If it were up to groundbreaking American poet Robert Creeley, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's current exhibition, The Tumultuous Fifties: A View from the New York Times Photo Archives, might have had a different name.
"'The Tumultuous Fifties' could be equally called 'The Brutal, Oppressed Fifties,'" said Creeley. "It was a very brutal society, sadly at the edge of no return. An imminent endless crisis was unremitting."
Reading poetry from his fabled collection For Love: Poems 1950-1960, Creeley was delighted with the at-capacity audience of slightly over 350 people last Wednesday at the Albright-Knox. Creeley is a SUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Samuel P. Capen Chair in Poetry and the Humanities at UB.
Isolation, paranoia and despair determined the poetry from For Love, according to Creeley.
"Those were poems written by someone 40 years younger than me. There are certain states of feeling that I no longer have," said Creeley. "It's hard to get back to the emotional sense underlying those poems."
On occasion after reading a poem, Creeley would shrug at his work and throw off an over simplified one-liner in explanation, like "young love" or "live and learn" to which the audience responded with laughter.
Creeley, who credits bebop jazz greats Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others as major influences in composing and performing poetry, took cues from the rhythms and cadences incorporated in the music. He had the audience lingering at his every word as he delivered strong renditions of "The Immoral Proposition," "The Three Ladies" and "For Love."
"Much as a music composer would say, or almost anyone involved in art, performance is a resolution. It's very interesting to read to people," said Creeley. "All manners of poetry need to be heard. Listening to the sounds and rhythm of a composition is very critical."
Creeley's poetry leaped off the pages through his voice, assuming new forms and direction, and the audience boomed with jovial laughter after readings of "I Know a Man," "Entre Nous" and "Ballad of the Despairing Husband."
Written half a century ago, Creeley's poems from For Love continue to have a powerful impact on today's society.
"I think it was very interesting how the poetry tied the past and present together," said senior Gary Torres, an English literature major. "His work really spans all time."
Creeley captivated the half-student populated audience for nearly an hour mixing odd and sometimes hysterical anecdotes between poems regarding his extensive traveling and relationships with other poets and artists.
Creeley, who came into prominence during the 1950s working with Black Mountain College (an experimental arts college in North Carolina) and the Beat poet scene in San Francisco, recalled the piercing and violent impact of poetry during the decade, calling Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" "a call to arms."
He referred to a growing sense of disillusionment with post-World War II American society as the execution of the Rosenbergs, McCarthyism, the Korean War and atomic weapons loomed in the thoughts of the nation.
Creeley captured and expressed his own disillusionment and then growing sense of chaotic paranoia, in the readings of poems "The Dishonest Mailman," "Wicker Basket" and "The Sign Board."
As the reading drew to a conclusion, Creeley was urged into one final encore performance, a reading of "The Door," which contains a line that perhaps explains his ever-continuing journey into the world of poetic expression:
"My nature is a quagmire of unresolved confessions."