"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, November 29, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXIX: The Art of Loosening by Chris Hosea

I took a leave of absence from college when I was eighteen. Frankly, I wasn’t inclined to go back. I felt I’d had enough. I began college early, saying farewell to my New Jersey public high school, without earning a diploma, to matriculate at Johns Hopkins in 1991. Arriving in North Baltimore at sixteen, I discovered I was part of a small group of early admits. We gradually located each other on campus, exchanging excited introductions as if we were far-flung members of a Masonic order. By and large, we were intellectually precocious and socially clueless. There was just no escaping the incongruity of our puny frames, our downy cheeks. And to their eternal credit, the vast majority of older students were patient and kind. They considered us hilarious and endearing, and petted us like mascots. I was soon as comfortable and happy as any college freshman, which is to say enthusiastic, spoiled, quick to judge, insecure, addicted to sudden binges of angst, and wildly exultant in my sudden liberty from parental oversight.

A lot can change in a year. At fencing practice I lunged and scuttled and ran the daily mile. I grew my hair out and started shaving more convincing stubble off my chin. Then Harvard accepted my transfer application. I had assured the Harvard admissions office I wanted to leave Baltimore because Hopkins’ philosophy department paled in comparison (actually Hopkins had world-class philosophy professors). Really, I confided in my close friends, I wanted a fresh slate—and why not try the knowledge industry’s leading luxury brand? Viewed in retrospect, my decision to transfer sprung from more complicated motives and pressures, and was more bound up in family drama, but I’ll delve into that in my memoirs. If I ever find the time!

My first year at Harvard was a bit of a sudden plunge into the frigid Charles. Dunster House, the dormitory to which I was assigned, was overcrowded. So I was roomed in a high-rise apartment project apparently airlifted from the suburbs of early-1960s Prague. The brutalist F. G. Peabody Terrace Married Student Housing Estate is just a short walk down Memorial Drive from Dunster House, where I took my meals in a dark-paneled dining hall with French windows and chandeliers. But back at my concrete suite with my roommates, all transfers themselves, I felt isolated in a lockless Chateau D’If.

Harvard students were smarter, fiercer, and quite delighted to call bluff on my bullshit. The classes were larger, the professors less easily impressed. I was at a bit of a loss, and for a time did little but attend classes, annotate assigned readings, thrash and sweat at the regular Lemonheads shows at T. T. the Bear’s Place (the band’s bassist, Juliana Hatfield, was a big crush of mine and every other lonely guy in the room), hang out with transfer students, read lots of nineteenth-century novels, and make mix-tapes from gloomy pop records to send to girls I knew back at Hopkins. After struggling through a particularly difficult, mind-bending class led by Derek Parfit, I switched my concentration to Engish. Though I attended and enjoyed a John Ashbery reading, I wasn’t especially curious about contemporary poetry. As far as I know I had never yet read a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.

When I returned to Harvard after four years of working and backpacking my way through Asia and Europe, living for stretches of more than six months in India, Pakistan, and the Czech Republic, I was ready for a livelier approach to college. I’d carried pocket editions of Leaves of Grass and Illuminations on my travels, and somewhere along the way I’d become convinced I was a poet. I had no idea whether I would ever write a poem I would happy be with. And I was woefully disappointed with all my attempts thus far. But I knew I was a poet like the Pope knows he’s Catholic. I felt so solemn and pretentious I shivered with it. Poetry became one of the few things—aside from dating, which I also pursued with scattered success—for which I could summon the kind of unnervingly dense passion my friends roundly teased me about.

I hungrily enrolled in every poetry class I could. Helen Vendler’s expansive, virtuoso close-readings of Whitman and Keats discovered the wild world of signification that lives and breathes in poetic texts. The levels on which a poem may be read suddenly seemed endless. Vendler favored close readings supported by biography. She radiated the conviction that some readings are definitive. Yet she was quick to point out, correctly, that the sharp critical tools she taught could be fruitfully employed in service of any critical methodology. I adored Professor Vendler and devoured paperback copies of her books, including Part of Nature, Part of Us and Soul Says, collections of popular reviews she had penned mostly for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Vendler’s stature as an arbiter of American contemporary verse was then at its zenith. I got to know student poets who resented her mostly mainstream tastes and the occasional testy dismissals that broke her general radio silence concerning language-affiliated poets, a group which included Leslie Scalapino, Rosmarie Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Ted Greenwald and Clark Coolidge, who certainly were publishing some of the most brilliant and exciting poetry to appear in the United States during the nineties.

I was ready to forgive Vendler anything and everything, though, when with the help of her essay collections I began parsing, exploring, and delighting in the works of Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Marianne Moore, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, and especially the wonderful James Tate, whose books became an addiction after I was unnerved by a brief, scathing review in which Vendler, taking an extremely uncharacteristic tone, unfairly mocked Tate’s razor-sharp Viper Jazz. My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop also came through Vendler’s brilliant essays. Vendler’s celebratory divinations drew heavily on quotations from Bishop’s letters and poems. Nevertheless, by some cosmic accident I didn’t arrive at the Collected Poems proper until the spring semester of my senior year, when I enrolled in Henri Cole’s Advanced Poetry Workshop.

