"THE FISH"
Elizabeth Bishop as Painter
“Studying with Miss Bishop” by Dana Gioia    
Dana Gioia, a former student of Bishop’s at Harvard University, wrote this account of his experience in Bishop’s poetry seminar in 1975. This excerpt from the larger article that first appeared in the New Yorker (15 September 1986, 90-101) chronicles some of Bishop’s unorthodox—and unpopular—methods of teaching poetry. Although the author struggles to find explanations for Bishop’s eccentric behavior, he ultimately finds great affection for Bishop.

“Studying with Miss Bishop” by Dana Gioia (1986)

In February, 1975, I began my last semester as a graduate student in English at Harvard University. Picking my courses that final term, I tried for once to pick them carefully, and I came down to a choice between two teachers—Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Mr. Lowell’s seminar on nineteenth-century poets was very popular. Everyone who fancied himself a poet talked about taking it. As for Elizabeth Bishop’s course on modern poetry, I had never heard anyone mention it at all. It seemed to exist only in the course catalogue: “English 285: Studies in Modern Poetry: Miss Elizabeth Bishop, Instructor.”

In retrospect, one might imagine that it would have been nearly impossible to get into one of Elizabeth Bishop’s classes. But this was not the case. Her course was not one of the many that Harvard students fought to get into and afterward always managed to mention they had taken. The most popular teachers among young literary elite were Robert Lowell, William Alfred, Robert Fitzgerald, and the newly arrived Alexander Theroux. On the first day of their classes, it was difficult to just squeeze into the room. While Northrop Frye, who was visiting Harvard that year to deliver the Norton Lectures, drew audiences of nearly a thousand for his class on myth and literature, Miss Bishop, I was to learn, rarely attracted more than a dozen unenthusiastic undergraduates. Her manner was at odds with the academic glamour of Harvard, her conversation not designed to impress. She was a politely formal, shy, and undramatic woman. She wanted no worshipful circle of students, and got none. Only her writing course was popular, but all writing courses were in great demand at Harvard, since the university as a matter of policy offered very few. While the Cambridge literary establishment held Miss Bishop in the highest esteem, among the undergraduates she was just another writer on the faculty. They knew she was well known, but wasn’t everyone who taught at Harvard?
Miss Bishop’s first session was held in a classroom on the second floor of Sever Hall, a grimy building of supposed architectural distinction in the Harvard Yard. The classroom—narrow, poorly white washed, with high, cracked, ceilings—looked as if it belonged in an abandoned high school in North Dakota. There were exposed radiator pipes with peeling paint. A few battered shelves were lined with broken-spined textbooks of incalculable age. A couple of dozen chairs, no two of them matching, were set randomly around a huge, scratched table, at one end of which—prim, impeccably coiffured, and smoking—sat Miss Elizabeth Bishop.
I recognized her immediately from photographs I had seen in books, but somehow, suddenly coming into a room where she was sitting a few feet away, I was taken by surprise. At that point in my life, I had seen so few real poets in person that I felt a strange shock at being in the same room as someone whose work I knew on the page. It was an odd, almost uncomfortable sensation to have the perfect world of books peer so casually into the disorder of everyday life. I was also surprised by her appearance. She seemed disappointingly normal. I didn’t know exactly what I had expected—perhaps someone slightly bohemian or noticeably eccentric, a Marianne Moore or a Margaret Rutherford. Instead, I saw a very attractive woman in what I guessed to be her middle fifties (actually, she was sixty-four), dressed in a tasteful, expensive-looking suit, perfectly poised, waiting to begin. By the time the class started, only about a dozen students had arrived. I was surprised at so small a turnout. Moreover, we sat scattered around the room in a way that made the class seem half empty rather than intimate.
Eventually, she began, “I am Elizabeth Bishop,” she announced, “and this is Studies in Modern Poetry. The way I usually run this class is by asking the students to choose three or four poets they would like to read and talk about. Does anyone have a suggestion?”
The first question was always an important moment in a Harvard class. It sets the tone of the session, like the opening bid on the New York Stock Exchange.
“Can we read John Ashberry? Something like ’Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’?” a young man asks from the back of the room.
