The Tragic Sense of Frank Bidart

Nancy Crampton
Frank Bidart, New York City, April 2017; photograph by Nancy Crampton

Twenty years ago, Frank Bidart called his sixth book Desire. It is desire that drives his poetry, just as making desire believable on the page drives his imagination. Besides its erotic reach, “desire” signifies for Bidart a yearning toward the absolute in any domain. To desire to create a perfect work of art; to find provable truth; to speak with a candor “that gives a candid kind to everything” (Stevens) is—as any adult knows—to fail. And yet. It is that “and yet” that gives passion to Bidart’s voice, as he both succumbs to and resists desire. Hoping in love for a perfect entwining of body and mind, the young are violently disappointed by each broken relationship; longing for the sustenance of family affection, the young are astonished and hurt by its deficiencies; the artist-in-the-making aspires after an unattainable aesthetic cohesion of heart, eye, mind, and medium; and the devotee attempts a mystical knowledge of the divine, only to have the radiance wane.

Bidart’s fiercely original poetry, now collected into one volume with several interviews, has found again and again an entry into the heartbreak, pathos, plangency, rage, and depression into which the longing for perfection will lead anyone who finds compromise intolerable. This is an old theme: Coleridge treated it in “Constancy to an Ideal Object”; Hopkins saw himself “with this tormented mind tormenting yet”; and Yeats, in “Among School Children,” bitterly addressed those unattainable ideal perfections of love, worship, or maternal aspiration, those

That passion, piety, or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolize,
[Those] self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.

Bidart’s poems establish themselves on the paradox of the compulsion to return to the scene of desire, loathing its fundamental insufficiency as well as the self that returns to it. His intricate twists of syntax, coiling like a python about the tortured sensibility, act out the dilemmas and melodramas of the desiring self. Because above all he wants to register the sound of the human voice, he is driven to unusual representations of that voice on the page.

For Bidart, anyone awaking to consciousness who finds himself incapable of obeying—or at least giving lip-service to—imposed conventions of behavior is forced into the labor of self-articulation through desire, experiencing painful torsions and painful results. The young and intellectual Bidart—raised a Catholic by uneducated parents, afraid to come out as gay until his parents died, and enthralled by art from his adolescence—had to invent a path of his own beyond the theological and social constraints of his family. (It is only later in life that the frightened young person of either sex learns with some relief that others have been obliged to the same desperate courage: in “The Badgers,” Seamus Heaney asked, with comparable anxiety, “How perilous is it…

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