David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Dorothea Lasky v. Elizabeth Bishop

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All of a sudden my inbox is filling up with links from friends to two essays related to poetry that have almost everything and nothing in common at once, and whose implications say a lot about how the art of poetry gets re- or de- artified.

One is a link to an essay by Dorothea Lasky in The Atlantic about using poetry to teach children how to write persuasive essays. The other is a link to a 1983 New Yorker memoir by Elizabeth Bishop about teaching in the U. S. A. School of Writing under the pseudonym of Mr. Margolies.

Lasky’s writing is efficient, heartfelt, and professional. It identifies with a movement in American education dating back to John Dewey that one learns by doing. It praises poetry to the skies, and so I give praise to Lasky for praising poetry in so prominent a venue as The Atlantic.

Bishop’s writing is blowsy, sarcastic, precise as thread through a needle, warmly familiar to anyone who knows her poetry, and disarmingly common-esque, like a handsome frock. It identifies with a tradition in American literary experience dating back at least to Walt Whitman that one writes by living, by extracting language from experience and experience into language. Her essay embodies the idea that formalizing experience into a literary entity transforms lived life into a universe of new meaning and into what we call a poem.

First Lasky. Favoring the educationist idea that chaos must be ordered, Lasky beseeches Americans to adopt poetry into the classroom not just as a method to improve writing skills across the 50 states but as the only true method to do so. Her essay has a democratic trust that poetry is plain good for you, a puritan faith that art exists in service to an individual’s economic and social well-being, and a poet’s belief that poetry is simply pretty damned cool:

If we care about how well our students write, we should not condescend and limit their exploration of language, either. We should make sure students have the space in schools to learn that they can write, and develop a lifelong passion for words. Poetry is the way to do this.

That could be so. Though poetry may also just simply be an art with limited appeal. And, well, honestly, what’s so wrong about that?

But appeal is only part of the bargain for Lasky, who is a pro when it comes to teaching writing:

There are practical ways to do this in a 2012 classroom. When I teach classes on the argumentative essay, one of my favorite books to bring in is Jay-Z’s Decoded. It is a gift for teachers, because Jay-Z provides very clear, close readings of his own poems. (This is something few poets throughout history have provided.) I have had many successful lessons in which I have played his song “99 Problems” for students and then showed them how he breaks down its construction in Decoded. Once students can see that Jay-Z wrote each line with such purpose, crafted many complex ideas into powerful verse, it paves the way for meaningful discussions about how to create any argument in language. Students can see that their ideas are important, and that style helps their impact come through.

Sounds like a terrific assignment and experience for her students. Speaking only for myself, my experience is that students write best when they are required to write only about things they care deeply about, what you might call assigned but unassigned writing. They write best when they create their own topics based on their obsessions, based on their current enthusiasms. They write best when they develop a personal style that best suits their arguments to a specific audience. For expository and persuasive writing, audience is a writer’s first and last concern.

Then there is poetry. On the other hand, poetry is allowed to be less obsessed with audience because, as Lasky asserts, and I agree, it must be obsessed with language. Why? Because language is the stuff of the medium itself. End stop. That is: language accompanied with silence. Or, put differently, language without accompaniment such as music. And mostly: language invested in poetic form. (And here I detract from Lasky’s unfortunate depiction of contemporary American poetry that it “rarely adheres to traditional poetic forms” — well, that’s just untrue, because free verse is the most traditional poetic form we have in America poetry for the last hundred years, and American free verse is such the dominant traditional form that its varietals have already, or are in the process of, ossifying into what Lasky surely must have meant, marbleized poetic forms, things like haiku or sestinas or etc., that have given way to prose poems, irregular meters, and so forth. The metered and the unmetered are not at war. Form of all kinds in poetry is vital, essential, and central to a language’s poetic experience, to a poet’s experience, and especially to potential audiences’ experiences, like student audiences, for instance, who are usually not so informed about poetry’s vast competing aesthetic schools.)

Because poets are so invested in the medium of language, a sense of audience can sometimes be secondary. This is so especially if you are still an adherent to the Modernist dream that poetics is self-reliant. Especially if you feel that poetry must be an un-remunerative art. Especially if you feel that poetry is something you concentrate on as a way to learn something, say, like writing better essays.

