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America’s Last High Modernist

Reading Frank Bidart

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I first read Frank Bidart’s poem ‘Herbert White’ in 2015. I was in the third year of part-time study for a PhD at Liverpool University. My research then was about the effectiveness of creative-writing work in mental health settings. This was something I knew about, having almost ten years’ experience as a poet working on various community and health projects with local people. The moment of encounter with Bidart’s poem derailed everything in my studies. It upset me deeply and made me feel as though I’d been punched in the stomach. This was the first time in years a poem had had that effect on me; the previous bombshell was Marilyn Hacker’s ‘Cancer Winter’ and before that, it was Thom Gunn’s collection The Man with Night Sweats. I read poetry every day, but my life has been punctuated by a series of obsessions with specific poets, starting at the age of six when I first read the words ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright/ in the forest of the night.’ When I first read Bidart it was a decade since my last poetry obsession, so I suppose one was due.

Despite my own life-changing encounter, I’d urge you not to read ‘Herbert White’ as your first Frank Bidart poem. It might give you the wrong impression and I really want you to fall for Frank, to understand his importance and find time to read his work. Let me explain.

The subject of the poem I’m asking you not to read is a psychopathic depraved child-murderer, and the poem is in the murderer’s voice. It is Bidart’s first poem in his first collection and there is nothing like it again in his whole body of work from 1965 to date. ‘Herbert White’ is in fact a dramatisation of the human subject in hell and a metaphor for the torment of the unexamined life where action is repeated without meaning; it is an extreme metaphor about the destructive power of human origins through family, place, and original sin.

My experience of reading the poem that should not be read first made me change the focus of my PhD research. I read everything by Bidart that I could find, spending a few intense months in 2015 reading and rereading his work. It was wonderful to fall in love with a new poet. It was the first time in my doctoral studentship that I remembered that poetry has always come to my aid, has always helped me to live my life — and sometimes saved it. My supervisor could not have stopped me pursuing Frank Bidart’s poems had she wanted to, so I was grateful that she let me run with my new interest. I started to work towards a literary study of Bidart’s early dramatic monologues: ‘Herbert White’, ‘Ellen West’, and ‘The War of Vaslav Nijinsky’. He explores three versions of madness in these long works: criminal insanity, suicidality through anorexia and the madness of the artist divorced from his art. In Bidart’s world, madness is an emotional, bodily and unavoidable part of the human condition and he explores it through many and varied source materials including his own life experience. We find in his poems a series of tragic voices, sometimes glamorous, occasionally camp, calling out of intense human desire and hunger for the absolute — hunger for impossible dreams. But madness is not his only subject. He also writes about metaphysics, desire, death, hunger, filial duty and parental power, the impossibilities of human love, and America, to mention just a few of his concerns. If you’re looking for humour, he’s not your man.

A new encounter as a reader with a brilliant writer always carries a conflict: the temptation to keep them secret, and the urgent desire to shout about them to everyone you meet. I want to shout about Frank because it feels selfish to keep his genius to myself. So, here’s a quick overview.

Frank Bidart won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize and 2017 National Book Award for Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Although unappreciated in the UK, he is a significant and singular figure in contemporary American poetry. He doesn’t have a British publisher which is why you may not have heard of him. His body of work explores and represents gay experience and struggle; this is not what defines his poetics but, as a man born in 1939 and terrified of being rejected because of his sexuality, it is a mark of his experience and courage. The first part of his poem ‘Queer’ states:

Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.

Everybody already knows everything

so you can
lie to them. That’s what they want.

But lie to yourself, what you will

lose is yourself. Then you 
turn into them.

[L]ie to yourself, what you will / lose is yourself. His poems also embody deep emotion and engage with serious intellectual concerns. As a young man he was a dedicated assistant to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Along with poet David Gewanter he co-edited the Collected Poems of Robert Lowell (2003). He is unapologetically American and ashamed of America. A master of the long poem, his eleven collections engage deeply with subjectivity through autobiographical, historical and psychological studies. Seamus Heaney’s ‘salute’ to Bidart recognises his ambition:

Bidart’s way of speaking is a way of knowing. It is a measure of the seriousness of the endeavor that a title like In the Western Night can evoke the balm and romance of the Pacific Coast of California and at the same time intimate the burnt-out categories of European civilization in the late twentieth century. Neither desolation nor desire are sold short in these poems.

Today, in his ninth decade, he sports a full white beard and looks ready to step onto the stage as King Lear; his demeanour, as well as his poetic ambition, is Shakespearean. Up until his recent change in health he had lived in the same apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts since 1972, a place so packed with films, books, records, defunct technology, and cultural materials that he had very little living space. In an interview with Garth Greenwell in The Paris Review in 2019 Bidart speaks of the (impossible) dream that Western civilisation could be reconstructed from the artefacts that surrounded him at home, as though he is in some way its enigmatic guardian.

In his poem ‘Mourning What We Thought We Were’ from his most recent collection, Against Silence (2021) Bidart confronts his own childish fear and cowardice in the face of his grandmother’s racism, as well as the deep-rooted racism of his country. In the wake of Trump’s election as President the poem serves as an elegy for the American dream:

We were born into an amazing experiment.

At least we thought we were. We knew there was no 
escaping human nature: my grandmother

taught me that: my own pitiless nature 
taught me that: but we exist inside an order, I

thought, of which history
is the mere shadow—

			*

Every serious work of art about America has the same
theme: America

is a great Idea: The reality leaves something to be desired.
[…]

The gap between the great ‘idea’ or ideal and the reality of human nature (inevitable pain, suffering and inescapable tragedy) has always preoccupied Bidart. He is, in the end, a tragedian fascinated by narrative and the human condition. His poetry incorporates the intellectual landscape of psychology, philosophy and the great novel and uses the strategies of modernism: human voice, experiment with free form and idiom, vast sources from ancient literature to contemporary film and autobiographical experience. He’s probably the last American high modernist.

Reading Frank Bidart was one of the best aspects of my PhD studies. I am grateful to have found his work because it reminds me how writers can touch the lives and minds of their fellow creatures; it reminds me that much of my life, especially in the darkest times, depends on poetry –– to help me to keep navigating the tricky journey of being human.

Pauline Rowe is RLF Fellow at the University of Chester and an Associate Writer with Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. She is interested in social engagement and interdisciplinary artistic practice and works collaboratively with photographic artists.

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