Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016

by Frank Bidart

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1638

Author: Frank Bidart (b. 1939)

Publisher: Farrar, Straus Giroux (New York). 736 pp.

Type of work: Poetry, autobiography

Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 presents Frank Bidart’s previous eight books of poems with selected new work, along with interviews, establishing the trajectory of the award-winning poet’s career.

Frank Bidart is widely regarded as one of the most important American poets of the past fifty-plus years. Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 brings together eight previous volumes of Bidart’s poetry and includes a collection of new poems as well as interviews with Mark Halliday, Adam Travis, and Shara Lessley that date from 1983 to 2013. This expansive collection, an impressive achievement that records the growth and development of Bidart’s career, was chosen for the 2017 National Book Award in poetry.

Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016

Courtesy of Macmillan

Frank Bidart

Courtesy James Franco

As Bidart has explained in various interviews, and as his work demonstrates, he is a poet with a special interest in verbal and visual rhythms. The placement of words, phrases, and lines on the page are almost as important to him as the contents or meanings of the poems themselves. In fact, the meanings and effects of Bidart’s poems cannot be separated from their technical details, especially the use of white space on the page to indicate sounds and silences heard in the inner ear. Consider, for example, the opening lines of the poem titled “Old and Young,” which begins the section Thirst (New Poems, 2016):

If you have looked at someone in

a mirror

looking at you in the mirror

your eyes meeting


not face to face


backstage as you


for a performance

This sentence goes on and on: not a single comma, semicolon, or period interrupts its flow as the speaker piles detail on top of detail, phrase on top of phrase, to create a rhythm that eventually becomes almost hypnotic. The poem’s point is increasingly deferred and postponed so that reading the text becomes a process almost impossible to stop once one has started. This is a technique Bidart uses in many of his works, especially his latest works: they are poems meant to be heard as much as be read, but the placement of words on the mostly blank pages is meant to guide that imaginative hearing. There are also many other subtleties in the movements from line to line, as in the emphatic placement of “a mirror” in the second line, the emphatic echo of that word at the end of the third line, the emphatic isolation of “there,” and the understated (but still literally and figuratively pronounced) rhyme of “there” and “prepare,” and so on. Bidart is well known for his poetic monologues such as in the poems “Herbert White” or “Ellen West,” that include transgressive content such as necrophilia and anorexia, but for the most part his poems depend not on sensational topics or imagery, but on their visual and auditory techniques to capture and hold a reader’s attention.

At the same time, the contents of the poems are themselves often moving, even in the abstract. As Major Jackson noted in his review for the New York Times, Bidart’s poetry “over five decades has volubly modeled a wholly new approach to autobiographical material, chiefly by giving voice to the inner travails of other people’s lives, both real and imagined.” For example, in the poem “Half-Light,” the speaker recalls a time of furtive, drunken intimacy with a male friend from undergraduate days:

Parallel. We lay in parallel furrows.

—That suffocated, fearful

look on your face.

Jim, yesterday I heard your wife on the...

(This entire section contains 1638 words.)

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tell me you died almost nine months ago.

In interviews, such as in his 1999 Chicago Review session with Andrew Rathmann wherein Bidart spoke of the artist and poet Joe Brainard with whom had a deep friendship, Bidart has memorably expressed the notion of not having regrets, and certainly this poem illustrates that idea. These are often poems in this collection that look back wistfully on the past, celebrating the possibilities it offered while regretting how many of those possibilities went unfulfilled. Bidart, one of the most important of all the twentieth century’s “confessional” poets, is in now his late seventies, and part of the value of his collected work is to provide the reader with a perspective on life from the long view, from an extended vantage point. But the poems enduring value results from the methods Bidart uses to compose them, not simply from what is said. In “Half-Light,” for example, there are many accomplished effects, ranging from the subtle to the surprising. The single, emphatic word “parallel,” for instance, instantly catches readers off guard but then is immediately explained. The ensuing reference to “parallel furrows” (the speaker and his friend are lying out in a remote field, in the darkness of night, with only stars above) makes perfect everyday sense but also, in retrospect, foreshadows parallel graves. The tone of pastoral pleasure is immediately complicated by the “suffocated, fearful” look on Jim’s face. But then comes the sudden, abrupt shift to news that Jim, many decades later, has passed away.

