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A Poet Who Dares

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Lawrence Schwartzwald/Splash News/Corbis
Frank Bidart at a celebration of the centenary of Elizabeth Bishop, New York City, February 2011

Frank Bidart writes with terrifying candor. Himself a child of the “confessional” poetry of the 1950s and 1960s—he was a student and friend of Robert Lowell’s—he has taken the mode of confessional poetry to a kind of logical conclusion, away from penitent speaking to priest, or patient speaking to therapist, all the way to the tormented, divided psyche speaking to itself, as it does again and again in these new poems:

You lodged your faith
in Art—
which gives us
pattern, process
with the flesh
still stuck to it.
—“O Ruin O Haunted”
You learned early that adults’ genteel
fantasies about human life
were not, for you, life. You think sex
is a knife
driven into you to teach you that.

—“Queer”

Even when, memorably, Bidart has chosen to adopt the voices of various personae—the mad Nijinsky (“The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” 1983), or an anorexia patient (“Ellen West,” 1977), or a child molester and killer (“Herbert White,” 1973)—the “confessions” offered by these characters are oddly, horrifyingly familiar and unspectacular, as is the language they use: they, like us, want what they cannot have. They want the dead to come back to life; they want whomever they love to love them in return; they want to transcend the limits of the flesh and be immortal. They desire what they know they should not desire. They wish they had not done what they did; they fear they will do what they do not—and do—wish to do:

                Everything
he offers, by intricate
omission, displays what he denies you.
Beneath all, the no that you
persuade yourself
can be reversed.
“Seduction,” in Watching the Spring Festival, 2008

Bidart humanizes monsters (among the other characters who have inhabited his poems we can find John Wayne Gacy and Ovid’s doomed incestuous couple Myrrha and Cinyras) and also makes us see how monstrous our ordinary humanity is. So telling is his “subject matter” that his extraordinary poetics—his mastery of the line, of diction, white space, typography, and punctuation—almost disappears for the reader urgently moving through the poem. The task of “fastening the voice to the page,” as he once put it in an interview, led him almost to “score” his poems, as a composer might offer notes on dynamics—diminuendos, con spiritos, crescendos—by capitalizations, italics, and unusual punctuation, such as a semicolon followed by a dash. Here is a passage from “Ellen West”—in which the poet-speaker turns briefly from his central anorexic character to contemplate, in an aside, opera diva Maria Callas and her troubles—that captures something of his range:

—I know that in Tosca, in the second act,
when, humiliated, hounded by Scarpia,
she sang Vissi d’arte
—“I lived for art”—
and in torment, bewilderment, at the end she asks,
with a voice reaching
harrowingly for the notes,
“Art has repaid me LIKE THIS?”…
—Is it bitter? Does her soul
tell her
that she was an idiot ever to think
anything

               material wholly could satisfy?
—Perhaps it says: The only way
to escape
the History of Styles
is not to have a body.

Sliding through dependent clauses, his poetics is both one of speed, as he nimbly draws the reader forward through breakneck line breaks; and of abrupt, strategic silences that stop the reader in a free fall of sorrow, or dread. From another poem:

—As a dog whose body is sinking into quicksand
locks its jaws around a branch hanging
above it, the great teeth grasping so fiercely the stable world
they snap the fragile wood,—
…Myrrha looped a rope over the beam above her bed
in order to hang herself.
—“The Second Hour of the Night,” in Desire, 1997

Surely one of the strangest, and least-commented-upon, aspects of the contemporary poet’s life is the importance of public readings. Practically speaking, poems these days have two distinct, if overlapping, existences: how they live on the page, and how they are heard in performance. (Thus, perhaps, we can see poems reclaiming an “original” oral place in the culture, as well as one of their “original” functions, as drama.)

For the first half of the twentieth century, poetry readings were usual only for the most prominent poets, show-boaters such as Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who made money on the lecture circuit. More recently, with a few notable exceptions—the back-up musicians that appeared onstage with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Sexton, Robert Pinksy’s experiments with poetry and jazz, or the slam-poetry contests now mercifully in abeyance—most readings are not elaborate affairs. They certainly do not make anyone serious money. But they are a common feature of life even for second-, third-, and no-tier poets. The venue can be a university auditorium, a bookstore, or a bar, the poet may read alone or with one or two others, and the audience is rarely large. Books are offered for sale, but no one really thinks the event is about selling books. (In this way, poetry readings differ considerably from the “book tour” readings typically organized for fiction and nonfiction titles by their publishers.)

