To Speak From Experience: Thoughts on Frank Bidart’s Interviews

In “The Tragic Sense of Frank Bidart,” her review of Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, Helen Vendler claims, “Bidart’s last words to the reader define his aesthetic: ‘The aim, throughout, has been not chronology, but a kind of topography of the life we share—in chaos, an inevitable physiognomy.’”1 [670] As she had been considering the title poem I wondered what “last words” she referred to, since these are not the last words of the poem “Half-Light” but the last words of Bidart’s Note on the Text. And while these may be the “last words” of the “Text,” the last words of the book’s matter—not counting the index—also sound like the definition of an aesthetic: “Whatever it takes to get the whole soul into a poem. An emphasis on voice isn’t fashionable in contemporary practice. I hope my poems make people reconsider that.” [714] These are the “last words” of Bidart’s interview with Shara Lessley, first published on the National Book Foundation website in October 2013.

Bidart cared enough about what he said in this interview to reprint it at the end of Metaphysical Dog (2014), which makes these words the “last words” of that book too. Bidart has given several interviews over the years, and he has included interviews—I should write ‘interviews’—at the end of two other, earlier books: In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990 (1990) and Star Dust (2005). Half-Light is exceptional for including the three interviews that were the “last words” of three previous collections.

Why has Bidart included these interviews, in chronological order, at the end of his Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016? We are accustomed to notes at the end of books of this size, scope and ambition, and Bidart has always been an allusive poet. But what function do the interviews serve, coming as they do after the notes? What kind of matter are they? How are we meant to take them? (We are assuredly not to leave them.) Are these his “last words”? Are they a form of self-criticism, in the sense that he reads his own work as a critic reads it? Because they are placed at the end of his Collected Poems, are they Bidart’s way of having the last word? I believe the interviews constitute another kind of Bidart’s literary work, to which he expects us to attend closely.

The first of the three interviews included in Half-Light, with Mark Halliday, first appeared in Ploughshares in 1983, and was included as an Appendix to In The Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990. This is the longest of the three he chose to publish with his poems, and the “last words” of that interview also speak to his aesthetic. They offer an ideal instead of a definition: “The unrealizable ideal is to write as if the earth opened and spoke. I think that if the earth did speak, she would espouse no one set of values, affections, meanings, that everything embraced would also somehow be annihilated or denied.” [702] Bidart’s “unrealizable ideal” recalls, I think, the moment in Genesis IV:9 when “the voyce of thy brothers blood cryeth vnto me, from the ground.”2 Cain lives, and his son Enoch founds a city. Where’s the justice? Justice is the first value to be “annihilated and denied” in the world of his poems. Desire, Bidart’s great theme, is incompatible with justice.

Bidart is nothing if not erudite, if occasionally at—or on—this early stage, recondite. His second-longest “response” in his interview with Halliday—I should write ‘Halliday’—begins with a recapitulation of some of the arguments from Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and then mentions Francis Ferguson’s The Idea of a Theatre, Aristotle’s Poetics, Kenneth Burke and Coleridge. In his longest reply Bidart recalls how, at the beginning of graduate school, when he realized he could not be a filmmaker, he had to come to terms with “how literary, how ‘wanting to be like other writers’—particularly like the Modernists, and Post-Modernists—the impulses behind my poems were.” [691] This, then, was the dilemma Bidart faced. To which Bidart offers the solution that sounds like an admission, revealing what he said to himself twenty-one years before the interview. He begins, “I said to myself (I remember this very clearly):”

If what fills your attention are the great works that have been written—Four Quartets and Ulysses and ‘The Tower’ and Life Studies and Howl (yes, Howl) and The Cantos—nothing is left to be done. You couldn’t possibly make anything as inventive or sophisticated or complex. But if you turn from them, and what you look at is your life: NOTHING is figured out; NOTHING is understood . . . Ulysses doesn’t describe your life. It doesn’t teach you how to lead your life. You don’t know what love is; or hate; or birth; or death; or good; or evil. If what you look at is your life, EVERYTHING remains to be figured out, ordered; EVERYTHING remains to be done . . .[691]

Bidart makes special claims for the words with which he addressed himself in 1962. This passage is isolated in quotation marks, and, “However silly speech may sound, ‘recollected in tranquility,’ it was a kind of turning point for me.” [691] Whatever Bidart said to himself then, this answer has been edited, which is what we expect of published interviews. Yet it could not have been edited by anyone but Bidart. In fact, given that no other answer in any of the interviews published in Half-Light—or any of the interviews he thought highly enough to reprint, excepting quotations of his poems—include capitalization or italics, this passage at least must not have been spoken but written by Bidart.3 And in fact Bidart wrote the whole interview, including the questions of his interlocutor, Mark Halliday.4 Which establishes, if we need it, that Bidart publishes this interview at least along with his poetic work because it is his work. He has written a dialogue and called it an interview.

