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

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Beach on Gioia ... with Bishop

It has been some time since the last post, but I am delighted to share a review done for us by our correspondent in Tacoma, Washington, who also happens to be the newest member of the EBSNS. It is a delight to be able to offer something so substantial, after a lengthy hiatus. Happy Spring!


On Leading Literary Lives: A Review of Dana Gioia’s Studying with Miss Bishop

By Tristan Beach

Gioia, Dana.
Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writers Life. Paul Dry Books, 2021. 186 Pages.

Every reader has two lives—one public, the other secret. The public life is the one visible to teachers, friends, and families… But every true reader has a secret life, which is equally intense, complex, and important. The books we read are no different from the people we meet or the cities we visit. —Dana Gioia 

So begins “Lonely Impulse of Delight,” the first essay of Dana Gioia’s witty and sagacious memoir collection, Studying with Miss Bishop. Throughout the book, Gioia presents “portraits” of important “teachers” in his growth from reader to college student to rising ad executive enmeshed in a secretive literary life. These teachers loom grand yet kind (Robert Fitzgerald), polite yet frank (Elizabeth Bishop), troubled yet authentic (John Cheever), and intimidating yet human (James Dickey). The more obscure, but arguably most important teachers, neither of whom Gioia had ever met, bookend the collection. And each teacher provides Gioia with important examples of how to read, how to write—how to critique writing and talk about it—and how to live one’s life resolutely on one’s own terms.


Gioia’s first great literary teacher was his Mexican uncle, Ted Ortiz, a Merchant Marine and “proletarian intellectual” who died in a plane crash when Gioia was only six. Gioia never knew his uncle but nonetheless inherited his vast library. As Gioia relates, this library of numerous authors, painters, poets, philosophers, and composers presented a gateway to a wonderous, reading-fueled inner life that laid the foundation for his literary pursuits. However, Gioia’s upbringing in a working-class Sicilian/Mexican immigrant community in Hawthorne, CA, contextualizes much of his enduring efforts to lead both a public life—one of material prosperity—and a secret literary life—as a future revolutionary figure in contemporary poetry.

He writes, “By the standards of Hawthorne, a rough and ugly industrial town, my love of books was clearly excessive, indeed almost shameful… I needed to hide it, if only to keep it pure. A private passion is free from public pressure.” Presenting, candidly, this double life to the reader complicates Gioia, the literary giant—while paradoxically deepening the reader’s sense of relation. This sense of relation perhaps speaks to the strangeness and the loneliness of literary life, especially one lived in secret. Gioia acknowledges that those of us who pursue such beautiful lives as these will typically hide from shame or out of self-preservation.

Gioia’s upbringing also influenced his resistance to treading the same narrow paths many of his Harvard classmates embraced in the 1970s. In the preface he writes, “The professions we enter change the ways in which we look at the world and ourselves. I recognized my sense of being a poet was changing in ways alien to my sense of the art, which was neither cerebral nor elitist. I didn’t want to write in ways that excluded people, especially the people I came from. … I wanted my poems to be moving, memorable, and accessible.” To him, Harvard “was training me to be a research university professor of literature”—and not the poet he wanted to be. Thus, he left the academic world of literature to “figure things out on [his] own” and returned to Stanford, his undergraduate alma mater, eventually achieving an MBA and embarking on a new path in business. He followed the examples of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, both of whom juggled business and writing throughout their lives.

 However, Gioia was more immediately and directly encouraged through his numerous encounters at Harvard with Robert Fitzgerald, related in “Remembering Robert Fitzgerald,” who had already led a literary life prior to academia. While at Stanford, Gioia’s interactions with John Cheever, as related in “A Week with John Cheever,” left a deep impression on him: Cheever had never attended college, but was held in high esteem, especially following his late career resurgence. Yet among these examples that informed and affirmed Gioia’s resolve in cutting his own path, his tutelage under Elizabeth Bishop is probably the most surprising.


Although she graces the cover (and title) of this collection of memoirs, Elizabeth Bishop’s “portrait,” which was previously published in The New Yorker, in 1986, constitutes fewer pages than expected. However, her presence carries throughout, and Gioia’s experiences in her classroom provide rare insight into a side of the late poet that few readers glimpse—Bishop, the teacher.

