Authors: Frank Bidart

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


Golden State, 1973

The Book of the Body, 1977

The Sacrifice, 1983

In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965-1990, 1990

Desire, 1997

Music Like Dirt, 2002

Edited Text:

Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, 2002


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.{$I[AN]9810002017}{$I[A]Bidart, Frank}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bidart, Frank}{$I[tim]1939;Bidart, Frank}

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”). His own experience of suffering, in other words, is merely another case of a far more general human condition. If his family was dysfunctional, Bidart’s often shocking verse explores that as an example of dysfunctional modern society. Indeed, even that larger concern is but a recent historical example of a human condition that includes the Roman poets Vergil and Catullus.

Much has been made of two of Bidart’s concerns, one about form, one about substance, and both regarded by some critics as obsessions. The first is his typographically curious attempt to score the music of “voice” in his dramatic poems through varying typefaces from ordinary Roman, to all caps, to italics, to all-cap italics; this, along with eccentric punctuation and placement of line beginnings and endings on the page, and the use of prose documents along with his own verse, provides a disjunctive appearance on the page. The other is what has been regarded as his fascination with guilt. Guilt is Bidart’s deepest subject, and his success as a poet must be measured in terms of whether his stunning dramatic poems succeed in conflating the personal and historical dimensions of psychological experiences.

Two examples will suffice: “Confessional” and “The First Hour of the Night.” “Confessional,” dealing with Bidart’s relationship with his mother, consists of two parts, one expressing his hatred and rejection of a pitiable woman whom he cannot, as the injured son, pity (“one day/ she hanged my cat. . . . Forgiveness doesn’t exist”). This was written in the 1970’s, but Bidart knew it was unfinished. Part two, which took him several years to compose, juxtaposes his relationship to his mother with that of Saint Augustine and his mother. The point is that Bidart and his mother are not of themselves important except as examples of a general condition of human beings, of which the very contrary example of Augustine and Monica, who struggled out of a somewhat similar dysfunctional family to a transcendent and divine unity of souls a few days before Monica’s death, is another. One has the sense that the two parts of the poem merge in a definition of the intensity of this primordial relationship and that suffering undergone and suffering resolved may be part of one another. The poem concludes darkly: “Man needs a metaphysics;/ he cannot have one.”

“The First Hour of the Night” is the thirty-five-page conclusion to his collected poems, a dream sequence in which Bidart remembers Raphael’s Vatican fresco, The School of Athens, whose severe and elegant sense of the order of antiquity is invaded in the poem by the moderns, from René Descartes to Charles Darwin. Scheherazade also appears, perhaps providing the key: no ideas but in tales, in dreams. The world is full of disorder, but it is also full of the imagination’s vitality. As in his rendition of the Creation in Genesis, Bidart succeeds not so much in rejecting traditional notions in order and certainty but in holding them in abeyance and providing a modern terror-struck sense of the necessity of life, whether in dream, psychosis, social actuality, cultural fantasy, or history.

The intensities of Bidart’s dramatic poems, through a mingling of voices and perspectives, provide an interesting expression of modern dilemmas and achieve the passionate concerns of religious experience, though without any suggestion of orthodox belief. If Bidart has the experience of belief, it is, like that of his mentor, Elizabeth Bishop, a belief in the necessity of awareness of the here and now and of how these are ambiguously embedded in personal and historical memory.

BibliographyBergman, Susan. “Frank Bidart’s Personae: The Anterior ‘I.’” Pequod, no. 43 (2000): 100-111. Bidart’s dramatic or persona poems are based on the stance that “self precedes and centers expression.” Bergman underscores what is unique in Bidart’s version of the vogue for persona poems, providing excellent close readings of many key passages.Birkerts, Sven. “Frank Bidart.” In The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry. New York: William Morrow, 1989. Birkerts comments on how Bidart’s dualistic conception of body and spirit is enlarged to encompass the guilt of Western humankind. Tracing a progression from “Ellen West” to “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” Birkerts not only addresses the widening of Bidart’s themes to include a more general religious point of view but also comments on the interrelation of these themes and Bidart’s distinctive style.Crenshaw, Brad. “The Sin of the Body: Frank Bidart’s Human Bondage.” Chicago Review 33 (Spring, 1983): 57-70. This article contains an insightful discussion of “Ellen West” and clarifies Bidart’s construction of an art that presents the ethical paradox of carnality. Bradshaw discusses how Bidart has contracted human ethics within bodily limits, so that customary morality with its exaltation of the spirit becomes severely modified.Donoghue, Denis. “The Visible and the Invisible.” The New Republic 202 (May 14, 1990): 40-45. This extensive review of In the Western Night traces Bidart’s rather deviatory development toward a quasi-mystical sense of personal experience. Interestingly, Donoghue connects the typography of Bidart’s dramatic monologues with his longing to escape the lure of mystical states. Donoghue also demonstrates that Ezra Pound, not Robert Lowell, should be viewed as Bidart’s artistic mentor.“Frank Bidart.” In Contemporary Poets. 7th ed. New York: St. James Press, 2001. An in-depth profile of the poet’s work.Gray, Jeffrey.“‘Necessary Thought’: Frank Bidart and the Post-Confessional.” Contemporary Literature 34 (Winter, 1993): 714-738. Focusing on In the Western Night, Gray considers the postmodern nature of Bidart’s work. Several close readings underpin arguments about the nature of subjectivity and textuality in this twenty-five-year collection.Hammer, Langdon. “Frank Bidart and the Tone of Contemporary Poetry.” Southwest Review 87, no. 1 (Winter, 2002): 75. Argues that Bidart’s work is important and representative because it struggles against the flatness of voice found in much contemporary poetry.Pinsky, Robert. The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. In his overview of poetry of the 1970’s, Pinsky gives an early recognition of Bidart’s stylistic achievement. He praises Bidart’s Golden State for taking the risk of rhetorical flatness in order to reproduce a genuine sense of the speaker’s voice.Williamson, Alan. Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. As part of the chapter “The Future of Personal Poetry,” Williamson argues that Bidart is an emotionally moving and artistically significant poet because he speaks from the wholeness of his life. Although employing an abstract poetic style, Bidart, Williamson avers, never becomes vague or dematerialized, but vividly dramatizes the tragic interplay of aggression and guilt.
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