JUNE 19, 2020
When Robert Mezey read his own work, his voice moved easily through the poem’s rhythms; he’d express the most subtle emotions in ways that seemed fresh and surprising, as if he were discovering something new with each recitation. Listening to Bob read, one could almost be lulled into thinking that writing a poem this good was something anyone could do — it seemed so natural. Yet Bob himself claimed to have written only a handful of poems that met his own rigorous expectations. Throughout his life, he remained fiercely committed to perfecting his craft.
To Bob, nothing was more important than a poem’s sound. If a poem wasn’t musical he’d argue it was simply prose chopped up into lines. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” he’d say, quoting Duke Ellington. Anyone who studied with Bob was required to study versecraft before striking out in their own direction; just like a musician learning compositional techniques, a poet should study prosody. Bob loved to recite work from the poets he deemed “the real masters,” whose verse sounded natural enough to mimic human speech. Robert Frost, Donald Justice, and Phillip Larkin were among those he lauded most frequently. Bob never included himself on this list, but he belongs there. Sonnets such as “Hardy” or “Evening Wind” testify to his mastery, his power to make a difficult art form look effortless.
Bob’s poems also showed a sensitivity to the complex and bewildering nature of existence, and they could land a swift punch to the mid-section. “With a Ten-Foot Pole,” comes to mind: “Wishes are horses that kick you in the heart, /Then ask you if you’d like another ride.” Lines like these tap into the heart of the human nature, and linger in the mind long after reading. Bob’s work had staying power — an uncommon attribute in poets these days.
Clarity in poetry was not a topic up for debate, as far as Bob was concerned. He disliked poems that lacked deliberate intention or were willfully obscure. “It’s the job of the poet to meet the reader half way,” he’d often say. Once, after a lecture, Bob was asked, “what do you think of the device of clarity?” Outraged that someone might consider clarity a device, Bob left the room, refusing to answer.
Poetry wasn’t a game for Bob. It was a calling he took seriously right up until his final days. Nothing mattered more to him than a beautifully rendered poem that could evoke feeling and inspire its readers. Anyone who knew Bob, knew that he cried, often profusely, when a poem touched him. He lived for poems that became their own entities, mysterious and moving, even to their creators.
— Jodie Hollander
Another sleepless night. More frequent now —
No wonder that I’m almost always tired.
Seventy-four, and still I don’t know how
To fall and stay asleep. I lie here wired,
Obsessively reciting lines of verse,
Furious if I forget a single one;
Or fretting over unfinished work, or worse,
Over some crass or unkind thing I’ve done;
Or else I worry about a dying friend,
Or grieve for one already gone; and yes,
Wrestle against my fear of my own end,
Trying to think of nothing, or even less,
To be nowhere, or at least out of my head.
And more than halfway to another bed.
empty wind the light gone
paradise the time we have left
spring fall a day an hour
all you could ask for
The book is nudging me lightly it will not let me
turn away and roll with the force of the phrase
it tells me go back to the beginning it tells me don’t give up on
for half a century I have been immersed in the seventh verse
of the third chapter of the First Book
and I have heard this voice you will never know the book
to the end
I read it over and over letter by letter but my fervor often wanes
The patient voice of the book tells me
the worst you can do in matters of the spirit is to rush
but it also consoles you have many years ahead of you
It says forget that many pages still await you
volumes tears libraries keep reading the third chapter
it contains the key the abyss the beginning and the end
It says do not spare the eyes candles ink keep
verse after verse do it precisely as if you hoped to mirror
incomprehensible fading words each word with triple
I despair for I am neither skillful nor patient enough
my brothers are better versed in the art
I see them looking down at me I hear their derision
in the winter dawn when I open the book once
after Zbigniew Herbert (with Jacek Niecko)
A Further Complaint
He can remember how she sat
And turned her face for a kiss,
How she arranged herself for the first caress,
Looking into his eyes;
How richly she repaid him tit for tat,
And quick excited cries.
And then nothing. Where they had lain,
the lamp, the unmade bed.
She knows who she is, and why she said —
Ah — well, that’s quite enough.
It will not ease the stomach-churning pain
the innocent call love.
Still, he tears page after page to bits,
Despairing of something good,
Something consoling, or at least understood —
As if verse could right wrongs!
Let’s leave the little sucker where he sits,
Vomiting up love songs.
Robert Mezey (1935–2020) was an American poet, critic, teacher, and translator. He was educated at Kenyon College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Stanford University, and spent a quarter century teaching at Pomona College, before retiring in 1999. His was the co-editor of the seminal anthology of anthology Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms (1969) and The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette (1990), as well as the editor of important selections of Thomas Hardy’s and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s lyrics. His own Collected Poems: 1952–1999 was awarded the Poets’ Prize in 2002.
Jodie Hollander’s poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, The Yale Review, PN Review, The Dark Horse, The New Criterion, The Rialto, Verse Daily, The Best Australian Poems of 2011, and The Best Australian Poems of 2015. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship in South Africa, a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant in Italy, a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland, and attended the MacDowell Colony in 2015. Her debut publication, The Humane Society, was released with Tall-Lighthouse (London) in 2012, and her full-length collection, My Dark Horses, was published by Liverpool University Press (Pavilion Poetry) in 2017. She currently lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.