Hunger for the Absolute
Frank Bidart, Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 . (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017). 718 pp.
The recent publication of Frank Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems, 1965-2016 allows the reader to follow the poet’s work over the course of fifty-one years. In what follows I will try to characterize Bidart’s propensities and habits as a poet, emphasizing not the changes in his work over time but instead the stylistic strategies and philosophical themes that have remained constant from the beginning. His themes arrived in his poetry more or less fully formed, and have persisted until now. He hasn’t outgrown or abandoned them. It is not, however, a simple matter to present them. The reader should bear in mind what Frank Bidart said in a 1983 interview, when asked about poetic themes and stylistic strategies. “It’s hard to talk about any one of these things without talking about all of them—in my work at least, they seem so tangled, inextricable.“
Many of Frank Bidart’s themes are introduced in “Herbert White,” the first poem in his first volume, Golden State (1973), and one of the most memorable dramatic monologues ever written—memorable for the immediacy of the speaker’s voice (he is a child murderer and necrophiliac), for the cruelty of the acts he describes and his indifference to his victims and, finally, for the insights he shares with us. (In two senses: he communicates them to us and, at the same time, we’ve already had them ourselves.) Why would someone who fills his first book with confessional poems (about his father and mother, his childhood, for example) also choose to write a dramatic monologue? It may be that events that are psychologically complex, rather than traumatic, can seem inadequate to a poet’s needs. One can see Bidart’s dissatisfaction with the facts of his own life when he tells us about horrific things that didn’t happen to him in the middle of poems about unpleasant things that did. For example, in his 1983 poem, “Confessional,” Bidart, reminiscing about his difficult relationship to his mother, states flatly that “one day // she hanged my cat.” Many readers, following the poem silently, might suddenly say aloud, She hanged your cat? In fact, she didn’t. In an interview that year, Bidart says, “the poem is about my relationship to my mother, though it begins with an anecdote about a cat that didn’t happen to me (it’s from the memoirs of Augustus Hare). I felt, for complicated and opaque reasons, that this story was right at the beginning—that I needed it. Everything else in the poem had to be ‘true.’” Putting the poem in the context of the other poems in Golden State, Bidart says, “I wanted to make a Yeatsian “anti-self “—someone who was “all that I was not,” whose way of “solving problems” was the opposite of that of the son in the middle of the book. The son’s way […] involves trying to ‘analyze’ and ‘order’ the past, in order to reach ‘insight.’” Bidart continues, “The fact that he is an “anti-self” only has some meaning, I thought, if he shares something fundamental with me […]”
In this poem we can, as I said, see many of Bidart’s preoccupations. There is, first of all, his preoccupation with the way the poem looks on the page, which means, in his case, careful attention to spacing, line breaks, stanza breaks, punctuation, words written in all caps and italics. All these stylistic choices are, he says in a 1983 interview, part of “the struggle to make life show itself in a work of art.” I am interested most in his use of italics, especially as it has to do with his relationship to meaning, not just as a noun but also as a verb. His use of italics is intimately related to his concern with the auditory and the visual, and his desire to make constant adjustments of volume and scale, in order to feel more alive, larger than himself. These adjustments have to do with the poem but also with the poet—and, of course, with the reader. Moralists accuse us of self-aggrandizement when we have such concerns but what if we really are just engaged in an adjustment, necessary because of the adjustments constantly being performed on us by the moralists themselves, who come armed with many weapons, one of the most formidable of which is reality-testing?
Still, although one may not want to cede authority over one’s inner life to the moralists, one would like, nevertheless, to know the truth. The search for truth is another of Bidart’s preoccupations throughout his career. If we move in a kind of perpetual night, as Bidart sometimes suggests we do, it seems an unnecessary additional burden to be delusional. By the desire for truth Bidart means sometimes the desire for a unified theory of everything, sometimes the desire for an emotionally intelligible coherence and at other times a longing to know what lies concealed beneath everyday reality. And there is also, for Bidart, the desire to know the worst that can be known. To know the worst, it turns out, involves discovery of the same truth over and over: that tragic events just happened to happen and didn’t have to happen. If that’s the case there is no theory to be discovered or emotional coherence in which to take comfort or truth to unmask. And these implications, too, dawn on him again and again and send him back to the (less respectable) desire to feel more alive, as recompense for living in a world without meaning.
