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Frank Bidart at the Mayan Gypsy (2001)

The honorarium wasn’t much, and worse, we wanted him to teach a master class in the morning. Frank Bidart, like Belle Yang, is not a morning person. The titles alone of his three long poems—The First, Second and Third Hour of the Night—tell you that. But its difficult for Bidart to say no.

Even that night, after his reading at the Louisville Conference, when the spotlight lends a poet some power, here he was sitting at a table with his hosts. It happened in a season before the current hiring freeze and budget cuts, but even then the University was far from generous. Hearing that I could only put his meal and mine on the conference tab, Bidart pulled out his credit card and insisted on paying for the entire table. I begged him to submit it with his expenses when he got back to Wellesley and he said he would but I knew better.

We talked about reggae. He had just read a long poem with a title swiped from the great dance hall master Desmond Dekker.


Once a teenage rude boy, I cued it up in my head as I sat in the hall. Then I listened to Bidart read his “Music Like Dirt.” At dinner I was still mulling over the two rhythms—Bidart’s and Dekker’s—while we enjoyed our Yucatan fare and praised together dance hall music.

The thing about Bidart is that once you hear him read, you possess a key to making sense of his idiosyncratic versification. As in “To the Dead”:

What I hope (when I hope) is that we'll
see each other again,--

. . . and again reach the VEIN

in which we loved each other . .
It existed. It existed.

There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,--

The caps in his poems denote a certain voicing that I hear again reading the poem. As do the dashes and the ellipses…

"There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,--

. . . for, there at times at night, still we
inhabit the secret place together . . .

Is this wisdom, or self-pity?--

The love I've known is the love of
two people staring

not at each other, but in the same direction."

I told Bidart all this and he seemed pleased and honored to know that I had reserved a voice track for him. We talked about another Cambridge fixture—Allen Grossman, also obsessed with using words to mark out platonic architecture, what Grossman calls the Great Room in the Great House. More than once I have heard dueling Grossman imitations, a true parlor game among east coast poets.

Then I told Bidart that his work reminded me of David Ferry’s and in truth I thought the two very similar. Ferry was his chair at Wellesley for many years. This two men know each other intimately.

Bidart couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Evidently, it was settled doctrine to stress that here there where only stark differences.

I was pleased that he found my claim odd. I didn’t back off and Bidart quieted the table so that I could make my point because this, he wanted hear.

I said it wasn’t in the music, but in the willingness to risk everything on a single image in a poem. Here is Ferry:

A bird cried out among the first things of the morning.
I dreamed about murders all night long.

It was the bird’s cry that startled up the stone.
The stone changed color among the shadows as the sun came up.

“A Morning Song” (full text of poem)

Here is Bidart:

Dip a finger into the River of Time,--
It comes back

(from “For Mary Ann Youngren”)

Bidart looked at me as if I had just pointed out a fundamental truth that had been there in front of his face and never before had he seen it.


Another blog in response to Belle’s Thread [WIP—What is Poetry?]. I am now over the hump on the line edit for Luke Dempsey. Back into it.


1) Consider Bidart on form vs. free verse:

“I think all of us on the panel, when we first heard about the panel on form, rued the prospect of one more rehearsal of the arguments about free verse versus formal verse. That's a barren distinction. The modernists did not understand their project as constituting a rebellion against formal verse, or form itself. It was a far more complicated and fundamental issue. They had the consciousness of making a revolution, and the fact that our nation is founded in revolution, founded in transgression, seems to me a fundamental, a recurrent theme in America's use of form.

I think you can argue that another major innovation happened with confessional poetry, both through Allen Ginsberg in Kaddish and Robert Lowell in Life Studies, and this had to do with taking seriously and incorporating into the very texture of poetry the psychoanalytic model of the search for meaning.”


2) Bidart’s “Music Like Dirt” was published as a chapbook by Sarabande and is the only chapbook to have been short listed for the Pulitzer.


3) see also Evie's post:




The question that I am getting at ultimately is the relation of poem to voice.

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What I know of revolutions--

is that it's a harsh swing of the pendullum and the inevitable pull is in the other direction

Thank you so much for Bidert's reply to the old argument of free vs. formal.  It's all new to me, even the old arguments.

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i love *your* form


I love the formal structure of your recent blog posts! The fluid personal annecdote, followed by the orderly and precise notes that work with the narrative but aren't bound to it in the deeply fettered manner of the footnote . . . : ) Very nice.

I'm glad to see what you wrote about form and voice. I have been a poetry-reading junkie for years, and one of the reasons for this is that I quickly learned that I could understand almost anyone's poetry much better after hearing him or her read it. And I don't mean that I could better understand the poems I had heard read -- I mean any poem by that poet. Once the author's "poet-voice" is in my head (in my mind's ear, I like to say!), I can "hear" him or her read just about anything s/he's published. The reading voice is like a kind of aural "key" to the poet's sensibility, or her poetics . . .