Posts Tagged ‘“Ken Fields”’

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

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

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.”

Robert Pinsky: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.”

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

Stanford’s handsome civic poet (Photo: Jared C. Benedict)

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, has returned to Stanford as a Mohr Visiting Poet for a few months. It’s a familiar habitat for him: as a Stegner Fellow years ago, he studied with the legendary poet-critic Yvor Winters and poet Ken Fields.

Robert has been called the last of the “civic” or public poets – something Irish poet Eavan Boland noted when introducing him at last night’s reading: “Through his work and his example he has made a compelling shape that has restructured the sense of the personal and public poem – and the personal and public poet – connecting and reinvigorating them in new ways.”

She continued: “As a poet he has always been of his moment and has wanted to be. In an interview he said: ‘Maybe everyone is sort of chauvinistic about their own era. I am.’ He was born on the threshold of war, at the gateway of a modern era. The enticing new American world of sports, music, vernacular energy and popular culture was to become part and parcel of his poems and his approach to poetry.”

Louise Glück, also visiting this quarter, speaks of his poems as having “dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician’s dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions.”

Eavan praised his newest book, At The Foundling Hospital: Poems, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, saying, “The poems in it are at once a catalog of causes for pessimism but finally an inventory of reasons for optimism. The poetry is deeply concerned with ancestors, with the mysteries of culture but finally most of all with the intimate details of what survives history or is not recorded in it, and yet makes an important angle to our human story. In the title poem of the book “At the Foundling Hospital,” comes the phrase ‘Fragment of a tune or a rhyme or name /mumbled from memory.’ It carries much of the book’s meaning.”

His own commitment to the art he practices has been stated this way: “We have this great treasure that we got from our figurative grandparents, and it would be very sad if we failed to hand it on to our figurative grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

One of Ireland’s leading poets.

During the question-and-answer period, he was asked about last week’s inauguration ceremony, which omitted the traditional inaugural poem. “I personally don’t think it’s a great loss,” he said. “Most of them are not very good.” He pointed out that the tradition is a fairly recent one, anyway.

However, he had his own inaugural poem for this month, “Exile and Lightning,” published on CNN as an “opinion,” with a disclaimer: “The views expressed here are his.” The first two lines:

You choose your ancestors our
Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.

You can read it all here.  One of the ancestors he claims in the poem is our Polish grandfather Czesław Miłosz. Since he’s my grandfather, too, that means we are related. In fact, that is how we met. He contributed an essay to my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and communicated by phone and by email years before we finally met face-to-face last night.

Another comment might be interpreted as a response to the proposed cuts to government arts funding: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.

Ken Fields, 113 crickets, and “the sound of life”

Friday, June 22nd, 2012


“Digital humanities,” of course, is the buzzword du jour here in Silicon Valley – but that’s hardly the only drive to blend high-tech and the non-tech.  The brand-new quarterly journal 113 Crickets offers a new take on combining books and bytes. It attempts to “promote connections between the disciplines of technology and literature through the publication of both technology-orientated books and works of fiction.”  The journal is part of Hillary Johnson‘s “genre-agnostic” publishing venture called “Dymaxicon” (dynamic + maximum + content), explained in the Huffington Post here. The journal is hoping to build a relationship with the Stanford Creative Writing program in its subsequent issues.

113 Crickets came into my hands via poet Ken Fields, during a long lunch on the patio of the Faculty Club.  He handed the spring issue to me.  “The Stanford connection is me,” he said.  The editor of 113 Crickets is  Ken’s friend, Tobias Mayer. Here’s another connection:  Ken has some poems in the debut issue.  Five poems in the series “West of Amherst” conjure the shade of Emily Dickinson.  He saved the best for last, though.  The excellent “Meditation,” stands alone and is the final work in the volume, dedicated to the Franco family, in memory of Doug Franco.

“Doug Franco took several classes from me when I first started teaching.  A math major, he was interested in poetry and painting.  He remained in Palo Alto as a business man, with a strong sense of community.  He, his wife Betsy, and three sons, one of whom is the actor James Franco, are all artistic,” Ken wrote to me later.  “I saw Doug often, and his wife Betsy, a writer, sat in on a couple of my classes.  Doug was a memorable man who died this year, far too young.”

Here’s the poem:


for the Franco family

Breathe in. Breathe out. This is the sound of life –
Music and sex, the cry we enter with,
The sigh as we leave.  We are a swinging door
Through which the wind blows, even in sleep.
Hum it, and cherish it, and let it go,
Syllable floating on the empty deep.

