Posts Tagged ‘“Dana Gioia”’

Dana Gioia remembers a week with John Cheever at Stanford: “I was stunned by his voice.”

Monday, February 1st, 2021
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Cheever at Stanford, 1975 (Photo: Stanford News Service)

Poet Dana Gioia met John Cheever when the author was at a lowpoint of his literary reputation. His 1969 novel Bullet Park was received poorly, and a subsequent novel in 1973, The World of Apples, did not stop the decline. His work no longer appeared in The New Yorker. The occasion of the encounter was Stanford. Dana was a graduate student in Stanford’s Business School (he eventually became one of the few poets to have an MBA), and camped out in “FloMo,” more formally known as Florence Moore Hall. The occasion of Cheever’s arrival at campus was his son, who was thinking of enrolling at Stanford – and eventually did.

In his new book of recollections: Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoir’s from a Young Writer’s Life, the former National Endowments for the Arts chairman recalls his all-too-brief week with Cheever. “I was dazzled by his talk which could make a mortgage or a report card shimmer like a sacred script.”

The book, published by Paul Dry Books, has the distinction of being one of the few books ever to go into a third printing before it was officially out, thanks to pre-orders. 

A couple excerpts:

“Although Cheever looked exactly like his dust jacket photographs, three things surprised me. First, he was so small. For some reason, probably connected with my mental images of his fictional protagonists, I had expected a magisterially tall Yankee gentleman. Instead I met a slight, boyish man who stood only a few inches over five feet. Second, Cheever was the most perfectly poised man I had ever met. Every gesture was so graceful that he scarcely seemed part of the clumsy everyday world. Even the way he sat still seemed as carefully composed as a portrait. Not that his presence was dramatic; just the opposite was true. His manner was relaxed and understated. Nevertheless he had a style that captivated one’s attention the way a great actor can steal a scene without speaking a word. Finally, I was stunned by his voice.

“Cheever spoke a brand of patrician Massachusetts English that I know suspect he invented, for I have never heard anyone else speak quite like it. Nevertheless, he used this suave, fictive dialect so convincingly that in his voice it carried the force of ancient authority. I had talked to men funnier or wiser than Cheever, more inventive or intelligent, more perceptive or likeable, but I had never met anyone who possessed all these qualities so generously in such deft balance. His wasn’t the pedestrian balance of an earnest earthbound mind but the equilibrium of an acrobat.”

***

“He had never bothered to grow old. He still seemed more bright young man than sagacious patriarch. No one who met him that week would have guessed his full age.

“As his staff host, I expected to see little of Cheever after taking him to lunch the first day. To my astonishment, I spent most of the next week with him. He had arrived at Stanford with the best of intentions but the vaguest of plans. Since [his son] Fred was busy following his friends, his father had nothing to do except wait several days for a hastily arranged class visit and public reading. Cheever knew no one at Stanford, and the people who might have sought him out were mostly unaware he was on campus. He accepted his idleness and neglect without comment.

“For the next few days, Cheever just hung around Flo Mo, treating this large, spider-shaped complex like a resort hotel. He lingered over meals until the last student left and then sat in one of the run-down and usually deserted lounges. Whenever I returned from classes, I would find hi sitting by himself smoking in one of the huge Naugahyde chairs. He agreed to almost any suggestion I made – a walk, a drive, a visit. Eventually I gave him a key to my room so he could borrow books or listen to records when I was in class. …

So much about Cheever surprised me. First, I remember his modesty as a writer. He did not lack self-esteem, but it was tempered by his recognition of the immensity of the writer’s task. Having already met a few self-absorbed literary mediocrities, I found John’s humility before his vocation pure and unaffected. It was a kind of innocence. He was proud of what he had written but without pretension. He appeared unconcerned with posterity, which he claimed would take no note of him. What he valued was his relationship with his audience.

