and Class Notes by Elizabeth Bishop and Wesley Wehr
selected comments from Bishop are taken from both class
notes and from an interview with Wesley Wehr in 1966.
They first appeared in The Antioch Review (39,
no. 3 [Summer 1981]: 319-28). Bishop came to Seattle
from Brazil, her long-term residence, to teach a poetry
class at the University of Washington. After fifteen
years, Bishop considered Brazil her home; according
to Wehr, she was at the time of the interview both homesick
and terrified about her first teaching experience.
Conversations and Class Notes by Elizabeth
Bishop and Wesley Wehr
The following comments by Elizabeth Bishop are from
my conversations with her and from class notes taken
during her 1966 poetry workshops at the University of
She had just arrived in Seattle from Brazil. The prospect
of teaching a poetry class terrified her; she had never
done such a thing before. But the University of Washington
had made her a very good offer, and her house in Ouro
Preto needed a new roof.
It was January. It was pouring rain. Already she was
desperately homesick. Every other day she was on the
verge of canceling the whole thing and going back to
EB: I wish my students wouldn't spend so much
time trying to discover themselves. They
should let other people discover them. They keep
telling me that they want to convey the truth about
ourselves despite ourselves. Its just that quite
often we dont like how it comes out. If my students
would concentrate more on all the difficulties of writing
a good poem, all the complexities of language and form,
I think that they would find that the truth will come
through quite by itself.
Theres another thing that bothers me very much:
a tendency in my class for the students to write a kind
of mood poemabout love, loss, dripping
leaves, damp moonlight. Their poems are too vague. And
if anyone in that class uses the word communicate
once more, Im going to scream! I
hate that word! Those students are not
there to express themselves; theyre
there to learn how to write a good poem.
I found out the other day, to my horror, that they dont
even know the difference between a colon and a semicolon!
Some of them speak so badly that I cant tell whether
theyre dumb or its some kind of local speech
affectation or impediment. They keep saying things like,
Oh, Miss Bishop, you know how it is.
And Ill say, No, I dont know
how it is. Why dont you tell me how it is? Im
not a mind reader.
I asked them if any of them possibly knew what was wrong
with that ghastly slogan, Winston Tastes Good Like
a Cigarette Should? There was a complete silence
in the classroom. I finally had to get out my Dictionary
of English Usage and slowly read to them the definitions
of like and as. When I got through, most of them were
staring blankly at me. I could have walked right out
of the classroom at that point. But I said, If
you students want so badly to express yourselves,
why dont you bother to learn even the simplest
things about your own language? You studied with
himwhat did Theodore Roethke do about this sort
of thing? What was I brought here to teach anyway?
EB: [to the class] Everyone in this class likes
Shakespeare, and after that, Dylan Thomas. But what
about the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets?
And the nineteenth century? I was shocked yesterday
when you didnt spot those quotations from Keats,
Tennyson, and Swinburne. We had a whole year of Wordsworth,
Keats, and Shelley when I was in high school. The romantics
are still awfully good poets. You should like
Wordsworth. Youre nature people here, and Id
expect you to like him.
Have you read Keatss letters? I recommend them
highly. I think I enjoy them more than his poetry. He
had a wonderful brain and a very strong character. People
wrote better letters in those days. Also, you should
read [Gerard Manley] Hopkinss letters to Robert
Bridges. They contain some of the best statements Ive
ever read. His journalsfor sheer observationsare
superb. He and Marianne Moore are the finest observers
Ive ever read.
EB: You should use more objects in your poemsthose
things you use every day . . . the things around you.
Pop art had brought so many things to our attention,
whether we like them or not. One can write very good
poetry without vivid images, but I myself prefer observation.
I just dont find enough things in your
poems. There are so many things you students are not
taking advantage ofalliteration, for instance.
My view from the fourteenth floor of the Meany Hotel
depressed me. I want you to write a poem, about thirty
lines long, about Seattle. Heres a list of words
to work in: viaduct, Space Needle, sea gull, scenic
drive sign, cars. Ill give a special prize
to whichever one of you manages to come up with the
best rhyme for Seattle.
EB: [to the class, 5 January 1966, first day
of class] Ive gone through the poems which you
handed in to me, and Ive never seen so many haikus
in my life. Theyre not very well written either.
Theyre more like the sort of thing one might jot
down when one is feeling vaguely poetic.
Some of your rhymes are simply awful! And you
seem to write a lot of free verse out here. I guess
thats what you call it. I was rather appalled.
I just couldnt scan your free verseand
one can scan [T. S.] Eliot. I think some of you
are misled about free verse. It isnt that easy.
Look at Eliotyou scan his descriptive pieces about
Cape Ann perfectly, and the same goes for The Four
Quartets and The Wasteland. [She reads aloud
a passage from The Wasteland.]
You see, youd never take this for prose. Its
good free verse. You can also look at e. e. cummings
and the rain poems of [Guillaume] Apollinaire. But these
poems of yours are spattered all over the page and I
dont see any reason for it. I guess Im rather
Im going to have to be very strict with you, I
see. Lets do something like [A. E.] Housman for
the first assignment. I just want something very neatlike
a hymn. Some of you have good ears. I think its
a gift of God. But your sense of rhyme and form is atrocious.
Im going to be giving you some strict meter assignments,
and later on well do something with iambic pentameter.
EB: You should have your head filled with poems
all the time, until they almost get in your way.
A poet cant write poetry all the time.
So when he isnt writing, there are various other
things he can do: dissipation, or inventing theories
about poetry, or writing his memoirs. It comes to about
the same thing.
I would suggest you read one poetall his
poems, letters, his biographies, everything but
the criticisms on him.
