In the title of his notable 1991 Atlantic article, Dana Gioia asked the provocative question: “Can Poetry Matter?” That essay opened by positing that poetry in America had become “a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.” But Gioia also noted that despite this general-reader neglect, “What makes the situation of contemporary poets particularly surprising is that it comes at a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art. There have never before been so many new books of poetry published, so many anthologies or literary magazines.”
Gioia’s thoughtful inquiry touched on a number of contributing factors, but I remember responding at the time that, yes, we set the bar too low. Historically, there never had been — so how could there suddenly be — so many “noteworthy” poets? Had American poetry undergone a sort of inflation and become a devalued currency? As Gresham’s Law dictates," bad money drives out good".
Gioia‘s leading role in what came to be known as the New Formalist movement, which sought to reintroduce traditional poetic tools like rhyme and meter, as well as narrative, into practice, would suggest that he too felt that American poetry had become too lax. But he was never dogmatic, approaching form as reclaimed opportunity, not a necessity. To him it was also a liberating challenge; after all, as Pound, that free-verse pioneer, noted, “Beauty is difficult.“
Pound‘s dictum is a reminder that, even for the liberated, art is inseparable from a certain amount of pain. Craft is one approach to the situation, but certainly not the only one, and the question of how poetry can win the respect it once enjoyed remains open, haunting and protean.
Paradoxically, that, in retrospect, career-launching Atlantic piece attracted an outsized audience and an avalanche of reader comments. Even today, those attending Gioia’s readings will usually find themselves among an enthusiastic group. Gioia’s voice is richly reader-centric and readers reward this. Nevertheless, his ongoing critical forays are often still drawn to the marginalized corners of contemporary poetry, the un-gloried rear rather than avant-garde. In an empathetic 2018 First Things article on the neglected British Roman Catholic poet Elizabeth Jennings, whom Gioia “ranks among the finest British poets of the second half of the twentieth century,” he observes: “The sorrows of poets are legion and their failures commonplace.”
II. And a Look Further Back
Gioia’s vibrant new selection of literary memoirs, Studying with Miss Bishop, largely leaves those vexations behind in favor of warm personal sketches of a handful of poets and writers who mattered to Gioia in his formative 20s and 30s.
“Can Poetry Matter?” questioned the efficacy of the creative writing “workshop” model. Studying with Miss Bishop simply brushes that question aside by taking the reader inside the in effect “master” classes Gioia attended at Harvard in the 1970s, taught by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald. Although Gioia and many of his fellow graduate students were would-be writers, neither class was designated as “Creative Writing.” Bishop’s course was “Studies in Modern Poetry” and Fitzgerald’s “The History of English Versification,” along with a follow up “Comparative Literature.” But in the process of teaching the work of others both luminaries personally radiated and imparted subtleties of craft that one senses would have been smothered by workshop group-think and performance angst.
When Fitzgerald assigned writing exercises to his students, he admonished that he didn’t expect poetry, simply verse. And this liberated the budding poets to concentrate on craft. Gioia notes that his “Comparative Literature” seminar “examined the Odyssey, Aeneid, and Inferno with the requirement that students be able to read at least two of the poems in the original.” This kept the initial enrollment to only four students. (Gioia had Catholic high school Latin and some undergraduate Italian.) But Fitzgerald seemed less interested in their proficiency than in their willingness to explore the intricacies of the originals. And his collegiality was evident from the first day in class:
No Greek mariners ever succumbed more quickly to a Siren’s song than we to Fitzgerald’s tutelage. To our public embarrassment but private delight, he treated us as equals. (When asked by a student to sign a copy of his Odyssey, Fitzgerald inscribed it, “For____, fellow student of Homer”).
This from, arguably, Homer’s most eloquent 20th century translator. That mingling of awe and fellowship is underlined by the exactness of Gioia’s recollections, as when he describes Fitzgerald’s “sometimes even taking a small pull of his cigarette as he formulated his exact words.”
