By Ashley Hatcher
Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter Volume 20.2, Spring 1996.
Frank Bidart is the author of, most recently, In The Western Night, Collected Poems 1965-1990 (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990). He was in Tucson in the spring of 1996 as a featured reader in the Tucson Poetry Festival.
Ashley Hatcher: The theme of the Tucson Poetry Festival this year is "Poetry ... Lies." Why do you think you were invited to read and participate in the panel?
Frank Bidart: I was probably invited because there are many fictions in my poetry. The dramatic monologues, although they always have a source, have a lot of invention; there's a lot that's imagined. There are also poems that talk about both the impulse to tell the truth and how central and crucial that is, and then the difficulty of knowing the truth. For example, the title poem of my book Golden State is addressed to my father. There are a number of sections that are about the difficulty of knowing him, or how what I thought I knew didn't account for what I saw, wasn't adequate. In a way the poem partly worries the question of the necessity of knowing him and having understanding and insight, and then the difficulty of that, the impossibility of it—but the need for it. The poem is caught on that dilemma; it moves in a dynamic of both the need to know and the impossibility of knowing. So the truth is seen as something that says, "don't turn into the lies / of mere, neat poetry."
Ashley: And what do you mean by "mere" and "neat?"
Frank: There's a poem of Eavan Boland's, "What Language Did," that says,
This is what language did to us. Here
is the wound, the silence, the wretchedness
of tides and hillsides and stars where
we languish in a grammar of sighs,
in the high-minded search for euphony,
in the midnight rhetoric of poesie.
In these terms, my own poem is saying, "I don't want you, father, to turn into poesie, into a series of beautiful, or plausible, or rhetorically neat phrases that silence you." And in Eavan's poem the figures who say her lines complain about what has been done to them: because of the "search for euphony," human life is denied them. I'm writing a poem about him, but I don't want him simply to turn into the structure of words that is a poem that is not the structure of life, the whatness of what he is, or was.
Ashley: So what do you do to prevent language from turning into "mere, neat lies"? Do you think it has to do with your open form and idiosyncratic line and punctuation?
Frank: No, I don't have some polemical notion that you can tell the truth in open forms and not in closed ones. There is no stylistic or formal measure that can tell you whether you have lied, in effect. There's a difference between words and things. That's the most fundamental thing one has to realize about language. It's extremely hard to make the structure of words tell the truth or at least not falsify the essential patterns of the thing you're talking about. I think one can only write about a process; I think the poem can be true to the process of attempting not to turn the person into lies. It can resist the patterns that come most easily to language, and not only the patterns of words but the patterns of thoughts and of feelings. It can resist the reassurances that a certain kind of rhetoric can give. But that doesn't mean that rhetoric in itself is bad, or good.
Ashley: You're talking about the poem as an expression of a process, of the patterns of thought and feeling. Your poems are also "about" the process and language of inner argument, or an argument with an absent other. Don't you think that the form you use (or lack thereof, as some would argue) allows that expression to happen in a way that remains "true" to the patterns you're speaking of?
Frank: Well, let's go back to the question of formal poetry versus not-formal poetry, or open forms. Merrill's "The Broken Home" is a great poem about family, and it's a series of sonnets. I think prosody is crucial; prosody is a much subtler and more intimate matter than "formal" or "not formal." Prosody is a reflection of the deepest impulses in the poem and in the poet.
Ashley: So then what are the impulses your prosody is trying to reflect?
Frank: Essentially what I was doing was trying to find a way to write down the voices in my head. And when I wrote down the sounds, the motions, the voices in my head in the most conventional ways they lost their identity, they were not present. It's a question of finding a way to reveal or embody the eloquence of speech that loses its identity when it's changed into some of the more traditional patterns of English. I've written some poems in forms, and I've written one metrical poem, but by and large I have not felt I could embody what I heard in a metrical form.
Ashley: The poem "Self-Portrait, 1969" is a sonnet and also in the third person. It seems further removed than the dramatic monologues, which are in first person and open form.
