If you like what I do, an outsize helping of the credit is due not to me but to the poet Robert Mezey, under whose tutelage I learned to take no pity on my shortcomings.
I met the poet Bob when I was young. Claremont’s a small town. We had many connections. I went to school with his children. In my third and final year of Little League, he was my coach on the Mets. Baseball had been a generally miserable experience for me; I was a poor athlete, and my graceless on-field performance didn’t play well at home either. We wore yellow uniforms and Bob suited up like the rest of us, teaching us the fundamentals. We weren’t ever going to be champions, flyweight or otherwise, but he took visible satisfaction in helping us see the pleasure in giving it our best shot.
Years later, when I finally went to college after years of casting my net hither and yon, I signed up for his poetry class. After a free-verse-intensive youth, I’d rebelled against my earlier instincts and decided I wanted to write metered verse. As it happened, Bob had gone through a similar process over the years. But while I had a loose idea of wanting to write numeric lines that rhymed, Bob’s stance was more philosophically grounded. He had assumed the mantle of orthodoxy, if not its actual constraints. A good poem could reach him by any means, but he considered metrical verse to be the very highest condition of the craft, and he relished holding himself and others to the highest standard.
He had faith in my potential and parceled out his praise judiciously, which made it more valuable when you got it. His own poetry contained sentiments both grand and fleeting, celebrating the big wins alongside the small gains. His patience for others was great, but his tolerance for cheap sentiment was not.
So it was that one day I arrived to class with a new poem. Watching the news, there’d been a ghastly story about a father killing his children. Did the young poet think himself up to the task of conveying this horror in quatrains of iambic tetrameter? He did.
In Bob’s class, we’d hand in new poems during the week; he’d print them up so everyone in class could have copies when we next met to read them aloud and discuss them. Proud, I read my poem that attempted to decry the ugliness of the story I’d seen on the news.
Nobody ever wants to be the first to comment in class, right? So Bob cocked his head, looked me dead in the eye from across our round table, smiled a little, and said: “You don’t feel much, do you?”
Some people want support and encouragement from their teachers, and I get that. I wouldn’t recommend Bob’s approach as a general pedagogical method. But he’d known me since childhood. He knew I’d already had great teachers who’d nurtured my dreams, and he knew I was serious about wanting to write: to make things that reached people, to share the rare air that the greats breathe. By giving it to me straight, he was letting me know: This ain’t it, bud. You know enough about it to be told that this right here ain’t it.
Every single day of my life I am grateful to the poet Robert Mezey, who took my verse seriously enough to hold it to a high standard (and who, per spies in his camp — remember, I grew up with his children — spoke fairly warmly of my work when I wasn’t around to hear it). Every single day. He is gone now, but in any line of metered verse I write — if it’s any good, if its numbers do their job, if the miracle happens and I’m able, through the numbers, to communicate with another person: he’s there. If you know my work and not his, you still know him. He brought me here.
I make bold to borrow from one of the greatest elegies ever penned in saying goodbye to my teacher, without whom I am not nothing — he taught me that, too — but without whom I would be much, much less than I am: Earth, receive an honored guest.
For more tributes to Mezey, see here.
John Darnielle is a musician and writer who founded the band the Mountain Goats in 1991. He is and author of the novels Wolf in White Van (2014) and Universal Harvester (2017), as well as the novella Black Sabbath: Master of Reality (2008), part of the series 33⅓.