Bishop was another noted classroom smoker, as pictured on the book’s cover, but she was a somewhat more aloof figure. Gioia recalls the class arranging itself “randomly around a huge, scratched table, at one end of which — prim, impeccably coiffured, and smoking — sat Miss Elizabeth Bishop.” In critiquing Gioia’s “opus magnum,” a class paper on George Trakl, she marked “every page” with
dozens of corrections, queries, deletions and suggestions in [her] spidery hand. Some pages had 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 an exclamation point.
Yet her covering letter provided crucial context:
Dear Mr. Gioia:
You’ll see 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.
There’s a disarming lack of polemic or argument in these pieces, аs well as a revealing specificity. Gioia remembers Bishop singling out phrases from her friend Robert Lowell’s Life Studies for special attention:
That’s how I threw cold water
on my Mother and Father’s
watery martini pipe dreams at Sunday dinner.
my Great Aunt Sarah
was learning Samson and Delilah
She thundered on the keyboard of her dummy piano
with gauze curtains like a boudoir table.
Did Gioia retain his grad student notebook to enable him to relate these emphases? Or is he relying on memory? In either case, it is a touching homage to Bishop’s unique teaching style.
III. A Visit from Mr. Cheever
No one ever dies in his own memoirs...
— Dana Gioia "My Secret Life" (from Daily Horoscope)
I’ve reached a bittersweet age where, in the depths of 2020 lockdown, late-life literary memoirs by three old friends arrived within weeks of each other. Of the three, Gioia’s was the least self-referential and the most engaging. Unsurprisingly so, I think, because if memoir is a sub-genre of travelog then the traveler is ideally just a secondary presence. It is to the book’s credit that it prompted my own recollections of the periods it traverses. And that I find myself silently conversing with him as I read.
In the mid-1970s, the 20-something Gioia opted to take a practical approach to earning a living by leaving the PhD path he was on at Harvard and enrolling in Stanford’s MBA program. This is when we first met, introduced by a mutual friend who owned a used bookstore in Palo Alto. At the time I managed a bank auto-loan department, and our friend Walter was a small businessman of sorts. But I can’t remember any of the three of us ever talking about business in any serious sense. What I do remember are almost always energetic conversations about poetry and literature. These were, at least in memory, notably devoid of the cliquishness and envies that still mark so much of the Bay Area literary scene.
I’m sure Dana did well in his MBA classes, but where he excelled in my eyes was in extra-curricular activities like co-editing Stanford’s literary magazine, Sequoia. And one of the most resonant sections of his memoir covers the week in 1976 he spent shepherding John Cheever around campus. Cheever was an only accidental literary guest — the main purpose of his visit was to accompany his son and help choose a college. But for Gioia, who was “intoxicated by the news of Cheever’s visit,” and the Sequoia staff, the opportunity was not to be lost. They provided due literary courtesies. Still, there’s a marked overhang of sadness in the Cheever chapter that contrasts with Gioia’s sunny Harvard memories. It in fact marks a midway turn in the book, leading to equally somber sketches of the creative decline of James Dickey and the death of the virtually unknown Floridian poet Ronald Perry.
The final section of Studying with Miss Bishop is an interview with Cheever that originally ran in Sequoia. That means that a total of 46 pages — approximately a quarter of the book — are devoted to Cheever. This is the material that I return to most often, as much for the beckoning fertility of the byways it discreetly avoids as from the richness of what’s said.
On the surface, the focus of the sadness is the twilight of Cheever’s career. He was, in Gioia’s words, at “the nadir of [his] literary reputation” in 1976, which was “nowhere lower than among the radical chic of Northern California who did not spare him their most obscene epithets — elitist, Eastern, suburban, and (lips tightening to a sneer) middle class.”
