Secrets of a Teacher

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.

"He said he'd been a kid in high school in Los Angeles. It was World War II, a few months after Pearl Harbor. He was a gymnast at Belmont High. There were lots of Japanese American kids in his school. He'd grown up with them . . . playing baseball, stealing hubcaps, trying to get dates, when, all of a sudden, one morning, all the Japanese American kids were gone! Just gone. He couldn't believe it. Our government had taken all of them, rounded them up like cattle and marched them off into trains and shipped them away to God-knows-where, to Kingdom Come, to concentration camps in the desert. His schoolmates were stunned, but everyone seemed to accept it after a while. His father raged about it at home. He felt it was a crummy deal.

"Bert knew about it. He could tell me. He could look into my eyes and see into the history I was not myself ready to address, to bring up, to live by, and he told me it was all right. He knew part of my story, the part no one else knew or seemed to want to know, and he would help me with it. He was telling me that."

Bert Meyers, a Sephardic Jew whose parents had come to Los Angeles from Spain via Brooklyn, knew why Garrett Hongo was pissed off at a time in Hongo's life when Hongo himself did not know. Yes, Hongo's parents had been in the camps. This was to be one of Hongo's subjects, among those that would win him the Lamont prize in 1987, but he didn't know it yet. How did Meyers know it? He couldn't, in fact, have had more than a hunch, but such hunches only come to teachers who are watching their students' every move, thinking about them with intelligence and love, and willing to push them to the brink to open their eyes. That kind of teacher tends also to be the kind who insists, with the aggressive edge that Meyers brought to his discussion of Whitman, that "it doesn't matter" whether you are gay or straight, or Asian or Caucasian, or name your polar pair.

Why does it work this way? Because only those who believe that group identity is secondary acquire the habit of attending to the individual as primary. Not all Japanese American writers are called to write about ethnic identity. With the wrong Japanese American student, Meyers' "I know why you're pissed off" could have been a clumsy and perhaps a crippling mistake. Meyers took a chance, then, but he was the kind who watches closely enough to know when and with whom to take such a chance. In the individual identity of this Japanese American student, there was indeed some specifically Japanese American literary work to be done. If Meyers had not believed that his own Jewishness, his own group identity, was as finally irrelevant, however undeniable, as Whitman's homosexuality, he would have been blinded to his own individual identity, not to speak of Hongo's. Fortunately, it was not Meyers' way (it has become, unfortunately, too often the American way) to elevate the group above the individual.

Poetry proceeds by a heightening of the precision and clarity of ordinary perception. Meyers, to judge from what was said about him at the memorial service, brought some of this precision to his perception of people. Those who know he loved them know also that he knew them, or so it seemed as they spoke. Meyers' personality is remembered as hot and prickly rather than warm and fuzzy. Simon recalls him saying to her once, in a burst, "Be on guard!" But vigilance was evidently just another variety of attention in an exceptionally attentive man.

It is now common for teachers of writing, poetry included, to say with becoming modesty that they merely teach the craft, the part that can be taught. The craft counts, of course. Meyers, the college dropout, was a frame maker by trade, proud of the fineness of his work, and as careful about words as about wood. But nothing was clearer from Hongo's story than that Meyers also taught things that allegedly can't be taught.

One of Meyers' poems is "Apprentice":

Because

I love you

I've learned to be

this hammer that runs

all day like a horse

with its hoof in its head.

In the afternoon

my hands

lie down together

for a minute.

Meyers taught his students to prepare for the obsessiveness that all artists must endure, "like a horse with its hoof in its head." He taught them how to recognize the exceptional, as Whitman was exceptional, and honor it. He showed them how, for love, to tell a stranger that you know his secret. This is what the very greatest literature does: It tells you a secret you didn't know you were keeping.

Meyers' body of work is small; but small as it is, it deserves to be reissued and brought to a new audience. Al Wachtel, a Pitzer colleague, calls Meyers "an imagist born out of time," referring to a post-Romantic movement in French and English poetry that sought, rather than exalt emotion, to displace it from where the reader might expect it to some unexpected place. Imagist poems are often easy on first reading, deceptively casual, like haikus; they become deep or difficult, paradoxically, only on repeated reading. Meyers, who knew that his unbreakable tobacco habit would eventually kill him, displaced his despair from the cigarette, where it was expected, to the teacher's stump of chalk, where it wasn't:

Smoke waters the flowers

that grow in the lungs.

The cigarette, like your life,

is a piece of chalk

that shrinks as it tries to explain.

The imagist part of Meyers' spirit may be the part that Maurya Simon has taken away. There was no more intense moment in the memorial service than her reading of Meyers' dry-eyed "The Poets," a poem apparently written near the end of his life:

There he sat among them

(his old friends) a walking ash

that knows how to smile.

And he still dreamed of a style

so clear it could wash a face,

or make a dry mouth sing.

But they laughed, having found

themselves more astonishing.

They would drive their minds

prismatic, strange, each wrapped

in his own ecstatic wires,

over a cliff for language,

while he remained to raise

a few birds from a blank page.

As she read him, one believed it possible.

Any stranger happening on this memorial reading would have guessed, as I did, that Meyers had just recently died. And been wrong: He died fully 15 years ago. American memories are said to be short, student memories shortest of all. Teach what can't be taught, though, and your students will remember you forever.

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