Something more elusive is sought in the poetry reading—sought, and sometimes found—that is, a place for the words on the page to have life in the air, spoken, in an intimate exchange between the poet and whatever audience has shuffled in. When not deadly, a poetry reading can have a raffish charm all its own, and most poets I know will accept practically all invitations so as to experience that momentary sense of closing the gap between the lonely self who writes and the cocked ears of an audience, however small, however disconcertingly populated by cousins, hobos, and rival poets.

It was at one such event—in the living room of a college dormitory in Boston, in the late 1970s—that I first heard Frank Bidart read. I and a dozen other students were profoundly jolted by what I later realized was an early draft of the poem that became “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky.” This very long poem—more than six hundred lines—incorporates material from Nijinsky’s diaries, focusing on 1919–1920, when as madness was seizing him he tried to choreograph a dance about the Great War:

God was silent.
       Everything was SILENT.
I lay back down in the snow.
I wanted again to go to sleep, and die…
But my BODY did not want to die.
My BODY spoke to me:
There is no answer to your life.
You are insane; or evil.
There is only one thing you can do:—
You must join YOUR GUILT
   to the WORLD’S GUILT.

I am not sure now whether I was able to appreciate the poetry as such; what I did appreciate—and was bewitched and alarmed by in almost equal measure—was Bidart’s astonishing performance. With complete concentration on the words he was saying, and without any affective display of what could properly be called “acting,” he paced and swooped and writhed as he read, somewhat nasally, and with aggressively flattened American vowels, from the pages of the poem. When the next day I read his poems—everything I could find in print—I saw those “dynamics” for reading made explicit in the typography on the pages, and was able to hear his voice again in my ear.

In the go-for-broke “Confessional,” written in the same period as the Nijinsky poem, the volume is raised high from the urgency of needing to be heard, and from the speaker’s—the poet’s—fear that he will not be. The poem is about the death of the speaker’s mother; explicitly, a dialogue with another, priestly figure pursues the metaphor of the church confessional:

SHE KNEW THAT I COULD BARELY STAND TO BE AROUND HER.
        Did you forgive her?
I tried—;
                   for years I almost
convinced myself I did…
But no, I didn’t.
—Now, after I have said it all, so I can
rest,
          will you give me ABSOLUTION,—
…and grant this
“created being”
FORGIVENESS?…

I have seen Bidart read in more recent years, and while the experience is never less than intense, he has calmed his reading style somewhat, just as on the page he has calmed his typographical vehemence. I first noticed this in his 1997 volume Desire, and wondered at it. Some lines from that book’s “The Second Hour of the Night,” a complex elegy that interweaves a meditation on the nature of physical desire with the story of Myrrha and Cinyras—daughter and father—give, I think, a clue. The speaker addresses the ghost of his dead beloved, who “courteously” has asked

         if you can briefly
borrow, inhabit my body.
When I look I can see my body
away from me, sleeping.
I say Yes. Then you enter it
like a shudder as if eager again to know
what it is to move within arms and legs.
I thought, I know that he will return it.
I trusted in that none
earlier, none other.

The idea that something new has happened—trusting another, even in ghostly state, with one’s body, one’s life—underscores for me this beginning modulation of Bidart’s style. Whatever promptings from his personal life are here suggested, I have to wonder as well how much may be due to the fact that in the intervening years Bidart’s work has become well known, widely praised, “award-winning,” as they say, with his readings attended by large and appreciative crowds. Perhaps the urgent need to be heard actually has been met, at least in part.

Metaphysical Dog offers more evidence that the public life of the now established poet has quite naturally and inevitably seeped into the poetry. In “Writing ‘Ellen West,’” we hear from the poet who has been asked, probably more than once, to explain how, more than thirty years ago, he came to take on the voice of the first diagnosed anorexia patient. (Here he speaks of himself in the third person, rather than to himself in the second.) These are some of the opening lines:

Inside him was that thing that he must expel from him to live.
*
He read “The Case of Ellen West” as a senior in college and
immediately wanted to write a poem about it but couldn’t so he
stored it, as he has stored so much that awaits existence.
*
Unlike Ellen he was never anorexic but like Ellen he was
obsessed with eating and the arbitrariness of gender and having to
have a body.

In the poem Bidart moves into self-diagnosis of the psychological circumstances of his mother’s death, and back further into the familiar territory of his parents’ marriage. Throughout, the tone, though anguished, remains understated. It strikes me that this poem could only have been written from the confident position of a writer who knows that what he has to say—including about how he has come to write his poems—will be heeded.

Of course Bidart has never lacked for audacity. Among the audacities in the new book is “He Is Ava Gardner,” in which the poet uses the plot of a somewhat obscure English film from 1951, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, to “explain” a relationship—quite as if James Mason and Ava Gardner, the movie’s stars, were characters from Greek tragedy whose actions can be read for our edification:

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