Frank: Rilke's poem "Self-Portrait 1906" is the model for that poem. In effect, it's a dialogue, along with a number of other things, with the Rilke poem, and Lowell's version of it in imitations. I was imagining a mini-tradition of writers at a certain point doing a self-portrait; the thematic connection is that it's an image of oneself as unfinished. It's also a poem about closure, about feeling unable to escape something like a closed system, and the shape of the Shakespearean sonnet, ending with a rhymed couplet, seemed to me right for that. To my mind, it's not removed in the sense that it's less felt or less personal. It's partly about seeing an image of oneself in the mirror—that's a remove. And in every human being there are removes: one is not just a consciousness, one is a consciousness of a consciousness, and one is a consciousness of one's image in the mirror. And that remove, in the poem, is reflected in the organizing mind that turns it into a sonnet.
Ashley: Jane Miller has said that in the 70s there was a "crisis of the I," and the "I" disappeared for a while, and that now in the 90s, it's making its tentative way back into poems. You've been working with the "I" directly since your first book, whether it's with the persona poems or poems. Like "Self-Portrait, 1969." What do you think about the consistent presence of the "I" in your own work as compared with its "crisis" in the 70s and reemergence in the 90s in American poetry?
Frank: I think I have a lot of skepticism about the "I." I think in my poems there's always a layer of remove from the "I." To my mind, in the poems about my family, I am very much a character. I am that person who has this past who, at a certain moment in time, can see certain things. But there is a consciousness that is separate from that, that is looking at all this from some distance. Or the "I" is extremely aware of how little it knows, how it's kind of a fly caught in a system, in a structure, in a surround. And the dramatic monologues communicate many issues that are central to me, and are as personal as the autobiographical poems. The self becomes a prior self at the very moment of speaking. You are not, at the next moment, the person you were when you spoke the moment before, and there's something false in pretending that you are. So it's strange to me, when you said they represent a kind of confident or clear "I" because to my own mind, those poems don't.
Ashley: No, I didn't mean confident or clear, I meant present, subjective, in progress. In a lot of the poems there are parts of the "I'' talking to other parts of itself this inner dialogue going on so that the "I" and all of its components are the subject, and the poem is about the exploration of the "I."
Frank: Right. In essence, that's true. In the interview at the back of In the Western Night, I quote Yeats' statement, which for me is a fundamental statement about poetry: "Out of our argument with others we make rhetoric; out of our argument with ourselves we make poetry." These arguments are happening within myself or within the self of a character in my poems, but the self becomes the arena of the argument, rather than a single pole that uses the word "I.”
Ashley: What do you think saves your poems from being labeled confessional, in the negative sense of that term?
Frank: Well, here we're talking about what confessional has come to mean for various people. The negative sense of confessional is that the poem is an unmediated, rather helpless outpouring. Or it's a kind of litany of the ways one has been victimized. I don't see my poems that way at all. They're not at all an outpouring, and they're not helpless, and I don't see myself as essentially a victim. They're not about the terrible things someone, or the universe, did to me. But those are the negative meanings of confessional. There are very good, honorific meanings of confessional. Augustine's autobiography is called The Confessions. The notion of confession has to do with articulating the things that are most central to one and the attempt to tell the truth, to be honest even at personal cost. Often this involves discussing things that people find unpleasant to have discussed. It is to enter the arena of guilt, and my poems do that. They don't say, "Oh, I feel guilt, but I shouldn't feel guilt." They are talking about guilt that is mysterious in its power, but nonetheless is felt as very real, and about the guilt that does not result simply because there are laws that one has broken that are external to oneself. The guilt results from the need and the desire to be faithful to two criteria that are not compatible, that cannot coexist in the given situation. Therefore, one is in a dilemma: one must find a way to fulfill one's own life, destiny, needs, but on the other hand one does not want to disappoint, betray, or hurt those one loves and who love one. Those two things are often not compatible with each other. To be the son my mother wanted, I could not also be the human being I needed to be. Not to betray her would have been to betray myself; not to betray myself was to betray her. Betrayal is an overheated word, but that's the felt emotional resonance in some situations of one's actions.
