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Guilt Is Fecund: The Millions Interviews Frank Bidart

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At 82, Frank Bidart remains one of the preeminent voices in American letters, let alone American poetry. He has won nearly every major prize awarded to poets, among them the Griffin Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award. For more than half a century, his poems have investigated the dualities of body and soul and love and hate through the exploration of both self and others. His work, as poet Craig Morgan Teicher put it for NPR, with its “relentlessly intense voice,” has over the years been distilled “down to an essential expression of need and desire, of how art, if it can’t save us, can at least embody and preserve us.”

On Nov. 3, after months of delays due to issues with the supply chain, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Bidart’s eighth collection, Against Silence. Our conversation, however, was held four months earlier, over a phone call that spanned the better part of an hour and a half. Bidart—generously, modestly, and, most of all, passionately—spoke with me about the sociocultural circumstances that inspired his latest collection, the difference between poetry of identity and poetry of the personal, his relationship with that titan of 20th-century American poetics, Robert Lowell, and the power guilt and memory hold over his art.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Millions: In 2017, you finally won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of your life’s work, Half-Light: Poems 1965-2016. In the collection were some new poems, including the fourth of your Hours of the Night sequence. What brought you to a fifth poem in that sequence, and to this next book, Against Silence, besides the obvious urge as poet to never stop?

Frank Bidart: That’s very important, the urge to never stop. There are at least two patterns that happen after one finishes a book. Either the barrel is empty and one has to wait for it to fill back up, or, if one is lucky, one starts out in some new direction, and one knows one can’t fulfill it in the context of the time one has to publish a book, so one puts it off.

That happened to me here. There was a poem I published in The New Yorker called “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” and it appeared in the issue the week that Trump was inaugurated. It’s a poem that mattered to me tremendously, but I knew in my bones that it needed other poems around it. It needed to be fleshed out. It needed development. So I did not include it in my collected poems, which came out the following year. In other words, I had this poem that was the promise of other things, but was only that. It needed a world of experience and a lot of other writing to back it up, to provide an earth for it to settle on. In that sense, I was lucky, because I had then a beginning. I did not know if I could develop it, but I had a beginning. And that’s really what this book is; it very much proceeded from the attempt to provide the underpinnings for that poem.

TM: Your work has often interrogated the horrors of history happening in real time, while also undergirding them with historical precedents and instilling the writing with the personal as well. (I’m thinking specifically of your poetry about the AIDS crisis.) In this book, you’re looking at American failure, and human failure writ large, and the possibility of where that will go from where it is right now, and you’re looking at these subjects in a way that is both expansive and tied into the personal. How did you balance those things?

FB: You know Carolyn Forché’s work, and you know her anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. I agreed with her that it was important that poets witness what they knew, what they experienced—that they not think poetry was only lyric. But on the other hand, what had I witnessed? I was not in Vietnam. I had nothing new to say about Vietnam. It was easy to write an anti-Vietnam poem with a lot of secondhand opinions, but I had nothing to contribute in that way. But I was genuinely shocked when, with Trump, suddenly, white supremacy seemed something that had raised its head. You know, I really thought that was dead. And suddenly, I realized it wasn’t dead. As the poem reports, I felt things that I thought were over were not over. And on issues of race, as I thought about it, in fact, I had experienced things that were worth talking about.

In some ways, everything in the book proceeds from the experience, in the poem “The Fifth Hour of the Night,” of my grandmother refusing to let me, at the age of seven or eight, have dinner at the house of a Black friend. I can remember so vividly the rage I felt at her, at her racism—that it was not a question that I could even argue with her about. I was ashamed of the fact that, at the age of seven or eight, I gave in. I buckled under. My mother and I lived in my grandmother’s house, and I could not fight her at the age of seven or eight.

The book does not go into this, but later in my mother’s life, this was a very real issue. She worked in a doctor’s office and was very important in it. She ran it. She had very good relations with the doctors, and it was crucial to her sense of her own value. Dr. Zary was a Lebanese Christian, and my mother wanted to marry him. He was dark skinned, and my grandmother—the same woman who I had fought at the age of seven or eight—simply threw a fit. She could not stand the idea that her daughter was going to marry somebody with dark skin, though he was Christian. She talked my mother out of this. It was one of the central tragedies of my mother’s life. My mother gave in, and later, she married someone from Texas who was, unfortunately, a very stupid man, and it was a very unhappy marriage. She never should have given into my grandmother. These issues about race had been lived out in my family, and lived out in my own experience, and lived out in what happened to my mother, and in the shape of her life. 

