Now and then he calls himself “Frank” and remembers how often he has wanted to die, though he is possessed as well by the will to live. A convinced and dedicated truth-teller, he fears more than anything else the lies even he may be tempted to tell and thereby—unbearable fate—the possibility that he may turn into one of those who routinely lie to themselves. Disdainful of the compromises we make to survive our grief and manias, he yet declares himself an adept at compensation, “well wadded with art he adored and with stupidity and distraction.” Wanting to go on with a life largely consigned to “the proximate and partial,” he craves “the absolute” while acknowledging that the hunger for what cannot be consummated or understood is a kind of sickness. Obsessed with loss and the death or failure of love, perpetually unfulfilled, he makes an idol of “Necessity” and sings the praises of “the box/ he cannot exit or rise above.”
In his poems, Frank Bidart has long favored words like “caught” and “ruthless,” “couldn’t” and “unable.” From the beginning of his career, he has seemed more than half in love with the specter of his own incapacities and limitations, which he plays and replays in poems notable for an accent of obsession and fatedness. In early books like Golden State (1973), The Book of the Body (1977) and The Sacrifice (1983), he seemed content to work things out for himself largely by investing in the dramas of characters drawn from literature or the newspapers. There were also early poems focused on his own family members, or on himself, and his later poems are often devoted to other writers, historical figures or movie stars. But Bidart first attracted critical attention as the author of dramatic monologues built around the murderer and necrophiliac Herbert White, the suicidal Ellen West and the mad dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Early and late, with only rare exceptions, he has been a poet of extremity, of large emotions and unbearably heightened states of consciousness. No major poet of our time has been so unguarded as Bidart, so willing to travel to the dark places in the psyche, so recklessly earnest about his need to get to the bottom of things, even when it is apt not to relieve but to wound and exacerbate.
I first communicated with “Frank” in 1976, when I asked him to write about Robert Lowell for a special issue of Salmagundi. I knew of Bidart then as a young poet who had improbably made himself indispensable to Lowell and to Elizabeth Bishop, both of whom deeply respected him and trusted him with the drafts of their poems. In the essay he wrote on Lowell, Bidart placed special emphasis on the poet’s will to be true to his obsessions and on his efforts “to deal with intractable, unfashionable, or intolerable subject matter.” Looking back at those words today, one sees that Bidart was inspired to do his own work by Lowell’s courage and stylistic cunning (his “unending argument with the expressive limits and assumptions of the language”). He quotes Lowell’s words from the end of The Dolphin: “my eyes have seen what my hand did.” Today, Bidart might say the same about his own remorseless vision.
Some readers have thought Bidart a poet too insistently addicted to violence and extremity, too brutal and wild, and have thus misread his poetry as a flight from form and the embodiment of a radical alienation from ordinary life. In fact, as Lloyd Schwartz (among many others) has noted, the poetry “is never far removed from traditional prosody” and is marked by a “literary richness” that exhibits a total command of idiom, syntax and the rhetoric of incantation. Bidart’s work has always resided in an improbable space, somewhere between expansiveness and constraint, the headlong and the measured, vital fleshly heat and meditative cerebral intensity. There are occasional grace notes and musical lifts in his poems but nothing like a wasted fragrance. Vigilant, never casual or blandly pleasant, his verses are open to surprise but wary of anything merely satisfactory or conclusive. Whatever his appetite for extremity, Bidart has always sought what Robert Hass once called “a little tranquil island in all the fury”—though when he spies it, he is at once moved to misgiving or reluctance. “You can’t stop moving when you’re at rest,” he writes in “Ganymede.”