley’s own books, the artist’s books, all of his own personal reading materials, miscellaneous photos, audio tapes of him reading, sometimes accompanied by Jazz musicians, as well as his own typewriter which Fredman calls his “winged glory.” Creeley’s library is particularly interesting because Creeley used his books as filing cabinets in which he placed anything relevant to them whether they were reviews clipped from newspapers, invitations to events or letters from editors or fans.
The acquisition of Creeley’s library is a move that will place Notre Dame on the map in the field of 20th Century American Poetry scholarship. Not only was Creeley an internationally well-known poet, but also was just one star in several constellation of intellectual celebrities of the 20th century.
“Creeley’s like a node for this communication with artists and writers around the world, ” Fredman said.
The collection speaks to Creeley’s friendships with people such as William Carlos Williams, R.B. Kitaj, Alan Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Charles Olsen, Denise Levertov and Charles Benrstein, among others.
Items from Creeley’s personal library will be on display in the front room of the Special Collections until July 25.