TM: As they are reflected here, they take a look at something that a good deal of your poetry interrogates, which is the feeling of guilt over something over which you are powerless. As an eight-year-old, you have no power to tell your grandmother, “Stop being racist, my friend is coming over,” and as a survivor of the AIDS crisis, you had no ability to save the people you loved nor choice over whether you survived. So what has come of this interrogation, besides many books of beautiful poetry? Do you feel like there is any exorcism? Is exorcism possible? Do the poems assuage the guilt at all? 

FB: The guilt doesn’t go away. But on the other hand, it changes. The fact that one can feel guilt over something that one had no control over. There’s the survivor’s guilt of AIDS. Why on earth did I survive rather than someone else? There’s nothing that they did that I didn’t do.

TM: And with race, it’s a question of, “Why was I protected from this pain and this persecution when others were not?”

FB:  That’s right: why have I lived a very privileged life? And I know I’ve lived a privileged life—because my grandparents came here from the Pyrenees in 1905, because of things my father did in earning money. There are a million ways in which one is the recipient of privilege that one has done nothing to earn. That’s absolutely the nature of our experience. The fact is, one feels guilty for things that one cannot control. I feel guilt for the irreconcilable things in my relationship with my mother for which I was not altogether responsible. Nonetheless, I felt an anger toward her that I could never entirely get over. That was a source of division between us. That’s the nature of human experience.

TM: That parallel shows up in a lot of your work, the inextricable nature of hate and love and the inextricable nature of life and death.

FB:  The irony is, of course, that intellectually one knows these things. But in terms of experience, one discovers them over and over again. That’s partly one of the things this book is about: discovering, again, and again, the inextricable relation between love and hate, which I certainly knew about conceptually, but have had to experience over and over again.

TM: I think back often to words that you use frequently in your work—to your eye toward the balance between Latinate and Germanic diction, and in the way you use such words as “incommensurate” and “irreparable,” words that you come back to very often. I was thinking about those two words while I read this book, specifically, because it interrogates both of them as you define them, and because sometimes they can be one in the same. And I was thinking of how you come back to ideas and words again and again, to learn the same lesson from them in a slightly different way. It’s almost natural that we get a “Fifth Hour of the Night” here. That sequence of poems is one of the great through lines of your work. But here we are with one that, unlike a lot of the prior entries, isn’t centered on a historical figure—unless you consider yourself a historical figure. What brought you to write this poem? How did you decide to include it in the Hours of the Night sequence? 

FB: As in the poem, I started writing about that experience:
They love each other more than anything and their child knows that.

They love each other more than anything but the well is poisoned.

Thirst no well can satisfy.

The well of affection that bloods the house is poisoned.

Love that bloods the house is poisoned.

He was smart and good-looking and charmed everyone.

She was beautiful and smart and charmed everyone.

Deep wrongness between the two that somehow no fury can wipe clean.
That was one of my earliest experiences. That’s really what I felt as a child—that somehow, for this family that outwardly seemed happy, there was something deeply wrong that they could not cure, for which loving each other was not enough. Those lines sort of popped out, and in that sense, the trajectory of the poem grew from that. Each hour attempts to talk about some process that is fundamental. That was, in a way, the fundamental process that I experienced as a child. That had to be in the sequence.

TM: It’s a particularly powerful moment in the book because it crystallizes something you’ve been writing about for your entire life, which is this tension between love and hate and the irreconcilability of how humans care and hurt each other no matter how much they care. How has your perspective on that duality changed over the course of your career? Do you think that this book agrees with your Odi et Amo series, or do you think it takes a different tack?

FB: It takes it in a slightly different direction. The minute, as a graduate student, I read Odi et Amo, I felt that it was the quintessential thing I had ever read: that in two lines, Catullus crystallized this utterly fundamental thing, that we love and hate at the same time, that we love and hate the same thing at the same time. And in a way, I’ve spent my life trying to excavate that.