In the second part of the essay I discuss the fact Bidart is haunted by the feeing that it isn’t enough to be alive, he must be alive to the world around him. To be alive to is not, for Bidart, just to ask searching philosophical questions. It is, rather, to describe what life in the world is like. This generally means talking about people. He is not really a poet of nature, like Charles Wright, for example. As Bidart tells us in the 2013 poem, “Name the Bed” he is someone “to whom the ordinary // sensuous world rarely speaks.” The situations that attract him as a poet are those in which the world is less rather than more visible. He is drawn in particular to situations in which one can see only with difficulty. Night, which is everywhere in his work, operates in a variety of ways but mostly it is introduced as the most appropriate possible ambience and surrounding and symbol for our ignorance, in particular ignorance of other people, which wouldn’t matter except that, as Bidart reminds us in poem after poem, we insist on having extraordinarily intense relationships with them, relationships that are ultimately (or quickly) dangerous to them and to us. Bidart sees also that we are ignorant in spite of the fact that we have “insights.” Bidart is reliant on insights, and so are his readers, who go to him for them, but he is, at the same time, skeptical about their ultimate (and even their immediate) value. They have a use for Bidart, though, as drama. By “use,” he doesn’t mean that, gathering up the insights he has had since the last poem, he uses them to write new poems: he is interested in the drama of having insights. What else is he alive to? The fact that he and the people around him, though they want to be graceful presences in the world, are clumsy figures. In his darkest moments, which are frequent but not, fortunately, as frequent as his darker moments, he sees us as bewildered figures moving awkwardly in perpetual night, and dangerous to each other—physically, and psychologically. All we can do, really, is try to be creative and not do harm. Looking at other people he notices from early on if they are more creative than destructive.
Which brings us back to Herbert White. While the speaker of the 1959 poem, “Skunk Hour,” Robert Lowell’s anti-self, says, “My mind’s not right” Herbert White doesn’t have to tell us. He simply has to start talking. “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.” White, who is oblivious to many things but never to his audience, must know that anyone would be surprised–he himself ought to be surprised—to hear that he has a wife and kids and yet he says nothing to register or acknowledge our surprise. He just (one imagines) savors it silently. When he mentions the buggy, he seems at first to be referring just to an automobile but that’s not quite right: he uses the phrase “the whole buggy of them” as if “buggy” is the word that comes to his mind when he wants to describe a group of his family members. His use of the word is casual, insouciant, almost charming, even affectionate, maybe. At the same time, he must know that the word will have a delayed detonation when we think again about the corpse of the child decomposing in the woods. More and more we find ourselves using phrases like he must know–betraying by our use of italics our investment in the poem. If we were allowed only one question, it might be this: what must he feel? Figures like Herbert White have, famously, the power to generate urgent, earnest questions and at the same time to make those questions sound clumsy, ignorant.
The poem seems (like many of Bidart’s poems) half poem, half transcript. A reader of the poem-as-transcript will notice the sorts of details that readers of true crime stories relish, for example that the murderer also has a father and a stepmother who themselves have lots of kids. Readers of the poem-as-poem will observe that it seems most like a poem when it is least “poetic,” as when White refers later in the poem to “those ordinary, shitty leaves…” Such a reader might notice as well that the word “ordinary” and the word “shitty” both end in the letter “y” and that, because of its y-ending, the word “shitty” seems to refer back to the word “buggy.”
There is a third way to read the poem, of course, which is to read it as a transcript of a voice. Listening to Herbert White’s voice, we can let it work its effect on us. Here, in his first poem in his first book of poetry, we can see Bidart introducing his italics and experimenting with them. Herbert White says, “—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 […]” Bidart will, after writing “Herbert White,” spend book after book exploring what happens within a poem and inside a reader when roman becomes italic type, when the word beautiful becomes the word beautiful and the word everything turns into the word everything. The effect on the reader, particularly one who has read many poems by Bidart, is, of course, unpredictable. One can imagine a reader, dogged, unstoppable, who might begin to feel that all italicized words, even the word “everything,” are really, though secretly, lesser versions of one word, a word to which all italicized words lead, the word “alive,” a word Bidart italicizes only once and in a trivial context. Another reader might begin to feel (reading many Bidart poems, one after the other) that without their italics words seem flat, seem to lack sharpness and richness. Unitalicized words are ordinary, shitty. Or they approximate one’s desire but don’t express it fully. One says them and may mean them but one doesn’t have the feeling one means them, that is, one doesn’t go through the peculiar interior process that accompanies the experience of meaning words. (I will return to that process.)
There is a mysterious, resonant sentence in the Adagia of Wallace Stevens: “The poet is more life.” Stevens says “the poet,” not “the poem,” because the poet (whom Stevens elsewhere calls the “figure of capable imagination”) is more than the poem, that is, the poet is not just the source of the poem we are reading but also embodies the promise of future creation, of more poems, poems to which we can return whenever we want and count on finding the same reliable, never-failing intensification of everyday life. One can say of Bidart, as of Stevens, that many of his poems are similar but this may be something for which certain readers, the ones who want more, not different, are grateful. Italics turn words into more than themselves, suddenly, without any act of close reading on our parts. Another reader might remember all at once that it is Herbert White who is speaking, and remember that the word “alive,” italicized, may sound banal, mawkish, hackneyed, sentimental. I said that Bidart always wants to discover the worst. What is the worst that one can discover about italics? They’re ridiculous.
