from The Memory of Water, Jack Myers
Jack Myers (1941-2009) was a superb poet and a special man. His recent passing has been a great loss to the multitude of friends, students and fellow poets who loved him and his work. Over his thirty-four years as a teacher at Southern Methodist University and Vermont College, Jack influenced the lives of countless writers. Never the type to phone it in, he was specific in his critical advice and supportive of his students' growth. In the twenty-six years I knew him, his progressive evolution as a poet, thinker, and human being were a continual inspiration to me. And he brought that sense of ongoing exploration and hope into every classroom he entered, right to the end. We were fortunate enough to host him at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, in 2008. It was the last group of students with which he would ever interact and he enjoyed every minute of his time with them. Even when his illness grew most severe, he never failed to ask after those writers and the department as a whole. We were a culminating moment for him—a bright spot prior to his tragic physical decline. I know it was important to him to feel he had done right by us, that he had laced up his work boots and given his students all he had to give.
For my part, I can say that Jack was such an integral part of my life, I genuinely can't imagine what would have happened to me had we not met. I have had no more important teacher, colleague or friend. Over the past twenty-five years, I have co-taught with dozens of first-rate, prominent poets—and I have never known a more perceptive, knowledgeable, or generous teacher than Jack. But first and foremost, he was an extraordinary poet who was unswervingly committed to his art for forty years.
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Jack wasn't born into an academic environment. He grew up in the '40s and '50s, in the blue-collar community of Winthrop, MA, influenced by hard-working Jewish parents. He said he knew, however, from the age of twelve, that poetry gave him access to an inner self and knowledge. Rebellious and argumentative in his twenties, Jack was a poet-vagabond. Even as he gradually found his way to the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Iowa for degrees, married and took on family responsibilities, he worked many service and menial jobs, including lobsterman and housepainter. That he first experienced poetry in life outside the University is made very clear in his work.
Ultimately, Jack's poetry mentor was Richard Hugo, himself a student of Theodore Roethke, so it is no surprise that Jack's poetry reflects an intentional, but submerged formality, an adherence to the conversational mode, and an abiding commitment to the exploration of self and spirit in the material world. His insistence on the presence of the extraordinary within the ordinary, his unique mixture of humor, working-class sensibility and spiritual ambition was ground-breaking and influenced many poets of my generation who began coming up in the early '80s. Their desire to meld street smarts, quotidian subject matter and quicksilver diction with higher existential explorations followed on the heels of poets like Jack and Bill Matthews. Like Matthews, he was always drawn to bringing the grandiose down to earth and at the same time elevating all deemed merely ordinary to the prominence it truly held in our lives—something sublime and greater than ourselves and our own brief time.
In Jack's case, his fusion of Eastern mysticism, Jungian psychology, and contemporary American domestic life was unique. Over the years, using therapy and spiritual study, he forced old angsts and regrets into a sense of ongoing exploration and hope. He forged better relationships. He freely shared his mistakes and embarrassments with students. He grew more open, tolerant and wise.
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The burgeoning community of writing programs has created self-sustaining biospheres of poets and audience. On the positive side, this sustains the art during a period when the national culture disregards it. One of the dangers, however, is that within these subcultures, we can gradually become myopic. We begin to write for each other, for crass reward, or in service of narrow ideas. We lose touch with the driven, soulful ambitions our great writers have always aspired to.
In recent years, one major trend has been a poetry characterized by radical disjuncture, strategic non sequitur, extreme yoking of disparate elements of high and low culture, very clever wordplay, and a general distrust of narrative and figurative language. The rejection of sentiment is crucial to these writers; they do not want to look foolish or old-fashioned, and they don't want to risk being direct, let alone sordid.
These are understandable aesthetic hesitations. The most ambitious and talented of these poets genuinely seek to challenge traditional assumptions about unity and structure. They lament that much contemporary poetry has become complacent about the democratized aesthetic culture of the post-war era, too often over-zealous in its celebration of its liberation from intellect, and often disallowing cerebral intelligence altogether. These mainstream poems can and do become simplistic, relying on their subjects for effect, instead of becoming well-wrought works of art that engage readers in the enactment of experience.
