I met Elizabeth Bishop in 1972, when I audited her poetry class (not “workshop,” she would have hated that term) my senior year at Harvard. She was quite unlike my other professors. She was a woman—at the time Harvard had exactly one tenured woman, and not many women in the lower ranks either—and there was nothing of the grand professeur (or grand poete) about her. She was modest and unaffected, reserved but not cool. We called her Miss Bishop. She was the only teacher I had in four years of college who invited a class to her house—a sunny, rather bare apartment on Brattle Street, I think it was, where she showed us a Joseph Cornell-ish art box she had made that she said drew on the folk art Brazilians made to memorialize dead children.
How I wish I had taken notes! She was a wonderful teacher, the perfect blend of formal and free, just like her poems. She gave us assignments—sonnets, villanelles—but she always said that if we burned to write something else, we should of course do so. One afternoon she gave us end words—“blue” was one—and had us all sit there for half an hour and turn out sestinas. I wonder about that now—Bishop’s “Sestina” being one of the few modern examples of the form that is moving (in both senses) and doesn’t feel like an exercise. My sestina, in fact, was about how boring sestinas are.
What strikes me, having taught a bit myself, is how kind she was. We can’t all have been budding poets, yet she talked about our work as if we were. Bernard Malamud, whose freshman writing seminar I had taken, was a brilliant teacher in the old authoritarian style, who had no trouble telling eighteen-year-olds that they lacked sufficient gifts to write fiction; he saw himself, I think, as a kind of talent scout from God. Maybe he was—but I had friends who took years to recover from his verdicts. Bishop had the opposite approach: she seemed to enjoy teaching, and was clearly amused by her students, a typical Harvard combination of the bow-tied and the tie-dyed—young fogies and hippies—but I don’t think it was a calling, part of her identity. She wasn’t concerned to make final judgments or peer into our depths.
Toward the end of the semester, in office hours, she said to me “You should take your poetry very seriously.” Those were the most important words said to me by any teacher, and possibly any person.
I was too shy to keep up with her much after I graduated, but I recently came across two longish letters from her. Both were from 1978, the year before her death. In one she reminisces about Port Clyde, the town in Maine where I was living at the time:
Did I tell you (forgive me if I repeat myself) that I’ve been to Port Clyde, twice, I think—and a year ago last June I actually went on an Audobon [sic] trip that started from there—out to Matinicus Rock, to see puffins, and lots of other sea birds. It was a lot of fun. I stayed with two friends, at a rather dismal, tall, green, Victorian house, near the landing—it had just opened that very day for guests and was very strange.
She invited me to visit her in North Haven the next summer, but like an idiot, I didn’t go.
In the late seventies, when she read at the Guggenheim, I went to hear her. Bishop is sometimes described as a notoriously poor reader of her own work—flat, low-key, lacking in presence. After all, she was a short, gray-haired woman who wore nondescript wool skirts that fell below the knee, the antithesis of what a poet was supposed to look like. I thought she was a good reader—I dislike theatricality in poetry readings, and that super-sensitive breathy chanting thing poets get into where every line ends with an upward lilt like a question. But more than that, her reading was a kind of gift; it made me see that whatever way a poet reads his or her own work is fine, is, in fact, perfect, because the way they read is part of their sensibility, their own personal expression of their poem. No one else can have that relation to those words: it’s unique. It was interesting that Bishop said “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” in a straightforward, even way, and not “rainbow! rainbow! (pause) RAINBOW!” She let the words do the shining. The way she read said: the words on the page are the poem, I’m not going to slather a lot of emoting on top of them, I’m going to let them speak for themselves. True or not, this insight has helped me not to be nervous about giving readings: however I perform is all right, I tell myself, because I am the writer reading my own work.
And although I am the one telling myself what is, after all, my own idea, I always imagine it is Miss Bishop saying it to me.