Nothing prepares readers for the transition from youthful dalliance to the friend’s final absence, and the speaker is even more stunned than his audience. Details mentioned in passing—especially the reference to “your wife”—imply much but remain understated. The speaker addresses Jim as if Jim were still alive (as, in a sense, he is: in the speaker’s memory and imagination and now in this poem itself). The final quoted lines are especially poignant, but much of their power depends on the skill with which they are phrased, especially the use of emphatic repetition. This poem exemplifies many of the talents for which Bidart is justly praised: conversational plain-spokenness; ready accessibility; an emphasis on personal experience that also somehow seems universal; and, above all, the careful attention he pays to subtleties of rhythm. Little wonder, then, that Bidart chose this work as the title poem for a volume summing up his entire career. He is a poet whom many readers can easily understand, but whom many other poets will value for the details of his careful craftsmanship.

The subjects, like the powers, of Bidart’s poems are varied. In “End of a Friendship,” for instance, he immediately takes an openly political stance, offering phrasing shocking in the ways it describes the brutality of American colonialists in their treatment of Native Americans. But this part of the poem is powerful not because of the descriptions alone but because of the subtlety with which those descriptions are phrased and, especially, for the skill with which the phrases are laid out on the page. Yet the poem soon metamorphoses, as its title suggests, into an extended meditation on Bidart’s long, important, but ultimately broken friendship with Robert Lowell, his mentor and substitute father. Here again the poetry is personal and confessional, and it is also, importantly, personal from the perspective of an aging man. Bidart has emphasized, in various interviews, that his verse is often rooted in his own personal experience, that its purpose is not only to give voice to his own life but, in doing so, to give voice to life itself. Thus, this poem is not only about his broken friendship with Lowell but also about any broken friendship, just as the poem’s lines about Bidart’s parents will seem relevant to anyone’s relations with his or her parents.

Similarly, “Sum” will seem relevant to anyone aging and nearing death, but it will seem so less because of the subject matter itself than because Bidart uses vivid imagery and haunting sounds to imply whatever message the poem has to offer about mutability, as in these closing lines:

Each morning you wake to long slow piteous

swoops of sound, half-loon, half-dog.

He is wandering in the yard.

The dog at eighteen who at sixteen began protesting each dawn.

Here, again, is the note repeated throughout the final poems: the note of approaching finality—the note of looming death. But here, too, is Bidart’s gift for engaging the inner ear, for playing with gaps in spacing, for ending with a line that suggests much more than it openly states. The dog becomes the symbol of the speaker, but the speaker avoids any hint of sentimentality, whether in depicting himself, or in depicting the dog.

As Christopher Spaide suggested in his review of this collection for the Yale Review, the book could be “read as a single seven-hundred-page poem, reprising the same obsessions over its fifty-year composition.” In any era when so much poetry can seem either merely prosy, or impenetrably arcane, or overtly propagandistic, or simply playful and ultimately empty, Bidart offers poems that are rich in every respect: in obvious meaning, in subtle implication, and especially in skill with which the words are summoned up and laid out on the page.

Review Sources

  • Als, Hilton. “Frank Bidart’s Poetry of Saying the Unsaid.” Review of Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016, by Frank Bidart. The New Yorker, 11 Sept. 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/11/frank-bidarts-poetry-of-saying-the-unsaid. Accessed 30 Jan. 2018.
  • Jackson, Major. “Five Decades of Frank Bidart’s Verse, From Masks to Self-Mythology.” Review of Half–Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016, by Frank Bidart. The New York Times, 4 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/04/books/review/frank-bidart-half-light-poems.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2018.
  • Spaide, Christopher. “Poetry in Review: Half-Light: Collected Poems, 1965–2016, by Frank Bidart. Review of Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016, by Frank Bidart. The Yale Review, yalereview.yale.edu/poetry-review-half-light-collected-poems-1965-2016-frank-bidart. Accessed 30 Jan. 2018.
  • Teicher, Craig Morgan. Review of Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016, by Frank Bidart. Publishers Weekly, Aug. 2017, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-374-12595-0. Accessed 30 Jan. 2018.
  • Vendler, Helen. “The Tragic Sense of Frank Bidart.” Review of Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016, by Frank Bidart. The New York Review of Books, 26 Oct. 2017. www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/10/26/tragic-sense-of-frank-bidart/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2018.