Friday, August 17, 2012

The Creative Writing Seminar: A Factual Parable

Bill Berkson, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch

I was on the phone today with one of my great mentors, Michael Anania, talking about poets as academics, and was regaled with the following anecdote about Delmore Schwartz:

Schwartz was teaching a graduate poetry writing seminar, and asked the small gathering of students how many of them thought they would go on to become great poets.  Every one of them raised a hand.

"Ha!" said Schwartz.  "If more than two or three great poets were alive at any one time, it would count as a renaissance!"

The students in the seminar were John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, and Frank O'Hara.

Four out of five ain't bad.

UPDATE AUGUST 19: Opinions on the factual nature of this anecdote vary: see especially Andrew Epstein's convincing note about what probably really happened in the comments stream below.  Also, I'll take the rap for any garbling of the anecdote -- listening on a sketchy cell connection while trying to keep a three year old from smashing things introduces an element of surrealist distortion to most narratives!


  1. Question is, who's the odd man out? (I could probably entertain three possible answers . . .)

  2. which one isn't a great poet in your book? My money's on Bly.

  3. A gentleman never tells! But I'm no gentleman: I'm from Canada. For me, the odd man out is indeed Bly.

  4. It was the whole "Iron John" thing that took away the greatness, amiright?

  5. I dunno. I'd have to disagree. Bly has written some great, great individual poems, as have all of these listed here. Maybe his body of work isn't as fashionable or as consistent as some of the others'. But I think it's fashionable these days to dismiss Bly out of hand without actually examining any of his work. That's because what IS fashionable in PoetryWorld right now is more Silliman than Bly, more Ashbery than Robinson Jeffers—but critical fashion is a problematic and often thoughtless way to make assessments.

    Frankly I've always found Ashbery to be unreadable. I know I'm in the minority there. I've tried several times, and people keep giving me his books to try to re-read, but either I fall asleep or I get bored or I just find it uninteresting. It's all surface, no depth; like throwing paint at a Teflon wall: it doesn't stick. Bly at least TRIED for something like depth.

    One other point: Of the poets here, pretty much only Bly and Creeley wrote any significant criticism or review essays about poetry that are worth reading. Again, in my unfashionable independent opinion. Whatever you think of Bly's own poetry, his essays such as "Leaping Poetry" and "American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity" are pretty darn on the mark. Even if you end up totally disagreeing with his conclusions, they're necessary to confront and think about. Plus there's Bly's important work as editor, anthologist and translator.

    I know my opinions aren't fashionable or in alignment with most accepted (academic or PoetryWorld) opinion. But I have my reasons (and have written about them often on my own blog), and I'll stand by them.

    So the odd man out for me is Ashbery. Don't worry. I'm used to the brickbats.

  6. Well, I would say the definite greats in the group are Creeley and O'Hara, and maybe Schwartz was right, no more than two or three at a time. But that would be disregarding the women writing at the same time (at least Bishop and Plath as good as C and O).

  7. Obviously the story is false. These poets never took a graduate writing seminar with DS all together. Still, it's a great story.

  8. I'm not certain the story's so obviously false, Jonathan: there were all kinds of one-day master classes and the like where it could have taken place, but I'll check in with Michael about his sources.

  9. Anonymous7:51 PM

    I just spoke with John Ashbery, a friend of mine, who is concerned about setting the historical record straight. Far be it from him to call Aninia a liar, but he never took a course with Delmore Schwartz. As far as he can recall, Koch and O’Hara didn’t either.

  10. Anonymous7:52 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. You might be right, Anonymous -- but when I received multiple posts of the same comment from different anonymous accounts (I deleted one above) I have to say I'd find the argument more compelling if a name came with it.

  12. Andrew Epstein11:28 AM

    Ashbery, Koch, and O'Hara were definitely never in the same class together, let alone a class taught by Delmore Schwartz. Also, none of the poets mentioned were GRADUATE students at Harvard, where Schwartz was teaching -- they were all undergraduates, and they never were all in the same class together.

    It's a neat anecdote, but I think it's a garbled version of something Kenneth Koch said (and repeated more than once, I believe). In an interview with David Kennedy, he said "Maybe there are three or four really good poets in a generation. I took a course at Harvard with Delmore Schwartz, a writing course, and there were about thirty of us and he said "How many of you expect to be great writers?" and we all raised our hands. And he said "You do know that in age in which there are more than three or four great writers is known as a renaissance?"

    (See here:

    And of course Bly is the odd man out!

  13. Thanks, Andrew -- that sounds about right!

  14. I have read all of them and, since I am a nobody, they all seem like giants to me.