Studying with Miss BishopPosted: September 10, 2021
Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life
Paul Dry Books (January 5, 2021), 125 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $16.95
Dana Gioia is a contemporary of mine, being only two plus years older than me. Like me, he grew up in Southern California. And like me he was a book nerd as a youngster. He writes “I still find it exciting to remember the titles and luridly exuberant covers of those Ace and Ballantine paperbacks.” Ah, yes, those marvelous afternoons at Hungry Eye books in downtown Hemet when I was in high school.
Gioia got his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and an MA in comparative literature from Harvard. He then returned to Stanford to get a graduate degree in business. Gioia is best known for his poetry, but the current volume is a memoir in which he recalls six people who helped further his skills as a writer.
The first person Gioia writes about is his uncle. The man was from Mexico and a merchant marine. He was self-educated and an avid collector of books. He didn’t have his own home but stayed in with Gioia and his parents when he wasn’t at sea, and so that is where all his books were. After his premature death in an airplane crash the books remained in Gioia’s parent’s house for the youngster to peruse and enjoy.
The author says little about his undergraduate influences at Stanford, but two of his influences at Harvard each merit their own chapter.
Elizabeth Bishop was a highly regarded poet who was persuaded to teach a class at Harvard. Although a graduate student, Gioia enrolled in Bishop’s undergraduate course in poetry. By the time the class shook itself out at the beginning of the semester there were only four undergraduates and Gioia. Harvard administration relegated the class to a small basement room. Although Bishop did not enjoy teaching the course, Gioia and Bishop developed a mutual respect as they walked across campus together after class.
Gioia’s second influence at Harvard was the poet and classicist Robert Fitzgerald. I certainly know Fitzgerald as it was his translation of The Odyssey that my classics professor assigned at Pitzer College. Although not as reluctant a teacher as Bishop, neither was he enthusiastic. Gioia writes, “When Fitzgerald arrived, he surveyed the mob with weary resignation.” He was, however, a demanding professor. He shared with Ezra Pound the view that “You cannot learn to write by reading English,” and insisted that his students read poetry in multiple languages.
We learn about how the author, while an adviser to undergraduates, was assigned to be John Cheever’s host at Stanford when the novelist visited campus with his son, a high school senior. Poet James Dickey angrily accosted Gioia at a party after Gioia had published a negative review about Dickey’s latest work in a journal Gioia thought no one read. The last influence Gioia writes about was the poet Ronald Perry. Gioia and Perry never met but developed a relationship via postal mail (this being before the days of email). Perry died suddenly just before the two were to have met. Although Gioia was an executive at General Foods at the time, he used some of his evenings and weekends (time meant for his own work) to help establish Perry’s literary legacy.
Studying with Miss Bishop is a slim volume, but it is a delightful behind-the-scenes look at one man’s experience in the literary world.