TM: Desire wants to both create and obliterate.

FB: Absolutely. These are two tercets in “Fifth Hour.” Let me read them:
Sleeping in a motel with my father, when he, in anguish and crying,
implored
me to try to get my mother to return to him,

I said I / would,–
…and knew I wouldn’t.
That I can remember as if I’m right there in the bed with my father at the age of five or six. I can remember feeling that. My mother was not going to go back to him. My mother didn’t want to go back to him. It was too painful. In that sense, I didn’t want him to go back to her either. It would have solved nothing. And at the same time, I wanted to give him some reassurance. I certainly didn’t want to say that my finger was on the scale. I said that I would, and I knew I wouldn’t. That’s like a knife cutting into me.

TM: It’s like the blood that spills from which soldiers spring, right? In “The Ghost,” you write, “guilt is fecund.” It sums up a lot of what your work is about: the agony of having to remember these things is not blotted out by the fact that the memory allows the work—which exists and, in its way, becomes a release in as much as it remains the bars by which the guilt is trapped.

FB:  There’s a history behind that title that I love. Sextus Propertius wrote a poem about Cynthia, whom he loved and who returned to him as a ghost after her death. She partly excoriates him for their relationship. Robert Lowell translated the poem under the title “The Ghost.” In my mind, the speaker of my poem “The Ghost” is the side of my mother that is ferocious, forever in a sense unreconciled, but which also can see, somehow, both sides of everything. I loved giving the title “The Ghost” to this poem in which she speaks, because it had the echoes of both Propertius and Lowell’s great translation. 

TM: When I was reading it, I wondered if it was your mother, and then I wondered if it was personified guilt.

FB:  In some sense it is. But it’s also my mother. Those are not the words my mother could actually have uttered, or would utter if she were alive, but in some sense it’s the quintessence of part of her. It’s the tough part of her, that part they could acknowledge guilt as fecund.

TM: Another word you love! Let’s go back to how you’ve made certain words your own. I’m thinking now of the poet and educator Richard Hugo’s collection of lectures and essays, The Triggering Town. In it, he writes that “your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary,” essentially arguing that poets must “take emotional ownership of…a word,” even if those words aren’t the most impressive or most important, in order for the poetry to be anything more than a finely wrought thing that belongs to no one. We’ve discussed “incommensurate” and “irreparable” and “fecund”—these are words that you’ve made yours, just as you’ve wrought the phrase “the absolute” into your own concept. What brought you to them, and what brings you back to them so often?

FB: They’re words that somehow carry within them more than their denotative meaning. They’re words that recur to one because they have a kind of weight and density that can’t be exhausted by any one utterance of them, or any one context. I think that Hugo sentiment is wonderful, because it’s true. They’re not always glamorous words, they’re not always the most superficially eloquent words. But these words have within them some density of feeling, and of desire, and of failure, that therefore become what we want to call poetic. Someone who was an absolute master of this was Robert Lowell. He found words and kept them and gave them a context in which they had the right density and resonance.

TM: Lowell is a good person to talk about in general because, although your verse shares very few surface-level similarities with his, as poets, you are preoccupied with many of the same things: agony, atonement, family, history, self-examination. And, of course, you had a personal relationship with him. 

FB: First of all, I loved him. I don’t at all mean sexually. Though I’m gay, I was certainly not attracted to him sexually. I knew his work way before I met him. Life Studies had meant a great deal to me before I met him. When I first was in a room with him, it was a classroom, and I couldn’t believe I was in his presence. I was also so shocked that this person whom I had read, who was from New England, had a slightly Southern accent. I had not anticipated that.

I loved the fact that I was useful to him. That I could understand the prosody from the inside. I didn’t want to imitate it, but I could make suggestions that were useful to him. He wanted someone to tell him the truth as they experienced his work. He did not want someone who was simply going to praise him. He did not find that useful. But I could make suggestions that he found useful. That this person I so admired valued me was a tremendous event in my life. It’s almost incomprehensible. That feeling that I was indeed an artist and could talk to another artist that I so admired in a way that was useful to him. I really can’t tell you enough how important that was for me. My relationship with my own father was very screwed up. In some ways, that Lowell could be an analogue to that, but that it could be a relationship that I did not screw up mattered to me tremendously. I was very, very, very lucky.

