Rene Steinke: On Elizabeth Bishop, Teaching, and “A Perfectly Useless Concentration”

Rene Steinke

The year after college, when I first decided to try to be a writer, I lived in a dank basement apartment with industrial carpeting and cement walls. The basement was beneath a grand, Victorian house, inhabited by an elderly woman who left me written invitations to tea, which I felt obligated to accept, though conversations with her were long and tedious. In one room of the apartment, there was a mattress on the floor and a card table with two folding chairs. In the other, there was an old door set on top of cinder blocks, my desk. When I looked up from my chair, across from me, there was a narrow, rectangular window fringed from the green lawn outside. This desk was where I first read Elizabeth Bishop’s complete collection of poems, which I opened and read every single day before I began to write.

I was flailing around then, unsure of my strengths, painfully aware of my weaknesses. I’d been an A student in college, and I had the temperament of a perfectionist, but as soon as I started to write seriously, I could tell I was doomed to just fail and fail for what might be a very long time (maybe forever). I was younger than most of my peers in graduate school, and much more naive, and the only way I knew to get better was to try harder, though I didn’t know yet really, how to try, or where to put my energies.

No one advised me to read Bishop every day. It was a superstitious practice I stumbled into, and it helped me to get words down on the page at a time when I was terrified by the critical eye of my famous professor and the other students in my MFA workshop. In that precarious year, Bishop, through her poetry and prose, became a kind of mentor. Reading her words somehow gave me permission to write my own.

What I loved most about her work, and wanted to emulate, was her careful attention to description—so original and so masterful that it seemed accomplish much more than mere recording of what was seen—it was plot and character and point of view, sometimes all at once.

–the frightening gills, / fresh and crisp with blood,/ that can cut so badly–/ I thought of the coarse white flesh / packed in like feathers, / the big bones and the little bones, / the dramatic reds and blacks / of his shiny entrails, / and the pink swim-bladder / like a big peony (“The Fish”). I had always been a “noticer,” though I had no idea, really, what to do with this ability. Bishop, though, had put this idle practice of looking closely into the service of art. Her perceptiveness, combined with the guardedness around emotion in her work, were habits of mind that I recognized, and this familiarity must have given me the confidence to write, that is, when I could write. I’ve been thinking a lot about Elizabeth Bishop again because I’m teaching her poems to undergraduates in a course called Reading as Writers. The concept of the course is to explore how writers read with a certain attention, in order to find out how to write better, or to at least to better understand the vision they have for their own work.

Bishop wrote, “What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” When we discussed this quote the other day, a few students balked at the idea that anything in their writing should be “self-forgetful”—every word should bear the stamp of them, they argued, or else it was inauthentic. Other students talked about how, when they were really absorbed in their work, they came to a kind of “self-forgetful” daydreaming state, when it was easy to forget what time it was or whether or not you were hungry. Most of them had trouble with the phrase “perfectly useless concentration.” Wasn’t all concentration useful?

The phrase is from one of Bishop’s letters, and it’s typical of her brand of wry humility. In her interview with The Paris Review, even after she’d won the Pulitzer Prize, she said, “There’s nothing more embarrassing than being a poet.” Some of my students are put off by the way Bishop’s poems often correct themselves, or elaborate on an image, mid-line, and I have tried to show them how this might be a way of illustrating a mind in motion, a way that she establishes an authenticity in the voice, which strives to be as clear as possible. . . .and then I saw / from his lower lip / –if you could call it a lip–

Bishop was ambitious and had strong opinions about what made great literature. But she was interested, in her poetry, by the state of being puzzled or bewildered, by mistakes or quirks of perception, by blind spots, and a kind of polite diction and tone that could mask pain or outrage. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it) like disaster. I’ve read her letters and now know more about her life, the alcoholism, the incredible march of loss (her father, her mother, her long-time lover, who committed suicide), her somewhat hidden sexuality (she said she believed in “closets, closets, and more closets”). And it makes me wonder how all of this vulnerability and, also, her privilege–her elite education and her small, but sustaining inheritance–how all of this personal history became the kiln for firing her singular poems.

Bishop was one of my teachers, but like many writers, she said that she didn’t think writing could be taught. I never know quite how to take this because Bishop did teach (at Harvard and elsewhere). Maybe we can’t teach student writers why they want to make art, or how to put themselves into their writing. But I’m fascinated by the strangeness in each person that can lead to the accidental breakthrough or the original phrase. “Bishop’s writing bore the marks, many of them deliberate, of much re-writing, of things that had been said, but had now been erased, or moved into the shadows,” writes the novelist Colm Toibin (On Elizabeth Bishop, 3). He goes on to say, “Bishop was never sure.” She was able to turn tentativeness into a way of approaching a poem, and that is a good part of her brilliance.

I try to be alert to the tentativeness in a student’s practice or presentation that can also be the signal of a strength. A former student, after she’d submit her story to the workshop, would submit another version a few hours later, this one with small, but significant changes. That perfectionism was a danger—it could prevent her from moving forward or writing more pages, but her obsession also led her to invent amazing, poignant images. Another student submitted her novel in fragments and apologetically called it “a mess.” Ordinarily, I advise students not to apologize for their work, especially just before offering it up to be read, but her work was disordered because she was trying to find a form that she hadn’t seen a model for yet. She needed to acknowledge her struggle with the fragments before she could come to see the whole. Reading Bishop’s work again has made me reconsider unsure, messy moments, which are at the heart of trying to create anything. At the end of “The Monument,” Bishop pays homage to this.  But roughly but adequately it can shelter / what is within (which after all / cannot have been intended to be seen). / It is the beginning of a painting, / a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument, / and all of wood. Watch it closely.

René Steinke is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow. Her most recent novel, Friendswood (Riverhead), was named one of National Public Radio’s “Great Reads” of 2014. Friendswood was shortlisted for the St. Francis Literary Prize and was an Amazon Book of the Month. Her previous novel, Holy Skirts, an imaginative retelling of the life of the artist and provocateur, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, was a Finalist for the National Book Award. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, O Magazine, Redbook, Salon, Bookforum, and in anthologies. She is the former Editor of The Literary Review, where she remains Editor-at-Large. She has taught at the New School and at Columbia University, and she is currently the Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Brooklyn.


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