Frank Bidart Essay - Critical Essays


Frank Bidart’s poetry is decidedly original in style and content. Thematically, his work resembles confessional poetry, since it is obsessed with the family drama along with the attendant guilt and longing for forgiveness. Like Lowell’s groundbreaking Life Studies (1959), Bidart’s poetry abounds with autobiographical revelations of sexual perversion and neurotic family dynamics; like Lowell, Bidart develops personae that dramatically present these topics with an excruciating anguish that often borders on insanity. Unlike Lowell, however, Bidart presents the guilt and suffering of the mind embedded in the raging emotions and chaotic desires of the body with singular directness.

Whereas Lowell’s poetic style has a rhetorical eloquence fashioned from the New Critical techniques of irony, fragmentation, and detailed imagery, Bidart’s develops directly from an impassioned narrative voice that is abstract rather than particular, flatly prosaic rather than rhythmically colloquial. In Bidart’s poetry, the line breaks and the idiosyncratic punctuation function to reproduce the “pauses, emphases, urgencies and languors in the voice.” Often the syntax is complex; sometimes sentences stretch over a page or more and are rife with qualifications and contradictions, all signs of an active mind that, though speaking with the eloquence of polite, educated conversation, is in the grip of strong emotion. Bidart’s dependence on an articulate, abstract style risks prosaic blandness, but the reward is a remarkably faithful fastening of his distinctive voice to the page.

Golden State

Bidart’s first collection, Golden State, begins with the poem “Herbert White,” a dramatic monologue prefiguring the thematic focus on insanity and morality in his prizewinning poem “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” published ten years later in The Sacrifice. At first the eponymous narrator of “Herbert White” views his murder and rape of a young child as morally justifiable because the act comes from a unity of body and desire: “When I hit her on the head, it was good.” From this point of view, however, life is “without sharpness, richness or line.” Only when White splits his awareness from his physical desires does suffering, and hence morality, commence:

—Hell came when I saw MYSELF . . . and couldn’t stand what I see. . . .

Coordinate with White’s separation from and feeling of revulsion for the body and natural processes is the advent of Bidart’s characteristic stylistic devices. Before the foregoing lines occur, the verse in “Herbert White” is irregular, but when the narrator’s split consciousness focuses on the agony of parental rejection, the gnawing guilt of his familial relationships, his sexual perversity, and the suffering occasioned by his body’s unbridled instincts, the line breaks become directly reflective of emotional urgency and certain words, such as “MYSELF,” are capitalized in order to reproduce the sonic dynamics of impassioned speech. Significantly, the suffering and the guilt cannot be ameliorated by appeal to a higher plane of understanding such as that normally supplied by religion. Devoid of absolutes, the narrator’s voice exists only in the domain of his suffering, a voice universalized by the sound, grammar, and vocabulary of the relentless anguish of self-awareness.

The autobiographical poem “Golden State” reveals one of the sources of the emotional distress pervading Bidart’s poetry: his father, a millionaire farmer described in the poem as “the unhappiest man/ I have ever known well.” The father’s unhappiness results not only from his pathetic desire to be a film star, cowboy, or empire builder but also from a “radical disaffection/ from the very possibilities/ of human life.” Disconnected from himself and from his family, the father demonstrates to the poet that the search for connections is both initiated and frustrated by the family:

The exacerbation of this seeming necessity for connection—; you and mother taught me there’s little that’s redemptive or useful in natural affections. . . .

Bidart is subject to the compelling human need to make something—some meaning, some pattern—out of these natural affections, but he finds little assistance from the conventional means toward establishing a relationship between his life and a larger realm of understanding. In section 4 of “Golden State,” Bidart considers and rejects the efficacy of what his education has given him as an aid to understanding the mysterious hold his father wields on his innermost being: “the lies/ of mere, neat poetry”; his readings of Carl Jung that “never get to the bottom/ of what is, or was”; and the very “patterns and paradigms” of his Harvard studies that are rendered effete by his father’s sarcasm, “How are all these bastards at Harvard?” Mere objective insight is rejected in section 5, and section 7 demonstrates the inadequacy of psychiatry to effect a reconciliation between the son and his memories of his dead father. Prayer is discovered to be ineffective in section 8. Only by entering into the words of his poem “to become not merely/ a speaker, the ’eye,’ but a character” can Bidart represent the actual shape of his inner life. It is precisely in order to represent his inner life that Bidart has developed poetic techniques that eschew the artificiality of traditional prosody, with its dependence on meter, metaphor, image, and irony. Bidart’s poetry demands directness, a physical entering of the self into the poem, an embodiment, that reifies the relentless agony and violence of human experience.

The Book of the Body

The Book of the Body, Bidart’s next collection of poetry, presents the poet’s sheer disgust at having to enter aesthetically into “the stump-filled material world// things; bodies;/ CRAP.” These lines are from the first poem of the book, titled “The Arc,” which sets the collection’s pervasive tone of physical laceration (the poem’s narrator has lost his arm as a result of a senseless accident) and bodily anxiety (“I’m/ embarrassed to take my shirt off”). An arc could geometrically be part of the unity of a circle, but in this poem, an arc is seen as irremediably cut off from wholeness, as is the arm of the amputee-narrator; it is an unredeemed segment of time, like a person’s life bounded by its birth date and death date between parentheses. Unable to transcend the suffering of his limited physical existence, the narrator can achieve only the equivocal resolution of contemplating “how Paris is still the city of Louis XVI and/ Robespierre, how blood, amputation, and rubble// give her dimension, resonance, and grace.”

Having explored his obsession with his father in “Golden State,” Bidart now turns to his mother in the poem “Elegy.” References to laceration abound: the chewing done by his mother’s pet dog Belafont, his mother’s reply of “gelding” to the narrator’s ambition to become a priest, a love affair that leads to abortion, the envisioning of death and memory as “a razor-blade without a handle.” Especially interesting is the interconnection made between being cut off from a satisfying relationship with his mother as well as himself and discussions of impotent mouths and mutilated breasts. When dreaming of the dog Belafont, the narrator recalls how the dog attempted to kiss him, but “carefully avoiding the mouth, as/ taught.” In the section grotesquely entitled “Pruning,” his mother exclaims, “I’d rather die than let them/ take off a breast.” Mouths that cannot make contact, breasts that are threatened with excision indicate a lack of connection with the physical world as matter, “mother.”

A morbid rejection of matter and of eating, an act that implicates the self in matter, forms a large portion of the theme of Bidart’s great dramatic monologue from The Book of the Body, “Ellen West.” Assuming the mask of the anorexic Ellen West, Bidart dramatizes how acquiring a body that is the image of the soul necessitates destroying that very body. To West, food is inextricably entangled with sex, death, and the material world:

Even as a child, I saw that the “natural” process of aging is for one’s middle to thicken— one’s skin to blotch; as happened to my mother. And her mother. I loathed “Nature.”

Only by opposing the body—as, in the poem, did Maria Callas, the great opera singer, when she drastically trimmed...

(The entire section is 3816 words.)