Friday, July 11, 2003

Robert Lowell's editor, Frank Bidart, is sometimes described as a "post-confessional" poet, but I think it might be more accurate to call him a philosophical or Cartesian confessionalist, one who's more interested in the abstract, existential drama of a generally defined "I" than in the facts of any individual personality. His early stuff is recognizably autobiographical, but his later poems on Nijinsky and Ellen West are self-conscious philosophical dramas in which concepts like the self and the body are the primary actors.

I've never been a big fan--I've always felt Bidart's projects to be failures, although they're sometimes interesting failures. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper on Bidart in which I (rather smugly) knocked him for basically trying to do what avant-garde writers do without avant-garde tools:

The work of Frank Bidart would seem at first to fall into the category of voice-based poetry. The notion of voice is absolutely central to his writing; he describes his intensely personal work as relying "nakedly" on voice for its animation. Yet the voice that Bidart strives to portray is not the standard, colloquial voice of experience seen in so much contemporary work. Instead, he seeks to capture the private voice of pure thought, untainted by physical and emotional experience. The demands of this voice lead to a stripped-down diction and an extreme prosody that attempts to portray not the end result but the process of thought; it becomes a voice that is best expressed not in speech but in writing, in the layout of lines of the page. This poetic can often produce striking effects, and is able to incorporate abstract, philosophical ruminations into the poem in ways that most contemporary poetry cannot. But the strain evident in the voice—its repetitions, its italicizations and violent capitalizations—may be a sign of the thinness of Bidart’s means. Rejecting conventional form, yet not fully exploiting the modernist heritage of Pound and Eliot, Bidart’s poetry gives the poetic intelligence a very narrow field of action, where the private voice struggles to argue itself into existence and must often be bolstered by extrapoetic materials.

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