Phillip Lopate Essay - Critical Essays

Lopate, Phillip


Phillip Lopate 1943–

American poet, novelist, essayist, nonfiction writer, and critic.

Lopate, a lifetime New Yorker, is concerned with commenting on contemporary urban life in a highly personal way. While his writing, including his nonfiction, is highly imaginative, he has said that "nine-tenths of everything I write is autobiographical." Lopate has produced a relatively small body of work so far, but he has explored a wide variety of genres, concentrating on similar themes in each.

Although Lopate considers himself primarily a creative writer, his first work to receive critical attention was Being with Children (1975), a factual account of his experiences as a visiting writer and teacher at a New York City public school. Critics acclaimed the vivid descriptions and insights of this book and recommended it for its practical value to educators. Many also remarked on the literary qualities of the book, especially on Lopate's sensitive portrayal of his students and his relationship with them. Lopate's strong interest in narrative voice, revealed here and in his later work, makes the people he writes about, including himself, into "characters" in the literary sense, and turns Being with Children into what Lopate himself calls "a disguised novel."

In The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open (1972) and The Daily Round (1976), his first two collections of poetry, Lopate examines many of the components of everyday life in New York City: restaurants, male-female encounters, street scenes, and apartment living. Critics consider Lopate's poetry notable for the universal quality of the experiences he recreates, rather than for its technical aspects. Lopate's novel, Confessions of Summer (1979), received mixed reviews but was described by critics as a good first novel. In this story of a New York City love triangle, Lopate is primarily concerned with the emotional responses of his characters.

In Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis (1981), Lopate presents his themes in yet another genre: the personal essay. Although his subject matter is broad, the book gets its title from Lopate's feeling that his perceptions are shaped to a great degree by his marital status. In the Introduction to Bachelorhood he says, "I wanted to add … an unmarried perspective, because, for all that writers and human beings share, it makes a difference—having a mate—in how one sees or 'receives' the world." In an essay entitled "Bachelorhood and Its Literature," Lopate places himself in the tradition of such writers as nineteenth-century essayists Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, fellow "bachelor narrators."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100 and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Vivian Gornick

["Being With Children"] is about two things: the world of P.S. 90, and how Lopate worked to release the "creative voice" of the children of P.S. 90. What emerges is a wise and tender portrait of a small society, as well as some extraordinary writing about the mystery and beauty of human communications as they are made manifest between a teacher and his students, as well as the most exhilarating sense, finally, of how stubbornly people of all ages struggle to remain human in a time of cultural dissolution—and of what vital, renewing, political importance that struggle is. (It is this last that is the glory of Lopate's book. The people. The 12- and 27- and 49-year-old people; the laughter, anxiety, foolishness, intelligence and tender character of all those people running around P.S. 90, every day becoming themselves even as the world is falling all about them.) (p. 28)

The whole second half of the book is a compendium of the children's writings and Lopate's extremely intelligent and illuminating commentary on them and how the teaching of writing proceeded for him….

Precise, delicate, absorbed, the writing and the story of P.S. 90 unfold together, as together the poet and the children slowly part the prickly outer leaves of events to get at the tender, moving heart of the experience.

The city is under siege. The country, the institution, the time, the life—all under siege. At P.S. 90 everyone knows this. The teachers know it, the principal know it, Lopate knows it, and make no mistake, those kids know it…. Yet, the life within us surges up like weeds pushing through concrete. What sets Phillip Lopate apart from other poets who have gone into the schools is neither his preoccupation with the liberation of that famous children's "imagination" nor his ability to turn the children into poem factories but, rather, the enormous love and pleasure with which he feels the force of life persisting in the children. It is this quality that makes "Being With Children" a very special and important book. (p. 30)

Vivian Gornick, "The Radical/Teacher and the Poet/Teacher," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1975, pp. 8, 28, 30.∗


[Being With Children] might be misread as still another romantic critique of repression and lack of creativity in the public schools, or as a string of recipes for teaching creative writing by a teacher who could afford to be creative…. After all, Lopate simply recounts his experiences of being hired as a supervisor for a funded program in New York's P.S. 90, which was sponsored by the Writers and Teachers Collaborative and Columbia University for "training graduate students to be writing specialists in public schools." If this were all the book was about, it would be directed to a specialized audience indeed. But it is a good deal more.

It is a sometimes funny, sometimes tedious, but generally insightful series of questions and reflections about teaching and writing. Seriously committed teachers, Lopate and his associates progressively explore the logic of their classroom behavior. The book could be aptly described as a record of the questions, reflections and practices certain teachers have posed, undergone and implemented to keep from becoming "sleepwalkers": teachers teaching children without reference to the real lives of either group.

Creative writing becomes, in the course of the book, a paradigm for the many ways of learning and teaching. Any teacher should be able to see enough connections between his activity and the process of teaching creative writing described by Lopate. He and his associates search for the shared human experience to unlock the creative process: in their case, the common adventure of writing "from," not just "about," experience and feeling that can bridge the gap between child and adult. Part of the excitement of Being With Children is watching Lopate struggle to make creative writing more than imitation and an "ingestion of adult genres." Once the blocks to expressiveness are pushed aside, if only momentarily, Lopate, his colleagues and the children shape the low-level artistry of raw expression into genuine literature appropriate to the age and development of the children.

For anyone teaching creative writing, Being With Children is a mine of practical suggestions. But for any teacher, the book is an important example of the kinds of personal questions and reflections that undergird good teaching.

Joseph J. McHugh, in a review of "Being with Children," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1976; all rights reserved), Vol. 134, No. 10, March 13, 1976, p. 215.

