In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Bidart’s work.
Frank Bidart first gained the attention of critics with Golden State and The Book of the Body, introspective verse collections that were published during the 1970s. On the basis of Bidart’s early work, David Lehman, in a Newsweek assessment, called him ‘‘a poet of uncommon intelligence and uncompromising originality.’’ In the early 1980s Bidart wrote The Sacrifice, which furthered his reputation as a prominent voice in American poetry. Much of Bidart’s work, critics suggest, focuses on the origins and consequences of guilt. Among his most notable pieces are dramatic monologues presented through such characters as Herbert White, a child-murderer, and Ellen West, an anorexic woman. ‘‘Part of his effectiveness comes simply from his ability as a storyteller,’’ commented Michael Dirda in Washington Post Book World. ‘‘You long to discover what happens to his poor, doomed people.’’
Bidart grew up in California, where he developed a love for the cinema. He entertained thoughts of becoming an actor when he was young and later, at the time he enrolled in college, considered becoming a film director. His plans began to change, however, when he was introduced to literature at the University of California— Riverside. While an undergraduate, he was introduced to such critical works as The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling and The Idea of a Theater by Francis Fergusson—both of which exerted a strong influence on his early attitudes toward literary expression. He also became familiar with the work of notable twentieth-century poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In a 1983 interview with Mark Halliday, which is included in Bidart’s In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965-90, the poet spoke of how reading Pound’s cantos, long works which were first released in 1917, introduced him to the potential of poetry to encompass a wide range of subjects: ‘‘They were tremendously liberating in the way that they say that anything can be gotten into a poem, that it doesn’t have to change its essential identity to enter the poem—if you can create a structure that is large enough or strong enough, anything can retain its own identity and find its place there.’’
After graduating from the University of California—Riverside, Bidart continued his education at Harvard University. He was not, however, certain of where his course of study would lead him. Bidart related in his interview with Halliday: ‘‘I took classes with half my will— often finishing the work for them months after they were over; and was scared, miserable, hopeful. I wrote a great deal. I wrote lugubrious plays that I couldn’t see had characters with no character. More and more, I wrote poems.’’ Bidart’s first attempts at poetry were, by his own admission, failures. ‘‘They were terrible; no good at all,’’ he continued in his interview. ‘‘I was doing what many people start out by doing, trying to be ‘universal’ by making the entire poem out of assertions and generalization about the world—with a very thin sense of a complicated, surprising, opaque world outside myself that resisted the patterns I was asserting. These generalizations, shorn of much experience, were pretty simple-minded and banal.’’
After honing his craft, Bidart submitted his work to Richard Howard, who was then editor of a poetry series at Braziller. Howard decided to publish Bidart’s poetry in a volume titled Golden State, which was released in 1973. In the title poem to Bidart’s debut collection, a son and father vainly attempt to understand and accept one another. The poem, presented as an address to the father, is divided into ten separate sections. Critics remarked on the autobiographical nature of the piece and on the sparse quality of the language that Bidart employs throughout the work. Other poems in the collection also touch upon the relationship between parent and child. In his interview Bidart discussed how he came upon the theme of family that enters into some of the poems in Golden State: ‘‘When I first faced the central importance of ‘subject matter,’ I knew what I would have to begin by writing about. In the baldest terms, I was someone who had grown up obsessed with his parents. The drama of their lives dominated what, at the deepest level, I thought about.’’
Also included in Golden State is ‘‘Herbert White,’’ a poem which is presented through the voice of a psychopathic child-murderer and necrophiliac. In his interview with Halliday Bidart stated that his intent in writing the piece was to present ‘‘someone who was ‘all that I was not,’ whose way of ‘solving problems’ was the opposite of that of the son in the middle of the book. The son’s way . . . involves trying to ‘analyze’ and ‘order’ the past, in order to reach ‘insight’; Herbert White’s is to give himself a violent pattern growing out of the dramas of his past, a pattern that consoles him as long as he can feel that someone else has acted within it.’’ According to several reviewers, the dramatic monologue, which opens the collection, is the most notable work in the book. Sharon Mayer Libera, in her Parnassus assessment, stated that ‘‘Bidart’s achievement, even a tour de force, is to have made [Herbert White] human. The narrator’s gruesome adventures become the least important aspect of the monologue—what is significant is his reaching out, in a language both awkward and alive, for the reasons he seeks power over his experience in peculiar and violent ways.’’
In Bidart’s second collection, The Book of the Body, he includes several poems which feature characters who are struggling to overcome both physical and emotional adversity. The book opens with ‘‘The Arc,’’ in which the author presents the musings of an amputee, who at the beginning of the poem provides instructions on how to care for his stump. Bidart also gives voice to Ellen West, a woman with anorexia, a condition which causes her to starve herself continuously because she is dissatisfied with the appearance of her body. Based on a case study by noted psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, ‘‘Ellen West’’ was regarded by Edmund White in Washington Post Book World as ‘‘a work that displays Bidart’s talents at their most...
(The entire section is 2672 words.)