March 6, 1998
It's difficult to not write a cheesy opening to a profile on a guy like Robert Mezey. So many things about him are easily made into some Hollywood version of That Inspirational Professor, possibly played by Robin Williams. But at the risk of sounding as if I'm writing the script treatment to Mr. Mezey's Opus or something, the fact remains that Professor Mezey is one man whom everyone should have the honor of knowing.
Mezey, who is currently a professor of English and poet in residence, is slowly easing his way out of the Pomona scene. Mezey currently teaches two classes a semester, which will dwindle to one next year. After that, he's promised President Stanley to teach a course every so often. Let me urge you to get in on this while you can. If I can't, let President Stanley: "Mezey and his work are one of the great ornaments of Pomona College," he said. "His work is, by turns, elegant, affecting, erotic, playful, and always ingeniously crafted."
The emotionality of Mezey's poetry classes, which are as full of poetic "experiences" as they are of poetic analysis, are one of the reasons these classes have been so enduringly popular. Mezey's students are surprised when one of his poetry classes concludes, and the teacher and classmates still have dry eyes. "You can't go to that class and not be affected every day," said one student.
Don't be deceived, however, by the fact that Mezey persists in finding beauty in much of his life. His classes are demanding, although this may not be evident through the required reading list. He insists that students pay intense attention to the poems they read and spend as much time on twenty lines of poetry as twenty pages of fiction. It is not uncommon for him to find enough in a single short Hardy or Frost poem to engage a class for the full 75-minute period. "He cares about the inside of a poem more than any teacher I've ever had," said Dave Roth '00, who has taken two classes from Mezey so far, "and he passes this on to his students without even trying."
Students are required to recite poetry daily in class, poems which Mezey not only loves, but has been reading and teaching for over 40 years. He knows volumes by heart, and can recite for hours. He usually recites at least one poem a day for his students.
Mezey was born in Philadelphia and attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio for two years before joining the army at the advice of concerned faculty members. Kenyon, at the time, was a literary mecca of sorts: E.L. Doctorow was a student, poet James Wright was also a student and great friend of Mezey's, and the famous writer and critic John Crowe Ransom started the nationally acclaimed Kenyon Review while teaching there. "I never had the courage to take a writing class from him," Mezey said. He was keenly aware of the talent which surrounded him at Kenyon.
"Attending Kenyon was the greatest stroke of luck in my own life," he said. He applied to Kenyon on the recommendation of his high school faculty advisor, who had been aware of Mezey's interest in literature and poetry. While he had never written much before high school, Mezey attests that his first experience reading poetry was "magical, even though I didn't understand all of it. But it didn't matter." Kenyon was the only school Mezey applied to, and he was admitted on scholarship. Kenyon at the time was an all-male college, and literary banter, debate, satire, and constant writing were "the main sports," Mezey said. "Argument took the place of sex."
This, however, was short-lived, as Mezey found he had difficulties in keeping up with his more mundane academic studies while in pursuit of loftier literary goals. His peers had a great influence on the formation of both his literary and personal identity. "Affectation is sometimes a good thing for young writers," he said, speaking of a high school friend who was rarely seen in anything but a full suit, carrying a cane, and brandishing a manufactured brogue. Mezey was the youngest student in his Kenyon literary clique, while the others were "older and more disciplined. They could stay up all night and still make class in the morning; I couldn't." Mezey's memories of these years are clearly still strong: tears came to his eyes as he recalled a teacher who made a special allowance for him to retake an exam he slept through. Upon sleeping through the make-up, Mezey was forced to accept a failing grade.
Mezey first came to Pomona in 1976, after meeting Dick Barnes, then and now a Pomona English Professor. He had traveled throughout the country teaching at various universities after his graduation from University of Iowa, where he also did a year of graduate work, after his time in the military. "I became a kind of academic tramp," he recalls. He explained that, in his opinion, one of the few ways in which a writer can really sustain himself is to teach. "I didn't even really think about going into education, it just happened. It was the thing to do then," he said.
While he did, and does, enjoy his job as a college professor of English, Mezey conceded to many difficulties, especially in the '60s. "It was a very destructive time," he said, pointing out that many students today tend to overlook the pain and the desperation of the era.
"I was a semi-hippie," he explained, and during that turbulent era he developed a national reputation for being outspoken while at Fresno State University. "I participated in a panel discussion about the use of marijuana during which I said that smoking pot was less harmful than television. That was one of several incidents that led to my not being re-hired, you know, colleges and universities generally don't fire people, they just don't rehire them," he explained.
His dismissal from the faculty drew attention which resulted in a state Supreme Court suit in which Mezey was defended by the American Civil Liberties Union. The incident led to difficulties in obtaining jobs, and for a period he was financially supported by funds raised by former colleagues and students. This hiatus let Mezey concentrate on his primary love of writing. After years of frustration, Mezey was offered a place on Pomona's faculty ("I could teach whatever I wanted, which was unusual at other colleges," he said), where he has happily remained ever since.
Although Mezey finds Pomona students today to be just as intelligent as their predecessors, he is disappointed at the lack of background; he finds an understanding of Latin indispensable. Mezey also expressed surprise at the direction in which high school education seems to be turning. "Students won't know a name that they would've ten years ago, which is okay, but then I have to go back and explain the reference and the historical context." One time, Mezey recalls with disgust, half of his class had never heard of President Harding. Thus, it is understandable that Mezey is "a little tired" of teaching, and looks forward to his retirement, which will not be uneventful. Mezey has numerous large projects on which he will continue to work, including his own Collected Works and an Oxford anthology of Hardy. Although San Francisco is undoubtedly his favorite California city, Mezey plans on staying in Claremont for a while. After all, he did promise Stanley.
Poems by Robert Mezey
Thrown away at birth, he was recovered,
Plucked from the swaddling-shroud, and chafed and slapped,
The crone implacable. At last he shivered,
Drew the first breath, and howled, and lay there, trapped
In a world from which there is but one escape
And that forestalled now almost ninety years.
In such a scene as he himself might shape,
The maker of a thousand songs appears.
From this it follows, all the ironies
Life plays on one whose fate it is to follow
The way of things, the suffering one sees,
The many cups of bitterness he must swallow
Before he is permitted to be gone
Where he was headed in that early dawn.
A tear falls wordlessly into darkness.
Slivers of gold light faint on the threads of her bodice.
And terrible longings that can't name themselves
Burrow down through the soul and end up digging into wood.
Seven numbers want to be sucked off,
A guy named Susan is dying alone in her bed.
And look, foam is drying into webs in the beer glass,
It wants to rejoin the air and be free of all this.
You can't die from it but you wish you could.
And even at this moment, you smell your fingers.