It might be better to say that italicized words are always in danger of sounding ridiculous. That is, the desire for more life, the desire to feel not merely alive but alive, is always in danger of sounding ridiculous. Why else do certain poets sound so ardent, so self-hypnotized in certain passages of certain poems? Why do they behave as if they are, unlike the rest of us, unembarrassable? “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” Shelley writes in “Ode to the West Wind.” Wallace Stevens, in poems like “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” makes the relation between embarrassment and unembarrassibility his explicit subject. And Shelley and Stevens aren’t using italics. Bidart’s experiments with italics allow him to explicitly dramatize the risk that the poet and the desire and the thing desired will seem ridiculous. And the reader too, of course, will seem ridiculous for going along. But for Bidart there is no way to be alive without that risk, and if one never takes a risk one is not alive. To say such a thing is to sound, of course, banal, hackneyed, fatuous. But the risk is real. Bidart is willing to risk sounding exhibitionistic and fatuous (and to those unsympathetic to his work he does sound that way). But the risk is worth it. And Bidart can be defiant. It’s not that he’s unembarrassable but that he refuses to be embarrassed. In his 2008 poem, “Song,” he writes, “try as you will / you cannot make me feel embarrassment // at what I find beautiful.” That sense of risk and defiance is one reason why Bidart is an important poet, not in some history-of-contemporary poetry sense, but to his readers. To them, he sounds more alive than any other contemporary poet. Wallace Stevens, in his essay “The Relations between Poetry and Painting” writes about “too little or too much punctuation and such aberrations” and adds, “They have nothing to do with being alive.” Readers of Bidart discover that they have everything to do with being alive.
By using italics we indicate that we mean the words we’re saying. It’s tempting to say that much of Bidart’s project as a poet is to mean words. A.R. Ammons, in his long poem, “Hibernaculum,” asks of himself: “why does he write poems: it’s the only way he can mean / what he says: you mean, say what he means: yes, / but it’s harder for him to mean something than to say / /something.” One reason Bidart writes so many poems is that he wants to stay alive. It’s for that reason life—or the part of life we have some hope of controlling, language—must submit to so many acts of intensification at his hands. Because everyday life seems to insist on one thing, Bidart has to insist on its opposite. The work is never done. One can never be insistent enough. According to Eric Torgesen, Rilke, having finished The Book of Images in 1902, “insisted, with dire effect, that the poems be published entirely in capital letters,” a format that, we learn, “astonished” Rodin. Bidart would have understood Rilke’s impulse and enjoyed Rodin’s reaction. One imagines Bidart (the version, a little different for everyone, present in one’s mind when one reads his poems) wishing he could italicize italics, that is, that he could make words, even italicized words, more visible, more audible because he suspects that words in poems are actually invisible (because almost nobody reads poetry) and, in reality, inaudible (because people who do read poems often don’t hear them.) Bidart wants to be audible to the reader and to himself. He may even be audible to his object of desire. The reader knows only that, reading his words aloud, we experience them as audible to ourselves and we feel that we mean them as much as the poet does.
To mean words involves a process. The poet is filled, first, with a sense of conviction. Words come to him and then, hearing the words in his mind, he feels more confident. And then, hearing himself speaking the words aloud, he feels that sense of conviction intensified, as if the words in his ears offered him a kind of auricular assurance of his conviction. Afterwards he sees his words on the page. Underlined in manuscript and italicized in published form, they offer a visual assurance. He feels an intimate relationship to them. The words are not a promise or a vow or a curse but glow and vibrate as if they were. Then there’s an aftereffect, as if something serious, real, has been done in (and to) everyday life, something that can’t be taken back. It should be said that to mean words is to do something very specific not just to them but also for them, for what is expressed by them. One makes it possible for the feelings expressed by the words to sustain themselves on their own and to thrive –in the poem, in the world. When feelings fail to thrive it’s because we have failed to mean the words for them. And to mean words is do something for ourselves. Poet and reader feel more alive. There is something else: there are atheists and theists who say they can get access to “the absolute” simply by wholeheartedly meaning the words in poems and prayers. (Bidart’s 2013 poem, “Hunger for the Absolute” ends with the italicized words, “You are not finite. You are not finite.”) And when we don’t quite mean what we say or we secretly mean the opposite or we mean too many things at once, we are lost in the world of “the proximate and partial,” which is the world of everyday life, run by moralists.
