Studying with Miss Bishop

Studying with Miss Bishop

Memoirs from a Young Writer's Life

Why did I read this?

I was fascinated with Dana Gioia's conversation with Tyler Cowen: Dana Gioia on Becoming an Information Billionaire (Ep. 119) | Conversations with Tyler

A short little book and what a jewel of a memoir. Dana Gioia is a clear communicator who writes with vibrance, richness, and always tenderness.

What concepts were explored?

poetry, writing, art, death, literature, addiction


On teaching poetry <p 56>

...the medium was the message. One did not interpret poetry; one experienced it. One needed only intelligence, intuition, and a good dictionary. There was no subtext, only the text...observation to analysis, and poems to poetry.

On becoming a better writer <p 77>

You cannot learn to write by reading English. - Ezra Pound

The context of this statement is with respect to poetry, " often poetic innovation in English resulted from borrowing an established convention from Latin, French, or Italian", but I think it applies to great writing in general. Even reading good translations of foreign authors will expand one's vocabulary.

On the "unsayable" quality of art <p 80>

What we apprehend in art, therefore, is always greater than what we understand. - Dana Gioia

The contemporary poet David Whyte remarked on this recently. He wrote down a line of poetry that was so deep he had to reread it three times before he understood it himself.

We approach art not only with our intellect, but also with our imagination, intuition, and physical senses. - Dana Gioia

On addiction

I was touched by how Dana treated John Cheever, who was an alcoholic. He pointed out that John had no romantic delusions that drinking was fate's price for his poetic soul, and readily acknowledged that alcohol was a destructive addiction he had painfully overcome.

With all the poets described in this book Dana navigates the delicate waters of truth and admiration. One feels like they know these individuals, their brilliance and their faults. He humanizes them with dignity and respect, but not without honesty and critique. True criticism though, the kind born from a place of love and a sincere desire to do better. Flatteries and pandering are inward looking, seeking to get rather than give. To tear down rather than build up. How much more difficult is the latter, and how much more honorable. <see also pages 125-126>

On meeting your heroes <p 118>

This book complicates the tried and true advice, "Never meet your heroes." While it reaffirms its accuracy, it also introduces in Dana a kind and generous soul who goes out of his way to help and support these great and flawed humans. And the lessons he carries away to share with the rest us through his writing and poetry have enriched mankind.—Because Dana told the truth.

Criticism should be a conversation about the experience of reading a literary work. - Dana Gioia
Our relation to a book—like most other things in life—is usually mixed. - Dana Gioia

On ambiguity <p 136>

Ambiguity is a dangerous technique in poetry. When it works, it can create a mysterious and haunting atmosphere, a sense that the ultimate meaning lies just out of reach. When it fails, it results in pretense and obscurity.

On fiction <p 168>

...fiction is our most intimate and acute means of communication, at a profound level, about out deepest apprehensions and intuitions on the meaning of life and death. And that is what binds us together, young and old. - John Cheever

On death

The chapter "Letters from the Bahamas" on Ronald Perry was a beautiful tribute and reflection on death.

Death settles most things. It also sets new events in motion. - Dana Gioia
Keeping the memory of the departed alive is an expression of love or esteem; it is also a means of deflecting our own eventual oblivion. - Dana Gioia
Remembrance is our métier. After all, our Muse is the daughter of Memory. - Dana Gioia

On reading James Joyce. Particularly Dubliners <p 173>

When one reads James, one has to sacrifice the cadence of one's own introspection. - John Cheever

On literature

...literature is our only continuous history of man's struggle to be illustrious and remains out most intimate and acute means of communication. - John Cheever

My recommendation


Dana's world was expanded and enriched by his interest in and exploration of poetry, and especially by those who made it their craft. Poetry is creativity fashioned and embodied in words, but it is also language, thought, intelligence, understanding, philosophy, joy, and despair. Poetry transcends both the author and the audience. It is greater than ourselves.