A New Understanding of Experience: David Biespiel’s The Education of a Young Poet

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Before I get to David Biespiel’s story, I want to tell one of my own.

Ten years ago, I moved to Atlanta to study poetry in Georgia State University’s doctoral program in creative writing and was thrilled to find out that the city boasted a competitive amateur hockey league—competitive because it was stocked with Canadians and transplants from the North like myself. In the hockey world, we call these leagues “beer leagues” because the drinking in the parking lot after the game takes as long, if not longer, than the actual contest. So, after my first game, I joined my teammates in the rink parking lot to have a few Molsons. They talked about the game and their families—pretty standard stuff. Then someone asked me where I was from. I said Pittsburgh and, like a good introvert, prayed for the conversation to move on to someone else. Instead, Marty, a burly, jovial defenseman from Halifax, Nova Scotia, asked what I did for a living. I hesitated, as most poets do when they’re asked this question. Saying you’re a poet, even in academic circles, elicits strange reactions from the people who’ve asked; you might as well say you’re a pirate or a blacksmith. Still, you feel as though you should support, or at the very least own, your art. But there in that ice rink parking lot in the suburbs of Atlanta, with a dozen or so half-buzzed hockey players as witnesses, I betrayed my art and instead of saying I was a poet, I said I was a teacher, which was not a complete lie, since I did have a teaching assistantship. When I tell my students this story as part of a well-rehearsed spiel on not being ashamed of one’s art, I say that as soon as I answered, a rooster in one of the farms that neighbors the rink crowed three times. Sometimes they believe me.

I’m saying nothing new here, but to be a poet is to be constantly aware that the rest of the world is, at best, ambivalent toward the craft to which you’ve dedicated your life. It’s easy to develop an inferiority complex from this situation, even if you believe, as I do, that the rest of the world’s ambivalence is misguided (or altogether unguided). Seeing poetry’s usefulness for people who aren’t poets—being confident without being naïve about its place in human history and culture—is a talent, a rare one, so rare that only a handful of names come to mind when I think about it: Edward Hirsch, Adrienne Rich, and Joseph Brodsky are the most obvious. And now I’d like to include David Biespiel on that list. Such a talent indicates a right relationship with poetry’s role in language, religion, and soul-making, a posture poets usually only achieve in their poems. Biespiel, though, achieves it in both his poetry and, most recently, in his compelling lyrical memoir, The Education of a Young Poet  (Counterpoint), which traces the wide-ranging experiences that led to his becoming a poet.

Biespel is the author of five poetry collections and three books of prose. In 2009, he published A Long High Whistle (Antilever), a selection of columns on poetry that he wrote for Portland’s newspaper The Oregonian. These columns are smart, entertaining, personal, and personable, qualities that allow them to speak to both card-carrying poetry lovers as well as people who have never heard of an iamb. “[I]f poetry did not exist for a single day,” Biespiel writes in a column on Adrienne Rich, “that would be the day it gets invented.” These columns are filled with charming affirmations such as this one, and at times they read like mini-memoirs, as they often recollect the history of Biespiel’s relationship with individual poems. So The Education of a Young Poet, Biespiel’s memoir which was published this year by Counterpoint Press, on paper seems like an odd follow-up to A Long High Whistle. What more could he have to say about poetry? Quite a lot, actually—and that’s a good thing.

The Education of a Young Poet begins not, as you might expect, with the poet writing his first poems—in fact, but for a three-line fragment, a proto-poem, in the penultimate chapter, we don’t see any of Biespiel’s own poetry—instead, the memoir begins in Elma, Iowa, shortly after Biespiel’s great-grandfather travels from Cherniostrov to America in 1910, leaving behind his wife and two sons, one of whom will be Biespiel’s grandfather. War and revolutions will keep Harry Borg and his family from seeing each other for another decade. In the meantime, Biespiel himself keeps Borg company via the time-bending power of narration, visiting his lonely great-grandfather, the only Orthodox Jew in Elma, like an apparition from the future:

Once I asked Harry why, or maybe it was how could you leave your wife, Rose, and your sons, Joseph and Irving for America, and how long are you willing to wait to reunite? He turned to talk to the bathroom mirror then about the encryptions in his face that revealed nothing about how it was all going to turn out. Was your marriage, I asked, happy or unhappy? Were there disappointments? Let’s not talk of dreams, he said, but of life in broad daylight. Let’s talk of being a father within sons in the house to listen. About duty. About right and wrong. Unruffled faith and limitless God.

Such imagined conversations are strange in the best possible sense of the word, and they acknowledge the poet’s debts to the people who took risks that ultimately provided him with the language and landscape of his poetry. “This room,” Biespiel writes about his grandfather’s one-room apartment in Elma, “became the walls of every stanza I’ve ever known.”