In Bidart’s 2013 poem, “He is Ava Gardner,” he writes about the tension between “the proximate and partial” and “the hunger for the absolute.” If we forget about the hunger for the absolute, we are reminded by art. And if we remember the hunger but no longer believe in it art helps us to believe in it again– or at least to feel it again, whatever we believe about it. Any kind of art will work. For Bidart films of the nineteen thirties and forties work well. In his 2008 poem, “An American in Hollywood,” Bidart writes, “You think those alive there, in the glowing rectangle, /lead our true lives! They have not, as we have been// forced to here, cut off their arms and legs. // There, you dance as well as Fred Astaire, /though here, inexplicably, you cannot.” Watching “those alive there, in the glowing rectangle” of the screen, or of the page of the book of poems, makes us feel more alive. Astaire is ourselves, in all caps and italics. What is that feeling like? It’s related to the sense of conviction, and to the experience of meaning words, but it’s different, in part, because one might well be uneasy about it. We feel, at least as long as the movie or poem lasts, a change in scale. We feel greater than ourselves. (The end of the Wallace Stevens poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West” describes that feeling.) It isn’t enough, of course, to feel an increased magnitude. We need an audience. Even saints need God as their audience. Therapists tell us, sympathetically, that we want to be recognized for who we are, and that may be true but we also want others to recognize that we’re somehow greater—not greater than they are, necessarily, but than they thought we were. Moralists frown on self-aggrandizement, but how can we not desire it when our selves, unaggrandized, are so puny? How can we tolerate not being the dancer in the glowing rectangle? Frederick Austerlitz couldn’t tolerate it and turned himself into Fred Astaire. Unfortunately, we are vulnerable to others who recognize that we think we possess an unrecognized greatness, as Bidart suggests in his 2008 poem, “Seduction.” “Make him //see that you alone decipher within him / the lineaments of the giant.” We ask others for more admiration than we deserve and also for love, maybe, which we know is undeserved. Sensing the particular forms our neediness has taken—Bidart calls us “needful, ghostly” in his 2008 poem, “Hymn”—these others seduce us and after we’re abandoned we feel smaller than ourselves, not alive any more but just alive, barely. And then we start reading poems again or going to thirties movies.
But we bring our neediness with us to movies and poems. And there we meet more seducers and manipulators. Herbert White knows we have deciphered within him the lineaments of the giant. He has, he believes, made of himself something more (worse, but more) than he was when he began. And he knows that many people would themselves like to be more, not worse, but more, somehow. But look what happens at the end of the poem. He meets the same fate we met. There are trees. White uses the word “sharp” to describe them but this time the word means percipient. The trees tell him, “’That’s just you, standing there. / You’re… / just you.’” He is “just” himself, as we are. And he is guilty. He committed the crimes. White thought he had an anti-self, as Bidart did, but it turns out he didn’t. His guilt gives him no added stature or glamor. He is ordinary, shitty. Destruction can’t do the same work for the self that creation can. The word justice enters into the poem as the word “just.” It’s another delayed detonation, this time directed at Herbert White.
But it’s directed at us, too. We think that we’re innocently reading a transcript (or better, a poem) and therefore aren’t implicated in the actions described. We’re complacent. At the same time we’ve, a little uncomfortably, felt more alive while listening to him. It’s worth pointing out that he gives us something to respond to each moment. He’s interesting. A. R. Ammons writes at the end of his poem, “Hibernaculum,” “if things don’t add / up they must interest at every moment.” White is interesting in part because our relationship to him changes, every time he changes his tone. (Flatness, it turns out, is only one of his tones, the one he chose to use to draw us in.) He may be manipulating us but even that is exciting. It is possible to wish sometimes, perverse as it sounds, that we could be manipulated more (or more often, maybe) by the people we know, or strangers. In our loneliness and isolation, we would feel intensely present to someone and they would feel intensely present to us. We know it will end badly for us but we don’t care.
Herbert White sounds so sincere. (Our sense of a poem’s speaker as sincere and designing, or, say, innocent and guilty, appears in many later Bidart poems.) What White wants, specifically, is the emotional coherence I mentioned at the start. “You see, ever since I was a kid I wanted /to feel things make sense.” We can only feel how things make sense because we can’t know how they make sense. As Bidart writes at the end of his 1983 poem, “Confessional,” “Man needs a metaphysics; /he cannot have one.” We can only experience a felt coherence. If we’ve acquired, as Bidart readers, the habit of saying “more” we might say we want more coherence. It sounds absurd to put it that way. But we mean that we want longer-lasting coherence, permanent coherence, or at least coherence that will last as long as we live. The problem is that coherence that is merely felt hardly lasts at all. Things that make sense in the moment stop making sense the next moment. We realize that Herbert White was right when he said “you see.”
I mentioned at the start another kind of truth Bidart seeks. (Maybe it’s another way of seeking the same truth.) This is the truth to be found underneath the visible. White says, “I remember // looking out the window of my room back home, –/and being almost suffocated by the asphalt; / and grass; and trees; and glass; / just there, just there, doing nothing! / not saying anything! filling me up– /but also being a wall; dead, and stopping me; / — how I wanted to see beneath it, cut // beneath it, and make it /somehow come alive…” If we don’t find what is beneath what is just there, then it’s to be feared that we will become something else just there, as terrible a fate for those with truth-seeking ambitions as it is for those interested in self-aggrandizement. “How I wanted to see beneath it, cut beneath it,” Herbert White says. We might have thought of him as the white whale, but here White sounds like Ahab: “Hark ye yet again – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” In poem after poem, Bidart writes about our desire to see what is beneath the asphalt and glass and trees and grass. The desire is present in his 1990 poem, “To the Dead,” in which he writes of the “necessary, dreamed structure /beneath the structure we see.” He knows it’s a dubious quest, as dubious as the relationship between the words “necessary” and “dreamed.” At the same time, for all his earnestness, Bidart is adept at mocking his desire for this kind of truth, really for any kind of truth. The glass-grass rhyme, for example, by exciting our appetite for correspondences or connections, or at least aural connections, and then offering it so little apart from the inane rhyme, mocks his desire for meaning. And he’s happy to mock our desire as well. In a 2008 poem called “Marilyn Monroe” Bidart tells us, straight out that there is a “pact beneath ordinary life.” A pact. That seems promising, if a little unexpected. This is the pact: “If you /give me enough money, you can continue to fuck me.”