2.

Many critics have scrutinized the methods Bidart employs, the lengths he goes to, in his effort to “fasten the voice to the page.” Vendler summarizes these techniques in her review: “To transmit on the page the voice of the poem—its drama, its emphases, its ungovernable sentiments—Bidart conspicuously alters the conventions of print: font, lineation, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, placement of the line on the page, and spaces between the fluctuating phases of narrative (often single lines.)” Many writers deploy these techniques, but Bidart alters font, capitalization and punctuation, and complicates his alterations with italics; he deploys them in combination, driving all the horses at once.5 And this passage in this interview, punctuated in the way so many of his poems are punctuated, with words in all caps and in italics, reads like a passage from one of his longer poems, or a distinct prose poem.

Other than the obvious features that identify this passage as written, the most telling moment is the parenthesis “(yes, Howl),” which can be heard as an apology to the ‘interviewer’ for mentioning a work not normally mentioned in the company of such exalted classics.6 Or it can he read as an ironic comment on his interest in a work not immediately identifiable as a ‘classic,’ even though Howl was first published in 1956, three years before Lowell’s Life Studies, a book whose importance to Bidart would be hard to overstate. But in this passage he claims to record what he said to himself in 1962; he was speaking to himself, not to an ‘interlocutor’ (the “tranquility” he refers to is the present, the moment of the so-called interview). It is hard to believe he was apologizing to himself for including a work among works he rates so highly unless he was not sure of his judgment, as if he felt uncertain about the status of Howl. So the question becomes whether we are to read or to hear the quoted passage in which the parenthesis appears. If heard, it is a question of tone, of how to hear—attend to—Bidart fastening his own voice to the page, as the passage is meant to be an accurate record of the poet speaking to himself and then repeating the speech aloud to an interlocutor twenty-one years later. If read, then Bidart fastens to the page the voice of a person he no longer is, whom he addresses in the second person singular. He must fashion the voice of the person he was in order to fasten these words to the page twenty-one years after saying them to himself, and in doing so he deploys techniques he used first in The Book of the Body (1977) and extensively in The Sacrifice (1983).

In the first of several essays on Geoffrey Hill, Christopher Ricks offers an insight into how a parenthesis modifies and complicates how we read what is written (or, in the case of an interview, read what we are meant to hear). Considering the words in the parenthesis in and at the center of Hill’s “September Song” Ricks writes,

But I believe that it is crucial to [the words and our understanding of them] that they are in brackets. For it is this, and not their tone or syntax alone, which gives them that unique feeling of being at once a crux and an aside [ . . ..] It is the brackets which embody the essential discrimination between the right and the wrong kind of detachment.7

Is Bidart’s parenthetical “(yes, Howl)” both crux and aside? No, only an aside: the crux is the matter of Bidart’s decision about what to do with his feelings for the classics, not which texts he considers classics. So what does Bidart’s parenthesis isolate? Is he admitting to his ambivalence about his attachment to Howl in 1962, or is he admitting in 1983 to ambivalence about the affection he felt for Howl in 1962? The answer depends upon whether Bidart expects us to read the interview as a record—based on an edited typescript of a recording—or as a piece of writing interpolated into such a record. Knowing he wrote the whole thing does not moot the question, even if it frustrates our assumptions about the interview as a formal occasion to capture the informal, the spontaneous. Are we to hear it—or read it? To borrow a crucial word from Ricks: how attached are we to Bidart’s (apparent) detachment?

This question recalls another remark of Ricks’s on parentheses: “most parentheses are compromises or means of disappearance.”8 I agree with Ricks. The matter of whether a parenthesis is crux or aside (or in rare cases both), is modified in light of this fact. Many parentheses are means of hedging bets about the stakes of syntax, about the finality of sentences. A parenthesis then becomes like a pair of hands over the ears of the reader. Consider the (apparently) more straightforward parenthesis that comes just before the passage under consideration: “I said to myself (I remember this very clearly).” Knowing Bidart wrote the questions and the answers, and that the figure of Halliday is not fictitious but his words are, this parenthesis is coy: it amounts to a compromise and a means of disappearance. This moment in the interview may be one of the rare occasions I feel the purpose of a parenthesis is to cast doubt on the whole enterprise, to set aside the stakes of everything that has been said before and after from the (bracketed) crux of the matter of when he says what, and to whom. His parenthesis “(I remember this very clearly)”subordinates the surrounding text rather than being subordinate to it. Bidart has qualified his memory while falsifying the present moment the memory arises in; there is nothing spontaneous or informal about his (apparently) spontaneous and informal qualification. In fact quite the opposite: Bidart has written into his text a moment of hesitation that we hear quite differently if we treat this as an interview, which of course he means us to, when in fact it isn’t.