 Early in her modern poetry class, Bishop matter-of-factly states, “I’m not a very good teacher.” This disarming frankness in admitting one’s shortcomings is enough to sour many people’s confidence. Thus, by the second day of class, the roster had dwindled to five students, Gioia still among them. Yet, Gioia’s description of Bishop’s personality and pedagogy feel surprisingly progressive. He characterizes her as “politely formal, shy, and undramatic… She wanted no worshipful circle of students and got none.” At the same time, his first encounter with the poet, whom he had known only through her books (and he had read them all), is palpable, even strange: “It was an odd, almost uncomfortable sensation to have the perfect world of books peer so casually into the disorder of everyday life.”

In the essay, Gioia describes Bishop teaching her students to love and find pleasure in reading poetry through memorization, recital, discussion, and reading closely—for effect and craft versus critical analysis. Bishop focused more on accessing poets such as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Lowell as humans laboring to produce works of the soul. This was a far cry from the rigorous, unsparing critiquing that Gioia had previously encountered. Bishop’s approach greatly appealed to Gioia’s own sense of writing for readers—rather than critics. And his respect for her sincere humility as well as her life outside of the academic establishment (beginning teaching at 60) further provided important examples for Gioia as a writer at a crossroads, in 1975. Gioia’s essay provides a wry, luminous, and unadorned portrait of Bishop.


Possibly the most affecting essay of the collection, “Letters from the Bahamas: Memoir of a Poet I never Met,” pays tribute to and preserves the memory of Ronald Perry, whom Gioia describes as “a forgotten poet.” Gioia first encountered Perry through his poetry, reviewing Perry’s National Poetry Series-winning collection, Denizens. Gioia describes the book as “technically brilliant” and “surprising,” as the ambiguous, sensual poems that comprise the collection engage the reader, leading through uncertain and unexpected turns. In reviewing Perry’s book, Gioia accidentally began a prolific correspondence with an obscure yet extremely generous and intelligent friend. Perry’s presence in the final essay of the book casts a long shadow over the rest. On the day the two were scheduled to meet in New York, in 1982, Gioia was informed that Perry had suddenly and mysteriously passed away the night before.

 As the essay continues, Gioia relates biographical information about Perry, detailing his upbringing, his literary struggles, and his own double life as a poet. Being outside of the academy, Perry was unconnected from most literary circles. Among his handful of independently published pamphlets, he had produced two full collections of poetry, spaced twenty-one years apart. The latter collection, Denizens, subsequently revitalized his career for a short time and connected him with other contemporary writers and critics, including Gioia. Yet his death cut short what might have been.

 The lesson that Perry imparted is not lost on Gioia, who admits that his literary career, like Wallace Stevens’s before him, “had been marked by silences,” stating that by the time he encountered Perry, he had been “[living] in the future tense.” His brief friendship cut short, Gioia resolved to make a change—“I, who had so carefully avoided human drama, found myself in the midst of one.” Practically overnight, Gioia joined a small number of Perry’s friends, including the poet Donald Justice, in working to preserve and sustain Perry’s literary legacy.

 By Way of Conclusion

If there is an arc in Studying with Miss Bishop—a book written over the span of decades and published, at last, in the 21st century—it is an arc of agency, of taking the reins of one’s life and participating in the lives of others. As the book is organized chronologically, Gioia begins modestly as an introspective and curious child, a receiver of a vast treasure trove of literature. He progresses into adulthood, encountering teachers and mentors, and critics—adapting to circumstance while building his own literary life. In the final essay, we observe Gioia taking part in managing Perry’s affairs, connecting mutual friends together, and celebrating the deceased poet’s gift to the world: poems, letters, and confessions now sitting “undisturbed in boxes in the University of Miami library.”

 Amid this tragedy, Gioia reveals a sobering maturity, recognizing the frustrating blocks, long silences, and quiet, constant defeats of literary life—whether lived solely or in secret. He remarks that literary life is “a fragile existence made tolerable, sometimes even redeemed, by the intoxication of creation and the intensity of literary friendship.” By framing his literary teachers and forebearers in “portraits,” Gioia presents a collective mirror of himself and his experiences, reflecting candid, firsthand lessons and inviting his readers to commune within a richly storied, multidimensional inner life, revealed.


Tristan Beach is a student in the PhD in English program (Rhetoric and Composition emphasis) at the University of Nevada, Reno (beginning Fall 2021). He is an English lecturer at Saint Martin’s University, in Washington state, and has taught college EFL across China, 2014–2017. He received his MFA in Poetry from Goddard College in 2013. Tristan is also the Poetry Editor of Pif Magazine and was recently elected to Olympia Poetry Network’s board of directors. His poems, creative nonfiction, and commentary appear in Pitkin Review, rawboned, Pif Magazine, The Writer in the World, and Shantih. He frequently collaborates with other writers in the Olympia-Tacoma-Seattle area.