I had reached a dead end reading long novels and bios about writers. I was going to take a break from reading, but browsed our shelves on a Friday afternoon hoping to find a new book that was fairly short and I found it right in the section that I shepherd: Biographies. It was new and by a poet that I never heard of. But the title drew me in, Studying with Miss Bishop by Dana Gioia with a picture of Elizabeth Bishop on the cover. I devoured it over the weekend. It was pure gold.
It contains 6 vignettes about his learning. Four were famous writers, one was a dead uncle, and the last was a long forgotten poet that he never met. Two of the writers were also his professors at Harvard – Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald, famous for his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. It is like taking the juiciest parts of a full load of college classes.
The most famous writer he met was James Dickey, his book Deliverance and then the movie made him extremely well known. He had been a great poet up until his fame took over. Meeting Dickey should have been a great thing except Gioia met him at the wrong time. And he learns that telling the truth is sometimes the hardest decision to make and live up to.
The writer that I was least familiar with was John Cheever. Although, he don’t interest me, I went back and reread his daughter Susan’s bio on one of my favorite poets, E.E. Cummings: A Life.
Gioia is a poet also, and definitely a poet I wish to explore more.
So this also led me back to reading poetry. And I found my way back to one of my favorite poets who is a much overlooked poet, Jim Carroll. I decided to reread his memoirs, The Basketball Diaries, because the last line of the book, “I just want to be pure,” kept floating in my head repeatedly.
I read it about 30 years ago and loved it. At 58, I read it with much different eyes. I was more distanced to it because of mucho personal experience. In my 20’s, he sounded like a punk and smart aleck. Today, it sounds like the purest writing that I have ever read. No wasted words or pretense.
Carroll was 13 when the Diary begins and 16 at the end. In between he discovers drugs and sex, and a lot of both. He experiments with everything and becomes a heroin junkie. He is a star basketball player and good looking, and that is enough to get him through many struggles and into a lot of potential trouble.
There were probably many boring days in the life of a junkie but this doesn’t include any of them. Along the way, I went back and read a bit of The Catcher in the Rye (a must read). Teenage Carroll can be seen as the Vietnam Era’s version of the postwar Holden Caulfield, in proportion to the way America has progressed with the uglier things in life.
Also, I finally got around to reading a book on my TBR shelf, The Adding Machine by William S. Burroughs (who – among other things) taught Creative Writing at the Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado). It is a collection of essays roughly about the art of writing. Basically, what works for him, and what works or doesn’t work for other writers. Also, his thoughts on Hemingway, The Great Gatsby, and Jaws.
Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the smartest man in America. I believe this to be true. Kerouac was my first favorite writer and probably still is. It has been almost 30 years since I read some of his books, so onward to explore them as an old man.
– Reviewed by Tom, Main Library