I believe in the fortunate accident, but you dont
sit down and try to have one. You have to be on the
road before you can have an accident.
When you imitate the old poets, you have a better chance
of sounding like yourself than when youre copying
Theres a Spanish proverb: a donkey who goes traveling
comes back still a donkey.
People seem to think that doing something like writing
a poem makes one happier in life. It doesnt solve
anything. Perhaps it does at least give one the satisfaction
of having done a thing well or having put in a good
EB: [to WW] All of the students in my classwith
their trusting eyes and their clear complexions. Have
you seen the expensive cars that some of them drive?
I dont know where they get all their money; perhaps
their parents help them out. Most of them look quite
well fed and rather well off. And what do they write
about in their poems? Suffering, of all things!
I dont think most of them know anything
about suffering, but their poems are just filled with
it. I finally told them that they should come to Brazil
and see for themselves what real suffering is
like. Then perhaps they wouldnt write so poetically
EB: I hardly know any of them, but Ive
already started worrying about some of my students.
Going insane is very popular these days, and it frightens
me to see so many young people flirting with the idea
of it. They think that going crazy will turn them into
better poets. Thats just not true at all!
Insanity is a terrible thing . . . a terrible
thing! Ive seen it first-hand in some of my friends,
and it is not the poetic sort of thing that
these young people seem to think it is. John Clare did
not write glorious poetry while he was in the asylum,
Im glad to say. Ive known Marianne Moore
extremely well over a long time. Perhaps, Ill
tell my students about her some timeto show them
what can be drawn from such a relatively limited life
as she has had. I think its important that my
students start to know some of these things. They have
such narrow and sometimes destructive ideas about what
it is to be a poet. Ive been thinking lately that
I really should say something to them about all of this.
Its a very serious matter.
EB: Ive been fortunate from the start,
winning prizes, having encouragement. Not that Ive
necessarily believed that I deserved it, but its
just happened that way. Sometimes I dont feel
that Im an especially good poet, but when I read
some of the things that my contemporaries are writing,
I guess Im not so bad after all.
Ive only had one rejection on a poem in my life.
Somehow I always knew which poem to send to which magazine.
But some of my students keep sending their poems to
the most awful little poetry magazines. They seem to
want so badly to be published that they just dont
care where it is. I told them the other day that they
shouldnt waste their time sending their poems
to the bad little poetry journals. They should aim for
the best ones. Some of these little magazines can be
rather good at times, but so many of them will publish
just about anything thats sent to them.
EB: Ive never been one of those poets who
will write a poem and then dash around showing it to
everyone . . . pretending that they want criticism.
Most of the timein recent years anywayIve
usually known what was wrong with the poem. If Ive
shown my work to anyone for criticism, its usually
been to Cal [Robert] Lowell or Miss Moore. Cal likes
my new poem, the one I call Poem. He says its
very good. You can imagine how happy that made me.
EB: I always tell the truth in poems.
With The Fish, that's exactly how it happened.
It was in Key West, and I did catch it just as the poem
says. That was in 1938. Oh, but I did change one thing:
the poem says he had five hooks hanging from his mouth,
but actually he only had three. I think it improved
the poem when I made that change. Sometimes a poem makes
its own demands. But I always try to stick as much as
possible to what really happened when I describe
something in a poem.
WW: Elizabeth, do you ever lose your motivation?
EB: Lose my motivation? You ask me the oddest
questions. Let me put it this way. I would say that
sometimes my motivations will come back
for a day, maybe even for two days. And then I
really have to get down to work! That happened to me
a few weeks ago. I suddenly felt very motivated
as you call it. I cleaned the kitchen oven and finally
answered some letters. Is that what you mean by being
motivated? Or did you mean do I have sudden fits of
inspiration to write poems? Oh, I hope you didnt
mean something like that! I havent been
able to write a single good line in Seattle. Once or
twice most of a poem has come to me all at once but
usually I write very, very slowly.
EB: Because I write the kind of poetry that I
do, people seem to assume that Im a calm
person. Sometimes they even tell me how sane I am. But
Im not a calm person at all. I can understand
how they might think that I am, but if they really knew
me at all, theyd see that there are times when
I can be as confused and indecisive as anyone. There
are times when I really start to wonder what holds me
togetherawful times. But I feel a responsibility,
while Im here at least, to appear calm
and collected . . . so these young people wont
think that all poets are erratic.
EB: Did you read what the interviewer wrote about me?
What was his name? . . . oh yes . . . Tim Robbins. He
described me as looking and acting like a schoolmarm.
That really hurt my feelings a bit. I used to be quite
a tomboy. I was very good at climbing trees,
and did all sorts of wild things. And then they wanted
a photograph of me to accompany the magazine interview.
I hate being photographed. The only photograph
thats ever been taken of me which I rather like
is one where Im on a bear rug going, "Goo, goo!"
at the camera. That one I dont mind at all. Im
just not photogenic, and never have been.
Contributing author: Michelle Ephraim,
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
to "Conversation and Class Notes" by Elizabeth
Bishop and Wesley Wehr Answer the following questions in your notebookthis
will be collated so that you can print or e-mail
your work when you are finished.
2). Make a list of Bishops complaints about her
3). Make a list of what Bishop suggests a student should
do in order to become a good poet.
4). What kinds of assumptions about poets and poetry does Bishop challenge in this interview?
5). Bishop boasts of always telling the
truth and claims that The Fish was inspired
by a real incident in Key West. Based on what she says
in this excerpt, why do you think that she believes
that a poem should tell the truth? What kinds of demands
does the poem make that would compel her to add two
hooks to the fishs mouth? Based on your reading
of the poem, why do you think she made this artistic