Posts Tagged ‘Philip Levine’

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

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020
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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.”

“Magpiety”: getting to the bottom of it.

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015
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magpie2“Magpiety.” I had thought the title came from Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and his poem by that name – his translator Peter Dale Scott has assured me that he himself invented the word, though I thought Miłosz had made the same claim. Anyway, I wrote all about the word Magpiety here. I thought the subject had exhausted itself and I had become the world expert.

Then I received in the mail the galley proofs for a collection of Melissa Green‘s poems, which will be out later this year: Magpiety, published by Arrowsmith Press in Medford, Massachusetts. When I scanned the table of contents, I expected to find a poem in tribute to the late great Polish poet – along the lines of Philip Levine‘s poem “Magpiety.” Nope.

My OED dates the usage of the word to 1845 (“Not pious in its proper sense/But chattering like a bird…”). Long before either Miłosz or Peter Dale Scott were born. The mystery deepened. Arrowsmith publisher Askold Melnyczuk sent me the author’s note that is to go at the beginning of the volume. In it, the poet writes: “Magpiety arose directly from the anonymous Renaissance poem ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’ and with the call and response of the lesser known—and probably later—’Mad Maud’s Song.’ In order to write my version, I searched for language that had fallen out of English in order to invent a dialect for Maud’s voice as she struggled with delusions, her dread of madness, of the loss of Tom, and of Bedlam.”

Had the OED been bested by several centuries?

So I wrote the poet for an explanation, and this is what she said:

For a while, even I thought I’d invented the word Magpiety!

I hadn’t remembered it from the Miłosz – in fact, if pressed, I would have said I had yanked from one of Mark Strand‘s poems, but I must have been thinking of Philip Levine.

I have bushel baskets full of words with the same kind of frisson, that sit in the cellar year after year, ripening, until I need them, until the source of the word has been forgotten. I didn’t actually find any evidence for its use anywhere as early as the Elizabethans; rather when the time came to write the Mad Maud poems, I remembered the word ‘magpiety’ and employed it like a valise to pack in all the meanings I could in the manner of Humpty Dumpty.

green-melissa

She likes the twinkly bits.

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: probably shortening of dialect maggot the pie, maggoty-pie, from Magot (Middle English nickname for the given name Marguerite) + pie (Old French from Latin pica)

‘Mag’ came to mean a woman, an idle chatterer, whose daylong running monologue, I imagined, expected no reply – so I saw Maud’s poems as full of a mad self-talk, with the world not responding. (The Corvidae are loud and raucous talkers). My confirmation name is Margaret, which made ‘Mag’ appropriate. It was easy to extend ‘pie’ to ‘piety’ (though I do remember your OED reference mid-1800 as the opposite of true piety; Pierus claimed his nine daughters sang as beautifully as the Muses and they were turned into magpies for that hubris/impiety). I am a magpie-ish kind of writer – drawn to the shiny, twinkly bits – but this magpie is full of reverence for the world. The rhyme in my head went ‘mag/hag/bag lady’ which is how I am convinced I’ll end up.

She ended with an apology: “Sorry I have no legitimate trail of breadcrumbs for you to take this word back into linguistic history. You see I just used it to suit myself.”

Connection with Miłosz?  Coincidence. Who would have guessed it?

No! No! Say it ain’t so! Is the life of the semicolon coming to a full stop? ;*(

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011
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Everyone today seems to be talking about the appointment of Philip Levine as the next U.S. Poet Laureate (you can read about that here), but I have more important things on my mind.

According to an article in The Australian:

For centuries, the semicolon has carved out a tenuous – but precious – place for itself between the comma and the colon.Without the humble semicolon, some of the greatest achievements of English prose – the looping, qualified sentences of Henry James; the elaborate, ironic juxtapositions of Evelyn Waugh – would not have been possible. It has endured; it has persisted; it has even thrived.

But now – under the various pressures of texting, email, journalese, “plain English” and PowerPoint – the career of the semicolon appears rapidly to be approaching a full-stop.

The rare, and usually middle-aged, journalists [Ahem! – ED.] who still revere the semicolon will discover it is no favourite of sub-editors, who will nowadays allow the comma to do much of the semi’s previous work of co-ordinating ideas inside a sentence. And as sentences get shorter, there is less of that work to do.

Is THIS what you want? Huh? huh? huh?

In short (literally), texting, email, tweets – all have given rise to the impatient, minimalist sentence.  The semicolon, it appears, has become an endangered species.

Even technical and legal documents – the bread-and-butter of semicolons everywhere – are dumping their hardworking employees: the middle-aged semicolon is giving way to younger, fancy bulleted points that think they are hot stuff.

Still, the humble punctuation mark has its champions:  Author David Malouf argues for its continued employment:  “If you want longer sentences and still allow readers to find their way through, then the semicolon is very good,” he says.  “I tend to write longer sentences and use the semicolon so as not to have to break the longer sentences into shorter ones that would suggest things are not connected that I want people to see as connected.

