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Bidart and Life

Frank Bidart's poetry embodies life's beauty and horror


When the poet Frank Bidart read at Washington University early this spring, it was a rare performance filled with emotional daring and intellectual challenge. Rather than affect the benign, distanced stance typical of the author on tour, Bidart embodied his work. He read a long poem, "The Second Hour of the Night" from his collection Desire, the retelling of the Greek myth of Adonis and his conception as the result of incest between his mother, Myrrha, and his/her father, King Cinyras. The story of Myrrha and Cinyras is one of desperate passion and -- as Greek myth is wont to be -- of fierce revenge. As a poet and performer, Bidart makes use of operatic gestures. He began "The Second Hour of the Night" quietly, and as with an opening overture, his introduction foretold a journey that would take the audience down into the realm of tragedy.

"The underlying aesthetic in my work is one of embodiment," Bidart says, and, in performance, "I have to attempt to make that embodiment happen." That night in Wash. U.'s Duncker Hall, the bodying forth of the spellbinding, and appalling, tale of Adonis' incestuous birth took some effort on the audience's part to fully realize and contain. Again, just as in opera, with one misstep, Bidart's performance could have dissolved into camp. "Anything that's about extraordinary passion is on the edge of being ridiculous," Bidart readily admits. "And that's why the artifice involved has got to be just right, or it looks ridiculous, as opera can. The world is full of parodies of opera. Art is stylization. Art is artifice. Artifice, if you look at it at a slightly different angle, suddenly all you can see is the artifice, and it becomes ridiculous."

Callas can be absurd, and Callas can be divine. It is the risk that Callas took. It is a risk Nijinsky (whose final dance recital, reflecting the madness of World War I -- before he fell into his own madness -- is the subject of Bidart's poem "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky") took. It is a risk Bidart takes -- delving into a perilous form of art.

Bidart's reading embraced the sublime without touching the ridiculous. Yet, powerful as his reading was, the next day he was uncertain as to whether he could accept praise. "You can be candid with me?" he asked. "You mean it?"

Bidart grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., and attended the University of California-Riverside with the idea that he was going to become a filmmaker. His passion for the literary art of Milton, Eliot and Joyce led him to English, however. He attended Harvard for graduate studies, and it was in Cambridge that he encountered two of his most influential mentors, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. In addition to Desire, Bidart's works include Golden State, The Book of the Body, The Sacrifice and In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90.

During Bidart's interview with the RFT, he took great care with his responses, considering each question with thoughtful periods of silence. "Sensitive" is an overworked -- even burdensome -- phrase to use in relation to poets and poetry, but Bidart is one keenly attentive to the emotions that lie at the core of intellect.

RFT: The experience of the reading, in thinking about your word "embodiment," is that first I felt slightly repelled, moving back, getting my bearings to see how to contain all this. Then I relaxed and the poem went around me, and then even seemed to go through me. I wonder whether this approximates the experience of creating the poem, at least in the early stages, that inspirational moment.

Bidart: I think it is, that is there is a way in which when you first encounter certain material you may be fascinated; you may be horrified and scared of it. Then, as you live with it and think about it and sort of see more of what's at stake with the material, you get drawn in.

I don't know when you got drawn in, but I know when reading it aloud something happens when the nurse goes back to Myrrha and says, 'I told the king there was a young girl who would sleep with the king tonight and must remain veiled.' Suddenly this is out of Myrrha's control. It was out of her control in a different way before. She was feeling certain things, but they were all within her. Suddenly she's caught up in something and drawn into something that she thinks she knows something about. In fact she doesn't understand why her nurse is doing what her nurse is doing. In a way, she really enters a kind of labyrinth at that point. She's in some sense following her desire, and in another way she's in a mechanism she doesn't understand.

For me, something always changes in the poem at that point. At least I have the illusion that this is a surprise to the audience. They don't expect that to happen.

It becomes a poem of erotic intrigue. It becomes even like a dirty story: the daughter who wears a veil and has sex with her father. But you don't expect the poem to have that almost old-fashioned narrative intrigue. Suddenly you're in a poem of plot. I feel something changes in the audience's relation to the poem at that point.

With so many ways of presenting narrative in this technological age, how does poetry now tell a story?

The idea of action is central to all poetry, whether it's an epigram or a long work. The work has to embody some movement of spirit. You feel that action, that process the spirit has gone through, even if it's two lines. There's some movement of the spirit, and it implies an action even if you don't necessarily get it as a beginning, middle and end, but it points to such action.

You can embody an action in a longer work, an action of the spirit as it moves through a lot of different materials without narrative. But it is difficult, and it's difficult for the reader to feel what is making this an action, what is compelling the action. Really the elements of narrative should only be -- if it is well done -- they should be the outward embodiment of the essential action.

People love stories. It's not as if films are the opposite of narrative; most films are narratives. I will turn on the television and start watching a movie I don't particularly want to watch; within 10 minutes I will want to know what happens. On some primitive level I want to know the narrative.

I think that is a great power, and a great power that art has always had. The greatest works of art -- central to them has been the narrative. The Iliad is a narrative. King Lear is a narrative. One of the geniuses of Beethoven is that you feel a narrative in the Fifth Symphony or the Ninth or the Pastoral. That doesn't mean that works that are abstract don't have a narrative. The Fifth is abstract, but there is a narrative spirit there.

I think what an artist wants is to find a narrative that has not only an action but a significance. The Iliad is a significant action. Paradise Lost is a significant action. The Aeneid is a significant action. The Divine Comedy is a significant action. Or it can be a narrative where someone else cannot find significance, but Shakespeare can find significance in the narrative of Hamlet and the narrative of Lear.

