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Robert Creeley, 78, poet, leader of literary avant-garde

Robert Creeley, one of America's most celebrated poets and for more than half a century a leading figure in the literary avant-garde, died yesterday in Odessa, Texas, of complications from lung disease. He was 78.

Mr. Creeley, who had been in Texas as part of a Lannan Foundation literary residency, lived in Providence. He was professor of English at Brown University.

Mr. Creeley ''was one of the most important 20th-century American poets," said Peter Gale Nelson, assistant director of the literary arts program at Brown. ''Rare enough to be a great poet, even rarer to be a great person, as Robert was. He was such a vibrant presence. We feel remarkably fortunate to have had [him] here for the three semesters he taught."

Several key strands of mid-20th-century American culture met in Mr. Creeley and his poetry. He was variously associated with such literary Modernists as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, such Beat writers as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the various writers and artists associated with the legendary Black Mountain School in North Carolina, most notably the poet Charles Olson.

Mr. Creeley also liked to cite the influence on his writing of Abstract Expressionist painting and such jazz musicians as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Jazz taught him, he once wrote, that ''you can write directly from that which you feel."

Mr. Creeley's poetry emphasized the personal, the lyric, the improvisatory. Reacting against such poets as T.S. Eliot, he rejected the ''literariness" of allusion and metrical form. There's a singularly stripped-down, casual quality to his poetry. For him, breath was the determining element in verse. ''I heard words/and words full/of holes/aching. Speech/is a mouth," he wrote in his poem ''The Language."

The most mannered thing about Mr. Creeley's verse was its absence of manner. He wrote in free verse, with short lines and stanzas. Not everyone approved: ''There are two things to be said about Robert Creeley's poem," the critic John Simon once wrote. ''They are short; they are not short enough."

In poetry, Mr. Creeley once said, ''form is never more than the expression of content." Yet a central paradox defined his work: For all that he wrote in a minimalist style, his great subject was the most maximal of human emotions, love and the complications that arise from it.

Robert White Creeley was born in Arlington. His father, Oscar Creeley, was a doctor. His mother was Genevieve (Jules) Creeley, a nurse. When Mr. Creeley was 4, the family moved to West Acton.

Mr. Creeley became interested in writing while a student at the Holderness School, in Plymouth, N.H. During World War II, he served as an ambulance driver in India for the American Field Service. He dropped out of Harvard just short of graduation, in 1947.

With his first wife, Ann McKinnon, Mr. Creeley moved to a farm in New Hampshire. He decided to publish a literary magazine. Although no issue ever came out, he solicited contributions from such poets as Pound, Olson, Williams, and Louis Zukofsky. All would become major influences on his life, work, or both.

Mr. Creeley spent several years living in France and Spain. Olson, with whom he'd begun carrying on a voluminous correspondence, recruited him to teach at Black Mountain College and edit Black Mountain Review. The poet Robert Bly called the review ''one of the most interesting magazines in America."

After the breakup of his first marriage, Mr. Creeley went to San Francisco, where he spent time with Kerouac and Ginsberg. He moved to New Mexico, where met his second wife, Bobbie Louise Hall, and began teaching at the University of New Mexico. Mr. Creeley later taught at the University of British Columbia, San Francisco State University, and, for a quarter century, at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Mr. Creeley published more than 60 books of verse and more than a dozen of prose. Some of the better known include ''For Love: Poems 1950-1960"; ''The Island," a novel; ''Collected Poems, 1945-1975"; ''So There: Poems, 1976-1984"; ''Just There: Poems, 1984-1994"; ''Collected Prose"; and, in nine volumes, ''Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence."

Among Mr. Creeley's many honors was the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Fulbright fellowships. He served as New York State Poet from 1989 to 1991.

In addition to his wife, Penelope (Highton), Mr. Creeley leaves two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, David of State College, Pa., Thomas of Hudson, Maine, and Charlotte of Brockton; two daughters from his second marriage, Sarah of Hercules, Calif., and Katherine of Boulder, Colo., and a stepdaughter, Kirsten of California; and a son and daughter from his third marriage, William of Brooklyn, and Hannah of Manhattan.

Funeral plans are incomplete.

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