Those familiar with Gioia will recognize his ironic smile. The first section of Gioia’s 1986 collection of poems Daily Horoscope ends with a longish piece titled “In Cheever Country,” which eulogizes those very aspects of New York exurban commuter life:
The town names stenciled on the platform signs
Clear Haven, Bullet Park, and Shady Hill —
show that developers at least believe in poetry
if only as a talisman against the commonplace
There always seems so much to guard against.
In his encounters with Cheever, Gioia was edified by “John’s belief that a real writer could and indeed should lead an ordinary life […]have a family and a job […] could even live in a suburb. His marriage, children, home, all the ordinary elements of everyday life were immensely important to him.” Gioia also observed that, in the aftermath of Cheever’s collapse and recent “confinement in an alcoholic rehabilitation center,” he “exuded the aura of joy and serenity that people acquire after a religious conversion or recovery from deadly illness. Cheever had been resurrected from the dead.”
The chapter follows a frail and physically damaged but spiritually “serene” Cheever through a week of events. He was only 63 and the 25-year-old Gioia thought he looked even younger. He would die of cancer some six and a half years later. In that handful of years, as Gioia notes, Cheever’s literary capital was to take an unexpected bounce with a best-selling novel and an equally best-selling Collected Stories, as well as a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors. But in light of Gioia’s recollections, all that soon to come praise and glory seem more an evocation of Yeats’s “speed the parting guest” than a career renewal.
And I find myself wondering if Cheever may have been mulling another kind of literary legacy.
It was in late 1979, but obviously after long thought, that he asked his son Benjamin to read his private journals with the thought that they might be published — but not until after his death. Benjamin read the journals and found that “it wasn’t fun.” The person who emerged “was not the witty, charming man” he knew:
The material was downbeat and often mean-spirited. There was a lot about homosexuality. I didn’t quite get it, or maybe I didn’t want to get it. I was also surprised at how little I appeared in the text. I was surprised at how little any of us appeared, except perhaps my mother, who was not getting the sort of treatment that leads one to crave the limelight.
Benjamin’s introduction to the abridged edition of The Journals of John Cheever quotes his father as saying, “I’m a brand name […] like corn flakes, or shredded wheat.” The publication of the Journals feels something like a posthumous Molotov cocktail tossed by the Chekhov of the Suburbs. Benjamin writes that while his father
seemed to enjoy this status. He must have suspected that the publication of the journals would alter it. Few people knew of his bisexuality. Very few people knew the extent of his infidelities. And almost nobody could have anticipated the apparent desperation of his inner life, or the caustic nature of his vision. But I don’t think he cared terribly about being corn flakes. He was a writer before he was a breakfast food. He was a writer almost before he was a man.
If the Journals were the bursting explosive, Cheever’s last major novel, Falconer, which drew on his two years in the early ’70s volunteering to teach writing at Sing Sing in a futile attempt to divert himself from the bottle, was a sizzling fuse. It was Cheever’s own prison break “sneer” at the patrician image the lonely, impoverished high school dropout had so assiduously constructed. He was busily writing Falconer when he visited Stanford.
Gioia notes that “in retrospect, given what we now know about Cheever’s personal failings, his craving and esteem for these primal human connections has a tragic quality. I did not realize then how bitterly and briefly won these quotidian consolations had been for him.” Cheever may have lamented the messiness and inevitable marital strains, but I don’t get the impression from the Journals that he ultimately considered his energetic pansexuality a “personal failing.” He stayed sober after finally drying out in 1975, but reportedly continued his opportunistic sexual hijinks.
His Journals are indeed rife with praise for the consolations of ordinary suburban life. But then somewhere in mid-life, he says: “I was born into no true class, and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.”
For Gioia it was refreshing to have Cheever assure him that a writer could have it both ways. But in a 2009 Guardian article Geoff Dyer quotes Cheever’s Journals on another aspect of his duality:
A “hint of aberrant carnality” is never far away. Entire landscapes, however idyllic-seeming, become coded expressions of longings and dread: “The morning light is gold as money and pours in the eastern windows. But it is the shadow that is exciting, the light that cannot be defined.” As the years pass the message becomes steadily more explicit, unavoidable. On Easter Sunday 1968, thoughts of “life everlasting” are interrupted by intimations of obscenity: “All those cocks and balls drawn on toilet walls are not the product of perverse frustrations. Some of them are high-hearted signs of good cheer.”