The narrative then jumps—it will jump a lot—from Elma to Boston in 1982. Biespiel has left his hometown of Houston to attend Boston University on a diving scholarship. Boston provides him with the sort of bohemian world that he wouldn’t have been able to find in the Houston suburbs. “Feeling alien within the familiar became one of the first stances I undertook when I began writing poems,” he writes. “Boston taught me that.” In Boston, we follow Biespiel through classes and parties. We smoke up with his friend Giff as they read Whitman to each other. We listen in on earnest conversations about politics, poetry, and theory. As the narrative progresses, in a sort of side-to-side motion, often turning so sharply that it comes out behind itself, like a train going up a steep mountain, we keep checking in on Harry and Harry’s son Joseph. Biespiel’s telling suggests that the education of a young poet isn’t linear; like a poem, a poet’s education follows its own laws of physics where the past and the future inhabit the same space. One gets the sense that the act of telling is as important as the act described, hence Biespiel’s determination to include Harry Borg’s story, a story that would be lost if Biespiel didn’t remember/imagine it.

It’s worth repeating that we don’t really see Biespiel writing poetry in the pages of The Education of a Young Poet. This memoir is about education and apprenticeship, not craft. If you’re looking for advice on, say, enjambment or image, you won’t find it, at least not explicitly. Still, the ideas discussed will be useful for any poet—any person, really—to consider. Take, for example, Biespiel’s discussion of Whitman’s famous poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” “A lot of the students had read the poem as a rejection of acquired knowledge in favor of direct experience,” Biespiel writes. “But I saw it, even then, as the combination of acquired knowledge and direct experience that is topped off by honest and imaginative interpretation.” He continues:

One leads you to the other. Study leads to experience, and experience leads to study. Imagination leads to forms, and forms lead to knowledge of the past. Speaking leads to listening which leads to silence and a fresh entrance into a new understanding of experience. And then the poem that follows revivifies the experience and offers a journey into a fresh insight.

The paragraph above gets at the essence of The Education of a Young Poet, and, well, the education of a young poet. A poet, Biespiel seems to be arguing, shouldn’t discount either acquired knowledge or direct experience, shouldn’t favor one over the other. Reading Whitman, going to diving practice, campaigning for Ted Kennedy, all lead to “a new understanding of experience.”

Because it suggests that knowledge can be obtained, that there is such a thing as the Truth, Biespiel’s stance is a Romantic one, and at odds with much of the theory he encountered in college, not to mention a lot of the poetry written in the most recent decades, poetry that grew out of these theories. In one chapter, Biespiel recounts a discussion about Robert Bly’s poetry with some college classmates. Biespiel says that the poems showed him “how the unconscious resists the imposition of external structures, and even resists the aesthetic, instead focusing on the archetypal and on the passages of existence common to everyone.” In other words, the young Biespiel is taking a stand for communication, a stand for seeing the poet as a human speaking to humans (to make a more inclusive statement than Wordsworth’s “a man speaking to men”). Biespiel’s friends, drunk on Derrida, aren’t buying it. One says that “poetry should be a song of critical thought that should locate a reality devoid of myth in a language no one has ever spoken or heard before, and that it should take itself apart and eliminate from that text the living experience.” Bespiel, though open to such discussions, can’t sign on with “this kind of theorizing.” “Language,” he writes, “never seemed lost to me, nor the world that it’s meant to represent.” Then he plants his flag securely in the real: “I hungered for what physically gave me pleasure. Language was one of those things.”

So The Education of a Young Poet is less about poetry itself and more about the experiences that make it. Biespiel draws from his time as a high-diver (“Nothing so resembles the practice of adjustments, of risking and accepting failure… like diving does as writing a poem”) as well as his experience as a high school kid studying Latin. His reading of Frost and Whitman couple with his political activism to work toward his first poems. Central to all of these stories is “the idea that failure is not an unbearable shimmering and success is not an endless brightness.” If there’s a secret to being a poet, it’s learning that metaphor, as Biespiel observes not halfway through the memoir, “hides in random visible experiences like a dark suit pulled from the back of a closet found still to fit.”

In the last chapter, Joseph Borg, Biespiel’s grandfather and Harry Borg’s son, gives Biespiel an actual suit from his closet. Thinking about the significance of this gesture, Biespiel writes, “In moments like that, putting on the suit, I can now see the spiral arms of one experience moving outward and away at a great speed, while elsewhere the spirals of a remembered experience are moving inward to the interior experience.” The Education of a Young Poet is filled with unassuming but riveting observations such as this one, observations that show not only how important poetry is to daily life but also how it’s, in fact, inextricable from life. This book will make you appreciate poetry more. And if you’re a poet, it will make you proud to be one.


[David Biespiel is a columnist for The Rumpus. The Education of a Young Poet began as a series of his Poetry Wire columns. – Ed.]

James Davis May is the author of Unquiet Things, which was published by Louisiana State University Press. His poems have appeared in Five Points, The New Republic, New England Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. The winner of the Poetry Society of America’s 2016 Cecil Hemley Memorial Award, he lives in Georgia and teaches creative writing at Young Harris College. More from this author →