One of the country’s most respected poets is always a bridesmaid for the top prizes. At least the National Book Awards people don’t make you wear bad dresses to the ceremony.
Watching the Spring Festival: Poems. By Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 58 pp., $25.
By Janice Harayda
Frank Bidart is turning into poetry’s Susan Lucci, the soap opera star who lost l8 daytime Emmy awards before winning on her 19th nomination. He has spent decades in the trenches and is one of America’s most respected poets, but he has never won one of the Big Three honors in the field: a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Bidart has written seven poetry collections, and if his publisher nominated each book for all three prizes, he passed Lucci in November when he got his 19th snub: He lost the 2008 National Book Award for poetry to fellow finalist Mark Doty. He still has a chance to win on nominations No. 20 and No. 21 when the NBCC and Pulitzer prizes are awarded in 2009.
What explains his perennial bridesmaid’s status? Bad luck — always a possibility in the iffy realm of book awards — may play a role, given that Bidart has won many other honors.
But I suspect that more than chance explains some of his rejections. Bidart often focuses on unpleasant or even grisly subjects. The first of his seven collections had a poem written in the voice a psychopathic child-murderer and necrophiliac.
Bidart has also written many poems that, with up to 30 pages, are unfashionably long by today’s standards. And he plays with typography for reasons that at times seem opaque. The first line of “Under Julian, c362 A.D.” in Watching the Spring Festival is: “[ ] or full feeling return to my legs.”*
Even as an editor with an intimate knowledge of the uses of square brackets, I wonder how to read that line. How would you read the brackets aloud? Doesn’t it matter if you can’t?
Watching the Spring Festival is Bidart’s first book of short poems or lyrics and, on that level, might represent his swing for the fences. All 26 of its poems deal, paradoxically, with death or physical decay, as though there were an inverse relation between the length of a life and that of the poems it inspired. In the sestina “If See No End In Is,” a speaker who is nearing death wonders why life is a double-bind: “… why what we love is / precluded always by something else we love, as if /each no we speak is yes, each yes no.”
Those lines express a theme of this book: the constant tension between what is and what ought to be in affairs of state as in those of the heart. In “To the Republic,” the Union and Confederate dead rise up at Gettysburg and “roll in outrage across America”: “You betray us is blazoned across each chest. / To each eye as they pass: You betray us.”
In the poem the ghosts of the dead soldiers meet with indifference: “Assaulted by the impotent dead, I say it’s / their misfortune and none of my own.”
First published in The New Yorker, these are chilling lines. But they read like a speech to an American Legion convention. How has the nation betrayed the Gettysburg dead? What freedoms has it stifled? Is the speaker describing a general or specific warp in the national unity? The poem doesn’t say and instead has a whiff of the harangue about it. The subtext seems to be: You know you’re guilty, and I don’t need to tell you why.
“To the Republic” may evoke strong emotions, but it doesn’t fully earn them. So it’s hard to say whether this and other poems in Watching the Spring Festival will help to change Bidart’s luck with the big literary prizes. If it doesn’t, a few lines from his “Little O” may offer comfort: “The French thought Shakespeare // a barbarian, because in their eyes he wrote as if / ignorant of decorum, remaking art to cut through.”
* Please note that this template can’t reproduce correctly the number of spaces between Bidart’s square brackets. There should be approximately seven spaces.
Best line: The sestina “If See No End In Is” departs from the standard form in interesting ways. Bidart omits the three-line envoi at the end. And instead of repeating the end word “no” in the prescribed numerical order in each stanza, he sometimes substitutes the homonym “know” or “know-“ (the first syllable of “knowledge”). Read the full sestina at www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=180058.
Worst line: The first line of the poem “Under Julian, c362 A.D.,” quoted above.
Published: April 2008
About the author: Bidart www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/162 teaches at Wellesley College. His won Yale University’s 2007 Bollingen Prize for American poetry. The National Book Foundation site has more on Watching the Spring Festival www.nationalbook.org/nba2008_p_bidart.html. Bidart also wrote Desire, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry when I was a judge. That year, he lost to Charles Wright.
Furthermore: Bidart co-edited Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems and may have intended “To the Republic” as a dialogue with Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” which the critic William Logan has called “perhaps the most significant political poem of the last half-century.” If you’ve read both poems, I’d welcome comments on how if at all they converse.
Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.