Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Frank Bidart—Pulitzer Winner Not for the Weak Kneed

Frank Bidart.

If you turn to poetry for soul soothing comfort, this is not for you.  If you seek to be inspired and uplifted, this is not the guy.  If you are looking for cheap thrills and slasher porn, move along, there’s nothing to see here.  This year’s newly announced Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry, Frank Bidart specializes in long form verse that step inside damaged and tortured souls and sees a dark world unvarnished though those troubled eyes.  His subjects are real people—ripped from lurid headlines, clinical case studies, even historical characters.  And he can even turn that same remorseless attention on himself.
Bidart was honored this week for his life body of work amassed in Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016.  That is more than 50 years of award winning poetry including all his previous books, plus new work focused on his own life.
Bidart's Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award winning life collection.
Bidart was born in Bakersfield, California on May 27, 1939, and educated at the University of California at Riverside and at Harvard University, where he was a student and friend of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.  His first book, Golden State was published in 1973 examined his home state through the unromantic eyes of Bakersfield, not the sunny beaches, glitz and glam, or even ultra-hip counter culture often associated with it.
Ten years later he broke through to a wider audience with a major publisher, Random House, with The Sacrifice.  He followed up with original collections including Desire in 1997, Music Like Dirt in 2002, Stardust in 2005, Watching the Spring Festival: Poems in 2013.  All of these poems are in the new book in addition to a previously unpublished section, Thirst.
Bidart was celebrated in his home town of Bakersfield, California in 1997.
Bidart has collected numerous prizes and recognitions including the Wallace Stevens Award, the 2007 Bollingen Prize in American Poetry, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to his Pulitzer his new book also won the National Book Award, a rare two-fer of America’s top poetry honors.  He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2003. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he has taught at Wellesley College since 1972.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Glück assessed Bidart and his work this way:

…Bidart explores individual guilt, the insoluble dilemma…Since the publication, in 1973, of Golden State, Frank Bidart has patiently amassed as profound and original a body of work as any now being written in this country.

Because he works in long form, it is impossible to sample the breadth of Bidart’s work here.  We will feature just one of his best known poems.

Actor James Franco, also a poet, made and directed this short film featuring Bidart's poem.
Herbert White
“When I hit her on the head, it was good,

and then I did it to her a couple of times,—
but it was funny,—afterwards,
it was as if somebody else did it...

Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.

Still, I liked to drive past the woods where she lay,
tell the old lady and the kids I had to take a piss,
hop out and do it to her...

The whole buggy of them waiting for me
                                                             made me feel good;
but still, just like I knew all along,
                                                   she didn’t move.

When the body got too discomposed,
I’d just jack off, letting it fall on her...

—It sounds crazy, but I tell you
sometimes it was beautiful—; I don’t know how
to say it, but for a minute, everything was possible—;
and then,
            well, like I said, she didn’t move: and I saw,
under me, a little girl was just lying there in the mud:

and I knew I couldn’t have done that,—
somebody else had to have done that,—
standing above her there,
                                       in those ordinary, shitty leaves...

—One time, I went to see Dad in a motel where he was
staying with a woman; but she was gone;
you could smell the wine in the air; and he started,
real embarrassing, to cry...
                                           He was still a little drunk,
and he asked me to forgive him for
all he hadn’t done—; but, What the shit?
Who would have wanted to stay with Mom? with bastards
not even his own kids?

                                  I got in the truck, and started to drive,
and saw a little girl—
who I picked up, hit on the head, and
screwed, and screwed, and screwed, and screwed, then

          in the garden of the motel...

—You see, ever since I was a kid I wanted
to feel things make sense: I remember

looking out the window of my room back home,—
and being almost suffocated by the asphalt;
and grass; and trees; and glass;
just there, just there, doing nothing!
not saying anything! filling me up—
but also being a wall; dead, and stopping me;
—how I wanted to see beneath it, cut

beneath it, and make it
somehow, come alive...

                                    The salt of the earth;
Mom once said, ‘Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth...’
—That night, at that Twenty-nine Palms Motel
I had passed a million times on the road, everything

fit together; was alright;
it seemed like
                     everything had to be there, like I had spent years
trying, and at last finally finished drawing this
                                                                           huge circle...

—But then, suddenly I knew
somebody else did it, some bastard
had hurt a little girl—; the motel
                                                      I could see again, it had been

itself all the time, a lousy
pile of bricks, plaster, that didn't seem to
have to be there,—but was, just by chance...

—Once, on the farm, when I was a kid,
I was screwing a goat; and the rope around his neck
when he tried to get away
pulled tight;—and just when I came,
he died...
                        I came back the next day; jacked off over his body;
but it didn’t do any good...

Mom once said:
‘Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth, and grows kids.’

I tried so hard to come; more pain than anything else;
but didn't do any good...

—About six months ago, I heard Dad remarried,
so I drove over to Connecticut to see him and see
if he was happy.
                        She was twenty-five years younger than him:
she had lots of little kids, and I don't know why,
I felt shaky...
                      I stopped in front of the address; and
snuck up to the window to look in...
                                                      —There he was, a kid
six months old on his lap, laughing
and bouncing the kid, happy in his old age
to play the papa after years of sleeping around,—
it twisted me up...
                            To think that what he wouldn’t give me,
                            he wanted to give them...

                   I could have killed the bastard...

—Naturally, I just got right back in the car,
and believe me, was determined, determined,
to head straight for home...

                                          but the more I drove,
I kept thinking about getting a girl,
and the more I thought I shouldn’t do it,
the more I had to—

                            I saw her coming out of the movies,
saw she was alone, and
kept circling the blocks as she walked along them,
saying, ‘You’re going to leave her alone.’
‘You're going to leave her alone.’

                                                   —The woods were scary!
As the seasons changed, and you saw more and more
of the skull show through, the nights became clearer,
and the buds,—erect, like nipples...

—But then, one night,
nothing worked...
                                    Nothing in the sky
would blur like I wanted it to;
and I couldn’t, couldn’t,
get it to seem to me
that somebody else did it...

I tried, and tried, but there was just me there,
and her, and the sharp trees
saying, ‘That’s you standing there.
                                                                  just you.’

                                 I hope I fry.

—Hell came when I saw
                                                      and couldn’t stand
what I see…’

Frank Bidart

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