Spring/Summer 2020 /Pandem-ocracy/

Letter Box

Remembering Bob Mezey

The first time I met Bob Mezey, I was 16 years old and visiting Pomona College; I had no training as a poet. Bob had a reputation for being difficult—he was widely considered to be a master poet, but rumors swirled about his sharp tongue, frank opinions and habit of publicly renouncing poets that didn’t pay homage to the tradition of meter and form. I was a sensitive kid, and the slightest cruel word might have crushed me. Years later, I learned that Bob himself was also just 16 when he first sent his poems to John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College. Perhaps this had something to do with how he handled our first meeting. I gave him my poems and eagerly awaited his response. “Well,” he said, “you don’t really know what you’re doing, but I see talent. I hope you come here.” Even before I began as a student at Pomona College, Bob sent me poems in the mail, photocopies of the works of Borges, Frost, Justice, along with instructions to read them carefully, listen to the sound and see if I could imitate the meter.

Later as a student at Pomona College, Bob and I frequently met for breakfast at Walter’s in Claremont. He always arrived early, and I’d find him drinking coffee, reading poetry. More than once he looked at my work and said, “This is not poetry; write something in verse. Keep the meter; use your ear.” Bob would bring in scanned versions of Larkin, Frost and Wilbur. He’d point out the ionics and spondees and explain how the poetic masters could rough up the verse, but only after years of practice. Once, while reading Wilbur’s “The House,” I saw his eyes brimming with tears. It was clear to me then that poetry was not just Bob Mezey’s profession; it was something much deeper than that.

Bob had a promising start to his career: He’d won the Lamont Prize, and many people expected him to be the next big thing in poetry. Over the next few decades, Bob garnered further success for his translations, introductions to important poets and poems appearing in major journals. But during the last 20 years, it became increasingly difficult to find his work, even in the formalist journals. What happened? Had he offended one too many people, or was his style of writing simply out of fashion?

Years later, I began to expand my own poetic repertoire to include free verse. Bob cautioned me that writing a good free verse poem was far more difficult than people thought. “But in good free verse,” he’d say, “you’ll still hear the ghost of the meter.” Bob rarely spoke of his own work in free forms. When I asked about Naked Poetry, he said, “Wish I’d never been part of the damn thing.” Somewhat ironically, just as the momentum of the poetry world was swinging in the direction of Naked Poetry, Bob was making a sharp turn back to formalism, back to the original teachings of Ransom.

In late April, I called Bob to say I finally had a draft of a poem I’d been working on since 2009—would he look at it? “Send it along,” he said. Bob was 85. On a Sunday morning, I woke early, and made coffee, eager to see if he’d written back—he had a habit of working late. But there was no response from Bob—only an email from his daughter, sharing the news that he had caught pneumonia, or possibly the virus, and passed during the night. What did he think of that final poem? “Not bad,” I imagine him saying, “only a few lines in here I might quarrel with.”

—Jodie Hollander ’99
Minturn, CO

Remembering Richard Elderkin

The loss of Richard Elderkin is very sad news. Professor Elderkin was on the admissions committee in 1985 that admitted me. When I arrived he told me he hand-picked me as an advisee because I was majoring in math, and he was intrigued and interested in the young man who wrote my admissions essay. I told him I could introduce him to the guy if he gave me a couple days. We hit it off immediately, and he spent the next four years supporting, encouraging and guiding me.

Brilliant, kind, thoughtful, caring, curious, loyal, engaged and Buckminster Fuller(!) are words that come immediately to mind when I think of Professor Elderkin. I find comfort in knowing the very large positive impact he and his wife had on Pomona College, Claremont and, in turn, the world for more than three decades. I am a wiser, better teacher because of his example, and I reflect and tell stories about our interactions regularly because of his concern for me while I was a student at Pomona.

May his memory continue to grow as a blessing to all who know and care for Richard.

—Donald Collins ’89
San Diego, CA

Athletic Mentors

Looking back, I don’t think I appreciated the quality of the staff nearly enough when I was at Pomona. I spent at lot of time around the athletics department. I realize now how much those people shaped my life and who I am today. Bill Swartz, Curt Tong, Pat Mulcahy, Gregg Popovich, Lisa Beckett, Motts Thomas, Charlie Katsiaficas and Mike Riskas. All great people and great educators, setting examples and teaching valuable lessons, whether you played for them or not. I wish I had realized how special they were at the time.

—Richard Wunderle ’91
University Place, WA

Alumni, parents and friends are invited to email letters to pcm@pomona.edu or “snail-mail” them to Pomona College Magazine, 550 North College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Letters may be edited for length, style and clarity.