Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Frank Bidart, Lyric Poet

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Frank Bidart, Lyric Poet

Article excerpt

I intend my title as something of a provocation: Frank Bidart has largely been seen, and until recently for good reason, as anything but a lyric poet. The early poems for which he is best known-"Herbert White," "Ellen West," "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky"-are long dramatic monologues, powerfully theatrical in their gestures and in the extremity of their subjects' psychic states. In their forms and the textures of their language they are not just unlyrical; they stand nearly as a rebuke of lyricism. In an attempt to capture the nuances of a speaking or declaiming voice, they nearly always refuse themselves the recognizable music that is the traditional grace and accompaniment of lyric poems.

Bidart's new work shares with the old a striking thematic boldness. But, in a turn that has gone largely unnoticed, his recent collections have made increasing use of precisely those lyric resources rejected in the early poems. Beginning with the new work included in his collected volume, In the Western Night (1990), Bidart has turned away from the improvisatory sprawl of the early work-what he has called its "homemade quality"-to take up instead the discipline of regular stanzas and, if not a quantifiable or precise meter, then something at least closer to a regular pulse. The poems have grown more lavish in their rhetoric, framing sentences and lines in elaborate and often graceful figures, taking on at times an almost Renaissance gleam. But these figures-most often of repetition: chiasmus, epanalepsis, polyptoton-seem in Bidart's poems less virtuosic decoration than emblems for the excruciating machinations of an inevitable and, more often than not, tragic fate: If the poems at times attain a kind of formal perfection, it is accompanied less by the click of Yeats's closing box than by the clang of a prison door. Yet the most important change in Bidart's practice is at once more fundamental and harder to demonstrate: the poems' increasing delight in the sensual pleasures of word and image, their increased commitment to the pursuit of beauty.

This shift is even more evident in Bidart's new collection, Star Dust (2005). But I don't intend to argue that his career is usefully described by any sort of "breakthrough narrative," and I don't dispute the clarity of signature that any of his poems from any period displays. It is true that lyric forms appear in his early work (a sonnet in his first book, a villanelle in his second), and that passages even in the early long poems exhibit richness of sound. It is also true that some of the new poems avoid such richness, and that several others ultimately turn away from or subvert the beauty they approach. And yet, with these caveats in mind, there remains a marked difference between the poems of his first book, Golden State (1973), and those of Star Dust. Gradually, in a way unforeseeable from his early books but without relinquishing their startling, often violent originality, Frank Bidart has made himself a lyric poet.

By "lyric," I mean both a certain kind of poem-short, intimate, and musical-and also a certain use of language, one that emphasizes the sensual features of rhyme, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and stress, and especially those features arranged with some sense of pattern. To gauge the ascendancy of lyricism in Bidart's recent work, some comparisons are in order. Consider this excerpt from "Ellen West," the crowning achievement of Bidart's second collection, The Book of the Body (1977). In a characteristic passage, Ellen meditates on the sources of her anorexia, rejecting her first description of her illness as "a childish / dread of eating":

The strength of this passage lies in its depiction of what Coleridge called "the drama of thought," the mind falling back repeatedly in the fight to deny itself comfort and illusion. In the first of its three parts, each of which is a stage of argument, Ellen allows herself the grandeur of a pedigreed ascetic ambition ("the ideal / not to have a body"), a grandeur tenable only in the context of the sort of robust and sustaining metaphysics that Bidart's poems have always found untenable. …

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