This is poetry education as self-ministration. But consider: If a lyric poem can be said to be a form of writing in lines and stanzas spoken in a single voice, out loud, more or less to no one, then surely that is the opposite of a persuasive essay which has little value without a reader and relies on an openness to consider, reflect, and transform opinion between writer and reader. Expository writing involves an openness to civic and communitarian compromise which is, if not antithetical to the poet, antithetical to a poet’s vision of imagination tethered to formal clarity.

Writing essays requires trusting language — as does writing poetry. “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act,” George Orwell says. But, oh, how far this Orwellian trust in the concreteness of language is from the musically flat and surrealist poetics that dominates American poetry today.

And how far from an understanding that poetry is, above all, an art, capital A, that Elizabeth Bishop’s greatest poetry exemplifies. Because Bishop’s poetry first and foremost exemplifies that studying experience — more than studying writing — must be the basis for writing poems.

Thinking about Bishop’s memoir, I believe I read it back in the 1983 when it first appeared, or perhaps it was in one of her editions of selected prose. But, the juice of it has faded from my memory. So reading this week . . . it was all fresh. And what a thrill! What a fantastic piece of writing! The Lasky essay makes you feel proud that there are educators in the world who are also poets. Her piece exemplifies the teacher-poet ideal of using poetry as a didactic experience in the best sense of that word — to educate, to teach, to improve.

The Bishop memoir, on the other hand, makes you feel proud to be a poet. It makes you yearn to understand experience as an aesthetic and poetic universe. It makes you feel in awe of her as a great poet. She can write two or three of the most essential poems in modern English and, well, a stunningly fantastic piece of New York-iana too. Blazingly well. So well that it makes her poems — wrought-over poems, chiseled poems, poems doled out like four leaf clovers to a graduation of nuns — seem even greater.

To quote only a couple passages is poor sportsmanship on my part, I know, but here goes:

Overbearing, dishonest, unattractive, proud of being “tough,” touchy, insensitive, yet capable of being kind or amused when anything penetrated, Rachel was something new to me. She had one rare trait that kept me interested: she never spoke of herself at all. Her salary was twenty-five dollars a week. her clothes were shabby, even for Stewart’s in those days, and dirty as well.

And this:

The school was on the fourth floor, the top floor, of an old tumbledown building near Columbus Circle. There was no elevator. I had accepted — although “accept” cannot be the right word — the job in the late fall, and it seems to me now that it was always either raining or snowing when I emerged mornings from the subway into Columbus Circle, and that I was always wearing a black wool dress, a tenchcoat, and galoshes and carrying an umbrella. In the dark hallway there were three flights of steps, which sagged and smelled of things like hot iron, cigars, rubber boots, or peach pits — the last gasps of whatever industries were dying behind the lettered doors.

What else can you say after reading this, but ‘Wow!’ Bishop’s memoir is about the education of a poet. It’s not about the the use of poetry to educate a person. Lasky calls for poetry to be instructional for improving writing. Bishop writes about how to be a writer. Her memoir is not useful as a tool for poetry to lead to brick-and-mortar learning. Instead, Bishop’s idea about learning is that you must live to become a writer, not just be a completer of writing assignments, even if those assignments are composed as poems. That you must you must be alert to living not to lessons. Her memoir is the exact opposite of how to use poetry for ends, certainly not academic ones, but ends that aspire toward delight, insight, and humanizing experience. Her memoir is more Deweyesque than using poetry as a means to write better.

Now I’ve taught poetry for nearly 30 years. Like Lasky, I’ve had my days as a poetry pusher. I hear what she’s getting at. More poetry for students, why not? Poetry never hurt anyone. I hope her essay moves teachers to follow her advice.

But, looking at these two pieces side by side, here’s what I say: if I could wriggle my nose, I might do it all over differently and change everything from the past in order to teach my students to be more like Bishop. To live first. To live as a way to discover writing. To write only what matters to you. To write only what interests you in the most compulsive and impulsive and formal ways. To resist the didactic and to embrace the art. Do that, and you’ll be the best writer you can be — by living and studying not writing but life. And then write like you could be dead tomorrow.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →