A Way of Words

Professor Dan Chiasson, a rising star in the world of poetry, has forged a path that allows him to teach and write—pursuing both creative and critical enterprises

A Way of Words

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.

The Genesis of a Poem


The Donkey

By Dan Chiasson

This time around, we start out in the clouds.
Look down: our ceiling is plush carpeting.
An elderly Kenyan beside us is praying.
She gets out her missal and silently reads.

The donkey bore our Christ upon his back
And yet this beast is not respected,
Nobody tells how bravely he acted.
Let that be the subject of your book.

The donkey, he is the noblest of beasts
(Says this woman to me, when I tell her
I work as a writer and a teacher):
Why do people show him this disrespect?

Then she turns back to her small red missal.
Occasionally I hear her whisper Amen.
Her son sets out now to meet her in Boston.
I am watching the big screen in the aisle,

Where you and I, the woman, and everyone
Crawl like a housefly across the screen
Inside a tiny icon of the plane we’re on,
More real to ourselves as a representation,

All of us going west inside the circuitry
That guides the plane across continents,
And guides the icon plane across the screen,
Riding that circuitry like a superstrong donkey.

So, tell everyone, when you put down my book:
The donkey is the noblest of beasts,
For he bore on his back the suffering Christ,
And never once wavered, nor shuddered, nor broke.

I wrote this poem after flying home from a month in France. I was sitting next to an elderly Kenyan woman flying to meet her son, a doctor, in Boston. She had never flown before; every moment was the cause of wonder and fear. She was reading from a red prayer book; she would read the prayers silently but whisper aloud “Amen.” At a certain point, we started talking and never stopped, the entire six-hour flight. She was mainly talking about her village and about Christianity and the afterlife. I was moved by her faith, though I don’t share it.

When we were deboarding, she said to me, very urgently and with great intensity: “The donkey is the noblest of all animals, because Christ rode on his back. Tell your students this. Ask them, why, why don’t people respect him? Why is he seen as low and ridiculous?”

I told her I would tell them.

The poem is about faith—her abundance of it and my lack of it, about immortality, and about representation. Near the end of the poem, I describe the monitor in the aisle showing our plane’s progress across the Atlantic. I was interested in how riveted everyone was by this tiny image of the actual plane we were on; though there was daylight, nobody seemed to want to look out the windows. I suppose we are all screen-obsessed and that’s that. But there’s more to it: as I say in the poem, we’re often more “real to ourselves as a representation.” This seems basically true: We look at photographs, or read old diaries or other things we wrote, in order to have the sense of ourselves as actual and unique beings, a sense we—I—often lack.

The phrase “all of us going west” is meant to suggest our eventual deaths; the west, where the sun dies every evening, has conventional associations with death. I was thinking of John Donne’s poem “Good Friday, Riding Westward,” and of the crucifixion of Christ, and of the afterlife, which my Kenyan friend described to me from a dream she had had—a dream she took to be a gift from God.

The poem ends by enjoining the reader to share the news: to literally re-present it, and so link it to the long chain of people passing poems and other works of art down across the centuries. That’s a poet’s afterlife; the afterlife of a poem still read and perpetually handed down. I believe that poetry is repetition, re-presentation, essentially: It retrieves the past and sets it in the new circumstances of the moment. It happens within poems, and it happens to poems.

—Dan Chiasson

The Poetic Line

In addition to Dan Chiasson, the English department boasts a long line of acclaimed poets teaching in its ranks. They include:

Katharine Lee Bates, class of 1880, was a central figure in Wellesley’s early history and the first Wellesley poet to enjoy widespread success in more than one genre. She began teaching as an instructor in 1885, and later became an associate professor and a full professor of English literature. Bates published multiple volumes of poetry, wrote “America the Beautiful,” and popularized Mrs. Claus in her poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” from the collection Sunshine and other Verses for Children. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.


Robert Pinsky is an acclaimed poet-critic who served three terms as Poet Laureate of the United States, the only person to do so. During that time, he founded the Favorite Poem Project and promoted the idea that poetry has a strong presence in American culture. Pinsky taught at Wellesley from 1967 to 1981 and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He has published numerous books of poetry and prose and prominent works of translation. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. (Photo by N. Alicia Byers/Library of Congress)


David Ferry is widely regarded as one of the country’s foremost translators and one of the best American poets of the past 50 years. Ferry has published six volumes of poetry, four books of translation, and other writings. He taught at Wellesley from 1952 until 1989, serving as chairman of the English department for many years. Since his retirement, Ferry has continued to flourish and receive critical attention. His awards include the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress (for the best work of poetry for the previous two years), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the National Book Award for Poetry, which he received in 2012 for Bewilderment.


Frank Bidart has taught English at Wellesley College since 1972. His early work was distinguished by dramatic monologues such as “Ellen West,” which was written from the point of view of an anorexic woman. Bidart has written fearlessly about his experience as an openly gay man and the origins and consequences of guilt. His book Desire won the 1998 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Prize. He co-edited the acclaimed Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, which was published in 2003. In 2013, his book Metaphysical Dog was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. (Photo © Sigrid Estrada)


Important poets past and present have also populated other departments of the College. Among them are Marjorie Agosín (currently Luella LaMer Slaner Professor in Latin American Studies and professor of Spanish), René Galand (professor emeritus of French), Jorge Guillén (formerly of the Spanish department), Ifeanyi Menkiti (retiring this year as professor of philosophy, also owner of the Grolier Poetry Bookstore in Cambridge), and Vladimir Nabokov (founder of the Russian department, more famous for his prose writing). If other Wellesley professor-poets inspired you as a student, tell us about them in a letter to the editor.


Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post. She earned her M.F.A. in poetry at Cornell University, where she also taught writing.

You Might Like
  • Interpretive Art
    Senior lecturer in theatre studies Diego Arciniegas likes to “provoke students” by telling them acting is not a creative art. “Of course, the work involves extraordinary creativity,” he says, “but acting is an interpretive art...More
  • Lessons From the Nerpa
    The next time you find yourself in search of adventure, consider a trip to Lake Baikal in Russia: a flight to Frankfurt, followed by a transfer to Moscow, and then a red-eye east across the...More
  • A Digital Future for Old Letters
    The letters of Anne Whitney, a 19th-century American sculptor and poet, are a treasure trove of information about the globe-trotting intelligentsia of her time.More

Post a CommentView Full Policy

We ask that those who engage in Wellesley magazine's online community act with honesty, integrity, and respect. (Remember the honor code, alums?) We reserve the right to remove comments by impersonators or comments that are not civil and relevant to the subject at hand. By posting here, you are permitting Wellesley magazine to edit and republish your comment in all media. Please remember that all posts are public.

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.