The book also includes a 21-page interview with Cheever, never before published in full. The Q&A was recorded by Michael Stillman, who died last month, with Stillman, Dana Gioia, and writer Millicent Dillon (formerly of the Stanford News Service) in conversation with Cheever. 

Postscript on 2/5: Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, comments on Facebook:   I was a freshman in college back in 1975, and got to have dinner with Saul Bellow and breakfast with John Cheever on the same weekend(!) This all happened because my older brother Dana, a grad student back at the time, was their informal host during their campus visits. I was 17 years old, and a freshman at Branner, while Dana was 23 and a first-year-student at the Stanford Business School. But Dana seemed to know everybody and be everywhere on the literary scene, even at that young age. He and I only had one class together, when we both took the same intermediate Italian language course. One day, Dana brought as his guest to the class Ezra Pound‘s daughter, the Princess Mary de Rachewiltz—how did he make these connections, and pull these things off? He’s just a student and he brings a princess to our class? It’s a grand mystery to me. I still don’t know he got me at the dinner table with Saul Bellow, when there were a thousand other people at Stanford who would have liked to have my seat. He just always seemed to be at the epicenter of everything and anything.

I can’t stress this too much: There is no substitute for seeing people up close who are operating at the highest levels of their vocation. And that’s true whether you are a poet, musician, novelist, painter, manager, cook, lawyer, or in any other profession. These experiences reveal possibilities in life you could not grasp in any other way.

 

Stanford poet, jazz saxophonist Michael Stillman: “Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work.”

Thursday, January 21st, 2021
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Mike Stillman and friend.

I learned of Michael Stillman’s long illness when Stanford Prof. Makota Ueda died last summer. The prominent haiku scholar was a critic and biographer of Japanese poets. But one link in the chain of connection leads to another: the Japanese professor was also a mentor and  inspiration for poet Michael Stillman, who died on Jan 12 at 80 years old, having survived the decade into 2021. Mike studied the haiku tradition under Ueda.

I had met Mike a dozen years ago at (of all places) Stanford’s  Archive of Recorded Sound. We quickly discovered we had a mutual friend in Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (and also a Stanford alum).  Mike was eager to show me his musical and literary preoccupations – as he wrote me: “not only the recordings project but the publications and activities associated with the Stanford Jazz Workshop and the Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics [a.k.a. CCRMA]. You may not be aware that I have published about twenty poems in prominent journals and textbooks, including “In Memoriam John Coltrane,” which now appears in about seven anthologies, one of them edited by Dana Gioia and X. J. Kennedy. Also I’ve been making recordings of soprano saxophone jazz and duo performances with piano that you might like to hear.” He had his fingers in a lot of pies, to put it mildly. Our long-ago acquaintance was all-too-brief.

Dana has written a short remembrance for a poet he thinks should stick in the public memory longer:

The poet Michael B. Stillman was one of the truly talented poets I knew at Stanford back in the 1970s, though he gradually wandered away from poetry.  He was also a terrific saxophonist and a doctoral candidate in English. He never finished his dissertation on Charles Tomlinson.

Mike played sax in a jazz duet around the Bay Area with a guitarist, Tuck Andress. One night Tuck met and fell in love with Patti Cathcart to form the famous Tuck and Patti duo. Mike ended up in Las Vegas playing back-up for rock bands. He had other jobs. He and his wife Sally helped run the Montalvo Arts Center and the Djerassi Foundation. They never stayed anywhere too long; they were bohemians. At the time of Mike’s death they were living in rural Washington. Mike was still playing music professionally. (He lived to see their sixtieth wedding anniversary.)

At Stanford Mike worked on a dissertation under Donald Davie. In the familiar manner of graduate students, he did everything but write it. He was house master of Branner Hall. He played jazz at Ironworks on El Camino. He recorded visiting speakers at Stanford.

