Dana Gioia, Studying with Miss Bishop
Dana Gioia is everything a poet ought to be. He was a large-volume reader as a child, but has never been myopically focussed on poetry. His knowledge of art history and sci-fi are exceptional. (He knows, by memory, the location of every Brueghel painting in the world.) He has always been a poor sleeper and reads at night. He is rigorous. His education, formal and self-directed, means he really knows poetry. He does not approach it as a mode of expressing his feelings or being angry about politics. He was made to learn the name of every character in the Odyssey at Harvard. He has command of the technicalities of metre, and the history of verse. Most importantly, he had a real job before he was a poet.
To make sure that last point was provocative enough, let me re-phrase. He didn’t study creative writing, never attended workshops, and, Deo gratis, has never taught at a university. He does not edit a poetry journal. He is nothing to do with the self-supporting, self-gratifying bureaucracy that we have replaced the community of poetry with in the age of arts funding. I’m not here to tell you that people who do these cannot be good poets. Many excellent poets have done these things. But the system stinks, and it’s a joy immeasurable that a poet of Gioia’s calibre was — for fifteen years — an advertising executive at General Foods who wrote poetry in secret at night.
That’s right, folks. Gioia is just like you and me. Well, with the difference that he can write Sestinas like this that are formally accomplished as well as being a witty poke in the MFA of the sort that most other poets can’t write for fear of offending the bureaucracy that feeds them. (If you’re interested in this topic, I wrote about it here.)
The real reason he is everything a poet ought to be is very simple: perfectionism. Studying with Miss Bishop arrived late one afternoon and I was up late finishing it. Gioia cares that his writing works. Some pages in this book were re-drafted a hundred times. That doesn’t mean each chapter opens like something out of Hemingway. For a memoir of short, loosely connected chapters about a group of (then) under-appreciated writers, that would be going it some. Gioia is the sort of writer who works to the demands of his genre.
So, look as you will, you won’t find a recent memoir more worthwhile for its prose alone. Of course, it helps if you enjoy some of the writers mentioned — Bishop, Fitzgerald, Dickey, Cheever — but the book’s real value is as a memoir of a young writer. Although he is a background figure, Gioia displays all the timeless writer’s virtues: patience, dedication, practice, detachment, craftsmanship, individualism, a love of technicalities.
It is a measure of Gioia’s art — as well as of his character — that the most fascinating essay is about the more or less forgotten Miami poet Ronald Perry. I won’t tell you anything about it (it’s blog policy not to give synopses). But the whole thing reads like a Cheever story, with its incredible central coincidence. If you want to know what it is like to be a poet, read that essay. It is telling that Elizabeth Bishop — the great poet of empathy — is the touchstone for this memoir.
A few tidbits to whet your appetite. Elizabeth Bishop’s class at Harvard was so unpopular only six people went to seminars. When she asked her students which poets they wanted to study, one of them said John Ashbery.
“Ashbery?” said Miss Bishop. “Oh, no, we can’t read Ashbery. I wouldn’t know what to say about him.”
God bless that woman. The rest of that essay gives details of the way she taught, her comments on William Carlos Williams, her interest in topography, the way decorum operated in her class, details of an exam she set, the way she got irritated with students for choosing to study foreign poets, and if you are an at all reasonable person you will already have stopped reading this and gone to order the book.
The Internet is the best and worst thing that ever happened to poetry. It’s clear that as Nicholson Baker said, ‘we’re living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention.’ And so people have other things to do than read poetry. Often, those things are less rich, and Gioia’s book is as good an argument as you can make in favour of reading more poetry.
But the internet also brings us the voice of the poet. We can now hear poetry recited by poets. We might be unbearably jealous that Gioia got to sit in a room and listen to Elizabeth Bishop — but we can hear her too. There was one winter when the trains were especially dreary and all I did on the way to work for a week was listen to this recital at the 92Y. You can hear Gioia, too, and it’s well worth it.
Like him, though, I see something immutable, or irreplaceable, about print culture, or reading, at least. So we are going to let him have the last word here, with a poem called Cuckoos, which I have not found recorded anywhere. Notice his ability to move between iambs and anapests so subtly.
I heard them only once. Climbing in the mountains
I stopped to rest a moment on a ledge
and listen to the river distantly below—
when suddenly they began to call to each other
back and forth from trees across the valley,
invisible in pinetops but bright and clear
like the ring of crystal against crystal.
I didn’t move but lay there wondering
what they were like, amazed that folklore
had made their cry an omen of betrayal.
So now, reading how the Chinese took their call
to mean Pu ju kuei, pu ju kuei—
Come home again, you must come home again—
I understand at last what they were telling me
not then, back in that high, green valley,
but here this evening in the memory of it
returned by these birds that I have never seen.
(I lied about Gioia having the last word. He tells us that Cheever disapproved of italics. Supposedly, if you use italics you are having to emphasise artificially and ought to re-write your work better. As a future founding member of The Society for the Revival of Eighteenth Century Typography let me tell you: this is bunk. It spurred young Gioia to perfectionism, so all to the good. But if you want to see italics in action, try reading Jane Austen.)
Dana Gioia reading (where you can hear his excellent Archbishop poem, among others).
Interview covering standard information, very good.
Interview with Tyler Cowen, about being an “Information Billionaire” among other things.
Dana Gioia at the Poetry Foundation.
My essay about Paul Graham, Alchian and Allen, the Gutenberg Parenthesis, and the problem for modern poets.
My essay about how Rupi is under-rated and how song lyrics might provide the poets of our age to future generations.
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