Ashley: There are similarities in theme between the autobiographical poems and the dramatic monologues. What is it that attracts you to those themes—the obsessive denial, food, sex.
Frank: I grew up a Catholic. I'm no longer a Catholic. Something very fundamental to the Catholicism that at least I grew up in was the notion that there is a kind of war between the mind and the body, between the spirit and the body. Though I'm no longer a Catholic, I do perceive the world and experience this way. Not to say that there's never a kind of harmony, but I think there is certainly a war. There is tremendous disparity between the demands of the spirit and the demands of the body, between what the body can offer the spirit and what the spirit wants or needs. These dramas or narratives, as "Ellen West" is, are arenas for the war to be enacted, and for the issues to be embodied. Now that sounds so cold and antiseptic, but you don't choose your subjects, your subjects choose you. These subjects moved me. I felt implicated in them. I felt caught by them, but not simply on the level of anecdote. I could not write "Ellen West" when what fascinated me was anorexia, or the issues of eating or not eating. Those are real issues for me, but I couldn't write the poem when I perceived the narrative on that level. When I understood the narrative as a drama of the struggle between the mind and the body, I could write the poem. Similarly, if "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky" is perceived only in terms of the drama of Nijinsky and his wife and Diaghilev, it was not really alive for me. When
I saw it as revolving around issues of guilt and an expiatory act on Nijinsky's part to dance "World War I" and to take into his body "World War I," then I could write the poem.
Ashley: What's your process for "getting into character" for the persona poems? Is the objective text written at the same time or do you write the voices all the way through and then add the text later?
Frank: First of all I immerse myself in the material. I knew the case history of Ellen West many years before I wrote the poem, and then I spent a very long time absorbing the essay by Binswanger. When I read about Nijinsky's final recital in which he danced "World War I," I felt that was the center of the action of the poem, and I had a way of organizing all of the details about personal relationships, feelings, etc. To my mind, the poem is not simply the voice of either Nijinsky or Ellen West, it's in the interrelationship between the prose, which represents other points of view, and those voices which are represented by verse. In "Ellen West," she starts out by stating the problem or dilemma in rather abstract terms like "my true self / is thin," or "Why am I a girl?" She articulates, from her own perception of her life, central issues. Then the doctor gives us, in rather cold prose, the embodiment of these ideas in her actual life, and suddenly we learn she takes sixty tablets of laxative each day, she's thinned down to ninety-two pounds. I think it's shocking to read the external description because one did not realize from the opening lines what her demand that her body manifest her "true self" meant in her life concretely. There's a terrible disparity between the perception of her from the outside, and her own account of her life. The poem is not in the doctor's prose, and it's not in the verse of Ellen West herself, it's in the juxtaposition of the two, it's in the space between them, and in a way the disparity between them. So when writing the poem, I had to have that perspective. I had to be both in her and constructing this thing that made us see her from the outside, and understand the essential action of the poem that led her to the end of the poem. If you get compelled by a narrative and a character and a drama, you hope that a voice, in effect, will pop into your head that is that person talking. But you never know until it happens if it will happen.
Ashley: "Herbert White" is considered by many the most horrifying of the dramatic monologues. That poem doesn't have the prose or counter-text that the others have. You also put the entire poem in quotations. Why? Is it something about you, the author, not wanting to take responsibility for this voice because it's so horrifying?
