NOVEMBER 8, 2017
DAVID BIESPIEL IS a Portland-based poet and critic with roots in Boston, Houston, Iowa, and Ukraine. The award-winning author of five collections of poetry, Biespiel is a prolific critic who is a regular contributor to The Rumpus and had a long-running column in the Oregonian. From the dense expressionism of his early poetry to the wry, intimate connections he makes between individual Americans and forgotten moments in our landscape and history in his latest collection, Biespiel’s poetry has always been concerned with rhythm, form, and sensuality. His criticism, some of which was recently collected in the volume A Long High Whistle (2015), is passionate, erudite, and refreshingly accessible. Now, The Education of a Young Poet, a memoir about Biespiel’s early life in poetry — his journey toward the art and practice of poetry — has recently been released by Counterpoint Press.
In short, fragmented chapters that move around in time, Biespiel recounts pivotal experiences in his early life and the lives of some of his ancestors, revisiting the places where he discovered poetry, where the impulse to be a poet and learn the work of poetry occurred. The book begins with the arrival of Biespiel’s great-grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from present-day Ukraine, to a tiny town in Iowa. Solitude is an important theme in the book as are the joys and distractions of community, and Biespiel introduces them here by imagining his great-grandfather’s loneliness as he waits 10 years for the arrival of his wife and children, who are stuck in Europe after the Russian Revolution. Biespiel’s grandfather is a teenager when the family is reunited, and imagining his struggles with the English language allows Biespiel to introduce another important theme — the search for meaning and the pleasures of that search, however elusive. “Why should things be easy to understand?” Biespiel has his grandfather wonder as he listens to this new language, which Biespiel imagines sounding like a “loud chime in a silent house […] ‘Not every puzzle is intended to be solved.’”
Biespiel then moves to his college years in Boston in the ’80s, where we see the deepening of his political and cultural interests, his growing embrace of liberalism and the literary world. His early life in Houston is, at first, a mystery — like many writers who come from the suburbs, Biespiel seems to have some regrets about his origins, which, in his case, included athletics (he was a competitive diver in high school and college). But he eventually returns to fill in some of the gaps, especially the story of his father, who suffered an aneurysm when Biespiel was 12 and never fully recovered his ability to speak, accelerating Biespiel’s awareness of the powers and mysteries of language — what it can do and what it can’t, what it reveals and what it hides. “I was given,” he says of his attempts to communicate with his father afterward, “an opportunity to learn that the unknowable must be comprehended every day.” Tragic, no doubt, but also fertile ground for poetry.
After this, the book moves back and forth between Boston and Houston, interrogating further experiences in Biespiel’s childhood and early adulthood — a recurrent childhood dream, an inspirational Latin teacher, a transformational drive across the country — for what they contributed to his formation as a poet. He finally ends up in a solitary house in a small town in Vermont where he’s gone to teach high school and compose what will be his first published poems.
Along the way, with that capacious energy of the best American writing, Biespiel chronicles a range of seemingly disconnected things — screaming nighthawks, Boston bookstores, the Roman poet Catullus — all of which teach him something about poetry and show us some of his talents on the page. At times, his prose is reminiscent of the Beats, which is a little odd since he’s writing about the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s a good way to express the wonder of breaking out into the larger American landscape.
In his short, brilliant meditation The Hatred of Poetry (2016), Ben Lerner talks about thinking, when he was younger, that poetry looked better when it was quoted in prose, and Biespiel does some of that here — weaving lines and couplets into youthful scenes of friendship and discovery, which gives us a palpable sense of how poetry existed in his early life. Biespiel also memorializes some of the poets who were influential in his development by quoting them at length — Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Bly, Rich, and Creeley (among others), but especially Whitman, whose democratic ideals and sense of civic duty are key for Biespiel. Unfortunately, the book is over-rich with these quotes, which can be distracting. The demands of reading poetry are different from the demands of reading prose, and it’s difficult, at times, to make the switch.
