Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Shock Troupers: Browning, Bidart, and the Drama of Prosody

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Shock Troupers: Browning, Bidart, and the Drama of Prosody

Article excerpt

This paper on the role of shock in poetic innovation should acknowledge at the outset one conspicuous kind of shock that will be of only incidental concern. Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please, to the following two exhibits. Prepare to avert your imagination as needed.

   That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
      Perfectly pure and good: I found
   A thing to do, and all her hair
      In one long yellow string I wound
      Three times her little throat around
   And strangled her. (1)

Bad enough already, but now hear this:

   When I hit her on the head, it was good,

   and then I did it to her a couple of times,--
   but it was funny,--afterwards,
   it was as if somebody else did it ...

   Everything flat, without sharpness, richness,
      or line.

   Still, I liked to drive past the woods where she
      lay,
   tell the old lady and the kids I had to take a
      piss,
   hop out and do it to her ...

   The whole buggy of them waiting for me
          made me feel good;
   but still, just like I knew all along,
          she didn't move.

   When the body got too discomposed,
   I'd just jack off, letting it fall on her ...

   --It sounds crazy, but I tell you
   sometimes it was beautiful--; I don't know how
   to say it, but for a minute, everything was
      possible--;
   and then,
   then,--
        well, like I said, she didn't move: and
      I saw,
   under me, a little girl was just lying there in the
      mud. (2)

The first passage, a familiar Victorian anthology piece, is the reader-scandalizing flashpoint from Robert Browning's 1836 "Porphyria's Lover." The second passage has had a narrower circulation and for obvious reasons will not make it, I confidently predict, into standard teaching anthologies. But those who know the poetry of Frank Bidart will hail it as the opening of "Herbert White," which is the leadoff poem from the collection Golden State (1973) and the first in a sequence of dramatic monologues as impressive as any living poet can boast, including rivals on the order of Richard Howard, Carol Ann Duffy, and that fearless songwriter Randy Newman.

Each poem is its author's, so to speak, maiden monologue; and the slight offense given by my speaking so of it will, I hope, underscore the strong double shock--physical in the first instance, ethical not long afterwards--that each poem retains the power of imparting. Each is repulsively violent in its narrative subject matter; each at the same time weaves into the pathology of murderous perversion a gilt filament of innocent, morally rapt wonder at existence's immense permissiveness, the unbearable lightness of being: "And yet God has not said a word!" (60), marvels Porphyria's lover at the end of his monologue. By that point the affronted reader, his or her moral compass duly recalibrated, can afford to wonder whether the expectant suspense that concludes the poem is in anticipation of God's approval or condemnation. Maybe both, if Herbert White's whiplash is anything to go by: "it was beautiful," "everything was possible," and yet "a little girl was just lying there in the mud."? Forging the genre to white heat at an extreme of that eccentric perspectivism which Robert Langbaum showed sixty years ago was essential to the modern dramatic monologue, both Browning and Bidart make their mark under cover of deviancy carried away into horrid excess. (3)

One is shocked by this stuff, shocked. Still, as I forewarned, the species of shock that these imaginative commitments convey will not be my theme. I am more interested in the conveyance itself, because I maintain the poets are too. They are, and always have been, most interested in the formal vehiculation by which a poetic effect not only seizes readers at first blush, or ambush, but then comes home to them for keeps. "Form," Langbaum has observed, "is a better index of a tradition than subject matter"; the latter is "an index of what people think they believe, whereas form is an index of what is believed too implicitly to be discussed"--and what for that very reason, moreover, retains a stubbornly insinuated power to shock (Poetry of Expedience 36). …

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