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

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

To Teach by Helen Cannon

In a 1972 letter to Dr. Anny Bowman, Miss Bishop, teaching then as an ad hoc instructor at Harvard, writes, “Now I must get ready for the 2 p.m. seminar — look up all the words in the dictionary so that I’ll know them when the students don’t, & they’ll think I’m awfully smart.” (One Art 575)

This small note says a good deal about Bishop’s teaching methods and attitudes — pedagogy and philosophy that likely were classes outmoded even then and certainly would be now, but that I, as a teacher, take as model and reinforcement. In fact, what I know about Elizabeth Bishop as a teacher has served me during twelve years of my own teaching. Dana Gioia’s 1986 New Yorker tribute to Miss Bishop as his teacher and her own letters about her teaching have presented me with validation for my own outmoded pedagogy. Utah State University, where I teach literature and writing, is obviously not the Harvard where Bishop taught in the seventies, and I’m a far cry from “Miss Bishop,” yet I identify with her as teacher ever so strongly.

It was 1975 when Gioia registered for Harvard’s 285: Studies in Modern Poetry: Miss Elizabeth Bishop, Instructor. Bishop was then 65 and something of a novice at university teaching, having resisted it for years. This year I turn 60. I boast no titles or rank; I’ve come late to my profession — yet I believe I know some true things about teaching and recognize my teaching philosophy in what I can learn of Bishop’s method.

When Miss Bishop did reluctantly enter the academic stream, she was swimming against the current. And Gioia himself was in a backwater in signing up for this class, when others were crowding into seminars taught by Robert Lowell and by Northrop Frye, who was a visiting professor at Harvard for a year and whose lectures “drew audiences of nearly a thousand.”
By contrast, Bishop’s course enrollment, according to Gioia, started with eleven undergraduates and himself, the only graduate student in the class — until the second session when the original twelve “dwindle down to five.” His remembered enrollment sparseness may be open to question. In a 1972 letter, Bishop indicates she was anything but wanting for students. “About 40 people or more,” she writes “[are] trying to get into the writing class (of ten) and I think about 60 showed up for the ‘Modern Poetry’ one yesterday.” (One Art 573) Never very secure about how she would be received at Harvard, she had written in 1970 to Frani Blough Muser, “I had an awful thought …. ‘What if no one signs up for my two courses?’ …. I needn’t have worried — all the usual nuts and freaks seem to want to take ‘Advanced Verse Writing’.”  Then she continues in her self-mocking vein, “I’m the kind of teacher — when one polite boy gave me a Lily cup to put ashes in, I immediately set it on fire.” (One Art 532)

I find myself wondering how Elizabeth Bishop would conduct her classes and seminars now and how she would be received by contemporary students and associates. In 1975, according to Gioia, “Her manner was at odds with the academic glamour of Harvard, her conversation not designed to impress.” (90)

We have reason to believe — even given Bishop’s openness, awareness, and flexibility — that she would not align herself with postmodern camps of criticism, seeing every text as concealing some ideology. Would she capitulate to ponderous jargon in her teaching and criticism? Would she be caught up in critical issues of race, gender, and class?

The very questions I pose here reveal my own teaching biases, of course. As Helen Vendler (a critic Bishop admired and quoted) observes, “Every critical set of questions precludes another set of questions. Therefore, every insight requires a kind of blindness to other possibilities …. Every insight, in other words, is blind.”

My deconstruction of Gioia’s tribute and of Bishop’s own pedagogical observations about herself reflect my own biases as much as they may accurately show Bishop’s teaching methods or predict what might have been her stance in the postmodern nineties. The Miss Bishop I hold as model is, I realize, partly my own wishful construction, but her methods — real or imagined — as I employ them are still viable even today, when the very nature of teaching and learning seems to have dramatically changed.

How did she teach? I can only suggest, based on a student’s tribute and on her own casual and epistolary comments, the likelihoods.

A teacher’s methods reveal much of personality. Bishop as teacher could not be other than her courteous, unaffected, intelligent self. James Merrill described Bishop’s poetry as “more unaffectedly intelligent than any written in our lifetime.” That refusal of affectation spilled over into her teaching. Neither in her lines nor in her association or her teaching could she countenance sham, pretension, or pomp. Gioia remembers her first day seminar comments: “I’m not a very good teacher. So, to make sure you learn something in this class I am going to ask each of you to memorize at least ten lines a week from one of the poets we are reading.”  Eyebrows raised; eyes rolled upward. How démodé! How decidedly uncool! But as Gioia indicates, how effective!

