Poetry News

Diana Goetsch on Teaching Poetry to William Zinsser

By Harriet Staff
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, cover

At the New Yorker, Diana Goetsch discusses teaching poetry to nonfiction writer William Zinsser. Zinsser, the author of books including On Writing Well, contacted Goetsch to ask for poetry lessons while his eyesight gradually deteriorated due to progressive glaucoma. Zinsser's meetings with Goetsch occurred while the poet underwent hormone-replacement therapy, and "a person named Douglas Goetsch, [...] was fading out of existence." But Goetsch and Zinsser's friendship began in 1999 while Goetsch was teaching at Stuyvesant High. Goetsch: "I had given a student teacher a copy of 'On Writing Well,' and she was so charmed by it that she phoned Bill to ask if he would pay our class a visit. He showed up the next week, in a fedora, sport coat, and sneakers, to talk to a group of fourteen-year-olds. Bill also took an interest in me, which at first I chalked up to his lifelong reporter’s curiosity. Then he invited me to lunch, which became a standing date—once a month for fifteen years." From there: 

In conversation, Bill was an accompanist at heart. He wanted to know about me, who I was, what I was writing. He was especially interested in my prose, even though I’d hardly written any. He’d get me talking, and every so often would remark, “I have never heard of anything like that.” He’d follow up with a phone call, repeating, “That’s something I’ve never heard of. You should write about that.” In a week or two, he might call again, asking if I’d thought more about the article. “Here’s how it could go,” he’d say, then delineate an arc. “We’ll make a prose writer out of you yet.”

Not long after shutting down his office, Bill suffered a mysterious fracture of his femur, which required spending time in a long-term recovery facility on the Upper East Side. The building was gloomy; at times, the cries of patients echoed down the halls. When I visited, Bill was in his room, alone and scared. He squeezed my hand and reached for my shoulder. He asked what time it was. He asked me to make sure that the nurses didn’t forget to come and give him his anxiety medication before they left for the night.

Bill and I talked until the sun went down, in quiet waves of conversation. He asked me to stay until he fell asleep. He told me how hard this part of the day had always been for him, even as a child. He told me about other fears, and chronic anxieties. It would have felt like a confession if he hadn’t been speaking so plainly and without shame.

I think Bill saw not only that our friendship needed to shift but that it could shift. He often joked self-effacingly about being a Wasp and subject to the formal stiffness of that privileged class—he’d even written a humorous article on the subject. But that evening I saw his utter grace: this man of towering faculties, opening his palms.

Continue reading at the New Yorker

Originally Published: March 8th, 2018