His tapes are now in the Stanford Library. He even issued a series of superb long-playing records of poets and novelists reading their works. This series documents many of the best writers the Stanford community has produced– such as Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis, N. Scott Momaday, J.V. Cunningham, and Donald Davie. He also captured visiting writers, including Adrienne Rich and John Hawkes. Each LP had a fine short essay about the writer on the back cover.

Many fingers, many pies. (Courtesy Sally Stillman)

He also recorded an interview I did with John Cheever that was published in a short form in Sequoia. The full version appears in my book of literary memoirs, Studying with Miss Bishop. I sent him an early copy.

At Stanford Mike studied with the haiku scholar Makoto Ueda. He used to carry Ueda’s anthology, Modern Japanese Haiku around with him as his personal vademecum. Mike began to write almost entirely in haiku for several years. He produced a remarkable book of haiku, An Eye of Minnows, which I actually reviewed for the Stanford Daily in 1976. He did something remarkable with the form.

He used the haiku as a stanza for lyric poems–keeping its imagistic structure but allowing it to form larger units of meaning. The book, now completely forgotten, was remarkable.

I have consistently anthologized one of Mike’s poems, which has been picked up by quite a few other editors over the years. Here is the sort of work that Stillman once did. Like so many multi-talented people, he couldn’t focus on one thing for too long. Each stanza is a haiku. I was glad to lodge one of his poems into public memory.

In Memoriam John Coltrane

Listen to the coal
rolling, rolling through the cold
steady rain, wheel on

wheel, listen to the
turning of the wheels this night
black as coal dust, steel

steel, listen to
these cars carry coal, listen
to the coal train roll.

Jazz duo Tuck & Patti (Photo: Thisisshun)

As a poet, Mike has been forgotten by the world. Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work. He wrote a great deal of fine poetry which has never been collected in books.

Postscript: Jazz scholar Ted Gioia also shared a story about Michael Stillman, elaborating on the jazz duo: “Michael was responsible for the famous husband-and-wife- jazz duo Tuck and Patti meeting—when he hired guitarist Tuck Andress and singer Patti Cathcart for his band. Years later Tuck and Patti were not just a married couple but a hit musical act, with their debut album on the Windham Hill record label rising to the top of the jazz radio airplay chart. Mike might have shared in that success, because he wrote lyrics to a jazz song that they recorded for the album. But at the last minute the track had to be dropped from the album because the estate of the composer refused to give permission. Without rights to the song, Tuck and Patti couldn’t feature Mike’s lyrics. I can’t help thinking this was emblematic of Mike Stillman’s career—he was involved in so many seminal creative pursuits, but almost always behind the scenes, and getting very little credit himself.”

Dana Gioia, Sam Weller on Ray Bradbury @100: “Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original.”

Tuesday, December 29th, 2020
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Dana Gioia and friend (Photo: Starr Black)

We’re in the last days of the Ray Bradbury centennial. The influential science fiction writer was born on August 22, 1920, and died eight years ago in Los Angeles. Bradbury’s biographer Sam Weller interviews poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, about the author of  Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and others in today’s Los Angeles Review of Books“Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original. He was not indoctrinated in the mainstream assumption of the superiority of the realist mode. He educated himself,” said Dana.  (Thanks to jazz scholar Ted Gioia for the heads-up about this Q&A.)

When was the first time you met Ray Bradbury in person?

I never met him until he came to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts. No science fiction writer had ever won the National Medal. I felt it was important to honor areas of American creativity previously ignored. (We eventually awarded medals to an animator, literary translator, set designer, comic book artist, graphic designer, electrical guitar pioneer, and cartoonist — while never neglecting the traditional fine arts.) Ray was the first of these new honorees. The first time I spoke to him was the phone call informing him about the medal. He was effusively delighted. His doctors told him not to come. Ray came anyway, in his wheelchair, with three of his daughters and yourself. He loved every moment. He was like a kid at Disneyland.