Someone in search of truth might (fearlessly) ask about anything: What is the worst that can be known about it? (If we ask what is the best we are searching for comfort, not knowledge.) What is the worst that can be known about our relationship with Marilyn Monroe? The pact. If you / give me enough money, you can continue to fuck me—“ What is the worst that can be known about what is “just there?” Its contingency, probably, the fact that the grass and glass don’t have to be here. Echoing the speaker of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” a poem Bidart loves, in which a six-year-old girl, hearing her aunt in the dentist’s chair scream, hears her own voice and looking up from her magazine, is suddenly alive to the other people in the dentist waiting room. “Why should I be my aunt, /or me, or anyone? /What similarities–/ boots, hands, the family voice / I felt in my throat, / or even /the National Geographic /and those awful hanging breasts–/held us all together /or made us all just one? / How–I didn’t know any / word for it–how “unlikely” . . ./How had I come to be here, / like them, and overhear /a cry of pain that could have /got loud and worse but hadn’t?” Herbert White, similarly, talks about the motel in whose garden he left the body of a girl, perhaps a girl of the same age as the girl who sat in the waiting room. At first he is happy. Everything fits together. Everything is necessary. “That night, at that Twenty-nine Palms Motel / I had passed a million times on the road, everything /fit together; was alright; / it seemed like / everything had to be there […]” but then he realizes, with horror, that the motel “had been /itself all the time, a lousy/ pile of bricks, plaster, that didn’t seem to /have to be there, –but was, just by chance.” The word “lousy” here is a synonym for the word “shitty.”
To talk about contingency is to talk about accidents and accidents seem most effectively dramatized by car accidents. Allen Grossman also uses the word ‘lousy” when writing about the terrible truth that nothing is pre-ordained. In “The Department,” a poem about the death of a colleague, Grossman writes, “his subject was the violence / Of mind and the duplicity of his kind. / There was a wound, he thought, deeper / Than doubt where love //could enter, or /Look out –/ Weary of the faithless civil compromise. / But that was not the wound of which he died. /He was a lousy driver who got caught.” Bidart’s 1977 poem, “The Arc” is about a man who has lost his arm. If Herbert White is condemned to look at what is just there, this narrator must cope what is just not there. The narrator says, “I used to vaguely perceive the necessity / of coming to terms with the stump-filled material world, –// things, bodies; // CRAP–// a world of accidents, and chance–; // but after / the accident, I had to understand it / not as an accident–;” He remembers that “by / CHANCE the car swerved when a yellow car // came at us–; and the next/ minute, when I looked down //all I saw was a space below the elbow /instead of my arm… // The police still can’t figure out exactly what happened. // I tell myself: /”Insanity is the insistence on meaning.” The quotation marks, meant perhaps to give the statement added dignity, give it added pathos. The trade-off in all Bidart’s poems, of course, is that, learning the worst, we feel not exactly wiser but, of course, more alive. The trade-off is a kind of contract with the reader.
This desire to feel more alive brings us back to Bidart’s italics, which are the visible form of the contract. His grateful readers, giddy maybe from reading his Collected Poems cover to cover, might feel inclined to supply the italics and all caps in texts that lack them. We see the word “alive” in poems by other poets and we want to see it as alive or ALIVE. We read Moby Dick and wish Melville had written, “THE LITTLE LOWER LAYER. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach OUTSIDE except by thrusting through THE WALL.” There’s a kind of desperation in italics and passages about desperation ought to have them. And there’s also a kind of ecstasy in italics and passages about ecstasy should also have them. Walter Pater, for example wrote, “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Bidart’s readers will know how to go to work on that sentence.
After a while, we might acknowledge that sometimes we know how, more or less, to feel alive. Now the question becomes: what are we alive to? What is compelling about Herbert White is that he is both alive and alive to. (He’s at his most moving at moments when he’s alive to philosophical questions and creepiest in moments–they are often the same moments–when he wants to seem alive to us.) To be alive is to be, usually, self-absorbed to some degree. To be alive to, on the other hand, is to be alert to the presence of what Bidart calls in a 1983 interview the “complicated, surprising, opaque” world outside the self. The world outside the self doesn’t just mean other people. Bidart is never going to say, like King Lear, “I have ta’en too little care of this.” Though self-absorbed, he’s never taken too little care of people. The world outside the self may mean people but it may also mean weather, or qualities of light at different times of the day. In fact, Bidart, particularly responsive to the absence or withdrawal of light, is one of the great poets of night. Franz Wright, whose 1993 book of poems was called The Night World and the Word Night, resembles Bidart in that both are obsessed not only with night but the word “night.” Like Bidart, Franz Wright is happy when he can use the word “night” twice in one sentence. In Bidart’s poem, “To the Dead,” the line “There is a NIGHT inside the NIGHT” appears three times.) And Bidart begins his poem, “The Second Hour of the Night,” with words that are repeated twice in the first two pages “On such a night.” Throughout his career Bidart writes poems whose titles include the word “night”: “Dark Night,” “In the Western Night,” “Book of Night,” “Those Nights.” The effect of those titles is to make Half-Light, the title of the present volume, seems surprisingly optimistic. (He could have called it False Dawn.)
