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Robert Creeley, 78; Postmodern Poet, Professor

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page B06

Robert Creeley, 78, a prolific poet and a major American artist in the second half of the 20th century, died March 30 at a hospital in Odessa, Tex. He had pneumonia and complications from lung disease.

Mr. Creeley was in a two-month literary residency at the Lannan Foundation in Marfa, Tex., in the remote Big Bend area of the state, when he became ill.

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Marfa, a tiny town in the arid reaches of the American Southwest, was an appropriate setting for the postmodern poet, although he had been there only a few days before he had to be hospitalized. Like the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, who lived and worked in Marfa and who attracted like-minded artists to the sparse and open space, Mr. Creeley the poet sought to pare down and distill, while maintaining the power, potency and richness of the words and images that remained.

"He was a nomad," said the poet C.D. Wright, a colleague at Brown University, where Mr. Creeley was a distinguished professor of English. "He was an old Yankee who loved New England, but he thought of Marfa as a clean, well-lighted place."

Like the jazz riffs of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis or Keith Jarrett, his poems were impressionistic and improvisational. Wright described him as an "essentialist as far as language is concerned."

"I believe in a poetry determined by the language of which it is made," Mr. Creeley wrote in 1960. "I look to words, and nothing else, for my own redemption. . . . I mean the words as opposed to content."

The poem "Water Music" illustrates his elliptical approach:

The words are a beautiful music.

The words bounce like in water.

Water music

loud in the clearing

off the boats,

birds, leaves.

They look for a place

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