This began a friendship that lasted until the end of his life. I continued to visit Ray when he was on his deathbed. He couldn’t read any longer, so I would read to him. We had a long and affectionate relationship.

Do you have a favorite moment or favorite memory of Ray?

My favorite memory of Ray came from a science fiction convention at the University of California at Riverside. Not the convention itself but trying to get to it. Ray was the keynote speaker. He asked if I would introduce him. The speech was scheduled in a huge building at the center of campus. But there was no direct way to get Ray’s wheelchair into the building. Every entrance had high steps designed for 18-year-old college students. Our faculty hosts eventually took us around back to the service entrance by the garbage dumpsters. I pushed Ray through a series of underground corridors until we got to a huge elevator, which had been designed to bring trolleys up from the food service kitchen.

“No science fiction writer had ever won the National Medal.”

We went up a floor or two, and a group of guys from the food service came in with their packed trolleys. They were all young Mexicans speaking Spanish. They noticed this old man in a wheelchair. The professors all froze up. They felt uncomfortable. But these were the sort of guys I grew up with. I turned to them and asked in my lousy Spanish if they knew who this man was. They shook their heads. Then I told them he was “el escritor famoso, Ray Bradbury.” My hosts looked at me as if I were crazy. But then the guys shouted, “Ray Bradbury!” Every one of them knew who he was. Then they crowded around to get his autograph.

Wow. Great story.

The moment strikes me as the best measure of Bradbury’s fame. Can you imagine the same reaction, indeed any reaction, to Saul Bellow or John Updike? These immigrant workers, whom American intellectuals consider beyond the compass of literature — you know all the social, cultural, and racial barriers that exist — were part of Ray’s audience.

And Ray was delighted to meet them. He chuckled and signed napkins and order slips. He had a global audience. He spoke to people novelists don’t usually reach. That is something that we should honor. Bradbury had an imagination that invited people in. I’m one of them. I know I’m not the only writer of my generation who feels Bradbury made a fundamental contribution to my intellectual and literary formation.

Read the whole thing here. And you can watch Steve Wasserman interview Ray Bradbury for Truthdig here.  They discuss the history of book stores, science fiction novels and how the newspaper should teach us to love life.

Elizabeth Bishop’s class at Harvard: “She wanted us to see poems, not ideas,” says Dana Gioia

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020
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Harvard’s Kirkland House: they studied in the basement, among unwanted couches and broken bikes.  (Photo: Wikipedia)

A university student should have at least one unforgettable teacher during his or her formative years. So it was with poet Dana Gioia. In 1975, he began his last year as a graduate student in English at Harvard. He faced a choice: taking Robert Lowell‘s class on 19th century poets, or a relatively unknown Elizabeth Bishop teaching “Studies in Modern Poetry.” She rarely attracted more than a dozen students – but she attracted this one, who would go on to be chairman of the NEA. The class dwindled down to five, four of them undergraduates by the second meeting. But the friendship of the poet and the poet-to-be endured. After each class, he walked with “Miss Bishop” to their respective quarters, since they lived in the same direction from Harvard’s Kirkland House.

The story is one of several told in Dana Gioia’s new book Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Lifeout in January with Paul Dry Books. Also included in the collection are accounts of John Cheever, Robert Fitzgerald, James Dickey, and more. The publisher, too, has a story: he was a stock options trader, and a successful one, but the Harvard grad had a secret yen to be a publisher (read that story here). The Stanford Publishing Course convinced him to have a go.

Back to the class in the basement of Kirkland House: Elizabeth Bishop was new to teaching and it showed. “I’m not a very good teacher,” she began. “So to make sure you learn something in this class I am going to ask each of you to memorize at least ten lines a week from one of the poets we are reading.”

“Memorize poems?” one of the dismayed students asked. “But why?” Miss Bishop’s reply was modest and sincere. “So that you’ll learn something in spite of me.”