Bidart sometimes connects the idea of night to spiritual figures conducting ardent, arduous relationships with God. His 1990 poem, “Dark Night,” for example, is about John of the Cross. At night mystical figures become harder and harder to see and we can lose a sense of their narrative. But night is also when stories start—including terrifying ones. When Herbert White says, “But then, one night […], we hold our breath. Bidart’s use of the word “night “often seems to evoke the classic melodramatic opening of Gothic novels: “It was a dark and stormy night.” He also gives the idea of night mythic and historical resonance, especially in his Hours of the Night sequence. (These are four very long poems, the first of which is, in Bidart’s words, about “the collapse of western metaphysics,” the second of which is about the story, found in Ovid, of the incestuous love between Myrrha and her father, King Cinyras, the third of which is about Benvenuto Cellini and the fourth of which about Genghis Khan.) He may, at this moment, be working on a Fifth Hour of the Night.
Bidart has such an intimate relationship to night that it sometimes occurs to him to address it directly and give it valuable information. In his 1990 poem, “In the Ruins,” for example, he writes “Oh Night, –// …THE SUN IS DEAD. In his note for his 2005 poem, “Song” he quotes a line from Ava Gardner’s autobiography: “It takes talent to live at night, and that was the one ability I never doubted I had.” To be good at living at night may have at least three meanings for Bidart. It could mean exploring kinds of love that had had to remain hidden. (Bidart did not come out as gay until after both his parents were dead.) It could also mean that one has, like Keats, a talent for negative capability, an indispensable gift for someone who wants to be alive to the world around him. What Keats calls doubt and uncertainty, Bidart calls night. And there is the third meaning. There is night inside us. That is, we are ignorant. We live in perpetual night, as the damned do and we can’t, in that night, see anyone else. What does it mean to be good at living in that kind of night? Probably it means making art (which may then supply a sort of half-light.)
In “The First Hour of the Night” Bidart writes of “the irremediably ignorant I.” Ignorance is an important theme for him. We are all ignorant–too ignorant to be able to conceive of intellectual coherences, too ignorant to know how to sustain or prolong emotional coherences, too ignorant to ask what is the good of knowing the worst, and too ignorant to understand our relationships with other people. We don’t, for example, ever fully understand the pain we’ve suffered because of those relationships—whether with lovers or parents. We look back and the pain is just there. In his 2008 poem “If See No End In Is” Bidart writes, “Now that your life nears its end /when you turn back what you see / is ruin.” There is no possibility of repair or remedy. (The words “irreparable” and “irremediable“ recur thoughout Bidart’s work, and once he even uses the word “unameliorated.”) All he can say is what Nijinsky says in “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky”: “Suffering has made me what I am.” That may be unsatisfyingly vague but it’s satisfyingly dramatic.
Walter Pater, writing about our ignorance of others and their ignorance of us, describes our situation. “Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of a prisoner in his isolation, each mind keeping as its solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.” Pater sounds like Melville, but Melville imagines a violent solution. “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” That alternative is always there, as the poem, “Herbert White,” makes clear. (And Herbert White haunts the Collected Poems, though he re-appears explicitly only once. Like White, we can’t understand the reasons for (and often the extent of) the pain we’ve inflicted. All we know is that no important relationship lasts and no important relationships ends. Meanwhile, we have unimportant relationships, moving towards and away from each other, enthralled and then, to use one of Bidart’s words, “disenthralled,” and then, to use another of his words, “undisenthralled.” In his 1977 poem, “The Book of the Body,” Bidart remembers “…All those who loved me /whom I did not want; // all those whom I loved /who did not want me;//all those whose love I reciprocated //but in a way somehow /unlike what they wanted.” In the same poem he tells us that “A friend said, ‘I’ve hurt so many…’ And / for what? / to what end?” (One expects the line to read, “for what?” We are caught off balance and stumble.) And finally, because it is night, we can’t see, we are ignorant of, the sinister forces hurrying towards us. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, has Claudius say that “when sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions.” For Bidart the battalions come at him in groups of three. He gives us “loathing, rage, revenge” in one poem. And there is “outrage; betrayals; dread.” Semicolons ensure that each word is given its due but also that the forward movement is not slowed for long. In another poem we find “humiliation / rage, betrayal.” And in another poem we find “DEATH, RAGE AND EROS.” And then, in a later poem, “Mumps, Meningitis, Encephalitis.” The last three come, the poet tells us, “all at once, together.”
