(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the Western Night contains all the poetry collections previously published by Frank Bidart—Golden State (1973), The Book of the Body(1977), and The Sacrifice (1983)—in addition to heretofore unpublished poems, featuring his most recent long poem, entitled “The First Hour of the Night.” Appended at the end of the volume is an interview with Bidart conducted in 1983, an inclusion helpful to the reader, for it elucidates the personal themes and the original prosody that give Bidart’s poetry its distinctive voice.

In his poetry Frank Bidart strides firmly into the unsettled territory of postmodern aesthetics. Thematically, he can be enlisted under the banner of confessional poetry, since he is obsessed with the family drama along with the attendant guilt and longing for forgiveness. Like Robert Lowell, his friend and mentor, Bidart records the anguish of, as he phrases it, “someone who had grown up obsessed with his parents” and writes within autobiographical fixations reflective of Lowell’s ground- breaking Life Studies (1959). Unlike Lowell, however, Bidart almost completely divests his work of the New Critical techniques of irony, fragmentation, and detailed image, creating a poetry that is abstract rather than particular, flatly prosaic rather than rhythmically colloquial.

Instead of the ironic, metaphoric speech patterns of Lowell’s poetry, Bidart’s develops directly from the structure of impassioned narration. If Ralph Waldo Emerson inaugurated the era of modern poetics by insisting that it is not meters but a meter-making argument that informs poetry, Bidart has gone the extra step by structuring his poetry almost exclusively around argument, not meters, not rhyme, not symbol. 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.

Bidart’s chronologically first collection, Golden State, initiates the moral earnestness and innovative style that mark his later works. Beginning this collection is 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 in The Sacrifice. In “Herbert White,” the eponymous narrator, a child molester and murderer, alternates between periods of insanity, where guilt and the need for forgiveness are absent, and moments of self-knowledge:

Hell came when I saw

what I see …


and couldn’t stand

This passage illustrates many of Bidart’s singular poetic techniques. For example, the line breaks result from the pauses necessitated by emotional urgency, not metrical structure. The capitalization of words such as “MYSELF,” a technique used frequently in later poems, reproduces the sonic dynamics of speech. The passage also comes at the climax of tensions that generate the dominant themes in Bidart’s work: the agony of parental rejection, the gnawing guilt of familial relationships, sexual anxieties, and a vision of the body as the locus of suffering. Significantly, the suffering and the guilt cannot be ameliorated by appeal to a higher plane of understanding such as that normally supplied by religion. The only absolute in the poetry is the poet’s relentless voice, which achieves universality through the sound, the grammar, and the vocabulary of moral anguish.

“Golden State,” the title poem from the collection Golden State, focuses on one source of the emotional distress pervading Bidart’s poetry—his father, described by the poet as “the unhappiest man/ I have ever known well.” Because the father represents “radical disaffection/ from the very possibilities/ of human life,” the poet feels it “a relief to have [the father] dead”; nevertheless, the father cannot be guiltlessly discarded, for the poet’s emotional conflict with the father “remains, challenging: beyond all the/ patterns and paradigms/ I use to silence and stop it.” It is precisely in order to represent the emotional intensity that underlies patterns and paradigms that Bidart has developed poetic techniques that eschew the artificiality of traditional prosody with its dependence on meter, metaphor, and irony. Such devices, crafted after the fact to contain the emotions of the poem, actually serve to conceal them. The clinically exact observations of Bidart’s poetry demand objective insight, not prayer,...

(The entire section is 2010 words.)