On the other hand, though stylistic dissonance, inconsistency, and fragmentation may be aesthetically appropriate to the era we live in, the peer pressures of fashion too often result in skeletal imitations. This formal resistance becomes an expectation, no more valid than a metrical scheme or the formulaic free verse lyric that it is challenging. In essence, the style becomes content, which leads to self-referential elitism, parlor games of ideology based in intellectual generalities rather than particular emotional or psychological intimacies.
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Jack appreciated, and would never have argued against, elliptical, impressionistic, surreal and generally difficult, innovative poetries. Nor would he have argued that poetry has to be autobiographical in order to be successful. He knew it has everything to do with the poet's level of engagement and ambition. The loss of differentiation between the terms confessional, autobiographical and personal has not helped matters here. I think Jack would have said that poems need not be confessional or autobiographical, but that poems he valued were always personal. Jack insisted that no matter how intrusive or effaced the poem's organizing sensibility might be, it should reflect genuine necessity—be it emotional, psychological or intellectual.
Jack felt that poetry, no matter what the aesthetic style, always has a larger responsibility and requires our complete investment in it. It's not about the advertising potential of Facebook and Goodreads. It's not enough to make ironic observations, pose obtuse questions or merely list events. The act of writing is to explore, with depth and dimension, why and how the poem and its subject matter have come to pass, what it may have to do with the future, and, most importantly, how it reflects the poet's evolving relationship with the world.
Critics who dismissed Jack for being insular just didn't perceive how immense and open the inner world of his narrator actually was. He was always highly conscious of living in direct relation to the lives of others around him. He accepted the chaotic fluidity of experience, as well as the need to create some kind of symmetry from that flux. He did not shirk our human responsibility to create meaning from uncertainty and to exist spiritually in those uncertainties that we can barely contend with.
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Earlier, I said that I don't know what my life would have been like, had I not met Jack. This is not an overstatement. Without fanfare, overlooked between West and East Coast publishing, he produced some of the most valuable poetry of his generation. He showed me just how insignificant the career and ego issues of poetry really are. He showed me that to write seriously is to live seriously, and with an abiding, ever-deepening attention to the past and an increasing sense of responsibility for the future. One comes to terms with things; one doesn't go around the self, you go through it, you work your way through it. And that's why the great poets, the poets that we can turn to again and again, both for provocative thought and solace, gift us with bodies of work—progressions through which we can experience their personal journeys.
The book you hold is the closing chapter of Jack's journey. Jack's illness kept him from reorganizing the manuscript in accordance with a new title and concept. In consultation with Jack's widow, Thea Temple, who knows Jack's inclinations and wishes better than anyone, I have tried to organize this final book in a way that would please him. This version includes late poems and stragglers from his files that I believe enhance the book, even though he did not plan to include them. In a very few cases, I have polished poems that I feel he would have finished, had he lived to do so. Again, in consultation with Thea, whose contributions have been numerous and crucial, I revised as lightly and as near to Jack's original intentions as I could.
This book has seemed a living entity to me. Jack's voice has been in the air for months. I have tried hard to listen and to make the right choices without imposing too much of myself. It is my hope that this book will offer Jack's many fans an enactment of the tensions and energies flowing through his last years. I hope, too, that it will welcome many new readers into an appreciation of the whole of his poetry, which is a remarkably consistent and brilliant body of work.
University of North Carolina, Wilmington
About the Author
Mark Cox teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington, where he served as founding chair. His numerous honors include a Whiting Writers' Award. He has served as poetry editor of Passages North and Cimarron Review and as Poet‑in‑Residence at The Frost Place. His most recent collections are Thirty‑Seven Years from the Stone (1998), and Natural Causes (2004), both from the Pitt Poetry Series.
New Issues Poetry & Prose
Western Michigan University