Aram Saroyan

The Daily Round is dedicated to Pasternak, and the title poem to Mandelstem, and the book as a whole explores the malaise of the unattached urban American—the '60s survivor who has abandoned the assumptions and liberties of that decade and taken a stand in a solitary, sober "daily round" of job, apartment, friends, and lovers. Lopate is new to me, and I found real distinction in many of these poems, or more specifically in the poet's voice, which is both the instrument and the product of Lopate's concerns….

[The] exuberance of the '60s was a little wearing on us all—every extreme seems to exact its payment—and in Lopate's poems there is real evidence that the poet has found a viable alternative in accepting his own limits, as well as his own demands, for better or for worse. The self is the unit upon which it all rests, an accepting, humane, realistic self; the life in it need not be extravagant in display. It is on-going, a fact, and this is Lopate's real celebration, the life that he is simply given….

This is the self that Pasternak found to be sustaining in the years of Stalinism and after. Pasternak, in effect, abandoned modernism. His final poems, written around the crisis of his being awarded the Nobel prize, are of a simplicity and clarity that are literally transcendant. I admire the way Phillip Lopate has taken this lead, and I look forward to his future work. (p. 74)

Aram Saroyan, "Good-bye to the 1960s" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 4, January 24, 1977, pp. 73-4.∗

Hayden Carruth

Phillip Lopate's new book ["The Daily Round"] is titled perfectly. The daily round is exactly what he writes about, and a damned, dull, dreadful, despairing round it is too, most of the time. Oh, occasionally a tentative cheer for the sunset in the park, a dry exclamation at the sight of a girl with her jeans off; sometimes there's even a gasp of refreshing radical anger. But the prevailing tone is melancholy: specifically, the melancholy of New York.

Lopate may deny, as he explicitly does in one poem, that he thinks New York—or the world—is going down the drain, but in the face of the rest of the poems it is a hollow denial.

So we may have what we have had before from older poets like Ignatow and Reznikoff, from many younger poets of Lopate's own generation: details of emptiness, spiritual malaise in the city. He is at his best when he writes objectively about them, the people (including the poet) who walk the streets, inhabit furnished rooms, drink coffee in late-night cafeterias. He can pin down quantities of metaphysical horror in one observed fragment….

Lopate's worst are his more subjective poems, some of them pure self-indulgence, but the good poems are more than enough to support his book. They are lucid, consistent in tone, well and simply written, and—the acid test—they work. They move us. We are reluctant to give in to them, yet we do. Despair and all.

Hayden Carruth, "City Blues," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 7, 1977, p. 25.


[Confessions of Summer] is a first novel about a romantic triangle. Two strikes. But Phillip Lopate is an experienced writer in poetry and nonfiction … and he approaches his time-worn subject with acute perceptions and mastery of style. The result is a psychological novel of considerable distinction….

"The triad is a notoriously unstable form," a friend tells Eric, too late to do him any good. "In sexual matters it nearly always resolves itself into another duo." The question here is which duo. There are three possibilities, for Eric and Jack have enjoyed a friendship so long and intense that it practically amounts to platonic homosexuality (complete with platonic dialogues), and in the...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Daphne Merkin

Phillip Lopate's "Confessions of Summer" is about a romantic triangle, that most lopsided and confession-inducing of human arrangements. Mr. Lopate has set his novel in New York City over a period of three summers, and its concerns are giddy, in keeping with both the weather and the locale. The characters, especially, are a recognizably urban breed: they remind me—from their preoccupation with one another's level of intelligence to their interest in obscure old movies—of a lot of people I seem to know. (p. 10)

You probably have to be part of such a triangle to appreciate its peculiar compulsion; otherwise there is a great risk of becoming irritated and then bored. An added difficulty in the case...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Richard P. Brickner

Despite the title, not all the pieces [in "Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis"] are about bachelorhood (of which Lopate, though once married for five years, is evidently a born practitioner), nor are they all, strictly speaking, about the metropolis. But they are all about Lopate's bacheloric and city-boy personality, one of complex charm and exceptional intelligence, wittiness and talent.

Lopate is as gifted at catching thoughts as he is at showing behavior and sensation. Whether in the energetic and sophisticated survey "Bachelorhood and Its Literature," in the wonderfully sharp (but not condescending) social study "Quiche Blight on Columbus Avenue," or the definitely sensible "Renewing Sodom...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Seymour Kleinberg

In his engaging, intelligent, and beautifully written collection of essays, Bachelorhood, Phillip Lopate sets out to explore the condition of those who have elected to be single…. In pieces ranging from the slight and delightful to an original exploration of bachelorhood as the basis for a literary genre, Lopate uses a rueful civilized persona, a narrator who is always ironic, but who "is inevitably less than the writer." It is this emotional distance between persona and author, both called Phillip Lopate, that gives the book a disquieting and sometimes uncomfortable tone.

In "My Drawer," the persona sets out to sketch the image of his sensibility, detailing his wryness, sensitivity, and...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Rochelle Ratner

Phillip Lopate is a male writer who's willing to take risks, lay all the facts of his life on the line in these smooth flowing autobiographical fictions. Damnit, that takes a hell of a lot of guts, and we have to admire him for it. Or so one thinks through the first 50 pages of Bachelorhood.

Wait a minute. This detail here is a little too cute. Or he's made too much out of a triviality. This couldn't have happened exactly the way he describes it. We begin to realize what a successful liar he is. There is no indication of the heavy confessional mode one has grown to expect from reading Plath, Lowell, Sexton, Rich, et al. Lopate is having fun with the reader. Or at the reader's expense. He seems...

(The entire section is 663 words.)