Neither Dan Chiasson nor his English 120 students realized how telling their discussion would be on the morning of April 14. Chiasson, an award-winning poet and critic, looked deceptively casual—as he always does—when he entered room 126 in Founders Hall. The boyish-faced professor wore salmon-colored pants, a blue-and-white check shirt, and blue New Balance sneakers. His hair was slightly disheveled.
“I have your papers,” he told the 15 students sitting in a semi-circle. “Maybe it’s the miracle of insomnia, but these were really good, the best I’ve seen yet. I’ll give them back after class.”
Several women sighed audibly as Chiasson pulled a handout from his bag and moved around a room that had played a significant role in his own development as a writer 17 years before. “Today we transition from the narrative omniscience of Jane Austen’s Persuasion to the first-person lyric poetry of Elizabeth Bishop,” he began. “Bishop provides a different way of knowing the world. Autobiography is coded in these pages.”
Chiasson could have added, “The same is true in my work.”
Instead, he paused while a tardy student took her seat. “You just missed some of the most brilliant commentary ever made,” he told her, “including directions to buried treasure on campus.”
Chiasson waited for chuckles to subside before he described Bishop’s background: Her father died when she was young. Her mother was institutionalized in a mental hospital. She loved her maternal grandparents in her native Nova Scotia but was sent to live with her paternal grandparents in Worcester, Mass.
Chiasson deftly guided the group through “Lesson VI” and “Lesson X” on the handout, from Bishop’s last book, Geography III. Then he shared the kind of incisive comments that have distinguished him as a rising star on the Wellesley campus and one of the nation’s most respected poetry critics. “These poems blur the line between fact and fiction,” he said. “In some sense they show that poetry can be a map—but that map is never fixed. We see things through our filters and experiences.”
As if to illustrate that point, a loud male voice began singing outside the classroom’s window. “Who is that?” Chiasson asked. “The angels? It’s beautiful.”
Chiasson ended the 90-minute session with more observations about maps and how they apply to any reader or writer. “We have to figure out the conventions of our own lives and where we are in relation to others. There is no absolute center,” he concluded.
Chiasson’s journey to poetry—and the life he has now—followed a circuitous route that led him through three states and to Wellesley College twice.
When his path began, in Burlington, Vt., in 1971, his circumstances looked vaguely like Bishop’s. “I never knew my father,” he explains. “He was out of my life by the time I was 11 months old. I was raised by my mother in my grandparents’ house.”
As with Bishop, that early loss would one day color his poetry. Yet as a child, Chiasson didn’t feel his father’s absence acutely. “I had a happy childhood,” he recalls. “I loved basketball and was very skilled from fifth to eighth grade. Then I was dwarfed by friends and cut from the team in ninth grade.”
Books were not an important part of Chiasson’s life back then. “I was not especially literary as a kid. I didn’t like to read, unless it was about UFOs,” he says with a laugh. “In Vermont, you were always waiting for something to happen. We loved our police scanner.”
Chiasson’s mother sent him to Rice Memorial High School, a coed Catholic school. There, the seeds of poetry were planted by great teachers who introduced him to the work of Stevens, Yeats, and Eliot. When one of those teachers died unexpectedly, Chiasson wrote his first elegy; that experience taught him “how poetry affects people’s reality.”
Another important lesson came from an unlikely place: a diner called Sneakers where Chiasson worked part-time from sixth grade until he was a junior in high school. His coworkers were “old hippies, the people who formed the band Phish” and University of Vermont students who spoke to the future poet about movies and popular music as if he were their intellectual equal. “That was my Yale,” Chiasson quips, echoing Melville’s quote “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
“They were my first mentors,” he adds.
Chiasson attended Amherst College, where he majored in classics and learned Latin and Greek. Like Professor David Ferry—an Amherst alum and a Wellesley poet he would meet years later—Chiasson sometimes translated texts from the original, just for his own pleasure.
He also fell in love with the writing of Robert Lowell, “learned the value of the speaking voice,” and found a role model in William Pritchard, an Amherst professor and well-known critic for the New York Times. “I began to see myself as a critic,” he explains, and as someone who could “teach poetry to students and be instrumental in making old literature new.”