Miss Bishop claimed to have little use for literary criticism then, and I postulate, would like its predilection for obtuseness even less today. In 1950 she wrote for John Ciardi’s Mid-Century American Poets anthology:

The analysis of poetry is growing more and more pretentious and deadly. After a session with a few highbrow magazines, one doesn’t want to look at a poem for weeks, much less start writing one …. This does not mean that I am opposed to all close analysis and criticism. But I am opposed to making poetry monstrous or boring and proceeding to talk the very life out of it. (267)

Gioia asserts that her attitudes had only hardened on this subject by the time he took her seminar. (95)

Still, I believe, she would be taking her students to the lines rather than sending them to the critics or to the surround, bent on unmasking the hegemonic and oppressive in every reading. Deconstruction, in terms of acknowledging what people bring to a text, would not, though, be foreign to her method — just not central to it. “Use the dictionary,” she advised. “It’s better than the critics.” (Gioia 91) As Gioia sees it in retrospect, Bishop “had no system, and her practice of close reading had little in common with the disciples of New Criticism …. Nor did she see poems in any historical perspective. Good poems existed for her in a sort of eternal present.” (90‒1) That is not to say the poems under consideration yielded little beyond Formalist analysis. She provided what I call gloss, taking time with a word or line because it reminded her of so many things — “wildflowers, New Jersey, the medical profession, modern painting,” making the passage “come alive through a brilliant, unexpected observation.” (93) Yet silly, speculative, far-afield notes she found anathema. She wrote to John Frederic, who was using some of her poems in a college textbook he was editing. To his planned footnotes, Bishop took strong exception:

I don’t think there should be ANY footnotes. You say the book is for college students, and I think anyone who gets as far as college should be able to use a dictionary. If a poem catches a student’s interest at all, he or she should damned well be able to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary. (I know they don’t — or most of them don’t — but they should be made to somehow …) ….‘Isinglass’ is in the dictionary; so is ‘gunnel’…; so is ‘thwarts’.” (One Art 638)

Certainly, Bishop examined form — concerned herself and her students with matters of rhythm and images — the music of the lines — but again, this was not by way of secondary analysis. One would-be poet, who inquired and met qualifications for Bishop’s reply, elicited an articulate statement of her beliefs about the teaching and writing of poetry. It’s a long, very giving, letter, but among other things, she reaffirms:

From what you say, I think perhaps you are actually trying too hard — or reading too much about and not enough poetry. Prosody — metrics — etc. are fascinating — but they all come afterwards, obviously. And I always ask my writing classes not to read criticism. (One Art 596)

What does she suggest to one who would write and understand? “Read a lot of poetry —all the time — and not [just] 20th-century poetry …. Then the great poets of our own century … — and not just 2 or 3 poems each… — read ALL of somebody. Then read his or her life and letters.” (596)

So, she suggests primary reading, thorough reading that transcends boundaries of our own time and place. She then adds that willpower and study alone can’t “do it.” A maverick in her time and at Harvard, she would be, I assert, a maverick teacher still,
at whatever learning institution.

She would take her teaching assignment very seriously, never becoming easeful or complacent at it — in fact seeing it as greater and greater responsibility. “I taught this last term and it seems to grow harder rather than easier.” (One Art 585) And in a postcard dated January 8, 1971, “I’ve been up to my neck in student papers, letters, etc. One boy has given me 280 poems, all apparently written within three months.” (One Art 539)

She obviously read these student efforts with the same care she would use in reading a Stevens poem, say, or Coleridge, or Auden; she took these novice works entirely seriously and commented on them much more than cursorily. Think of the time she must have taken with Gioia’s final paper (along with every other student essay that came in with it.) Gioia writes:

Flipping through my essay, I saw that every page had dozens of corrections, queries, deletions, and suggestions in Miss Bishop’s spidery hand. Some pages had obviously been worked over three times — once in blue ink, then in red, and finally in the proverbial blue pencil. In horror I began reading marginal comments like ‘Awful expression,’ ‘Unnecessary phrase,’ ‘A mouthful,’ ‘Not in the diction­ary’ — most of which were followed by and exclamation point, as was her ubiqui­tous and incontrovertible ‘No!’ An occasional ‘Better’ or ‘Yes’ (no excla­mation point) did little to revive my self-confidence. I had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Only then did I turn to the covering letter, which began:
            Dear Mr. Gioia,
           You’ll see that I have made many, many small marks and suggestions on your
paper, but this is really because it is very good, very well-expressed, and I’d just
like it to be even better-expressed, and here and there to read more smoothly. (98)

