Robert Mezey was born in Philadelphia in 1935. He enrolled at Kenyon College at age sixteen, where he studied with John Crowe Ransom. While there, he also befriended fellow future poet James Wright. Mezey dropped out of Kenyon after two years and enlisted in the U.S. Army but was discharged early. He next enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he completed his bachelor of arts degree. With support from Donald Justice, Mezey entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but dropped out. By then, he had already released his first collection of poetry, The Lovemaker (The Cummington Press, 1961), which won the Lamont Poetry Prize. The début also helped Mezey earn a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, where he was mentored by Yvor Winters. Instead of enrolling at Stanford, Mezey traveled to Mexico—a decision that negatively impacted his relationship with Winters.
Mezey’s other collections include Collected Poems, 1952–1999 (University of Arkansas Press, 2000), which was awarded the Poets’ Prize in 2002; Natural Selection (Robert L. Barth, 1995); Evening Wind (Wesleyan University Press, 1987); Small Song (1979), a self-published collection; Couplets (University of Michigan Press, 1976); The Door Standing Open: New and Selected Poems, 1954–1969 (Oxford University Press, 1970); Favors (1968), his first self-published collection; and White Blossoms (The Cummington Press, 1965). Mezey has edited The Poetry of E. A. Robinson (The Modern Library, 1999) and Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics, 1998). With Donald Justice, he has co-edited The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette (University of Arkansas, 1990) and, with Stephen Berg, Mezey co-edited Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms (Macmillan, 1969). His translations are Tungsten (Syracuse University Press, 1989) by César Vallejo and Selected Translations, 1961–1980 (Wesleyan University Press, 1981), which included poems translated from French, Spanish and Yiddish. With fellow poet and Pomona College colleague, Dick Barnes, Mezey worked on translations of poems by Jorge Luis Borges. The publication failed due to Barnes and Mezey being unable to obtain English language rights to the poems, despite the cooperation of Borges’s widow.
Mezey’s prizes include the Robert Frost Poetry Prize, a PEN Prize, and an honorary doctorate from the World Congress of Poets. Mezey also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mezey taught at various colleges and universities during his career, including Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania where, in the 1960s, he encouraged his students to burn their draft cards. The college asked him to resign. During the same period, Mezey shifted to writing in free verse, causing him to label a section of early rhymed verse in The Door Standing Open “Someone Else’s Poems.” Mezey also taught at Pomona College, where he remained until his retirement in 2000, serving as professor emeritus and poet-in-residence.
Mezey died on April 25, 2020, from pneumonia. He was residing in a nursing home in Bowie, Maryland.