Posts Tagged ‘Donald Justice’

Remembering poet Robert Mezey (1935-2020): “brilliant, mercurial and often rebellious” – with a “great tragedy,” too.

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020
Share

He encouraged students to burn their draft cards. (Photo courtesy the Mezey family)

The poet Robert Mezey is dead. According to his daughter Naomi Mezey, the former Stanford Wallace Stegner fellow died on April 25 of pneumonia in Maryland. The award-winning poet, anthologist, and Pomona College professor was 85. “Brilliant, mercurial and often rebellious, Mezey came to artistic maturity in the 1960s. His footloose early career embodied the challenges and changes of that dramatic period in American letters,” former California poet laureate Dana Gioia writes in the Los Angeles Times. The obituary offers an excellent and punchy summary of his rather unconventional life. Read it here.

Mezey entered Kenyon College at 16, where he studied with poet-critic John Crowe Ransom, but dropped out after two years. He was in the U.S. Army, but discharged as a “subversive.”

Former state poet laureate & Stanford alum. (Photo: Starr Black)

From the L.A. Times: “Encouraged by poet Donald Justice, who became a lifelong friend, Mezey began graduate studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Once again, he dropped out — but for a happier reason. His first book, “The Lovemaker” (1960) had won the Lamont Poetry Prize.

“On the basis of that debut volume, Mezey received the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, but the start of the fall semester found him in Mexico rather than Palo Alto. His new mentor, the rigorously formalist poet Yvor Winters, had to send him money to travel back to the U.S. Their relationship soon soured,” Dana wrote.

Poet and Stanford Professor Ken Fields recalled in an email: “”He and Winters did not like each other, though Bob may have changed later in a delightful clerihew on him.” He knew him later in his career, through his friends Don Justice and Henri Coulette. “Bob eulogized Henri (Hank) and my first teacher, Edgar Bowers.”

From the Los Angeles Times:

Although he still lacked a graduate degree — a situation that would not change until Kenyon awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2009 — Mezey taught briefly at several universities. His departures were sometimes abrupt.

At Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, Mezey urged his students to burn their draft cards. Offered his full year’s salary, he made an early exit.

Meanwhile Mezey’s poetic style changed; he followed the zeitgeist into free verse. “When I was quite young,” he wrote, “I came under unhealthy influences — Yvor Winters, for example, and America, and my mother, though not in that order.”

He eventually returned to metrical forms and translation towards the century’s end.

He sent the money.

“Anyone searching out his Collected Poems 1952-1999 ought to be impressed by the breadth and depth of a modern poet they probably have never heard of, wrote Ken. “‘Terezín’ is a great and moving poem on a watercolor by thirteen-year old Nely Sílvinová in a German concentration camp for children headed for Auschwitz. Among many others, I think of ‘To a Friend on the Day of Atonement’ (the phrase, ‘Jewless in Gaza’) and ‘The Wandering Jew.'”

“He could also be funny and small, as in his praise of minor poets, among whom, I think, he would include himself.” Then Ken cited this one:

To My Friends in the Art

Flyweight champions, may you live
The proverbial thousand years
To whatever smiles and cheers
Flyweight audiences may give.
Ounce for ounce as good as any,
Modest few among the many,
Swift, precise, diminutive,
Flyweight champions, may you live.

Dana Gioia describes “his greatest tragedy” as the unpublished Borges translations, but this misfortune that still can be amended (we hope):

Meanwhile Mezey had been drawn to poetic translation. His Selected Translations (1981) contained compelling versions of Spanish, French, and Yiddish authors. His greatest undertaking, however, was to prove a disaster.

With his Pomona College colleague Dick Barnes, Mezey undertook a translation of the poems of Jorge Luis Borges. After some initial encouragement from the Argentinean author’s widow, the two poets spent years crafting suave translations that replicated Borges’s original metrical forms.

Then the pair discovered they could not obtain the English-language rights. Mezey’s finest translations remained unpublished except in a few copy-shop collations circulated among friends.

He has the translations.

Ken says he has a copy of the “wonderful” translations somewhere; let’s hope others do, too. “We do have the great ‘A Rose and Milton,’ and a couple of others. Somewhere I have the manuscript.”

Dana notes that Mezey was a religious skeptic, who did not believe in the afterlife. “Instead he offered a gentle vision of death”:

Blessed oblivion, infinitely forgiving,
Perpetual peace and silence and complete
Absence of pain. Now that’s what I call living.