It doesn’t take much deduction to see Miss Bishop, the teacher, to have been reasonable, courteous, self-effacing, well-prepared, giving, disarmingly human, and at the same time stringent and exacting. “I should be writing that exam — I think I’ll make it terribly hard. One boy — young man, actually, 25, I think — told Alice [Methfessel] that my course was the hardest he’d ever taken! I was amazed — it seemed too easy to me.” (One Art 553)

And, clearly, she would align herself with no camps that were rigidly defined and exclusive rather than inclusive. When Ann Stanford proposed a women’s poetry anthology, Bishop wanted nothing to do with it: “WHY ‘Women in Literature’? No — it’s The Women Poets in English, I see, but still, WHY? Why not Men Poets in English? Don’t you see how silly it is? (One Art 549)

But then she gently cautioned May Swenson, to whom she was confiding:

(But please don’t tell Ann Stanford just how silly & wrong I feel it to be — and always have.  I am writing her a gentle note.) Literature is literature no matter who produces it …. I don’t like things compartmentalized like that …. but I wouldn’t want to say very much [to Ann] & perhaps make her uncomfortable with her project — so you see I’m no crusader. (549)

I try to keep myself abreast of current pedagogical theory. I realize that I am seldom a practitioner of the “democratized” class or of “decentralized” teaching. I hold in my mind the image of Miss Bishop (who did it her way); I realize that she was the center. However much she respected her students — however much she rejected the notion of tabula rasa, she also refused to mythologize the student as preeminent. Even while she acknowledged the validity of their experience and accepted them for being their unpredictable, independent and beautiful selves, she maintained her role as teacher. I want no better model; I want no theorist to teach me further. And my view of dying with my boots on finds analogue and appeal in Bishop’s teaching dedication to the last. I cannot ever read her last instructions without weeping and wishing.

Miss Bishop is in [hospital] & is very sorry she will be unable to meet her classes this week. She will meet them on Oct. 7th and 8th.
1.      Will English 285 continue please continue studying all the [Theodore] Roethke poems in the Norton Anthology.
2.      The list of students for English 582 will be posted here by noon on October 7th. In the meantime, please try to finish a ballad (at least 8 stanzas). It can rhyme a-b-c-b or a-b-a-b. (One Art 637)

Works Cited
Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters. Robert Giroux, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.
John Ciardi, Mid-Century American Poets. New York: Twayne, 1950.
Dana Gioia, “Studying with Miss Bishop,” The New Yorker (15 September 1986).
James Merrill, The New York Review of Books (6 December 1979), p. 6.
Helen Vendler, undated, unpublished taped interview, Anne Shifrer.
I met Helen Cannon in person the summer of 1997 when she visited Nova Scotia for the first time, though I had been in contact with her for some time before then. When we set up the EB100 blog for the centenary in 2011, Helen contributed a “First Encounter.” I am delighted to post her essay about how Bishop inspired her teaching, written many years ago, but shared with a wider audience only now. 

(Helen and Sandra on the steps of the EB House in 1997.
The house was then owned by Paul Tingley.
Photo by Anne Shifrer.)
Helen Cannon is an educator, reader, learner, and giver.  When she and Larry married, he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. She took classes there to complete requirements to graduate in English from Utah State University. After they returned to Logan for her husband’s job, Helen worked at the USU Herbarium before beginning a graduate program in English. She started as a graduate instructor in 1987, thus beginning her love for teaching. After the completion of her M.S. she began teaching full time in the English Department. With encouragement from a USU colleague, Helen created a new course that used the New Yorker magazine as textbook. She required her students to respond to items in the magazine as part of their learning to read as writers. Helen firmly believes that reading and writing go hand-in-hand, and she was thrilled in the delight her students took in their assignments. Helen’s teaching experience even inspired her to write a book, “Teaching with the New Yorker.” Her class was a resounding success. Many former students keep in touch with Helen and say that her New Yorker class was something they will never forget. Helen and Larry have given generously to many areas of the university, and established Honors Scholarships in their names. Aside from their time at the university, Larry and Helen make time to enjoy life in Cache Valley, their “soul home,” including hiking, cross-country skiing, and canoeing. Their favorite at-home time involves reading, alone, and aloud together. “There are too many books and never enough time.”

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