When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions. Literature is full of insights. But so what? Bidart himself has insights but so, after all, does Herbert White. And he kills people. And so does Ellen West, the anorexic heroine of the 1977 dramatic monologue, “Ellen West.” And she kills herself. Bidart is wary of the clarities we achieve, not just those that are too easy but even those (especially those) that are hard-won, because those hard-won insights seem often to play a sinister role in one’s thought processes. What is the use, Bidart wonders, of moments of slow or sudden comprehension? One accumulates hunches and inklings and at the end it’s as if they’re heaped up in a pile in one’s memory. Pile is one of Bidart’s words. There was the motel in “Herbert White,” which “had been /itself all the time, a lousy/ pile of bricks, plaster, that didn’t seem to /have to be there, –but was, just by chance.” A pile is not a structure, not even a dream-structure. A pile is “lousy.” Insights, like accidents, are contingent: not one of them was preordained. And yet when we’re young we preen ourselves on them and when we’re old the young flatter us by calling us wise even though many, or all, of our penetrating observations have been useless to us and to them. Still, somehow, we fetishize the last words of the dying. In his 1990 poem, “To the Dead” Bidart writes of “insight, like ashes: clung to; useless; hated.” And many of our insights, because they’re nothing but concentrated meaning, are very difficult to mean. They seem to come to us somehow pre-meant. Bidart italicizes them when he writes them down but it must feel sometimes like seconding a motion or saying the pledge of allegiance.
But what is the alternative? We are ignorant, but without insights what are we? And not to have insights seems churlish, when life, which gives us so little of what we want, offers us a limitless number of things about which to have them. Anyway, insights are interesting as phenomena. There are, for example, so many kinds to have. There is the sudden illumination one has over and over again, the same one, throughout a lifetime, experiencing it each time as fresh. And in his poem, “Thirst,” for example, Bidart says he is “full of almost-insight.” What does it mean to be an insightful or an almost-insightful person? We experience the accumulation of moments of clarification as an increase of knowledge but such knowledge is often neither redemptive nor healing nor even therapeutic. It might seem surprising to think that redemption (a secular redemption, usually) can come from acts of understanding. In his 1973 poem, “Golden State,” Bidart asks “When did I first begin to substitute / insight, for prayer?” We want wisdom but what we get is the pain the wisdom was meant to protect us from. Randall Jarrell wrote in his poem, “90 North”, “I see at last that all the knowledge //I wrung from the darkness–that the darkness flung me / Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing, / The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom. It is pain.”
Meanwhile, our knowledge and our wisdom become dated and our insights get stale. One tries to renew the realization or epiphany, and it returns and then goes stale again. To keep it from going stale in the first place we have to make a religion of it, and then the religion has to seem passionate though it can’t sound too passionate or it will seem merely histrionic. (Bidart thought at at one time of becoming a priest but decided against it). Bidart is interested in the fate, whether institutional or personal, of acute perceptions. Once, Bidart writes in his poem, “Self-Portrait 1969,” “he thought insight would remake him, he’d reach / –what? The thrill, the exhilaration / unraveling disaster, that seemed to teach / necessary knowledge… became just jargon.” An insight, when it’s stale, becomes just jargon. What is worse than jargon? Some people offer insights that seem, in their way, worse. Maybe the most disturbing moment in Kafka’s story, “The Judgment” is when the terrifying father is described as “radiant with insight.”
Bidart has perceptions about insights, and one of them is that there is, in fact, a use for insights. In his 1973 poem, “Golden State,” Bidart writes about a dream he had: “—I seemed to see /the conditions of my life, upon / a luminous stage: how I could change, / how I could not: the root of necessity, /and choice. /The stage was labeled / “Insight.” Insight is the stage; at the same time it provides the stage for all the drama that accompanies it. What Bidart wants, maybe more than the intuitions themselves, is the melodramatic moment in which, alone or in company, one has a moment of recognition and feels a leap of the spirit, to use a phrase from “The Second Hour of the Night.” He loves the theatricality of the voice—spontaneous but nevertheless stagy-sounding–in which one expresses one’s sudden clarity about something. The world around one seems, at such moments, rich, sharp, quickened.
What else is he alive to? We are ignorant and therefore condemned to be awkward. If we had the truth, we suspect, we might become graceful: our gestures, intellectual, emotional, even physical, might become effortless. But we don’t have it.. There are people, even artists, who accept their awkwardness. Nijinsky is (or wants to be) an effortful dancer. In the poem, “The War of Vaslav Nijinksy,” Nijinsky tells us that the “training” he received in the “traditional / ‘academic’ dance, — / emphasizes the illusion /of Effortlessness, / Ease, Smoothness, Equilibrium…// When I look into my life, / these are not the qualities / I find there.” Bidart is not a believer in the value of equilibrium. When he does find equilibrium, in early poems by Whitman, say, he calls it “the eerie early / equilibrium.” And Ellen West, too, longs to be able to make “effortless gestures.”