The class final at the end of the term, in Dana’s own words: “Our final examination surprised even me. A take-home test, it ran a full typed page (covered with the hand-scrawled corrections that by now were her trademark) and posed us four tasks unlike any we had ever seen on a college English exam. Furthermore, we were given exact word lengths and citation requirements, as well as this admonition as a headline: ‘Use only your books of poems and a dictionary; please do not consult each other.'”

The final hurdle of the test was this, in Bishop’s words:

Now, please try your hand at 24 lines of original verse; three poems of eight lines each, in imitation of the three poets studied, in their styles and typical of them. (In the case of Lowell, the style of Lord Weary’s Castle.) I don’t expect these pastiches to be great poetry! – but try to imitate (or parody if you prefer) the characteristic subject-matter, meter, imagery, and rhyme (if appropriate).

We may not have consulted each other about the answers to this test, but, walking out of Kirkland after the last class with the final in our hands, we could not help talking about the questions. Miss Bishop had gone off to her office, and we were alone.

“I can’t believe it,” one of the undergraduates moaned. “We have to write poems.”

Someone else offered the consolation that at least everything else on the exam was easy.

“Yeah, but we still have to write poems.”

***

His conclusion: “By this time, I had realized that, for all her fumbling disorganization, Miss Bishop had devised – or perhaps merely improvised – a way of teaching poetry which was fundamentally different from the manner conventionally professed in American universities. She never articulated her philosophy in class, but she practiced it so consistently that it is easy – especially now, looking back – to see what she was doing. She wanted us to see poems, not ideas. Poetry was the particular way the world could be talked about only in verse, and here, as one of her fellow Canadians once said, the medium was the message. One did not interpret poetry; one experienced it. Showing us how to experience it clearly, intensely, and, above all, directly was the substance of her teaching. One did not need a sophisticated theory. One needed only intelligence, intuition, and a good dictionary. There was no subtext, only the text. A painter among Platonists, she preferred observation to analysis, and poems to poetry.”

R.I.P. poet Anne Stevenson (1933-2020): on writing poems with “something like a pulse”

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020
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A woman with “a whim of iron.” Photograph © Carrie Hitchcock

When I saw my friend Anne Stevenson‘s poem “How Poems Arrive” in The Guardian some days go, I had planned to ask her permission to republish it on the Book Haven. I was delayed, and as it turns out, delayed too long. Anne died yesterday, at 87. The poem I had intended to republish as a celebration of her, is now “In Memoriam.”  The British American poet died Monday morning, presumably at her home in Wales. The only obituary to date is in The Telegraph, behind a paywall. [Update: Anne’s publisher tells me she died in her Durham home after a brief illness.]

I spent a week at the 17th century home in rural Wales, where she lived with her husband, Peter Lucas. I wrote about it here. She was an alumna, as I am, of the University of Michigan. But we met in Durham, where I visited her beautiful flat near the Norman-era citadel and cathedral on the River Wear. Later, I published a long Q&A with her over at the Cortland Review

An excerpt:

CH: In your rather crusty on-line response to Poetry Society of America’s “What’s American About American Poetry?”—a questionnaire sent to 300 American poets—you said there was “Too much talk, too much hype, too much putative democracy, too much ignorance, too much self-indulgence, too much encouragement, too much follow-the-leader conformism, too much self-consciousness, too much seek-to-establish-your-identity, too much theory of language, too much academic anxiety, too many writing programmes, too many king-and-queen-making critics, too many competitions (mediocrity assiduously crowning mediocrity); enfin, too many poets.”

Would you care to elaborate?

AS: Too often when I read new poetry, English or American, it all sounds alike. There are few individual voices. And the poems tend to be one- or two-dimensional, ignoring subtleties and nuances. Plop, plop, plop—in the indicative mood, allowing for few shadings or innuendoes. You don’t have to say everything you mean in a poem. In America, especially, there is too much earnestness around and very little word play. Get the words right, and the earnestness will take care of itself.