Lowell did not make suggestions about my own poems. He did not understand my prosody. And I did not expect him to, but he was not threatened by the fact that, in general, he often took suggestions I made about his work, and he did not make suggestions about my work that were useful to me. He was not threatened by that. He found it funny. He was really a very wise man, in many ways. He was someone who had terrible breakdowns and when he was ill, mentally, he was really ill. But in other ways, he was really very wise, very humane. And with me, incredibly generous. I adored him.

TM: Inspiration and influence, it seems, are often slant. That is, for instance, Lowell didn’t have to edit your poems or provide you with feedback for you to have been influenced not just by reading him, but by knowing him. When you were writing your first book, before Lowell died, how did his poetry change you without changing your prosody?

FB: The work was openly ambitious in terms of what it took on, in terms of subject matter, and I loved that. But when he took on something ambitious, he always connected it to his own experience. That seemed, to me, to be completely fundamental to why it worked.

TM: One of the most powerful parts of your work is its confessional aspect, and confessionalism has proven to be among the most influential strains of American poetry over the past 50 years. A good portion of the contemporary poetry being fêted in our time is a poetry of identity—poetry that explicitly interrogates personal and gender and racial and sexual identity. You are very openly and movingly a gay poet, but would you call yourself a poet of identity?

FB: No, I certainly wouldn’t!

TM: You are, however, a very personal poet. But your interest in identity and the personal is less central than your interest in art, death, love, hate, compulsion to write, curiosity even in taking on the identities of others.

FB: I was very much formed by Shakespeare as a kind of model of the artist. Shakespeare is the greatest writer—it really is Shakespeare. He was not an Egyptian, and he was not a Danish Prince, or any of these things, literally. And he could inhabit the minds, sensibilities, perspectives, and worlds of these characters. He never treats them as merely creatures of their circumstances. He always connects them to what one wants to call universal human experience. That’s what I think an artist does. And as one goes through one’s own experience, one wants to catch something from history or psychology, or one wants to be caught by something. There’s an illusion of freedom in that that is thrilling.

When I was an undergraduate, I received from the Reader’s Subscription a book called Existence, which included an essay by Dr. Ludwig Binswanger called “The Case of Ellen West.” I immediately identified with her. I immediately wanted to write a poem about her. I was not old enough. I did not know how to do that. But that lay in my mind for a long, long time, and finally, about 15 years later, I was able to write a poem in which she speaks. I felt very grateful to have known the Binswanger. And I was grateful that I couldn’t write my poem when I first read it.

TM: Did you think you needed to grow into the poem in some ways?

FB: At the time, all I knew was that I couldn’t possibly write the poem that would embody her. But I think that is indeed what happened, that I had to grow into that. I had to experience a lot of other things. I had to experience the singing of Maria Callas. I had to have my own battles with being overweight, and a desire not to be. Everything that went into making that poem I had to grow into. I do think you can’t have a narrow view of what an artist is. An artist is not someone who simply transcribes his or her experience. An artist is someone with a sympathetic imagination—sympathetic meaning identifying with ways of being that are not literally one’s own.

TM: And your work does that in both a personal, confessional manner, as you do in “Mourning What We Thought We Were” and “The Fifth Hour of the Night,” and by animating historical figures whose experiences move you, as you did with Ellen West, and Vaslav Nijinsky, and Herbert White and, in “Behind the Lion” in this collection, Sidney Bechet.

FB: All the words in that poem are Sidney Bechet’s! None of them are mine. But I think I was able to inhabit the sensibility that resulted in his writing at that time, or his speech at that time.

All this bears on my relationship to Lowell, because when I wrote “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” Lowell was alive. It’s a poem that for a long time was in manuscript, but I had not set it up on paper. I could not get the movement right on the page, in terms of punctuation and stanza breaks and all those things. I got stuck in a passage for about two years. I just could not get it right. I could not get the words on the page to embody the voice that I heard in my head, and the voice with which I read the poem.

I was worried because Nijinsky was someone who had mental breakdowns, and who did, in fact, violent things when he was ill. One night, at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, Mass., I read the poem aloud, and Lowell was present. I was worried that he would think that I was writing about him—and I knew that I wasn’t. Whatever insights that poem has about mental illness and breakdowns did not in any way proceed from my experience of Lowell.

