The Book of the Body

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The Book of the Body is a confident, coherent volume of five poems in which Frank Bidart takes risks a younger poet would not have attempted. Structurally, he has built this volume on variations of a single theme, which, if it were to fail, would destroy the book. Technically, Bidart mixes open and formal verse with prose—sometimes within the same poem—which, again, might have been disastrous. Moreover, the male poet risks creating female personae at a time when feminists deny that such is possible. These risks were worth the taking. A female reviewer in New Republic has said that the book “is a wonderful refutation of the theory that a man can’t successfully write in the persona of a woman. In fact Bidart seems able to write with power and ease in any persona he chooses.” The Book of the Body is a tightwire act that succeeds; its success is even more impressive when the reader realizes that Bidart is performing without a net.

In terms of style, Bidart at first glance appears to be writing the open, naked poetry that so many confessional poets have used and reused. But when the poems are read out loud, the reader hears the difference. Lines break because they must break just at that point. Consider:

—She is saying: “If the cancerpops out somewhere else, I won’t let them operate.I’d rather die.They justbutcher you . . . Besides, it never works.”

This is not free verse. There is an irregular iambic meter at work here, which does not control the lines so much as it catches the natural rhythms of American speech. This is what William Carlos Williams said the American poet had to learn; but instead poets gradually turned breath-control lines into a kind of formalism that became as restrictive as the old iambic pentameter. Two generations back, Ezra Pound and the Imagists demanded that poetry learn to create its lines as if they were music. Bidart has developed a mixture of natural speech and formal rhythm that allows him freedom without absolutely sacrificing form. He has eclectically combined the maxims of Williams, Pound, and Olson. The resulting poetic line responds to the natural speaking voice as well as the breath. Bidart belongs to the third generation of American modern poets, who have, at last, begun to develop a recognizable American line unselfconsciously.

Bidart’s tone of voice also appears confessional: in other words, the I-speaker revealing to the listener personal problems of the sort not usually spoken about. The long opening poem, “The Arc,” lends itself to this categorization:

When I wake up,I try to convince myself that my armisn’t there—to retain my sanity.Then I try to convince myself it is.

What follows is a tense exposé by a man who has lost one of his arms at the elbow. After finishing the book, the reader understands that Bidart creates characters in monologues and dialogues with the skill of a dramatist. Although the poems look confessional, it is not the poet himself speaking. This skill allows Bidart the distance between himself and his art which is so necessary for objective control. One need only compare these poems with the hysterical intenisty of Plath or Sexton to realize that this is not the confessional poetry that has inundated us of late. If one were looking for Bidart’s roots, a comparison with Lowell’s Life Studies would be profitable. Lowell opened new ground in that volume, mixing...

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The Book of the Body Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Atlantic. CCXL, October, 1977, p. 102.

Booklist. LXXIII, July 15, 1977, p. 1698.

Library Journal. CII, August, 1977, p. 1653.

New Republic. CLXXVII, October 22, 1977, p. 35.

Yale Review. LXVII, October, 1977, p. 72.