Ken Fields remembered another Mezey anecdote (I expect there are many floating in the world at large): “A few years before my time, Mezey was awarded a Stegner Fellowship. … In those days the fellows got all the money at once, and Bob absconded with the stipend. Phil Levine, his friend at the time, said he had no problem with Bob taking the money, but he also took the Levine’s babysitter, and that was a serious offense. When the Collected Poems came out, Bob sent me a copy, with the understanding that I would send him twenty dollars. I neglected to do it, not deliberately, and it stayed on my mind on and off for years. Time to call it even.”

Dana Gioia’s archives go to Huntington, Stanford – including “tens of thousands” of letters!

Monday, April 20th, 2020
Share

Dana Gioia’s books, manuscripts, libretti are now at the Huntington Library.

Dana Gioia is a man of letters in the time-honored sense of the term, influencing our culture as a poet and essayist, but also as a translator, editor, anthologist, librettist, teacher, literary critic, and advocate for the arts. His correspondence was extensive, and it went on for decades. Hence, his archive is a treasure trove, and though he has had offers from other institutions to acquire it, he wanted his papers to stay in California. Now it will. He has donated his substantial archive to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which announced today it had acquired the papers of the poet and writer who served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003–09 and as the California Poet Laureate from 2015–19.

Dana Gioia in L.A. with friend, Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

It is the second large donation he has made in the last year. Last August, he gave to Stanford the large archive of Story Line Press, which he co-founded. The papers are the central archive for the New Formalism movement. The archive includes a number of people who have spent time at Stanford, including Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Christian Wiman, Paul Lake, Annie Finch, and of course Dana himself, among others. Stanford Libraries already holds the archive for The Reaper, so this is a natural pairing with that irreverent journal.

The larger Huntington archive includes correspondence with many of the major poets and writers for the last several decades, including Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Ray Bradbury, Rachel Hadas, Jane Hirshfield, William Maxwell, Thom Gunn, Edgar BowersKay Ryan, Robert Conquest, Julia Alvarez, Thomas Disch, Cynthia Ozick,  Donald Davie, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever, J.V. Cunningham, and even some musicians, such as Dave Brubeck. It also includes his own books, manuscripts, and libretti. “Even after I pruned my correspondence, there is a lot of letters – in the tens of thousands,” said Dana.

“When I told my brother Ted that I had made the donation, he commented that I wanted my papers to be at the Huntington because our mother took us there as children. ‘You’re probably right,’ I said. I  still remember seeing the elegant manuscript of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ there nearly sixty years ago. It was my first glimpse into that enchanted kingdom by the sea called poetry.”

The Huntington picked up 71 archival boxes last December – the first part of his donation. Then Dana Gioia had a more urgent task: the next day he flew back to northern California home, which sustained fire damage during last year’s Kincade wildfire.

From the Huntington release:

The archive documents Gioia’s work as a poet through fastidiously maintained drafts of poems and essays from his books, which include five books of poetry and three books of critical essays. He is one of the most prominent writers of the “New Formalist” school of poetry, a movement that promoted the return of meter and rhyme, although his arts advocacy work situates him in a broader frame.

The archive en dishabillé, as Mary Gioia helps organize.

“In his correspondence, you see a writer who has been willing to engage the young and old, the esteemed and emergent—anyone who wants to critically discuss poetic form, contemporary audiences for poetry, and the importance of literary reading during decades when popular culture has become increasingly visual and attention spans have fractured,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington. “We are delighted that Dana has entrusted his papers to The Huntington, where his collection fits perfectly. He is a local author—he grew up in a Mexican/Sicilian American household in Hawthorne—and even as he attained international recognition as a poet and assumed the chairmanship of the NEA, he remained loyal to the region and invested in Los Angeles’ unique literary communities.”

“I’m delighted to have my papers preserved in my hometown of Los Angeles, especially at The Huntington, a place I have loved since the dreamy days of my childhood,” said Gioia.

While the range of correspondents in the collection is broad and eclectic, the sustained letter writing with poets Donald Justice, David Mason, and Ted Kooser is particularly significant.

Gioia’s work co-editing a popular poetry anthology textbook with the poet X. J. Kennedy from the 1990s to the present will interest scholars working on canon formation during those decades when the “culture wars” were a politically charged issue.