After I read the poem in public, we talked, and I told him that I was worried that he would think that I was writing about him. He said, “No, no, no, no. It’s about you.” Of course, he was completely right! All the extremities of emotion, all the imagination of how things are connected, have to do with my experience. Not literally, but psychologically and mentally and emotionally. I was so pleased that he could see that it was not him that was the subject of that poem, but me.

TM: It’s fascinating that you frame this this way, because I was going to ask if, when you inhabit another—in the way that you do with Nijinsky or West or White—does it feel freeing, or does it feel once again like being cursed to carry a mind and a body that you cannot escape from in another form?

FB: Well, it’s both freeing and cursing! One feels the curse of an identity. But at least it’s not one’s own identity. Identity can indeed feel like a curse. As it does to Nijinsky and Ellen West, in many ways. They are not free. And I have no illusion that I’m free, except insofar as I can inhabit them, and that only occurs in the writing.

TM: You can’t escape being Frank Bidart. And you cannot escape the society you are in—nor can your childhood friend, whose presence in your life your grandmother raged against as a child, escape being perceived as Black in a country that hates Blackness, even though that should not matter whatsoever as to how he is treated as a human being. A number of these poems are more explicitly political than even your poems on AIDS. What brought you to writing these poems in this way, and putting them in this context? The Trump election inspired you, of course, but what made you, say, write poems on racial relations and climate change in this fashion?

FB: Let me say, the poems did not feel different in kind to me from my earlier poems. Let me take the second poem, “At the Shore”:
Since childhood, you hated the illusion that this
green and pleasant land

inherently is green
or pleasant

or for human beings home. Whoever dreamed that had
not, you thought, experienced
the earth.
It felt like a relief to find the words that could say that, but I have felt that way for a very long time. Behind this is obviously the Blake poem about England being this green and pleasant land. That poem, of course, objects to what’s happened to England in Blake’s time. I admire and envy that poem on one hand, but my experience is not that something that was green, pleasant, and pristine has been defiled, which is Blake’s experience—it is that the Earth was never those things. I felt relief to find words that could state that feeling that the Earth is not our home. And of course, the Earth is our home. There’s a line in a later poem…”mind at war with ground.” The earth is our ground, but we are at war with our ground. In a million ways.

TM: Still, it is impossible for a reader in 2021 to read that poem and not think, “This is Frank Bidart’s climate change poem.” The same way that, when you read “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” you think, “This is Frank Bidart’s poem on race.”

FB: These are things that I had felt very deeply before, and never found the context in which to utter them.

TM: And so you had to put it into words, even knowing that what is past is past, that you cannot change anything about which you have written by feeling guilt, that you can only write the poems, and that even that solves nothing for you or them.

FB: Well, it’s something. It’s better than not having realized such things.

TM: This book is filled with such realizations, and ends with one. “On My Seventy-Eighth,” the final poem of the book, incorporates a number of the themes found in all of your other work, and deals explicitly with not just loss, but with the acknowledgement that even loss isn’t loss—that we carry with us even what is gone from us. 

FB: The last thing I did with the poem was to work in the reference to the end of Hamlet: “the rest is silence” is the last thing that Hamlet says, and I was writing a book called Against Silence, and I did not have that reference. This is a very good example of having worked with Lowell. He loved giving a poem a kind of density through illusion. The poem was published in Threepenny Review, without the lines:
Intolerable the fiction
the rest
is silence.
And I suddenly felt I could not publish a book called Against Silence without reference to Hamlet’s last words. Not only is it a very famous ending, it is something that the whole play, of course, contradicts. The rest is not silence after death. The first thing that happens in the play is that the father appears to the son, and the dead do speak in that play.

In my book—insofar as it’s against silence—in “The Ghost,” my mother speaks, and she’s dead. It’s not as simple as “the rest is silence.” That was the last thing I did not just to the poem, but to the book. It was a very Lowell-like thing to do.

TM: What do you hope readers will take away from this poem, and from this book?

FB: You know, I want the reader to say, “He’s not senile.”

Surprise Me!

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