A Poet's Mentor

I've managed all kinds of mutually destructive acts with male mentors in my inner and outer lives. I've erected them into gods I could worship and then despise when I discovered their mere humanity. (Feet of clay? Kill him.) I fell in love with one and lived with him for nearly 20 years, but in the end it was the tenacity of the mentor paradigm that did us in, behind our backs and without our permission.

I have mourned my male mentors' passing as gods and men, imitated them, outgrown them, renounced them, half-become them. There's nothing quite like what an apprentice feels for the mentor/master in the traditionally conceived mentoring relationship. It's among the most powerful of human bonds, probably because it's about power, and because its psychic analogue is the parent and child. The parent in question has historically been the father, his personal form joined to his archetypal—proprietary controller, protector, guide, judge, counselor, wise dispenser of knowledge. I know how hard it is because even as I was being mentored, I became a mentor to my own apprentice writers, and discovered what it's like to become a worshipped and then necessarily defiled goddess.

Teacher and acolyte, priest and novice, guru and disciple, sempai and kohai, master (or shaman) and apprentice—these relationships we associate with mentoring all assume the authority of the first party, the voluntary submission of the second, to the discipline if not to its master. As it's usually conceived in patriarchy, the mentoring relationship is hierarchical, involving the passing on of wisdom (of a body of knowledge, a craft, a way of perceiving) from the older to the younger, the experienced to the innocent.

I've recently recommended for publication a book by Thomas Simmons on mentoring, titled Erotic Reckonings: Mastery and Apprenticeship in the Work of Poets and Lovers (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming). Beginning with the character of Mentor in The Odyssey, Simmons analyzes the history of mentorship, finding it as troubled as my own personal history, littered with the wrecks of human relationships as well as with the legacy of rich texts. Employing Carol Gilligan's work on redefining mentorship in Remapping the Moral Domain (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1989), and Jean Baker Miller's Toward a New Psychology of Women (Beacon, 1986), Simmons attempts to rescue mentorship for writers. He examines the relationships between Pound and H.D., Winters and Lewis, Bogan and Roethke. Bogan and Roethke become the model for a new paradigm in which the mentor begins by making personhood, her own and that of the apprentice, the primary subject.

By guiding and counseling through knowing and confirming the self of the apprentice, and by creating an ever-equalizing field of argumentation, the mentor can offer what Simmons calls, "a vision of the apprentice's obscured soul." The goal of the mentor/student relationship becomes to end that relationship—or, rather, to end its inequality, which should always have been an inequality of abilities or of knowing, but not of persons.

That ideal mentoring relationship has been mine for over 15 years with poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker of Rutgers University.

From the beginning Alicia, my senior by almost a decade in years, by rank in the profession at the top when I was at the bottom, quietly took me under her wing without making me feel she was doing so. I was a grown woman, and she would not have patronized me with any mention of the difference in our positions. Indeed she probably never knew how much in awe of her I once was.

Alicia never withheld her immense knowledge from me, nor was she self-important about it. She's one of those writers who seems to have read virtually everything. The lines and images of great writers live in her, easy of access in times of need, when they will comfort herself or someone she cares for. Unlike most mentors I've known, Alicia always asks her apprentices what they think, and genuinely listens to their answers, which must often seem young, trite, undigested. She seems genuinely to grow in response to their growth.

Ostriker is more midwife than doctor, more guide than authority, more fellow celebrant and seeker than master. This makes her mastery—of a body of knowledge, a tradition, and therefore of the ways to insert herself subversively into its mythology—ironically easy to study. She'll give a fellow writer all she or he could want, exacting no payment except serious mutual interrogation of the matter at hand. No feeling stupid, no long lectures, no smitten or glazed toleration of a mentor's sense of self-importance.

She reads my work and tells me to send out the dangerous stuff. I don't. She asks why not. When I tell her I am afraid of what it says, afraid of who it would hurt, she tells me a writer must kill that fear. Sometimes she lets me take care of her in return. I say something that helps. She gives me a poem. "You trusted me enough to laugh at me," she writes. "Diana, what did you say? Would you say it again?"

My own generic slipperiness is a result of Ostriker's mentoring. Her work embodies the possibility of speaking in several voices, all of them my own. Against all other advice I received—to be either critic or poet, then either poet or essayist—stood the example of Alicia's eclecticism.

But the most important mentoring influence of Ostriker on me is a secret I've not ever committed to paper. It's about being afraid, really scared, of one's own dark selfishness and spiritual smallness. It's about being afraid of your fear. Mentors, as a class, always seem unafraid. Alicia has never hesitated to tell me how pock-marked her soul can be, how astonished she is at her own mental cruelties, how disappointed in her selfishness. The first time she told me these things—laughing uproariously in the telling, parodying her own internal white-heat martyr-whine—I was shocked. Really? You? Feel these things? Of course I do, she laughed.

Had she been merely sharing a personal truth, the gift would be ample. But she saw, when she offered me these self-disclosures, that I was struggling with self-hatred about my own smallness, refusing to care about myself if I was such a pig. Her candor was a way of freeing me to forgive myself. Did I really imagine myself especially monstrous? Nonsense, lovely, you're nothing of the kind. In Blakean terms, she was showing me her internal Spectre, whom she had struggled with and embraced, for the sake of vision, spiritual integrity, creative truth. Embracing old Nobodaddy, the Spectre, helps you to write.

She acknowledges her own complicity in the dark design, and from this courageous self-confrontation I have taken strength both as writer and as person. Seeing Ostriker always struggling to imagine a way out in writing, I am encouraged to do so, too. An almost deterministic bent in her insight, poised delicately against indomitable optimism, makes hers a poetry of difficult beauty. I do not really share her optimism, but I hold its hope before me.

Diana Hume George, Ph.D., is professor of English at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, Station Road, Erie, PA 16563; 814-898-6000. This essay was condensed from "Vision of My Obscured Soul" in Ohio Review (1994).

Last Updated June 01, 1995