Celebrating Mentors: A Review of Studying with Miss Bishop

man smoking pipe

My review was first published on the Englewood Review of Books website.

One of the tensions all readers face, whether we are writers or not, is how to have literary heroes and still cultivate our own perspective. We want to connect to communities, but not conform, to be educated but not indoctrinated. We become good at something by observing other artists and receiving a tradition. But we also hope to contribute something fresh.

In Studying with Miss Bishop, Dana Gioia invites us into his navigation of the tension. He introduces us to six fascinating people who’ve had a lifelong impact on his literary life. Gioia is a poet of considerable influence himself. His most 2017 collection, 99 Poems: New and Selected, won the Poets’ Prize. He served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008, then as Poet Laureate of California from 2015-2018. Studying with Miss Bishop was written to convey gratitude to the mentors who embodied particular passions that Gioia had nearly lost in the course of his academic training in the 1970s.

Elizabeth Bishop

This delightful collection of memoir essays takes us back nearly fifty years to “a time when people still wrote letters and read newspapers… and many smoked.” Gioia introduces us to Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and James Dickey—famous authors—and to his Merchant Marine uncle Ted, and the nearly unknown poet Ronald Perry. Gioia wrote to “give the readers a tangible sense of what it was like to be in their company.” Because Gioia takes us into his experiences with these relationships, his vignettes evoke things that were “caught” more than taught. These profiles remind us that teaching involves a lot more than dispensing knowledge.

Uncle Ted Ortiz died when Dana was six. He has no memories of him, but the family inherited Ted’s extensive library. Because his parents both worked odd hours, he was often alone as an adolescent. The books drew the introverted boy in: “My insatiable appetite for books came mostly from curiosity and pleasure.” Gioia is unapologetic for his continued literary hedonism: “By the time I arrived in college, I had already developed a deep suspicion of all theories of art that did not originate in pleasure.”

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald were poets whom Gioia sat under at Harvard. Bishop did not care much for literary criticism because it tended to “talk the life out of poems.” Summing up her approach, Gioia writes, “She wanted us to see poems, not ideas. One did not interpret poetry; one experienced it.” Like Bishop, Robert Fitzgerald’s sensibilities were unusual at Harvard, influenced as he was by both Thomas Aquinas’s and Jacques Maritain’s Catholic views on beauty. Fitzgerald believed that art was to be approached not only with the intellect but also with “the imagination, intuition, and physical senses.” His courses both broadened Gioia’s knowledge of poetry and “enlarged his pleasure in the art.” Gioia treasured that Fitzgerald was a fellow Christian who modeled a way to live out his faith humbly in a pluralistic setting.

Poetry spelled out

As for the novel and short story writer John Cheever, Gioia recalled his “radiance”—a mix of honesty about his recovery from an alcoholic collapse and his candid conversations about his own religious outlook. What he believed about God was hard to describe; he was “more deist than Christian,” but Cheever faithfully went to church every week to sit quietly and connect with the liturgy—“the great language that linked the past and present.” Gioia was drawn to many of Cheever’s stories as parables of people on pilgrimage, searching for meaning in the banality of the suburbs.

The poet and novelist James Dickey had a primarily negative role in Gioia’s literary life. Although he admired his early poetry, he wrote an honest review of Dickey’s “awful” collection of poems, Puella. As a result, Gioia endured a drunken and public rage from him at a gathering of writing professionals. “In my youthful innocence, I didn’t yet know the unspoken rules” that “most reviews are published to reward friends and allies.” This kind of arrogance and dishonesty among critics has eroded the quality of what gets published: “Readers cannot trust the praise of a critic who is not at times also willing to censure.”

old books

Lastly, Ronald Perry was a poet Gioia never met. Perry responded to a review Gioia wrote on his 1980 collection Denizens, which led to a letter-writing friendship. At that time in his life, Gioia was working full-time in the business world and devoting nights and weekends to writing poetry, at which time he slowly came to discover his own voice. He led an orderly life. Gioia and Perry had arranged to meet, but Perry died suddenly the night before at the age of fifty. Through this odd relationship—letters from the Bahamas—and though getting to know some of Perry’s friends, Gioia learned that the literary life was not so logical and organized. Rather, it was “impulsive, mysterious, and uncertain.” The life of a writer required more resilience than he thought. One must contend with insecurity, setbacks, and at best, occasional recognition. The thrill would be more in the rush of creativity than in popularity. Perry, though brilliant, ended up like most poets, largely unknown and out of print.

Studying with Miss Bishop is worth reading for the sheer pleasure of following the story of a shy, book-loving kid who worked for decades with the help of six fascinating mentors to become a poet. This book is a gem, even if you are not a poetry buff. Gioia makes many astute observations about what makes for an education of the intellect and imagination. He wonderfully captures beautiful pedagogy incarnated—a pedagogy that understands people are more than “brains on a stick” as James K.A. Smith so memorably quipped.

Gioia too sounds a sober warning about the power of academic institutions and publishers to dehumanize education and create echo chambers that narrow our exposure to good literature. He was curious about and open to teachers who sang a different tune. He realized that academia had influenced him in ways he didn’t outright choose. But learning to differentiate himself from institutional imbalances, he became an original thinker who cared about helping others love poems more than tribal trends.

For years Dana Gioia’s work has nurtured my appreciation for beauty. Through Studying with Miss Bishop, he has become even more of a mentor. With this little memoir, he has given me a sense of how to sort through my various educational influences and continue the work of discovering my voice and style.

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