In Memory of Doug Franco

Reading at Kepler’s: Forever seeking Susan Sontag

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

SMallPosterThere’s no escaping Susan Sontag.

Terry Castle, author of The Professor and Other Writings (she was also introduced as a “miniature dachshund enthusiast”), gave a reading of her new book at Kepler’s on Tuesday night.  Or rather, she gave a reading of her book’s deathless essay, “Desperately Seeking Susan.” (The London Review of Books carries the 2005 Sontag anti-memoir here.  By the by, Slate has an excellent Q&A interview with Terry online here.)

We are all desperately seeking Susan.  “All of the reviews of this book keep going back to it,” Terry admitted.  The vivacious former “towel girl” for Susan may never live it down:  She had been invited to Sontag’s memorial service, “and disinvited the day after this piece came out.” She received a nasty email from Sontag’s son, David Rieff.

Why did she write it?  “The obituaries had not, and did not, capture whole facets of her personality,”  Terry said diplomatically.  The reading, attended by about 50, was punctuated by knowing laughs from the audience.  Even the question-and-answer period, following the reading, was stuck on Sontag.

Perhaps it was the locale – Kepler’s — that inspired this week’s reminiscences.  Castle said she first encountered Sontag in 1995 at this very bookshop.  Sontag’s eye fell on book by Temple Grandin,  a high-functioning autistic author who advocated more humane treatment for animals, and whose book, Thinking in Pictures, was all the rage at the time.  “Somebody’s got to take that woman on,”  Terry recalled Susan saying, aggressively.  It was as if Sontag had threatened to take on Mother Teresa, Terry added (“I myself am not a vegetarian…” said Sontag, while going on to tout vegetarian ethics.)

We could never quite be Sontag, though a generation of women mesmerized by her tried and tried and tried.  And perhaps the relief Castle’s short anti-memoir provokes is the realization that, well, Sontag couldn’t quite be Sontag, either.  But the knowing laughter had a bit of unpleasant smugness below the surface.  Was it Sontag’s fault we felt short?   After all, she didn’t ask for the idolatry  … did she?

Castle’s essay inspired more than ire – it inspired international catharsis.  Castle received grateful comminiqués from “people all over the world who had been “insulted, dissed” and had been on the receiving end of “unbelievable” rudeness.

“Desperately Seeking Susan” mentions a beautiful, fawn-like assistant named Oliver – but he was only one in a series.  Another one sent Terry a “stream of consciousness email” that almost jammed Castle’s electronic inbox because of its size.  She learned that Sontag’s former assistants even “had a support group to deal with their emotions.”

One told Terry he had watched Sontag open the envelope with her million-dollar advance for The Volcano Lover.  “It was the first time she had real money,” said Castle. “She collapsed on the floor saying, ‘I don’t deserve this, I don’t deserve this…’”

After “sobbing violently for a minute or so,” the assistant “heard and saw her say, ‘Yes, I do,’ ‘Yes, I do,’ ‘Yes, I do,’ picking herself up off the floor.”

As the Kepler’s kaffeeklatsch broke up, I cornered poet Ken Fields (he, too, had been laughing).  Did he think the merriment had, perhaps, a bit of a bitter  edge?

Instead of answering directly, Ken launched into a story about a young Stanford-based journalist who had been assigned to interview Sontag.  At one point in the interview, she asked him to turn off the tape recorder.  Off the record, she suggested he ask her if she thought The Volcano Lover, the novel that had become her obsession, was a feminist novel.

The journalist played along and asked the question.  And got a Sontag outburst as a reward. “That is the stupidest question ever heard!  Of course not!” she exploded, and launched into a tirade.

The interview nevertheless continued.  Again she asked him to stop the recorder.  She suggested he ask a second question.  It was another set-up, with a Sontagian outburst.  It happened a third time to the (by then) hapless, hopelessly browbeaten interviewer.

Ken Fields finished by recounting when Edmund White was a visiting lecturer at Stanford.  During refreshments after a colloquium, Sontag’s name came up in a discussion among White, Fields, and Castle.  Castle described herself as a former friend of Susan.

The visiting author corrected her at once:  “We are all former friends of Susan Sontag.”  Perhaps another support group is needed?

Terry will give another reading tonight, at 7:30 p.m., at Books Inc. in the Castro, and another, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at City Lights. Just don’t ask about Susan.