Now, this was a truly exceptional question. Ashberry was just becoming well known, and every young poet I knew had been reading him. But hardly anyone was able to understand Ashberry. His work was so elusive and difficult that people who talked authoritatively about it were held in universally high regard.
“Ashberry?” said Miss Bishop. “Oh, no, we can't read Ashberry. I wouldn’t know what to say about him.”
“Couldn’t we try an early book?” the student said.
“No, no. Let’s try someone else.”
“What about Auden?” another student asked.
“Oh, I love Auden, but we can’t do him.”
“Why not?”
“We just read him in my other class. We should read new people.”
She acted as if we knew exactly what authors she had assigned the previous semester. I felt at ease. At least she was disorganized. I didn’t have to revise my stereotype of poets entirely.
That first session must have seemed particularly unpromising. By the second class, the dozen original students had dwindled down to five—four undergraduates and me. The administration responded by moving us into a more intimate facility—the “seminar room” in the basement of the Kirkland House. One entered by finding a well-hidden side door in one of the dormitory’s wings, descending several staircases, and then wandering about until one came upon a vast, colorless room full of unwanted furniture and dismembered bicycles. There were pipes on the ceiling, and an endless Ping-Pong game went on a card table, and that was the only usable table in the place. Eventually, we all found the room, and the six of us took our places facing one another across the tiny surface.
“I’m not a very good teacher,” Miss Bishop began. “So to make sure you learn something in this class I am going to ask each of you to memorize at least ten lines a week from one of the poets we are reading.” Had she announced that we were all required to attend class in sackcloth and ashes, the undergraduates could not have looked more horrified. This was the twentieth century, the age of criticism.
“Memorize poems?” someone asked. “But why?”
“So that you’ll learn something in spite of me.”
People exchanged knowing glances, as if to say, “We’re dealing with a real oddball.” But the subject was closed.
Her modesty was entirely sincere. She was the most self-effacing writer I had ever met. She had her own opinions and preferences, but there was no false pride in her. Several times in almost every class, she would throw up her hands and say, “I have no idea what this line means. Can anybody figure it out?” And all of us would then scuffle ineffectually to her rescue.
Teaching did not come naturally to her. She was almost sixty when she became an instructor at Harvard, and one could sense how uneasy she felt in the role. She would not lecture us, even informally. Sessions with her were not so much classes as conversations. She would ask someone to read a poem aloud. (At times, it reminded me of a reading class in grammar school.) Then we would talk about the poem line by line in a relaxed, unorganized way. She rarely made an attempt to summarize any observations at the end of discussions. She enjoyed pointing out the particulars of each poem, not generalizing about it, and she insisted that we understand each individual word, even if we had no idea what the poem was about as a whole. “Use the dictionary,” she said once. “It’s better than the critics.”
. . . She did not attempt to tie the details of a poem together into a tight structure. She would have found the notion unappealing. Nor did she see poems in any strict horizontal perspective. Good poems existed for her in a sort of eternal present. Studying poetry with her was a leisurely process. The order of words in the poem was the only agenda, and we would go from word to word, from line to line, as if we had all the time in the world. We only read poems she liked, and it was a pleasure to be at Harvard to have a teacher who, however baffled she might be in managing her class, clearly enjoyed the things she was talking about.

 
Contributing author: Michelle Ephraim, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Responding to “Studying with Miss Bishop” by Dana Gioia
Answer the following question in your notebook—this will be collated so that you can print or e-mail your work when you are finished.
 
 

1). Gioia describes Bishop’s style in the classroom as “leisurely,” a word that Benton uses to describe Bishop’s paintings. According to each writer, how is Bishop “leisurely”?

 
 

2). Why do you think that Bishop does not attempt to “tie the details of the poem together” in class?
 
 

3). Look again at your list of Bishop’s complaints about her students’ poetry in 1966. Do you see any relationship between these complaints and her methods of teaching poetry at Harvard?
 
 

4). Compare Bishop’s methods of communicating to her students in 1966 at the University of Washington and in 1975 at Harvard. How does she seem to have changed as a teacher since her first time in the classroom in Seattle?


 


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