Nowadays, of course, “creativity” is a fashionable word. I once heard Hugh McDiarmid say outright, “Don’t encourage them; discourage them.” I tend to agree. I sometimes wonder if workshops actually do much good. Everybody’s so afraid of hurting each other’s feelings. Good criticism means you have to hurt people’s feelings. Poetry isn’t just a matter of learning technical tricks. Since most of the poetry people bring into workshops is personal and sloppy, applying “group technique” to it encourages a negative approach. I mean, you learn primarily what not to do: not to overuse adjectives, not to fall back on cliches, not to be sentimental, and so on. Unfortunately, this communal process of cleaning poems up and polishing them for publication results too often in just what you’d expect: processed poetry that lacks individuality and passion, or as Frost put it, “That Wildness whereof it is made.”

And then, the social categorization so ubiquitous today is destructive: women, race, class, age groups. Elizabeth Bishop remarked to me once that if you don’t stay well away from the gray world of ideology and theory, you will never become a poet. Emily Dickinson—not a bad thinker, you’ll agree?—developed her ideas through an acute awareness of what was around her in the world, whether it was a fly or a flower.

Her home near Llanbedr in Wales

CH: Why do you think there are there so many poets today?

AS: Because they are given jobs—academic jobs in creative writing! I admire Dana Gioia in the way I admire Wallace Stevens because I, too, believe that if you’re good at writing poems, that’s something you do for love. As Frost wrote, poetry is both a vocation and an avocation. Dana, I realize, does lots of organizing and journalism to make a living, but he began as a businessman-amateur. You should say somewhere in the course of this interview that, in my view, Dana has done a great deal for poetry in America by single-handedly taking meretricious power-seeking by the scruff of the neck and shaking it, and, boy, did it need shaking! Perhaps now, though, he should think about quitting the battlefield for a while and go back to his plough. That’s one trouble with the American way of success—you get going on one of these high-flying swings and you can’t jump off. It’s amazing to me: I never would have been able to maintain the kind of schedule Dana does. Here I am, exhausted today after a single reading in Grassmere last night.

You’re going to have a hell of a job putting this interview together. But I hope you’re at least making some sense out of my mutterings.

[Stevenson goes to a bookshelf, gets a copy of 1998’s Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop.] You know, I think this book is better—at least it means more to me—than Bitter Fame. As you know, I was impressed and influenced by Elizabeth Bishop far more than I was by Sylvia Plath. Goodness, Bitter Fame was a struggle! After writing it, I became disillusioned with the so-called poetry scene both in England and in the States—so much commercial betting and marketing goes into it, so much taking up with this poets’ group or that.

CH: You have decried “poetry’s decline in the greater, sacred world of what matters.”

AS: In the long run, I suppose one has to say that, these days, poetry isn’t important to most people. Then you see that it actually is important, but to comparatively few. First you have to understand how little—materially—it matters. Like any art, the real stuff comes about through our human confrontation or quarrel with ourselves as Yeats said, but in later life, serious poets have to find and explore that “sacred world of what matters” pretty much for themselves.

Dana and friend (Photo: Starr Black)

Dana Gioia has dedicated poems to others. It’s nice to see that, in The Guardian, Anne dedicated a poem to him. Here’s what she had to say about the process of poem-writing: “So writing a poem is like conducting an argument between your unconscious mind and your conscious self. You have to get unconsciousness and consciousness lined up in some way. I suspect that’s why working to a form, achieving a stanza, and keeping to it—deciding that the first and third and fifth lines will have to rhyme, and that you’re going to insist on so many stresses per line—oddly helps the poem to be born. That is, to free itself from you and your attentions to it and become a piece of art in itself. Heaven only knows where it comes from! I suppose working out a form diminishes the thousands of possibilities you face when you begin. And once you’ve cut down the possibilities, you can’t swim off into the deep and drown. Well, it’s a very, very strange process.” Read my whole interview here. Read the poem below, from her 2020 collection Completing the Circle (republished with permission from Bloodaxe Books):

How Poems Arrive
For Dana Gioia

You say them as your undertongue declares,
Then let them knock about your upper mind
Until the shape of what they mean appears.