“Short sentences make for fast reading; often you want slow reading.”  Like wanting slow food, cooked for hours, over something quick you can grab at a fast food joint.  Like “dining” versus “having something to eat.”

In a vulgar age, however, good things must be put to vulgar uses, and Pavlova‘s pirouettes must make way for pole dancing:

If this most subtle of punctuation marks is to survive, it may well be inside one of the most vulgar: the emoticon.

To which the only fitting response must be: ;*(

Kay Ryan wins the Pulitzer Prize: “I would like my work to be weightless.”

Monday, April 18th, 2011
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In praise of lightness: Marin's self-sytled "Sheriff of Emptiness" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Kay Ryan has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.  I wrote about the Marin poet here during a recent visit to Stanford.  I blogged some outtakes from my interview with her eight years ago here. And I’ve written about her elsewhere, too – oh, for San Francisco Magazine, in an October 2004 article, “Let There Be Lightness,” which isn’t, alas, online.  (Postscript on 4/19:  It is online now – here.)

An excerpt from that piece, in honor of the occasion:

A bubble. The foam on a stein of beer. A tulip quivering on a slender stem. A feather, to counterpoise the world’s density, inertia, heaviness.

Lightness is a much underrated virtue, and a much misunderstood one. “Lightness” does not mean being vapid or intellectually shallow. It means looking at the world from a different perspective, with a different system of weights and measures. Marin County poet Kay Ryan—a very quiet writer who is suddenly creating a lot of noise—does exactly that in her poems.

It’s a pickle, this life.
Even shut down to a trickle
it carries every kind of particle
that causes strife on a grander scale….

The lightness of atoms inhabits Ryan’s fey, easy-on-the-ear poetry, which wins her instant fans at her occasional, low-key readings. She explains what she’s after this way: “It’s the object of my life to get things to float. Because I like it. Because it’s a relief. It is relief. It’s freedom. So I would like my work to be weightless.”

But in today’s grim and weighty world, she’s been rebuked with charges of insubstantiality, even frivolity. Library Journal gave Ryan’s 1994 book of poems, Flamingo Watching, a stern “not recommended,” commenting, “Ryan’s cramped syllabics have a monotonous density that too often mistakes sound for sense… these poems are derivative and lacking in substance.”

The winning book

There’s nothing frivolous, however, about the attention Ryan has been getting lately, finally, after decades of writing and six books of poetry, including 2000’s Say Uncle. Within a few months last spring, she won both a $40,000 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and the $100,000 Ruth Lilly prize from Chicago’s esteemed Poetry magazine.  The award, praising a “singularity and sustained integrity that are very, very rare,” establishes her in an enviably successful firmament that includes Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Anthony Hecht, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin—heavyweights all.

One thinks of Ashbery’s avant-garde experimentalism. One thinks of the erudite Hecht’s dark and troubled formal verses. One thinks of Rich’s heavy-duty poems on poverty, racism, lesbianism, violence. Or of Levine’s obsessions with working-class life in Detroit, or Merwin’s dreamy, densely imagistic poems, with their long lines. One thinks of millions of poems everywhere, trying to impress you with their suffering and how very seriously they take themselves. Clearly, Ryan is hacking out a path of her own, but with a scalpel, not a machete.

She’s not so much treating serious things lightly as she is turning the world upside down—not being drawn into its heaviness, not letting its heaviness inhabit her. In a sense, she’s been keeping the darkness of the world from extending its territory, which is a signal act of defiance, perhaps more so than that of many “protest” poems. (Witness the leaden dullness of so much of the work in the Poets Against the War movement.) Ryan’s poems may shimmer on the surface— and how is that a bad thing?—but they are compelling in the quiet knowledge they bear.

You can read the rest here.

***

Congratulations to Bruce Norris, whose Clybourne Park, won the Pulitzer for drama.  We had the pleasure – and it was indeed a pleasure – of seeing the smart, politically incorrect play a few months ago at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.  The San Francisco Chronicle‘s little man was out of his seat clapping, and Robert Hurwitt had this to say:

The jokes, lobbed like grenades, are more offensive than funny. The reactions to them are hilarious. And revealing. For us, as for the characters in Bruce Norris’ scathingly observed “Clybourne Park,” the only thing more cringe-inducing than a tiptoe around the taboo topic of race is confronting it.

As seen Thursday, “Clybourne” is the kind of trouble-making comedy of manners that tears the lid off good intentions and hypocrisies to amusing and salutary effect. And it’s being performed to discomforting perfection by the ACT cast in the pinpoint-precision stagings of California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone in his company debut.

Attitudes toward gender, patriotism, marriage, the touchy topic of real estate and various ethnicities come under fire, but race is the elephant in the room. That would be the spacious living room of the house in Chicago’s (fictional) Clybourne Park, which undergoes its own remarkable transformation …