Two years after graduation—which included a stint teaching at a private boarding school—Chiasson began working on a Ph.D. in poetry criticism at Harvard University. There, he studied with Helen Vendler, one of the country’s most influential critics. “She was exclusively a critic, and maybe the best critic of poetry the country has ever had,” he notes, “and that reinforced my idea that writing and criticism were mutually exclusive.”
A friendship with novelist Jamaica Kincaid—whom he met at Harvard—changed that perception. “We became instant friends, inseparable friends. She taught me what it meant to be a writer, that you must always tell the truth, no matter what.”
Kincaid’s influence also helped him navigate what he describes as “some internal difference”—where “suddenly I became driven and obsessed. I claimed the label of poet before I even wrote a poem.” Outwardly, however, nothing had changed.
By 1997, when Chiasson was working on his dissertation, his poetry and his subject matter—a fatherless childhood—were simmering just below the surface. A crucial Wellesley connection helped bring those poems to fruition and shape his professional life.
“I greatly admired the work of Frank Bidart, and I knew he was in the line of Robert Lowell,” Chiasson says. “Bidart’s first few books are dramatic monologues—bold collections that tell you how to read them.”
Chiasson called Bidart, whose talent and night-owl tendencies—sleeping during the day and working after dark—were legendary at Wellesley College and beyond. When Bidart didn’t answer, Chiasson left a message, asking to audit Bidart’s undergraduate poetry workshops at Wellesley that coming year.
Twenty minutes later, Chiasson’s phone rang, and Bidart, who is often described as “elusive,” accepted the Ph.D. candidate as a student.
A few weeks later, Chiasson set foot in room 126 of Founders Hall, where he was the only male in the class.
Bidart’s teaching and mentorship were the catalyst Chiasson needed to develop his writing. “Bidart helped me by canceling voices that weren’t working, until my authentic voice became clear to me,” he says.
As the two worked together, they developed a rapport that eventually became a deep friendship. They often met at Paradiso, an Italian eatery near Bidart’s Cambridge home. Chiasson also left drafts in Bidart’s mailbox, and Bidart would call with feedback. “He was always unforgiving in his demands and standards. I improved very quickly for him,” Chiasson recalls.
Chiasson’s modest self-assessment belies the tremendous success he has experienced since working with Bidart. In 2001, the New Yorker named him an outstanding “Debut Poet,” and in 2002, he earned his Ph.D. and published his first book of poems, The Afterlife of Objects, which deals with his childhood.
Chiasson moved near New York City to accept a teaching position at Stony Brook University, and in 2004, he took home a Whiting Writers’ Award, a prestigious prize given annually to 10 emerging writers.
One year later, his second collection of poems, Natural History, was published by Knopf. Poet Kay Ryan—who would later win the Pulitzer Prize and serve two years as Poet Laureate of the United States—wrote a favorable review for the New York Times. “An ambition to write larger than any one self stirs the book to life,” she noted. “So much in Chiasson is uncomfortable and misproportioned. So much suffers. At the same time, his poetry is mischievous and meant to be understood playfully.”
In 2007, Chiasson published One Kind of Everything, a critical work on American poetry and autobiography that was an expansion of his dissertation. His reviews and poetry began appearing regularly in the New Yorker (where today he is the poetry critic) and the New York Review of Books, and in 2008 he was named co-poetry editor of the Paris Review.
His awards include a Pushcart Prize and a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. But that impressive resume doesn’t reveal the struggles Chiasson faced along the way, or the thorny path that led him out of New York City and back to Wellesley College.
The journey home, as one could call it, began in 2002, when Chiasson’s girlfriend, Annie, accepted his marriage proposal. At the time, she was working as a designer and developer for Clarks Shoes—a job she still holds—and living in Sherborn, Mass., where the couple bought a home. The 200 miles between them became intolerable when they learned that Annie was expecting their first child.
“I wanted to be a good father,” Chiasson says. “I didn’t want to recreate my past.” He took a one-year leave from teaching at Stony Brook and moved to the Boston area, willing to take any job that came along.
William Cain, then the chair of Wellesley’s English Department, offered him an adjunct position, which Chiasson says felt like an incredible gift, despite the lack of benefits and an annual re-appointment.
