Robert Mezey (1935-2020)

Thursday, April 30th

Yesterday evening, having learned of Robert Mezey’s death, I wrote the one person I knew for whom the news would involve the kind of sadness that only a lamp and a chair with soft cushions can begin to bring solace. While Mezey first became known as a poet in his mid-twenties, it was an anthology he co-edited with Stephen Berg, Naked Poetry, that made him far more visible to a generation of young poets on the West Coast. It was the first post-World War II anthology to have the first three featured be individuals associated in a significant way with the West Coast: Theodore Roethke, Weldon Kees, and Kenneth Patchen. Other West Coast poets in that anthology included Gary Snyder and William Stafford. In addition, Denise Levertov had taught at UC Berkeley for several years; among her students was Rae Armantrout.

While I had already begun assiduously reading Roethke and Kees by the Fall of 1968, I knew nothing of Patchen’s work, for he was not talked of at all in any undergraduate course I took. Mezey’s inclusion of a poem such as “The Orange Bears” was a revelation to me, the first of many I owe to Mezey’s poetic wisdom. Mezey went on to edit a second edition of Naked Poetry, which reflected the impact of feminist impatience with anthologies overstocked with males. Among the poets included in the second edition, Muriel Rukeyser’s inclusion was a rare acknowledgement of the value of her work.

I had first heard Robert Mezey read at San Diego State College in the spring, 1968. Allen Ginsberg had read there, too, in the academic year 1967-1968, and so had Philip Levine. For a twenty year old aspiring poet who was off to a very late start in learning about contemporary poetry, these readings helped catch me up and provided an enduring example of how a reading could make a memorable poem even more enduring. Mezey read a love poem that had as its central image of a bottle of drinking water that he was bringing to his wife. The poem lifted itself to my lips, and to the heart of my lips.

The last time I heard Bob Mezey read was at Beyond Baroque. Suzanne Lummis, of course, was there, too, and we both savored hearing him read his poem about Orpheus and Eurydice. I don’t remember whether he read “Hardy,” which is one of my favorite sonnets of all time. He didn’t need to. The poem has already perfected itself in the afterglow of its first encounter, years ago. I believe he read “Beau Jack,” which is one of Suzanne’s favorites, for equally profound reasons.

Mezey worked on behalf of poetry far more than most poets who win the “Poet Laureate” award from a city, state, or this nation. His second anthology, Poems of the American West, contained work by a large number of poets who have worked in the years since Naked Poetry first appeared to justify its emphasis on poets west of the Mississippi. In particular, I was grateful for his praise and advocacy of a poet I published both in my magazine, Momentum, as well as issuing a full-length collection of his work. Dick Barnes’s A Lake on the Earth remains among my personal favorites of my Momentum Press project, but it was Mezey who got behind a posthumous edition of Barnes’s poetry. He was also the essential mediator in getting the work of Virginia Hamilton Adair (Ants on the Melon) into print.

The obituary in the LA Times is a fairly reliable account of Mezey life. The one detail that seemed slightly off was its assignment of Mezey’s renewed commitment to formal poetry as a return to roots occasion that took place “close to the end of the century.” In point of fact, we poets in Los Angeles knew of this shift back in the early 1980s. It was at that point that the poet and editor Lee Hickman published some of Mezey’s “Couplets” in Bachy magazine, which was published by Papa Bach Bookstore.

I don’t need to lit up a candle in Bob Mezey’s memory. The one he lit within me has never gone out.