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Secrets of a Teacher

May 29, 1994|JACK MILES

On April 29, I happened upon a notice on an outdoor bulletin board announcing that poets Garrett Hongo and Maurya Simon would read that afternoon at Pitzer College. I admire the work of both. Though I had other work to do, I decided to seize the moment.

As it turned out, that afternoon Hongo and Simon were reading not their own work, but poetry by their late teacher, Bert Meyers. I had never read Meyers, but his work, as they recited it, was better than good: rhymes that fell as delicately on the ear as a petal on water; images of a perfection so hard and poignant that the breath caught, the muscles froze. Hongo and Simon read Meyers with an affectionate fierceness. Their grief that he was gone seemed close to the surface. His picture stood beside them on a simple tripod as a reminder.

As a prelude to their reading, Hongo read a memoir of his first steps toward Meyers and, equally important, Meyers' first steps toward him. Meyers' poetry seminar "met in the evening, and I arrived a little late for the first session. . . . The poet nodded to me to take the only seat available, which was next to him in the small seminar room. There were fewer than a dozen others in the class. . . .

"A man with long, blond hair and a puckered face that gathered down to a ginger beard introduced the topic of Walt Whitman and his homosexuality. A woman with long, braided brown hair, smelling of patchouli oil, cited some critics and some discussion she'd been involved in at a writers' conference in Vermont that past summer. I felt awe at how complicated their acquaintance with the subject was, how socialized. I'd barely begun to read poetry, let alone discuss it with adults in a public place."

But Meyers was notably less impressed than Hongo--at the time a scholarship boy from South-Central Los Angeles--with the socialization being shown off. Of homosexuality as the key to Whitman, he said:

" 'That's (crap),' then proceeded to provide us with an extended critique of that particular, journalistic and decidedly unliterary approach to the discussion of Whitman. He said that Whitman was a poet who may have been gay, who may not have been gay, who might have been multi-sexual or asexual or non-sexual in whatever physical way, but what was important about him was that he had this feeling for humankind, for the wounded dying in the Union hospitals, for the workers and builders and Teamsters and for women that compelled him to write a strange, prosaic but chant-like non-metric verse, slightly imitative of what he thought Indian Vedic scripture was like, slightly imitative of what he thought Native American storytelling and ceremonial chant was like, and taking off on what he'd vaguely heard about as vers libre from the French; borrowing certain common American religious ideas; joining all of them to what he felt was the elite fashion of literary Transcendentalism; and, from that , he, a newspaperman and profound sentimentalist, had accomplished the building, with Emily Dickinson, of what had come to us as our American poetry. Homosexuality was not the issue, nor was heterosexuality ."

Whew! Bert Meyers was formidably learned, but the rumor that he was a college dropout was true. He had taught himself to write, won admission to graduate school on the strength of his poetry alone, dropped out before completing his doctorate and found work at Pitzer at first only as a kind of substitute teacher. Soon enough, the college recognized that he was a brilliant teacher as well as a gifted poet; but when told he had been awarded tenure, Meyers asked, "Why?"

Hongo obviously cherished the memory of that first torrential disquisition, but the learning stood in service to something that he cherished more: "Bert had an attitude , as is said in the ghetto, and it pleased me he felt confident in exposing us to it. And that attitude had the music of eloquence."

As that first class ended, Meyers asked his new student to walk him home, "as I'd said nothing during class and it puzzled him."

"We trudged back through a foggy night, across asphalt tennis courts, azalea-lined walks, and under olive trees through one college's campus and then another (Claremont is home to five). The poet produced a pipe and was having trouble keeping it lit. He'd stop from time to time, relighting the tobacco, and I'd stop with him to keep him company, to stay in the aura of his regard.

" 'I know why you're so pissed off,' he said, sucking on the stem of his pipe. Sprinklers hissed on a lawn somewhere nearby. His wife and children and dog were up ahead of us. I was stunned, fixed to the sidewalk in my sturdy tennis shoes. He caught my eye.

" 'Your parents were in those camps,' he said, and a puff of smoke swirled around the dark blade of his face.

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