“To Break Our Own Rules”
Poet-critic Dan Chiasson and The Math Campers
For years, Dan Chiasson, Ph.D. ’01, had been hearing their voices outside his office window, the frolic of high-schoolers attending summertime camps at Wellesley College, where he teaches creative writing. At first, he didn’t take much notice. “They just seemed foreign to me, because my own kids were so little,” says Chiasson, a poet and literary critic for The New Yorker. But time creeps on, as his poetry often contemplates, and as his children grew older—they’re now 14 and 16—he started to pay attention. “I’ve taken a keen interest in what that period of life looks like for kids,” he says. “It’s a place that in some ways is about freedom, and in some ways about order. Adolescence has a foot in rules and a foot in rebellion.”
All this inspired the title sequence in his fifth book of poems, The Math Campers, released this fall (Chiasson read from it at Harvard’s 2019 Phi Beta Kappa literary exercises). Math camp, like adolescence, he says, implies discipline, but also leisure and creativity. Poetry is like that too: “We measure out lines and stanzas; we create these ordered environments for ourselves, and then we try to break our own rules,” Chiasson adds. “Some of my best students over the years have been math majors.” His adviser at Harvard, Porter University Professor emerita Helen Vendler, studied chemistry in college.
But The Math Campers goes to places deeper and weirder than that while exploring many of his lifelong poetic obsessions: childhood, fatherhood, love, desire, isolation, identity, the complex and anchoring experience of marriage. And his continual fixation on time: Chiasson’s poetry plays relentlessly with time, and this book does too. Moments that seem linear turn out to be cyclical—“That’s how I’ve always experienced time,” he says. “It’s something I’ve found to be uncanny about having children.” Pieces of the past keep reappearing, sometimes out of the blue, cracked and askew. And all the while, the math campers are working toward an equation to make the summer last forever: “how the summer might expand / and prove eternal by division” (“Which is eerie to think about now,” Chiasson adds, amid the pandemic’s limbo).
The poetry also meditates on existential threats like gun violence and natural disaster. A series of stanzas on climate change yields one of the book’s most arresting images: “An ancient shark shakes off another century,” Chiasson writes. “This shark read over Milton’s shoulder. / In her extreme old age, she’ll stare / eye to eye into a skyscraper’s foyer.” Most of the poems were written between 2017 and 2019 (spanning Robert Mueller’s probe into Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign—another obsession for him), and some feel like imaginative, abstracted versions of what he calls “slightly paranoid news stories.” Chiasson has never shied away from topical references, but the past few years’ politics seem to have heightened their urgency in his poems: “Whatever else this book is about,” he says, “it’s about the period we have all just lived through.”
It makes sense, then, that to Chiasson, poetry feels like the most natural form of communication, for the human and here-and-now as well as the eternal. His first deep encounter with it came when he was a teenager, watching a documentary about T.S. Eliot, A.B. 1910, A.M. ’11, Litt.D. ’47. “When I heard that sound of, ‘Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky’ [the first lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”], “that’s the first memory I have of there being a magnetic charge to language.”
He grew up in Burlington, Vermont, raised by his mother and grandparents after his father left the family when he was a baby, a wound and deprivation that has colored his writing profoundly (his 2014 book, Bicentennial, grew in part out of the news that his father had died). He had never been a very focused student, he says, but after discovering Eliot, he went in search of more poetry, and then more. And then began writing. When a beloved high-school English teacher died unexpectedly, Chiasson composed an elegy: “I think for a lot of people, writing an elegy is one of the first actions you take as a poet.” It’s a way to negotiate with reality, to give meaning to loss, to bring something back.
In college at Amherst, he read constantly, devouring poetry but almost never writing it. “It felt almost like a priestly or monastic training,” he says. “As if there was a certain preparation that I needed.” The presence of Robert Frost, A.B. ’01, Litt.D. ’37, still felt strong on campus—“He was my teacher’s teacher”—and Chiasson began reading Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell ’39, two foundational poets for his own thinking and practice. He watched how they described the New England landscapes he’d grown up with, and learned from it.
As a graduate student in English at Harvard, Chiasson began writing poems again, and more or less apprenticed himself to the legendary poet Frank Bidart, A.M. ’67, who lived in Cambridge and taught at Wellesley. Bidart had been Lowell’s protégé. “I just called him up,” Chiasson says. “Every person who’s ever talked to him will tell you that he’s this magically approachable person.…He keeps really weird hours to this day, and so I might drop off a poem I’d written at noon, and he would call me to talk about it at midnight, when he was just waking up.” For many years, Bidart read nearly everything Chiasson wrote. “Every writer needs someone who will tell them the truth.” Chiasson’s first book of poems, The Afterlife of Objects, came out in 2002; two years later, he won the Whiting Award, given annually to promising emerging writers.
He began publishing poetry criticism at first as an escape from the graduate-school papers he hated writing. In 2007, after progressing from local outlets to national journals like Poetry and The New York Review of Books, he began writing literary reviews for The New Yorker. He has dissected the social-media-inflected epic poetry of indigenous poet Tommy Pico, and the “profoundly companionable” collected works of Tennessean Charles Wright, the trenchant Twitter feed of classicist and translator Emily Wilson and the “mosh pit” of “beautifully up-to-date, old-fashioned” prosody by Shane McCrae, J.D.’07 (see “Coming Apart Together,” November-December 2018, page 70). “The country’s most visible poet-critic,” the Sewanee Review declared Chiasson last spring.
His dual writing life in part gave rise to the stunning long poem “Must We Mean What We Say?” in The Math Campers. It takes its title from an essay of the same name by the late Harvard philosophy professor Stanley Cavell and is structured as a kind of episodic conversation between a male poet and a reader, a woman, who narrates the process. The two voices speak to each other, haltingly, across a mysterious void. “It’s almost like a making-of documentary,” Chiasson says; across roughly 100 pages, it shows a poem being assembled, line by line, with all the false starts and loose ends and anguish and emotion—nothing hidden. (The shorter, polished final version appears later in the book.) The result is surprisingly powerful. In the final lines, the poet leaves one last message for his reader: “you can find this poem inside a book … / though when you find it you will see / the poem changed slightly, crucially— / because, you know why: because time.”