Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with Frank Bidart

Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with Frank Bidart

Article excerpt

This interview was conducted at the Prairie Restaurant in downtown Chicago on Saturday, October 16, 1999.

ANDREW RATHMANN: For me, and I'm sure for many others, one of the pleasures of your poetry is its rhetorical intensity--by which I mean the absence of irony, and your willingness to venture grand statements about life, death, guilt, desire, and so forth. I find this aspect of your work thrilling. But as you know, there is a strong climate of opinion these days that finds such statements either naive or embarrassing in some way, whereas you are not embarrassed.

FRANK BIDART: Unembarrassable! Well--

AR: I don't want to ask you, "Why aren't you an ironic poet?" But I would like to know what you make of the turn toward irony, or toward a cooler and more cerebral kind of writing.

FB: We live in an armored age. There has come to be astonishing sophistication in producing an armored self on paper--in a way that makes the poems that were "armored" twenty years ago look positively candid and naive. And I think it's a trap, I think it's a terrible trap. Frost says, quoting Horace, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." There's a kind of power that art can have--that the art I most love has--that you can't have if everything is presented from an ironic perspective. "Ironic perspective" doesn't say it--from a point of view where the work, as I say, is infinitely protected, but also closed, and doesn't venture connections to the vagaries and range of the emotional life. Maybe I should put it this way: If you can't tell when something goes wrong in a work, that this line is bad or this move wrong, you also can't tell when there's something right. There's a kind of power in writing that has a building sense of a center, that then opens the writer to the objection that something has g one wrong, something has not fulfilled itself, something has not developed from the poem's spine. Without risking that, you can't have the kind of decisive and powerful rightness that I crave as a reader.

There is an ancient tradition in Western art--and I say Western because I don't truly know other kinds of art--in which you can talk about a central action in a poem or a play or an epic. You experience its center in terms of that action, and you can think about--you can talk about--how successful it is in relation to the fulfillment of that action.

DANIELLE ALLEN: Is there an ambiguity in the phrase "a building sense of center"? When you first used it, I understood something about the poet's own commitment to the world and to a particular interpretive focus that the reader would have to identify in order to assess the poetry.

FB: I mean the Aristotelian sense of action. It "builds" in the sense that it has a progress: it's not simply "this event and this event and this event," but the second event has some relation to the first, and both of those events affect what happens later; there's an arc to the action. There's a sense of progressive learning about necessity. Every work of art as it begins starts to define where necessity lies. Revelation in a work of art partly involves learning where necessity lies--what can't be done, what kills you, what doesn't "work." But among other things, I guess you have to believe in necessity. And I do, you know? I think there is a structure beneath things that one can fight, but the idea that it is not there is, I think, illusory. I don't believe we just sort of hop along on a shifting consciousness that has no patterns beneath it--free from patterns that continually get fulfilled. One thing that the kind of art I'm talking about wants to do is to move down through the shifting miasma of second -by-second impressions to the discovery of patterns beneath. The burden is not to come up just with pop psychology patterns, mere banalities or conventions. Or, better: to experience what has become cliche so freshly that you experience again its original force. …

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