Bidart himself, of course, is a poet of effortful gestures. He writes awkward poems. Often the most awkward ones are the most beautiful. To be awkward is a kind of proof of life. Another way to put it: his poems, even those that are most beautiful, are not “poems.” The fact that one has written a “poem” is, for a poet like Bidart, a sign that something has gone wrong. In the 1969 poem about his father, “Golden State,” Bidart addresses his father, using his father’s nickname. “Oh Shank, don’t turn into the lies / of mere, neat poetry.” A. R. Ammons, in his book-length poem, “Tape for the Turn of the Year,” says, halfway through the poem, that he hates the “self-conscious POEM.” Bidart, similarly, is not interested in poems, not even in the question of what is poetry and not poetry. In a 1983 interview, he writes about “dead ends” in poetry, and includes among them “’good description’ the mere notation of sensibility, ‘good images,’ ‘good lines,’ or mere wit.” And in an interview twenty-two years later he says, “If a poem is any good, I don’t think of some parts as ‘poetry’ and other parts as ‘not poetry.”’ What is important is the act of creation—sometimes it seems the rougher, the more awkward the creation the better.
But it must be a creation. It must exist. Bidart is someone with a 718-page Collected Poems and yet when he thinks about making he thinks more often of failure than success. A failure to finish what one has made or, finishing it, a failure to bring it into the world, is a serious failure. Although Bidart writes, in 2005, a poem called “Lament for the Makers” many of his poems are laments for failed makers. Bidart wants people, especially the people he loves, to make things. In one poem he sounds like the Shakespeare of the sonnets, except that he urges his friend not to have a child but to publish a book. In “For Bill Nestrick, (1940-1996), his 2005 elegy for a friend from graduate school, he tells us that Nestrick “lived in the realm where coin of the realm / is a book.” But he “never published a book.” Still, he knew how to feel alive, to live in the moment, and that’s a kind of making, a way of shaping experience. Bidart writes, “Against the background of this bitter /mysterious lapse” there is “your brilliant /appetite for the moment.”
There is the failure to make anything, which is tragic. But Bidart, like Grossman, is concerned with abandoned enterprises, the failure to complete what one has made. Bidart’s poems may seem wild, anarchic but they never feel like drafts. Allen Grossman, in his elegy, “The Department,” writes that his colleague ‘left his work unfinished. Whether / It was good or bad nobody knows– / It was not done.”
Completion is important because in life there are no satisfying endings. In “Confessional,” a 1983 poem about his mother, Bidart writes, “The emotions, the “issues” in her life /didn’t come out somewhere, reached no culmination, /climax, catharsis, –// she JUST DIED.” In addition, to fail to complete an act of creation is to fail to mean what one says. It’s to leave behind a mass of words, expressed but unmeant. And one can’t help but think of all the words not used and thus not available to one’s desire to mean. In his 1983 poem, “Confessional” Bidart says of his mother. “She had painted a few paintings, and / written a handful of poems, but without the illusion //either were any good or STOOD FOR HER…// She had MADE nothing. // I was what she had made.” The poet implies that as a person, as a son, he is “nothing.” But he is, in fact, a poet. The word “made,” appearing in all caps, is a kind of “Bidart fecit” reminding us (as it must have reminded the younger Bidart) that he has been making work that stands for him, and he is doing so now.
I’ve written about Bidart as a poet who is both alive and alive to. I don’t mean that he is first one then the other. This is not a story of personal transformation. He is, like many people, both things, from start to finish. Because he is alive to, he is not going to be solely a confessional poet, and because he is alive, he is not going to be solely a political poet, writing poems of witness, though he does write such poems. When he feels alive, he makes his readers feel alive. When he is alive to, he thinks about the fact that we want a metaphysics and can’t have one, that we want truth but what we get instead is a jumble of insights, that we move awkwardly and ignorantly in darkness, that we want light and what we get is, at best, half-light. He is a poet with a grim and desolate view of life and yet at the same time he has, for the last half century, been writing poems that seem more alive than those of his contemporaries. And, although the offering of easy consolations isn’t part of his project or one of his preoccupations one stumbles on odd moments here and there in the Collected Poems, moments that might suggest why the volume is called Half-Light. There is, for example, the 1973 poem, “Another Life” In which, though we can find the words “awkwardness,” “ignorance” and “wisdom” in the course of six lines, we can’t help but notice that some of the other words in those six lines are “heart, “ “grieves,” “soothed,” “saves.” But this is the passage: “As my heart / began to grieve for my own awkwardness and /ignorance, which would never be soothed by the informing energies / of whatever wisdom saves […]“ He’s saying that, though we can grieve for our own awkwardness and ignorance, grief is not the same as wisdom and wisdom, in any case, has no power to soothe or save. This isn’t half-light, it’s one of the hours of the night. His poems can’t soothe or save us. What they can do is make us feel alive and alive to the world around us.
Nick Halpern is the author of Everyday and Prophetic: ThePoetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich.