Gioia, a former student of Bishops at Harvard
University, wrote this account of his experience in
Bishops 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 Bishops unorthodoxand unpopularmethods
of teaching poetry. Although the author struggles to
find explanations for Bishops eccentric behavior,
he ultimately finds great affection for Bishop.
Studying with Miss Bishop by Dana Gioia
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 teachersRobert
Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Mr. Lowells seminar
on nineteenth-century poets was very popular. Everyone
who fancied himself a poet talked about taking it. As
for Elizabeth Bishops 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,
In retrospect, one might imagine that it would have
been nearly impossible to get into one of Elizabeth
Bishops 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 wasnt everyone who taught
Miss Bishops 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 classroomnarrow, poorly white washed,
with high, cracked, ceilingslooked 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 whichprim, impeccably coiffured, and
smokingsat 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 didnt know exactly what I had expectedperhaps
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 wouldnt know what to
say about him.
Couldnt we try an early book? the
No, no. Lets try someone else.
What about Auden? another student asked.
Oh, I love Auden, but we cant do him.
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 didnt 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 fivefour undergraduates and me.
The administration responded by moving us into a more
intimate facilitythe seminar room
in the basement of the Kirkland House. One entered by
finding a well-hidden side door in one of the dormitorys
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.
Im 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
So that youll learn something in spite of
People exchanged knowing glances, as if to say, Were
dealing with a real oddball. But the subject was
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. Its 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
to Studying with Miss Bishop by Dana
Gioia Answer the following question in your notebookthis
will be collated so that you can print or e-mail
your work when you are finished.
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 Bishops 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 Bishops 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?