Except in a case like Nabokov’s, who gave interviews but insisted on providing written answers to written questions, the interview genre is premised on a certain informality; interviews are written records of conversations, edited after the fact.9 They are regarded as transcriptions of spoken words; one hopes for candor—and in the case of Bidart’s “interview” with Halliday, the candor is a construct, studied. Bidart interpolates into what appears to be an edited written record of spoken words written words—or written words he spoke to himself—which makes the passage the most revealing in the ‘interview,’ since it is self-evidently written; and the quotation marks isolate this passage, distinguish it from what comes before and after, as if he were repeating aloud what he said to himself. But the question is: whose voice is Bidart fastening to the page?

Bidart’s “(yes, Howl)” is both howl and howler. In isolating the title of Ginsberg’s book between parentheses it becomes even more what it always has been: a noun for the sounds animals make to call to one another or that humans make in response to pain, and an injunction to do either of those things: howl in pain, or howl like an animal in order to call out to others of your kind. When Bidart recalls the confrontation any self-aware, ambitious young artist must have with the terrible totality of the classics, his anguish is genuine. Years of close reading have left him feeling that “nothing is left to be done”; all the royal roads end in dead ends. Yet he has not misjudged the classics; he has misjudged the relation between his life and the art works he admires so much that he wonders if they don’t give his life the shape it has, constrain his means of expression so much that he cannot find his own voice, his own first much less last words. What is so striking is how Bidart’s parenthesis incorporates doubt about his own judgment about a work of art and turns it into an affirmation about his judgment about his own life, a doubt he dramatizes by writing his own questions and his own answers in an “interview.” The classics may speak in a way he cannot resist but they do not speak to his own experience, to which he must attend before he can fasten any voice to the page. Posing his own questions, interrogating himself, he performs the fastening of his own voice to the page.

The volume of tributes and criticism, On Frank Bidart: Fastening the Voice to the Page, includes two interviews. Bidart republished in Star Dust (2007) his interview with Adam Travis, which first appeared on bookslut.com in June 2005; the other, with Andrew Rathmann and Danielle Allen, appeared in Chicago Review in 2001 and has not been reprinted elsewhere.10 Which is a pity, as Allen’s healthy skepticism of Bidart’s idiom obliges him to elaborate on his knotted, impacted thoughts. There are two significant parentheses in this CR interview, one an aside and the other an aside that has the finality of a crux. In the first, Bidart expresses doubt about his own metaphor in response to a question from Rathmann about The Sacrifice (1983): “There was a great deal—everything—about Eros that I had not yet explored. The great issues are inexhaustible. I felt that I hadn’t even begun to pursue the territory. (Can one pursue a territory?)” The second parenthesis encloses the last words of the interview, in answer to a question from Allen about Plotinus, “important for his emphasis on emblems[.]” Bidart’s reply, in full: “At least in MacKenna’s translation [of Plotinus], no one is subtler about the soul in the ecstasy of vision. I’m happy to end in the resonances of the word ‘emblem.’ The act of making can’t armor itself against promising, against conferring or failing to confer meaning and significance. (I’m glad we’re at an end. I’m tired of the things I think I think.)”11 Here Bidart’s “last words” contain no doubts. The parenthesis is an aside in the sense of a moment when the ‘player’ addresses the audience, but speaks to and for himself: his parenthesis again draws attention to the interview as a performance. There is something haunted or hunted about these last words, as if he has no doubts about what the interview requires of him: to articulate his thoughts, to force him to occupy a territory he is uncertain about pursuing—uncertain even if it can be pursued. It is as if he has been run to ground on his own ground.

3.

The German pianist Wilhelm Kempff waited until he was in his 80s to record Schubert’s complete piano sonatas, and in his own liner notes for the Deutsche Gramaphone recordings he wrote something that I think of when I think of Bidart’s enduring work:

Most of [Schubert’s] sonatas ought not to be subjected to the glaring lights of huge concert halls. They are confessions of an extremely vulnerable spirit, or more correctly monologues, often whispered so softly that the sound does not carry in a large hall (Schubert reveals his innermost secrets to us in pianissimo).