I think the almost lost transcript of the 1976 Sequoia interview that Gioia tracked down might supply a good interjection here in Cheever’s own words:
[F]iction is not crypto-autobiography: its splendor is that it is not autobiographical. Nor is it biographical. It is a very rich complex of autobiography and biography, of information — factual information, spiritual information, apprehension. It is the bringing together of disparate elements into something that corresponds to an aesthetic, a moral sense of fitness. I feel very strongly about the splendors of the imagination.
I suspect Gioia and I look to Cheever with dissimilar appreciations — not entirely, but in the way people will prefer, say, various aspects of Shakespeare or Beethoven. There are artists who defy a unified field theory. Moreover, his Cheever chapter had its genesis in a 1986 Hudson Review article, and expanding that near contemporary account too much would have negated its freshness. It’s a tribute to the discipline of Gioia’s unspeculative but resonant recollections that the silent complexity of a unique human being still haunts this chapter so many decades hence. Nothing in Gioia’s moving impressions contradicts any of Cheever’s contradictions. Nor does he foreclose the thought that the deepest literary art takes root in darkness, nourished in murky soils. Along these lines, Gioia describes Cheever choppily reading from his 1960 story “The Death of Justina,” quoting:
On Saturday the doctor told me to stop smoking and drinking and I did. I won’t go into the commonplace symptoms of withdrawal but I would like to point out that, standing at my window in the evening, watching the brilliant afterlight and the spread of darkness, I felt, through the lack of these humble stimulants, the force of some primitive memory in which the coming of the night with its stars and its moon was apocalyptic. I thought suddenly of the neglected graves of my three brothers on the mountainside and that death is a loneliness much crueler than any loneliness hinted at in life. The soul (I thought) does not leave the body but lingers with it through every degrading stage of decomposition and neglect, through heat, through cold, through the long winter nights when no one comes with a wreath or a plant and no one says a prayer.
In that story’s opening paragraph, which immediately precedes the one above, the narrator sets the tone by warning the reader: “Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) …” “The Death of Justina” is, of course, fiction — fabulist, satiric, inimitably Cheeveresque fiction, and reportedly one of his favorite pieces, maybe because it was rejected by The New Yorker as, in his words, “over-intense.” But in choosing that quote, I think Gioia might be implicitly calling to our attention that, despite being neither rhymed nor particularly cadenced, this passage is poetry. Its musicality isn't overt, but it stirs receptors akin to those that music does and comes seemingly unbidden from somewhere both innately skilled and helpless. What it says can’t be paraphrased in any other way.
In the late-’70s HarperAudio version read by Cheever, he didn’t cough, but does recite those lines a little too quickly, almost as if to downplay and divert the listener from a slightly embarrassed vulnerability. But the torn band-aid, the anxious wound are essential. They make “The Death of Justina” sui generis. To again misappropriate Yeats (who seems to have a quote, or misquote, for everything worth thinking about), the stories and poetry that most matter, that simply have to be read because they had to be written, mostly begin “where all the ladders start, in the […] rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Art Beck is a poet, essayist, and translator with a number of university and small press journal credits, as well as volumes of both original poetry and translations from the late 1970s onward. His Opera Omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone — versions of the sixth-century CE North African Roman poet Luxorius, published by Otis Books — won the 2013 Northern California Book Award for translated poetry. Mea Roma, a 130-some poem “meditative sampling” of Martial’s epigrams was published by Shearsman Books in 2018. His Etudes, a Rilke Recital appeared from Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020 and was one of three finalists in the 2021 Northern Caifornia Book Award for translated poetry.