Frank Leon Bidart, Jr., was born in 1939 in Bakersfield, California, where he grew up, in his words, “obsessed with his parents.” After he was graduated from the University of California, Riverside, he attended graduate school at Harvard University. He formed a close relationship with poet Robert Lowell while residing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and soon after began to write poetry with a style and content distinctive from those of his illustrious mentor. In 1972, Bidart accepted a position at Wellesley College, later becoming Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English.
Several prominent critics and fellow poets named Frank Bidart (BIH-durt) as a major voice in American poetry. He was born Frank Leon Bidart, Jr., to a hard-drinking Bishop, California, potato farmer and a mother who escaped from this abusive marriage only to repeat the experience and die ridden with fanatic religious fantasies approaching psychosis. Frank became the first Bidart to attend college, graduating from the University of California, Riverside, in 1962. He promptly moved across the country to attend graduate school at Harvard University. There he met Robert Lowell (and worked as his secretary for a while) and Elizabeth Bishop (who made Bidart an executor of her estate at her death in 1979). Bidart has since taught literature at Brandeis University and Wellesley College.
In 1997, Bidart published Desire to much acclaim after a period of silence. The collection was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. The poems draw heavily upon the history of the Roman Empire and upon Greek and Roman mythology, arguing in various ways that one is what one desires. In 2001, Bidart received the Wallace Stevens Award, given by the Academy of American Poets. The judges were Eavan Boland, Louise Glück, Wendy Lesser, James Longenbach, and Carl Phillips.
Bidart’s most characteristic work is in fairly long free-verse psychological “narratives” that explore his memory of suffering in his dysfunctional family (with his father in “California Plush” and “Golden State,” with his mother in “Elegy” and “Confessional”). His poetry plumbs the psychological depths of his own experience—familial, bisexual, intellectual—but it would be misleading to see his work as belonging to what is often called the confessional school.
Bidart rejects a merely biographical concern, generalizing his awareness of human suffering and achieving historical reverberations in dramatic monologues. Among his poems’ speakers are a fictional murderer and necrophiliac (“Herbert White”), a one-armed homosexual amputee (“The Arc”), an anorexic neurotic borrowed from the psychoanalyst Ludwig Binswanger’s clinical notes (“Ellen West”), and the great mad ballet dancer Nijinsky (“The War of Vaslav Nijinsky”)....