Chiasson accepted the job and decided that he would “be totally myself and act completely comfortable there,” from the very beginning. He connected with students, made friends with faculty members, and proved himself to be indispensable.
At home, Chiasson focused on his writing and his young son, Louis, who brought both tremendous joy and a sense of loss for Chiasson’s own childhood. “Suddenly I felt bad for the boy who had spent so much time listening to the police scanner,” he recalls.
What happened next illustrates the strange, unpredictable currents that shape a person’s life map. Toward the end of his second year as an adjunct, Chiasson received a call from Professor Philip Fisher at Harvard about a newly created poetry position. “Send me your current CV,” Fisher said.
Chiasson knew he had to apply, and he had to inform Wellesley’s English Department of his intentions.
The next few months were filled with uncertainty, because Chiasson didn’t want to leave Wellesley. “You don’t get peg-holed here,” he explains. “You can count on a tradition of poets who are doing other kinds of work. There’s something very freeing about the fact that you can make yourself up as you go along.”
Professor Timothy Peltason, who has taught at Wellesley since 1977, concurs. “The English Department has always been committed to the conviction that there is a deep continuity between the creative and critical enterprises, between reading and writing, thinking and making, the artistic and the intellectual,” he says.
Where some universities create distinct silos, Wellesley “recognizes and affirms that creation and criticism are linked and overlapping activities, together at the heart of valuable human living,” Peltason explains.
Chiasson kept writing and working, not realizing that Bidart and other faculty members had been meeting for months to create a new tenure-track position for a poet/critic/scholar. They wanted someone dynamic who could meet the needs of students and continue the College’s long tradition of poets who have made significant contributions to American letters.
Chiasson was stunned when the department offered him the job. “I had always wanted a position at Wellesley, but thought that was too much to hope for,” he admits. He gratefully accepted, vowing to never leave the small school that has attracted many of poetry’s biggest names.
“I’m a guy who lives in the past,” Chiasson says, “and often I’d walk a path on campus and think, ‘Nabokov walked this way years ago.’”
Today, Chiasson continues to forge a new path, both at Wellesley and in his own writing. His second class this past semester was called The New York Review of Books at 50, which he describes as “a very lively class, where the students do almost all the talking.”
That’s a demure way of saying that students create podcasts—the newest form of cultural criticism—and Chiasson subtly shapes their choices by providing wry, profound observations.
The same is true at home, a restored 1850s farmhouse in Wellesley, where Chiasson, his wife, and their two sons lead a busy life full of baseball games, school plays, and dog hair from the family’s affectionate Newfoundland, Clover.
Chiasson writes in the morning—sometimes sitting in the laundry room—before the hubbub of the day begins. When Annie travels on business, “Danny,” as she calls him, runs the household, taking Louis, age 10, and Nicholas, 8, to the dentist or school activities. He also enjoys making them meals. “Often I’ll have a writing project that’s not finished,” Chiasson says, “but when I cook, I can complete that project.”
The boys influence him in deeper ways, too. When he wrote Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon, his third book of poems, he “stole the structure from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” one of their favorite stories, he says.
The book impressed readers and critics, however, because Chiasson’s skill as a writer matched the creativity of his approach. “I think the title poem of Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon is a wonderful poem, line after line of those eight-line stanzas providing surprises—surprise in the wording, in the rhythms, in the quality of critical intelligence playing through, … inventively playing through, … and giving great pleasure as it does,” says Professor Emeritus David Ferry, himself a highly celebrated poet and translator. “He has a wonderful ear for the line, and for the line after line, his critical intelligence, his attentiveness to what his language is doing, is extraordinary and highly individual in what happens inside the poem.”
Chiasson’s newest book, Bicentennial, returns to a familiar subject—his childhood and his experience of being a fatherless son. The collection, which has earned rave reviews from the Boston Globe and Publisher’s Weekly, also explores his role as a father.
In the title poem, Chiasson writes movingly about a question he frequently asks his sons: How do you feel your childhood is going?
Chiasson flashes a wry smile before saying, “The boys don’t like that poem. They say I only asked the question twice.”
Fiction may blur fact in this case, as with Elizabeth Bishop’s poems. Yet for Chiasson and other Wellesley writers, poetry is the ever-changing map that leads to buried treasure.