Kempff—or Kempff’s translator—is sensitive to the double nature of parenthesis, including as an aside, which is in fact the crux of the interpreter’s difficult work of offering a convincing (“true”) account of Schubert’s works. Kempff continues, ending with another parenthesis, on a telling, pianissimo note:

No, [Schubert] offers nothing which the out-and-out virtuoso would find rewarding. Our task is to accompany Schubert the eternal wanderer as he makes his way through that land for which he yearned with incessant longing. The predominantly lyrical, epic character of Schubert’s sonatas creates problems for us to solve which we are spared by the more masculine Beethoven, who addresses us in lapidary words. The deeper we penetrate into the world of Schubert, however, the greater is our surprise at discovering the “heavenly length” for which he is reproached is to be regarded relatively. If the length becomes evident as longeurs, the fault lies with the interpreter (I speak from experience . . .).12

If Bidart and Kempff are to be trusted, experience—that trial of error—is the only land—or territory—to speak to us from; even or especially when we experience the artist’s experience as a recording, which is edited performance, a meticulous construction of the spontaneous.

1 Helen Vendler, “The Tragic Sense of Frank Bidart,” The New York Review of Books, October 26, 2017.

2 Quatercentenary Edition: An Exact Reprint in Roman Type Page for Page, Line for Line, and Letter for Letter of the King James Version, Oxford University Press, Oxford and London, 2011.

3 The only other moment that includes words in all caps in the interviews other than when passages are quoted from the poems comes three pages later in a parenthesis, when Bidart explains how he decided to capitalize “‘MYSELF’ in ‘Herbert White’ [ . . .] I couldn’t get the word right until I saw a capitalized ‘MOI’ in Valery’s ‘La Jeune Parque.’”

4 Mark Halliday, in response to my query about this passage, wrote in an email: “What happened was that we met many times, in cafés in Cambridge, and recorded conversations, which I dutifully transcribed, but Frank was never satisfied [ . . .] and then one night he phoned me and said, How does this sound? –and then he read me the entire thing, including the placeholder questions by ‘Halliday.’”

5 James Longenbach, another sensitive critic of Bidart, makes a similar observation about how to capture intonation: “The most obvious answer is typography [ . . .]; by highlighting a particular word or phrase. Especially in his earlier poems, Frank Bidart does this with bracing accuracy.” How Poems Get Made, Norton, New York and London, 2018. pg121.

6 There are other parentheses in this interview, all of which are informational. It is on this parenthesis that so much depends.

7 Christopher Ricks, “Geoffrey Hill 1: ‘The tongue’s atrocities’” in The Force of Poetry, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984 (reprinted 2001) p300.

8 Christopher Ricks, “Peter Ackroyd: T.S. Eliot” in Reviewery, Handsel Books, 2001, p66.

9 In the opening to his Foreword to Strong Opinions, Nabokov adopts an arch tone, and mocks his habits that make the spontaneous impossible: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child. [. . .] At parties, if I attempt to entertain people with a good story, I have to go back to every other sentence for oral erasures and inserts. Even the dream I describe to my wife across the breakfast table is only a first draft.”

10 On Frank Bidart: Fastening the Voice to the Page, edited by Liam Rector and Tree Swenson, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2007, pgs 68-86. The interview is also welcome because it includes Bidart’s most sustained attack on irony, which begins: “We live in an armored age. There has come to be astonishing sophistication in producing an armored self on paper—in a way that makes the poems that were ‘armored’ twenty years ago look positively candid and naïve. And I think it’s a trap, I think it’s a terrible trap.”

11 Ibid. p 86

12 “The Piano Sonatas: Schubert’s Hidden Treasures,” in the booklet included with Franz Schubert: Klaviersonaten-Piano Sonatas-Sonates pour piano-Sonate per pianoforte- Deutsche Gramaphone, Stereo, 423-496-2, No translator is credited. The text is signed, Wilhelm Kempff, 1970, pgs 23-24.

 

Michael Autrey

Michael Autrey

Michael Autrey is a critic and a poet. In 2013, The Cultural Society published Our Fear, his first book of poems. In 2018 he received an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.
Michael Autrey

Author: Michael Autrey

Michael Autrey is a critic and a poet. In 2013, The Cultural Society published Our Fear, his first book of poems. In 2018 he received an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.