At Harvard each creative writing workshop is reserved for twelve lucky students who win their place at the table by competitive application. When I showed up at Sever Hall for the information session and found I numbered among perhaps two hundred undergraduates chatting and biting their nails, I was crestfallen. Looking around, I saw I wasn’t alone in my mood, to judge from the wealth of wry frowns and boastful curses and twitching nicotine-stained fingers. Until I found acquaintances to commiserate with, I kept reminding myself about how none of my lyrics had ever been accepted by The Advocate, the college literary magazine. Even little campus journals that sprang up and died in a semester were rejecting my work, with the exception of the ephemeral “experimental” tabloid Cellar Door. By the time a bored junior professor read the rules of the application process from a Xeroxed sheet into a podium microphone, I was probably foggily trying to remember what movies were showing at the Brattle. Yet despite my poor batting average with student magazines, I was granted a spot in Henri’s class, much to my surprise and delight.

Henri is one of the most patient, helpful, generous, and constructive teachers of poetry with whom I have had the good fortune to study. The students in his workshop were a various bunch. There was a very young woman who had already published verse in national magazines, a few curious graduate students, a dancer, an older librarian or assistant, and a motley assortment of undergraduates who, like me, were clumsily groping at the materials of poetry, blundering along mostly happily, while sometimes catching disheartening glimpses of the dizzying difficulties of the quest. Henri smiled kindly at naive pretensions, and offered gentle critiques that helped many students make real steps forward. The most generative thing about Henri as a teacher, I think, is his keen ability to appreciate, encourage, and help to flourish all kinds of styles, even those that plough fields far distant from the masterfully disciplined and resonantly empathetic autobiographical lyricism that he has so successfully made his own.

There was a moment early on in the workshop when I let fly an inelegant remark. “There are so many feet in this poem,” I said of a classmate’s short sketch of Florida holiday ennui. “Feet walk across the floor. They waggle at the television screen. They have sand between their toes. But where is the person who goes with these feet?” After I said all that, or words to that effect, I saw tears well up in the poet’s eyes and at once knew I had badly misjudged the thickness of her skin. She surprised us all by standing up and fleeing the room. I felt awful, and turned to Henri, to plead my guilt and shame. He cut me off by laughing merrily and holding out his palms. In a calm voice he said, “Oh, don’t worry; she’ll get over it.” And so the workshop moved on to the next poem. The student returned the following week and everyone acted as if nothing unusual had happened. Which I later learned was essentially true, given the kind of blunders and fits of embarrassment that happen all the time in poetry workshops.

Not long after that little incident, Henri gave us each a photocopy of “One Art” and asked the workshop members to write a villanelle. The villanelle could be about any theme we desired, but it had to adhere to and vary from the formal requirements of the villanelle precisely in the ways Bishop’s did. This assignment proved a thrilling challenge. I wasn’t writing formal verse at the time—officially because I considered it “stuffy,” but privately because it was beyond my talents to create formal poems that were at once musical, new, and resonant. What was eye opening about Henri’s assignment was that he didn’t ask us to follow any old villanelle form, but rather to follow Bishop’s formal scheme in “One Art” exactly, paying close heed to all particular variations of intonation and structure. I spent a while mapping the poem, first for semantic meaning and resonance (here Vendler’s methods were especially crucial), after which I moved on to a phonetic and metrical analysis of “One Art.”

By the time I completed the project, I was in awe of the multiplicity of meanings that this poem carries. What seemed at first glance an enormously clever rendering of a philosophical commonplace about loss revealed itself to be a windswept, changeful sea of denotation. I saw the dark star in “disaster;” the “losing” loosening of “practice;” the wakes of massy vessels “filled with the intent / to be lost;” the notion that past places could return as visitations of what “it was you meant;” lapsed communities of “the hour badly spent,” the oceanic feeling of belonging to landscapes that overflows into a sense of ownership of “rivers, a continent;” a dark twinge of the inevitable disintegration of contentment that locates a frightening but also fertilizing and fructifying echo of (in)continence in the word “continent;” irresolvable, anxious doubts about one’s lover’s fidelity and one’s own ability to love in the “gesture” that may be as much a jester as “joking voice;” the awful struggles and sheer unfairness imposed on any woman attempting to become a—write it—“master” in an oppressively male-dominated literary world. We can all go on and on like this. That’s why Bishop’s great.

I have no memory of the poem I wrote for Henri’s assignment, and can’t find it in my files. My effort was likely technically adequate but rhetorically dull. I still haven’t mastered the difficult art of writing formal verse, and spend most of what writing time I have working with free and open forms. Nevertheless Henri’s assignment changed my life. I dashed to Lamont Library to check out whatever Bishop books I could find, and I soon discovered many Bishop poems that I now love even more than “One Art.” Last summer, my wife Cecily Iddings and I enjoyed the great privilege of studying and writing in the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Eleven years had passed since those early lessons in Henri’s workshop, and it felt like a kind of homecoming.


Chris Hosea was educated at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts MFA. His poems appear in 6x6, Swerve, Denver Quarterly, VOLT, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Wildlife, Eoagh, and Article: Art and the Imaginative Promise. He teaches high school English in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn. Visit his blog at:


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