Frank: I certainly feel much, much more distance between myself and that voice, whereas the relationship between me and Ellen West or me and Nijinsky is much more porous. To me, Herbert White is an anti-self in the Yeatsian sense: the inverse of me, the mirror-reverse of my being in the world. Herbert White is someone who attempts to deal with dilemmas and what for him are intolerable tensions, not by understanding or analyzing, but by acting on them and then feeling a kind of coherence or order or pleasure, which later, because it involves destructiveness, he can never live with. I think that's a very common pattern. People feel angry or rotten, and rather than attempting to understand, they perform an action. They hit someone, they kill someone, they get drunk and kill someone. They beat up their wife. Then, if what they do is bad enough, they have to, in effect, convince themselves they didn't do it. Herbert White is the quintessence of a relationship to experience that was very common in the world I came from, Bakersfield. It's someone who wants very much to experience order and pattern and meaning, but can only do it in ways that damn him to a kind of hell. I imagined Herbert White as a voice from a circle of Hell in The Inferno and that's why he says, "Hell came when I saw / MYSELF." So the quotes are to indicate a certain distance between myself and the speaker, but also because the characters who speak in The Inferno are in quotes. You're meant to apprehend them as other in a way that you don't hear the voices in "Ellen West" and "Nijinsky" as other. Herbert White is immediately objectified; you are meant to perceive a frame around him. You only learn at the end of the poem that in effect he's in a circle of Hell, but the distance is meant to be there from the beginning. He is stuck at a moment in time and consciousness. The voices in "Nijinsky" and "Ellen West" exist in time (time passes during the poems) and the prose parts indicate the passage of time; the voice that speaks at the end of each poem is not at the same place of consciousness that it was at the beginning. In "Herbert White," the voice remembers what it felt earlier, but is in the same basic spiritual state from the beginning.
Ashley: Can you be more specific about how a character like this is related to your background?
Frank: There is a whole panoply of ways in which Western culture suggests one can come to understand one's experience. There's literature, there's psychoanalysis, there's philosophy and a sense of history. For the most part, those things seem inaccessible to the world I came from. They're certainly not the most common modes of dealing with conflict or dilemma. It is a culture very hostile to thinking and ideas. I'm not saying that's true now. I'm talking about the world I grew up in, the forties and fifties. My father was an extremely intelligent person who seemed to deal with dilemma and conflict by drinking and womanizing. He seemed to have no way of thinking about the dilemmas in his life or finding a way to deal with them except in very self-destructive ways. And growing up, it was a culture that was intolerable to me. My experience of the cowboy culture was that it was not a culture that fed the soul very deeply, at least as I experienced it through the life of my father. And in Herbert White there's this desperate desire to see into the life of things and no apparatus with which to do so.
Ashley: And what about you... how were you able to find the "apparatus" with which to make sense of your world? Did you first find a way to order your world, and then have to leave it because you understood it and couldn't live in it, or was it the other way around?
Frank: I knew very early that I wanted to get out of Bakersfield. I'm sure a lot of this had to do with my mother who always wanted to get out and never did. She was scathing about the dominant value systems and dominant ways of thinking, but never escaped them. So I had my parents as frightening examples of being trapped by that culture. I was interested in books, art, music. What got me out was the imagination very early in my life that I wanted to be an artist. Then there was college and seeing a shrink for a lot of years. It's not that you emerge from these as a happy soul, but I think there are better ways of confronting and living with dilemma than the ways of the culture that I grew up in.
Ashley: How did your experience with therapy inform your poems?
Frank: One thing you're invited to do in therapy is to listen to yourself, and come to have some distance from the voice that speaks out of its feeling, pain, or anger—to have some skepticism about oneself, to come to feel that one's first impulse and reaction to a situation is not necessarily the best one, and to attempt to analyze the forces that make you feel what you feel at any given time. What you feel at any given time is not taken as an absolute. That has been crucial to me as a writer.
Ashley: The voices in your persona poems and in your personal poems are equally believable. What does that mean in terms of the kind of distance and listening that you mentioned?
Frank: I hope we have many voices within us. We are not only that consciousness that is living our life and perceiving our life. We've heard many voices in our lives; we have them within us—and we can imagine what it is to start from a different place, to start from a different given. Each of the characters in my poems starts from a different given. The things that Nijinsky can't change are not the same things that Ellen West can't change. Ellen West did not simply, consciously choose to be obsessed by what she's obsessed by. There's a different given in each case. To be born into a certain family at a certain time on a certain date is to start with a given. The writer is at least potentially free to imagine what it is to start from a different given and attempt to live that out. That doesn't mean that then he is just free; the character he or she is imagining herself as is not free, is not wholly not free and is not wholly free.