Inaccurate emotion – as intense
Like love, they’re strongest when admitted blind,
Judging by feel, feeling with sharpened sense
While yet their need to be is undefine
As action sponsored by adrenaline –
Feeds on itself, and in its own defence

Fancies its role humanitarian.
But poems, butch or feminine, are vain
And draw their satisfactions from within,

Sporting with vowels or showing off a chain
Of silver els and ems to host displays
Of intimacy, or blame, or joy, or pain.

The ways of words are tight and selfish ways,
And each one wants a slot to suit its weight.
Lines needn’t scan like this with every phrase,

But something like a pulse must integrate
The noise a poem makes with its invention.
Otherwise, write prose. Or simply wait

Till it arrives and tells you its intention.

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.”

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

Monday, April 20th, 2020
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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.”

Happy New Year’s to all – from the Book Haven!

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
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Dana Gioia on the late Scott Timberg: a bitter symbol for those who have been marginalized by our “creative culture.”

Monday, December 16th, 2019
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A society-assisted suicide. He leaves behind a wife and son.

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a long piece on gifted cultural journalist Scott Timberg, who killed himself last week. He was 50. I wrote about it here, and my supposition was correct. He was killed by the “gig economy” he deplored in his 2015 book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which discussed how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life.

The LARB piece ends with a range of tributes, one of them from from a close friend, Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts:

I knew Scott Timberg for over 25 years. He was not only a close friend and colleague — he was a constant presence in my life. For many years he emailed or phoned me nearly every day to discuss what he was reading or writing. In 2003 we edited a book together on the new literary Los Angeles for which Scott came up with the perfect title, The Misread City.

Scott was determined to give Los Angeles the careful reading that it deserved. I don’t think anyone covered LA culture so prolifically or omnivorously. He wrote about everything happening in the Southland — rock, poetry, fiction, film, theater, jazz, classical music, and the visual arts. He produced hundreds of articles, which had the special Timberg quality of being simultaneously open-minded and opinionated.

Dana Gioia: “something wrong with our culture”

In an age of cultural specialization, Scott’s range was invaluable. His commentary reflected the needs of the general reader who explores the arts with curiosity but finds little intelligent guidance in the media. Scott provided this animated coverage for nearly thirty years at a variety of publications, mostly notably The Day in New London, New Times LALos Angeles Times, and Salon.

Thousands of musicians, artists, writers, publishers, and presenters profited from Scott’s meticulous attention and advocacy. He was not so fortunate.  His professional career was slowly eroded by the economic and technological changes that transformed the contemporary media. Despite his immense productivity, he struggled to earn a living for himself and his family.

Scott combined his difficult personal experiences with his capacious knowledge of the arts and media to create a brilliant study, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015). This underrated volume remains the best diagnosis of our current cultural dilemma in a society where “information” corporations have become as large as nation states while the writers and artists whose work they exploit can no longer make a living.

Scott’s suicide was a tragic act. He was so greatly loved and so conspicuously talented. No one can truly know what despair or temporary madness motivated it. But his death makes at least one thing obvious to any attentive observer. There is something wrong with our culture when Los Angeles, which now has more artists than any other city in North America, including New York, cannot provide a living wage for such a hard-working and gifted critic.

In his death, Scott Timberg becomes a representative figure, a bitter symbol for thousands of other writers and artists who have been marginalized by our much-touted “creative culture.” I mourn him personally and publicly. His passing diminishes the California culture he did so much to honor.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript from Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, on his Facebook page (we also quoted him in our earlier post here):

Los Angeles Review of Books has published a collection of heartfelt tributes (from me and 18 others, including my brother Dana) to our friend Scott Timberg, a brilliant arts & culture journalist who took his own life last week, leaving behind his wife Sara and 13-year-old son Ian.

