Friday, August 31, 2007

What Can You Really Teach? - Elizabeth Bishop and George Starbuck

There's lots of writing on the web about Elizabeth Bishop, needless to say - but I want to draw your attention to an amusing and enlightening interview with her done by my old mentor, George Starbuck, at the Ploughshares website. The Paris Review interviews get lots of attention, all deserved - but this one is warm and human, not so craft-of-writing, talk about which they both rather resisted. I think about George every day. Happily, his wife Kathryn is a wonderful poet (whom I've been lucky to help publish in Poetry and Harvard Review) - read about her here. (The similarity of our books' titles is an utterly amazing coincidence, as both were were assembled at the same time.)

GS: Do you approve of all the creative writing classes?

EB: No. I shouldn’t say this, I suppose. No. I always try to discourage them. I tell students they’d be doing much better if they were all studying Latin. Latin, Greek. They are useful for verse writing.

It’s a waste of time. I have a feeling that if there is a great poet at Boston University or Harvard now, he or she is sitting off somewhere writing poetry and not coming to my class or your classes or anybody’s classes. Well, I’ve had some students who have done very well (two or three “geniuses,” I think, and several very talented) but that’s how many I’ve had. I think the only thing I hope for is that when they get through college, they’ll continue to read poetry for the rest of their lives. What can you teach, really teach?


GS: ... all the critics are poets and all the poets are critics, but if there’s a difference I believe in, it’s that, as personalities, critics tend to be more focused on mere literature.

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