Phillip Lopate Vivian Gornick - Essay

Vivian Gornick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.∗