At home in a world of words
CAMBRIDGE — Frank Bidart used to have friends over, but those days are long gone. He has lived in the same top-floor flat in a Cambridge building for three decades; at a certain point, his compulsion for accumulating books overwhelmed the space. Now he moves carefully from room to room, through a maze-like thicket of storage boxes and tottering stacks of bound paper.
He makes his home, quite literally, in a world of words.
At 78, Bidart is one of the most admired living poets in the English language. As a young graduate student at Harvard, he became a protege to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. His 1997 book, “Desire,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he has since been nominated for many more honors, winning the 2013 NBCC award for poetry for “Metaphysical Dog.”
Now Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just published Bidart’s life’s work, “Half Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016.” At more than 700 pages, it is a monument to fearless interiority and le mot juste. He’ll read at Harvard University’s Barker Center on Oct. 5, as part of the Morris Gray Poetry Series.
At a mid-August reading at Harvard Book Store, Bidart read a carefully curated selection of his work to a rapt audience. Introducing “Writing ‘Ellen West,’ ” a sequel of sorts to one of his most acclaimed earlier poems, which was based on a well-known analytical study of a woman with an eating disorder, he explained that his work is very often about “the war between the mind and the body.”
He punctuated his performances (and they were in fact performances; “I’m a ham,” he said later, when someone asked a question about his long teaching career at Wellesley College) with dramatic pauses and fluttering hands: a finger to his lips, a fist on his chin. When he read a line about how his own mother’s “possessiveness and terror at his independence were/ wrong, wrong, wrong,” a long-ago agony was revived in his voice, and his face.
He may write another book or two, he said a few days after the reading, “but I’m not going to write another 60 years.” The work collected between the covers of “Half Light” “is basically how I’m going to be understood, and how I have to understand myself as a writer,” he said. “That’s scary, but it feels like an event.”
On a late recent Sunday afternoon, Bidart sat in his TV room, where he catches up on his beloved late-night talk shows. There is just enough space cleared for two people to sit in low-slung chairs, both angled to face the dark, lifeless television screen. The walls are mounted to the ceiling with crowded shelves, and books are piled hip-deep on the floor.
He’s a night owl, he said, typically not rising until afternoon, sometimes staying up for 24 hours at a time. His biological clock has been off a long time, he noted: “Somehow mine got smashed very early.” Growing up in Bakersfield, Calif., where the heat could be oppressive for weeks on end, he learned to avoid the daylight. What he loves about night “is the way the world goes to sleep, and you can contemplate it better.
“It’s when people aren’t at their most pragmatic.”
His friendships with Lowell and Bishop, both of whom served terms as the country’s poet laureate, went a long way toward abolishing his feelings of insecurity about being a product of conservative, oil-rich Bakersfield, which can resemble West Texas more than the West Coast. Both poets came to rely on Bidart as a sounding board for their work.
He offered them “a mind that they took seriously,” he said. “They did not find me hopelessly wanting in that way, and that mattered hugely.”
For years, Bidart has had a similar effect on his own students. For a time he taught courses at Brandeis University, where one of his students was the poet and novelist Ha Jin. At the recent reading in Harvard Square, Nausheen Eusuf waited for the book-signing line to subside so she could say hello to her former teacher.
She went to Wellesley to study computer science, she said, but one class with Bidart “changed everything.” Fifteen years later, she’s about to publish her own first full-length book of poetry.
“This man is a god,” she said with a broad smile.
Bidart might demur. When in the mid-1970s he read an early version of his long poem “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky” at the Blacksmith House, he worried that the poem’s lines about its subject’s mental instability would strike Lowell, who was often institutionalized, as a veiled reference to him.
“Oh, no,” Lowell told his younger friend after the reading. “It’s about you.”
According to Bidart, Lowell was right. “I’ve never had a breakdown, but the animating emotions were, of course, mine.”
Troublesome subjects fire his mind. Another of his most-cited poems, “Herbert White,” about a psychopathic murderer, has been adapted by the actor and writer James Franco into a disturbing short film starring Michael Shannon.
Some of Bidart’s poems explicitly address his own sexuality. (He came out as a gay man when he was still in grad school.) A few times he has believed that certain of his works were unfit for a general audience, until sympathetic readers convinced him otherwise.
“One has to accept that there are consequences to free speech,” Bidart said, back in his apartment. “If you think it’s important to do, you do it, and then you have to accept the consequences.”
Though his politics are mostly personal, one of his latest poems, “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” ran in the issue of the New Yorker dated three days after this year’s presidential inauguration. It reads, in part: “Every serious work of art about America has the same/ theme: America/ is a great Idea: the reality leaves something to be desired.’’