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In Memoriam: Robert Mezey

In Memoriam: Robert MezeyThe first time I met Bob Mezey, I was sixteen years old and visiting Pomona College; I had no training as a poet. Bob had a reputation for being difficult—he was widely considered to be a master poet, but rumors swirled about his sharp tongue, frank opinions, and habit of publicly renouncing poets that didn’t pay homage to the tradition of meter and form. I was a sensitive kid, and the slightest cruel word might have crushed me. Years later, I learned that Bob himself was also just sixteen when he first sent his poems to John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon college. Perhaps this had something to do with how he handled our first meeting. I gave him my poems and eagerly awaited his response. “Well,” he said, “you don’t really know what you’re doing, but I see talent. I hope you come here.” Even before I began as a student at Pomona College, Bob sent me poems in the mail, photocopies of the works of Borges, Frost, Justice, along with instructions to read them carefully, listen to the sound and see if I could imitate the meter.

Later as a student at Pomona College, Bob and I frequently met for breakfast at Walters in Claremont. He always arrived early, and I’d find him drinking coffee, reading poetry. More than once he looked at my work and said, “This is not poetry; write something in verse. Keep the meter; use your ear.” Bob would bring in scanned versions of Larkin, Frost and Wilbur. He’d point out the ionics and spondees, and explain how the poetic masters could rough up the verse, but only after years of practice. Once, while reading Wilbur’s “The House,” I saw his eyes brimming with tears. It was clear to me then that poetry was not just Bob Mezey’s profession; it was something much deeper than that.

Bob had a promising start to his career: he’d won the Lamont Prize, and many people expected him to be the next big thing in poetry. Over the next few decades, Bob garnered further success for his translations, introductions to important poets and poems appearing in major journals. But during the last twenty years, it became increasingly difficult to find his work, even in the formalist journals. What happened? Had he offended one too many people, or was his style of writing simply out of fashion?

Years later, I began to expand my own poetic repertoire to include free verse. Bob cautioned me that writing a good free verse poem was far more difficult than people thought. “But in good free verse,” he’d say, “you’ll still hear the ghost of the meter.” Bob rarely spoke of his own work in free forms. When I asked about Naked Poetry, he said, “Wish I’d never been part of the damn thing. ”Somewhat ironically, just as the momentum of the poetry world was swinging in the direction of Naked Poetry, Bob was making a sharp turn back to formalism, back to the original teachings of Ransom.

In late April, I called Bob to say I finally had a draft of a poem I’d been working on since 2009—would he look at it? “Send it along,” he said. Bob was 85. On a Sunday morning, I woke early, and made coffee, eager to see if he’d written back—he had a habit of working late. But there was no response from Bob—only an email from his daughter, sharing the news that he had caught pneumonia, or possibly the virus, and passed during the night. What did he think of that final poem? “Not bad,” I imagine him saying, “only a few lines in here I might quarrel with.”

 

Read “Pakim Pond, New Jersey” from the Summer 1954 issue of the Kenyon Review.