A bad artist can take an action that is significant and drain it of significance. A bad movie about Hercules or a bad movie about the Trojan War does not have the power of The Iliad. On the other hand, I don't think there's any old action that you can understand as significant, or at least that I can. What one craves is being caught by a narrative that you know has significance even though you cannot plumb it, right away, but you're caught by it because you know it has significance. There are mysteries to that. The artist has some control, but in another way the artist is terrifyingly not in control. There are certain elements of chance.

It is wrong to think of poetry as only lyric. Lyric poetry in fact often does have a narrative element. Lyric poetry, to be good, will have an action in it, whether it is an action that is necessarily described in narrative terms. Keats' odes are great actions, though they are not narrative poems.

Your work is so much about emotion -- partly a surveillance of emotion, partly an exploration, but also an actual entry into the labyrinth of emotion.

It also wants to come out somewhere where it's shaped and framed, so you're not simply at the mercy of the emotion. At some level there's almost a posthumous perspective; that's something I always strive for in the end. But it's the place you can get to only if you've been through the labyrinth -- you can't own it by starting there.

That's what all those myths tell us.
I believe that's true. Tragedy is not just a paraphrase of what Oedipus says at the end of Oedipus at Colonus. The play is the experience of going through them.

How did myth become important to you?
I don't think before "The Second Hour of the Night" one would think of my work as all that myth-y. But they catch me and tell me, and I want to pursue them. I'm caught in a way that I don't entirely understand at the beginning.

I remember walking into a bookstore in Cambridge and Knopf had just published a big book called Nijinsky Dancing. I opened that book in the store, and there were these great photographs of Nijinsky in all his major roles. I knew immediately that there was a self that leapt out of those pictures that I wanted to write about. I did not know what the poem would be about or what the center of the poem would be. But there was something that leapt out and gripped me. Years before, I had already read the diaries that had been published, and that had not done it. It was those photographs that compelled me to go on. Then I read the (Richard) Buckle biography, and when I read about the final dance (Nijinsky) did, the final recital, I knew that would be the center of the poem and that everything would revolve around that. I didn't know if I could actually write the poem but I could see a structure.

So there are these things that compel one and one does not understand why and one of the things about writing the poem is to embody that sense of being compelled by the material. You also have to have a sense that it is a journey with significance. I can only write it when I feel I can possess its significance -- if the significance is still eluding me, I can't.

In regard to moving into a mythic field, if you're going to delve into that emotional landscape, you need a big form to carry it.

That sense of the shape of the action has significance for me. Shakespeare in "Venus and Adonis" completely erases the family of Adonis. There's no Myrrha. There's no Cinyras. The unreadability of the motivation or emotion of Adonis becomes one of the subjects of the poem. There's the sense that Adonis in Shakespeare is the type of beautiful young man who resists the older, enamored lover -- and that's what connects it to the sonnets. In Ovid, it's quite clear that Adonis is avenging his mother by the way he treats Venus. So that sense of the pattern that they exist in is very, very different. What was important for Shakespeare was the pattern in which the emotion of a young man is unreadable, which is the opposite of the significance of the relationship in Ovid.

I can never begin a long poem without having a sense of what the large pattern is so that I can understand these actions within. If I don't have that, I cannot write a long poem -- I can't write a poem.

The thing about that story, even though you're told at the beginning that this is about the birth of Adonis, when you get to the birth of Adonis it's incredibly shocking.

One doesn't think that Adonis was the result of incest. People want good things to result from good things and bad things from bad things. They don't want good things to result from bad things -- that the Adonis figure should be the result of incest. And have within him, as he does in Horace, this very destructive paradigm that precedes from his mother.

It's messier that way. I wonder whether that's not a good reason why a poet should go back to these stories and restore them and redeem them with a contemporary voice. In a time when we have these stringent beliefs that good comes out of good and bad comes out of bad -- these stories tells us that that's simplistic and wrong.

All art does. That's one of the reasons why art so threatens a community built on a very rigid, ideological frame. Art always challenges that, always. Whether it's a religious ideology or a political ideology, art always troubles that.

I was curious that you are working on a collection of Robert Lowell's poems. How was he important to you and inspiring to you, and how does he remains so now?

There's no simple terms in which I could sum that up. He was incredibly generous with me. He made me feel that my responses mattered, which is very important. He's somebody that I admired tremendously, and the fact that he not only liked me but took me seriously mattered a lot to me. He let me into his life, and near the end of his life we were talking about something -- maybe his marriages -- and I said, "I hope I'm not being too personal." He said, "You are personal."

That was a great gift for me. I loved him. He was very nice to me. For someone that one also admires as much as I admired him, it was somehow a very healing experience for me. My own relationship with my father had been, basically, a very bad one. In kind of an amazing way I had a chance to redo it, to redo the relationship with an older person who had authority that I did not have myself and not screw it up.

He was not fatherly at all, and I didn't want him to be fatherly. But I do think it had that aspect. I cared for him and I could be useful to him. Unless a person abuses that, that's a very healing thing to be able to do -- to discover I could be useful to him and also feel that it mattered was wonderful, extraordinary.

It's a lucky thing in life that we rarely get the father that we want, but later in life we can get the father that we need.

I feel very lucky to have found that. I don't want to make it all paradigm, but it is a blessing to discover that one can be useful. I felt that with both him and Elizabeth Bishop, and that was a great gift.

Is that part of this project, that you're still being useful to him?
Yes and no. This part of the project has been very slow. I never wanted to be an editor. I never wanted to be his editor. What I adored was the daily give-and-take, being in the presence of someone you could really talk about the poems with and have real discussions about revisions and various discussions about art. I never wanted to be a scholar in relation to that.

I think this part I have not done well. It will finally get done, but I wish it had happened long ago. I find it extremely difficult to be an editor. Half of the equation is gone, and it doesn't feel good to be responsible for the other half.

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