I feel compelled to add a few more comments here—because Scott seemed like surrogate member of my family at times, and his passing has left such a mark on me (as it has on so many others—I note that around 600 people have donated to the GoFundMe campaign for his family).

When someone you know commits suicide, the first reaction is disbelief. More than almost any other human act, suicide resists attempts to find meaning in it. Even so, in this case a kind of larger significance has been attached to Scott’s death by many who knew him well—and it started happening almost within hours of his passing. To many of us, his death seemed to have uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of the many people who have lost their bearings in the “culture business”—a group that, for Scott, included everyone from artists and arts journalists like himself all the way to the film lover who once worked at the local video rental store (before it closed) or the minimum-wage clerk at the indie bookstore.

Scott had lost his job at the Los Angeles Times shortly before he turned 40. As an outsider, I was mystified by this turn of events, because Scott was one of the finest arts and culture writers in the country, smart and passionate and capable of delivering insightful articles at short notice on almost any subject. He never recovered his bearings after leaving the Times. Thrust into the turbulent freelance economy, he continued to do outstanding work, but with fewer opportunities and smaller rewards.

He increasingly focused his attention on others like himself who had been squeezed and displaced in the shrinking arts economy. He drew on his own experiences in writing a book on the subject, the harrowing (even more so after his death) Culture Crash, published by Yale University Press.

A different person with Scott’s talents would have reinvented himself in a different career or setting. But Scott loved journalism—he believed it was the highest possible profession, almost a kind of priesthood—and he loved Los Angeles too. He loved them too much perhaps. It may seem like a gross simplification to say that losing his position at the L.A. Times caused his death, but there’s some truth in that. I believe he would still be alive today if he had been able to do the work he was destined to pursue in his adopted hometown.

The narrative that has emerged in the last few days presents Scott as a martyr to the cause he chronicled in his writing. From this perspective, he is the patron saint of the suffering culture professional in the gig economy—and his own death has turned into a commentary on his life. It’s easy to criticize this way of packaging a tragedy that (for me and others) will never lose its sting. But there’s a large dose of truth in it too. All the pieces fit together, almost too well.

More to the point, it gives some small circumference of meaning to something otherwise so meaningless. And, frankly, I suspect Scott would have no disagreement with such a framing of his life and death. He saw the challenges he faced echoed in the lives of so many others, and he cared deeply about all those who suffered in this way. The notion that his abbreviated life might serve as potent symbol for the compassion owed to those squeezed by the shift in our culture, would have given Scott a small bit of gratification. I know it gives me some consolation.

A fan of the Beach Boys? Here’s a poem and video for you: “Every lovesick summer has its song.”

Thursday, October 17th, 2019
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In his year as state poet laureate, Dana Gioia was determined to speak, read, and hold a literary event in every one of California’s 58 counties. And so he did. But that meant a lot of lonely hours on the road for Santa Rosa-based California guy.

Dana chilling in L.A. with Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

Perhaps that’s what brought this poem to mind for one of his newest in the Blank Verse Films series. It’s one of his poems that was driven by sound, which is appropriate for the subject.

“I imagine it already needs footnotes for the young, but I like to think that the experience is nearly universal in our era of entertainment,” he told me. There’s a personal link not mentioned in the poem: he shares a hometown with the Beach Boys outside L.A. – Hawthorne, California, before a freeway ran through it.

Cruising with the Beach Boys

So strange to hear that song again tonight
Travelling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I’ve been before.
And now a tune I haven’t heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can’t believe I know the words by heart
And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.

Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise,
But if I was alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along –
A primal scream in croaky baritone,
The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred.
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.

Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city –
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.

I thought by now I’d left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bringing on tears shed only for myself.