Robert Boucheron: Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard

Boucheron recounts learning poetry from Bishop @ Talking Writing.

In the spring of 1973, I took Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry composition seminar at Harvard University.Admission was by writing sample, and enrollment was limited to ten. Most of the others were graduate students, while I was a college junior. I had written poems and stories since high school, and I had a vague notion to become a writer. Applying for and then taking the course would test that notion.Bishop was well known, though not the cult figure she is today. She had won many awards, most recently the National Book Award for Poetry in 1970. But her reticent style was unfashionable, and she was overshadowed by contemporary poets.

This was an era of confessional poetry, filled with seamy personal details. I read Bishop’s books in the deserted Poetry Room of Lamont Library, and I listened to one of her recordings there. As a fan of French cinema, I imagined her as glamorous, like the actress Catherine Deneuve.

 She turned out to be a stout woman of 62, dressed conservatively, her abundant gray hair neatly styled. Her voice was low and even. The effect was that of a genteel hostess, a respectable middle-class lady.

At the time, there was no writing program at Harvard. So far as I know, Bishop’s course was one of a kind. She also gave a course in modern poetry, as described by Dana Gioia in his essay “Studying with Miss Bishop.” She taught at Harvard from 1970 to 1977.

The seminar met twice a week in a windowless conference room in Holyoke Center, an administration building in Harvard Square. Completed in 1966, Holyoke Center was a Brutalist concrete highrise, at odds with the Georgian brick buildings of Harvard Yard across the street. We sat in padded swivel chairs at a large table with Bishop at the head. She was always on time, and she always came prepared.

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