The book is comprised of 17 short chapters, and many of them are dense with poetic prose. Biespiel writes well about people and places — his Latin teacher, his diving coaches, the Midwest, a semi driver in Montana. His language is often expressionistic, with the unexpected word choice and syntax of poetry. A girl sits down to seduce him, and “her exposition was tender.” A group of friends smoking hash at a wedding party “became suspended and unfolded and iridescent.” About his father, after the aneurysm, he says, “Words blew out of his mouth like ash.” Above all, Biespiel loves metaphors, and his metaphors are often memorable because he doesn’t just make them, he dives in and flushes them out. As a result, a number of scenes flow breathlessly across the page: an intimate but confusing encounter with a girl who’s been reading too much Derrida and is talking, but not really to him; a sweet riff on the pleasures of hanging out with friends and testing out your voice as a young person, a riff in which Biespiel gives us a taste of what that really sounds like — it’s spot on.
In one of the book’s best chapters, Biespiel is in training in Florida, for what will be his last diving competition, but he’s more interested in the letters he’s secretly writing to a girl in Boston. Writing seems tense, fraught, impossible, but also increasingly compelling, and he cautiously moves toward it by parsing out the similarities between diving and writing. Both involve a great deal of preparation; both involve time under water, out of sight, in some murky world of the unconscious; both carry a high risk of failure; in both, despite your training, you’re always starting over. Diving also reminds us of the primal story of his family’s arrival in Iowa: “[B]ounding off the three meter diving board or leaping from the ten meter platform is like entering the foreign language of the air. You learn its accents, you figure out its currency, you develop the cadences of a native, but you are always a foreigner.” When he tells his coach during a discussion of an upcoming dive, “I’m just going to figure it out in the air,” we know the shift — to poetry, to solitude — has occurred.
I’ve long been interested in writers, like W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, and Elena Ferrante, who inhabit that nebulous area between fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve recently been reading some contemporary authors who are experimenting with the boundaries between poetry and prose — writers like Maggie Nelson, Rivka Galchen, and Claudia Rankine. I like how you can trace, in Nelson and Rankine in particular, the way the writing shifts from poetry to prose and how the resulting text interacts with the fragmented structures that contain it. I started thinking of these as the “little” books since they are mostly short and fragmented, a strategy that seems apt for the distracted times in which we’re living and the genre-shifting possibilities these writers are exploring. Biespiel, I knew, had experimented with poetic form, including the sonnet and epistolary poetry, so when I opened The Education of a Young Poet and saw the short, fragmented chapters and the dense, poetic writing, I felt like I’d found another writer who had jumped into the fray.
But the writing in the “little” books is, for the most part, consistent, which gives readers a sense of cohesion despite the structural fragmentation, whereas Biespiel moves uneasily among several disconnected forms — poetic prose, personal narrative, and an awkward strand of magic realism. One form gives way to another, often within the same section, in a way that can be inexplicably abrupt. Poetic prose is sometimes followed by a looser narrative, which looks shabby in comparison. Symptomatically, Biespiel overuses transitions like “suddenly” and makes unnatural juxtapositions that might work better if he were writing poetry.
About the magic realism: When he writes about his family’s arrival in Iowa, and in several other sections of the book, Biespiel imagines that he is there with them; he and his grandfather sometimes float around like figures (as he says) from Chagall. There is a poetic truth to this, of course. By placing himself alongside his ancestors, Biespiel expresses his longing for a connection to the past, for someone to witness his solitary quest “to uncover, to recover, what the words are hiding,” for, perhaps, a father figure. He’s also playing with the idea of epigenetics, the idea, most recently explored in the television series Transparent, that you can inherit trauma from your ancestors. I have a lot of sympathy with this notion, but it’s never clear if Biespiel is inventing his ancestors’ thoughts or sharing family stories, and the way the magic realism interacts with the more poetic and narrative moments in the memoir is, for me, at least, unconvincing.
It’s hard to blend genres, tricky to risk fragmentation, and Biespiel’s failure to bring the strands of his text together in an organic way speaks to the challenges of hybridization. The strongest sections of The Education of a Young Poet convey a sense of mystery, suggest unexpected connections, evoke emotional riches the language does not directly express, all of which are important characteristics of poetry. Biespiel may have given it up a long time ago, but he still likes to dive, is still entranced by the murky world beneath the surface, would rather be searching than to have found, and in that sense, I think, he’s more a poet than a memoirist.
Lisa Fetchko has published essays, fiction, reviews, and translations in a variety of publications, including Ploughshares, n+1, AGNI, and Bookforum. She teaches at Mount Saint Mary’s and Orange Coast College.