A portion of the materials represent Gioia’s work as an advocate for poetry and the arts at the NEA and as the California Poet Laureate. This work is integral to his career and will be important to scholars interested in the place of poetry and the role of reading for pleasure within greater debates about literacy and literary reading at the beginning of the 20th century. … At The Huntington, Gioia’s archive joins that of another businessman poet, Wallace Stevens; that of a very different but also quintessentially Los Angeles poet, Charles Bukowski; and those of two other New Formalist poets, Henri Coulette and Robert Mezey.

Tens of thousands of letters and much more – now at the library his mother Dorothy Ortiz took Ted and Dana Gioia to visit as children. Dana remembers the Poe manuscript of “Annabel Lee.”

Poems from my co-pilot

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013
Share

rifenburgh2I met poet Daniel Rifenburgh ohhhhh… a dozen-or-so years ago.  We’ve stayed in touch since.  We had an unforgettable June evening together at the West Chester Poetry Conference.  We were in a rented car crammed with people, en route from the university to the home of Michael Peich, conference’s co-founder (with Dana Gioia).  As I recall, David Slavitt was piled into the car, too.  Can’t remember who else … plenty of people pushed into a small vehicle.

Dan was driving – as I recall he was a taxi-driver at that time, so he was pro.  Later, he taught at the University of Houston.  Now he drives an 18-wheeler flatbed rig, hauling steel out of the Port of Houston.  On that particular night, however, he had the misfortune to appoint me as his co-pilot and hand me the maps.  We quickly became confused and lost in the suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood, with its winding, pointless streets, but we were having fun, anyway.  We may have been the only ones in the car who were.  We found the party eventually, and stayed in touch over the years, respectfully addressing each other by title, always – “co-pilot.”

So I was pleased to receive in the mail his newest volume of poems, Isthmus (it was signed – what else? – “To my co-pilot, Cynthia, with admiration and affection”).  I was also pleased to hear that we have a mutual friend, Anne Stevenson.  Here’s what she wrote about his poems in London Magazine, after recounting a career that included serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, and working his way through Latin America as a reporter: “Rifenburgh is enjoyable because he ranges at large over many subjects, testing, exploring, reporting, celebrating; he has many moods … Yet, for all his ironic witticisms, Rifenburgh is, au fond, a profoundly spiritual poet, committed, like Hecht and Wilbur, to declaring his seriousness.”

Antonov An-2

A better way to get around Pennsylvania?

Other supporters include Richard Wilbur, who says his poems “can also stun the reader with a brilliant, slow-fuse image. What governs the movement of the poems is a genius for the speaking voice.”  Isthmus is dedicated to Donald Justice, who said Dan’s poems “are terrific: so fluent, so smart, and brimming with charm.”  Both Justice and Anthony Hecht figure in the poems, as dedicatees or the source of subject matter or epigrams – and Adam Zagajewski, who taught with Dan in Houston, makes a welcome guest appearance, too.  Hecht wrote, characteristically, “These poems are startling in their vividness, skill, their originality and solidity. I find that lines and images resonate long after they have served the purposes of their local contents.”

Dan said I could reprint a poem – but which?  Sometimes the first choices are best.  When I opened the book, my eyes fell on this one, and I liked it.  It grabs me still, though I haven’t read them all, so I can’t claim it’s my favorite yet.

 

The Fragments of Heraclitus

The name of the bow is life, but its work is death.
.                            The Fragments

The fragments of Heraclitus,
Compact, trenchant, inscrutable,

Are lovely in their resistance
To analysis. Therefore, from sympathy,

And, being immortal,
They sometimes assume human forms

To attend unnoticed the burials of critics.
They hold by their brims dark fedoras and,

Standing aloof, stolid, anonymous,
Listen respectfully to brief eulogies

While the great world sifts noiselessly
Down through time’s latticework

And the bow named life,
Accomplishing its work, later

Sends them strolling like slow arrows
Away from these shaded gravesites,

Pacing back cleansed
Into birdsong and light.

“And finally time runs out”: Evan Connell dies at 88

Sunday, January 13th, 2013
Share

“I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next.”

Evan Connell has died, “of old age,” according to a relative.  He was 88 at the time of his death last week in  Santa Fe.

I didn’t know Evan Connell’s work, except from Ken Fields, who recently mentioned Mrs. Bridge as a masterpiece.  Apparently Wallace Stegner thought so, too.  He called it “a hell of a portrait…She’s as real and as pathetic and as sad as any character I have read in a long time.”

Connell, the author of 18 books, was a student of Stegner’s during his time at Stanford in the 1940s.  And Stegner was his first publisher:  Stanford Short Stories: Nineteen Forty-Nine (Stanford University Press), edited by Stegner from submissions by Stanford students, contains the first book appearance of a work by Connell.

Connell was in the first class of Stegner Fellows at Stanford, 1947-48, in the illustrious company of Donald Davie and Donald Justice.

The road to Stanford was not an easy one.  Connell was the son and grandson of physicians, and his father did not take easily to the idea that his only son would not follow in his footsteps. According to the Los Angeles Times:

He was a pre-med student at Dartmouth, which he attended from 1941 to 1943, but ultimately decided against following in his elders’ footsteps. This did not please his father, whom Connell described as “a rather severe man.”

“He was concerned that I would never be able to make a living at this kind of thing,” Connell, in a 2000 interview with the Associated Press, said of writing. “It was a justifiable concern, I think. I grew up in a home where there was no music, no interest in any of the arts.”

He dropped out of Dartmouth and joined the Navy, training as an aviator at a base near Albuquerque, where he fell in love with the vastness of the West. After completing his military service, he studied painting on the GI Bill and traveled, living in France during the 1950s and writing for the Paris Review.

Usually, Connell’s first published work is credited as the critically acclaimed The Anatomy Lesson and Other Stories (1957). His first novel, Mrs. Bridge (1959), according to the Man Booker Prize website, “dissects the life of a conventional upper-middle-class Kansas City matron who lacks a sense of purpose and conforms blindly to what is expected of her.”  Connell published Mr. Bridge a decade later, retelling the same story from the husband’s p.o.v.

According to the Los Angeles Times obituary:

He initially wrote Mrs. Bridge rather conventionally, with about 15 chapters, but it was rejected by numerous publishers in part because it lacked a climax. That was his intention, Connell said, because “our lives do not reach a dramatic climax in the way that books usually do. Most of us just go on day to day through major and minor trials and defeats. And finally time runs out.”

He restructured the novel as a series of 117 vignettes, which paint a devastating portrait of a woman puzzled by the emptiness of the small world she inhabits. The novel was “one of the very few written since World War II that clearly deserves to be called, as it has been, a masterpiece,” William H. Nolte wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Connell followed the same theme and structure a decade later in the companion novel, Mr. Bridge. Some critics found it darker and more satirical than the first novel because the main character, Mrs. Bridge’s joyless lawyer husband, was far less likable than his wife.

Both novels became the 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge with the husband-and-wife team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Success didn’t spoil him.  Again according to the L.A. Times: “Despite the success of the Bridge novels, Connell held a number of odd jobs to get by. He delivered mail, read gas meters and was a counselor at an unemployment office. In his exceedingly dark 1966 novel The Diary of a Rapist, the main character is working in an unemployment office when he goes crazy.”

Connell’s bestselling 1984 biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star also earned praise and became a 1991 mini-series.  Larry McMurtry, writing in the New York Review of Books, said the book was “one of the few masterpieces to concern itself with the American West” and particularly noteworthy for its portrayals of the Native Americans.  Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times also called it a masterpiece with a “lasting visceral resonance.”

Connell told the New York Times: “‘ There are two explanations for writing the book. Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians. Maybe now it’s ‘Star Wars,’ but when I grew up in Kansas City, you could send in box tops — from Quaker Oats, I think — and get something like a color picture of Sitting Bull.

“As far as this project goes,” he continued, “a few years ago I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next. I didn’t have any ideas for a novel, and for years whenever I couldn’t manufacture something successful, I simply worked on a subject that interested me. And the Old West came to mind.”

Connell won the $100,000 Lannan Literary Award in 2000 and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2010. He was nominated for a Man Booker lifetime achievement award in 2009.  But I can find nothing else online about his time at Stanford.

Postscript on 1/16:  D.G. Myers has an excellent piece on Evan Connell’s oeuvre over at The Commonplace Blog.  “Connell’s message is that superficial lives are superficial not by accident but by intention…”  Check it out here.