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"Necessary thought": Frank Bidart and the postconfessional.

In literary studies of the 1990s, widespread theoretical consensus continues to favor a view of language as constitutive rather than expressive, rejecting the idea of a content conceptually independent of and prior to a text. There is, however, an equally widespread sense that versions of agency are needed - in the poem, among other places - which are not mere operations of linguistic codes. The view of the author as absence - or, at most, as effect, not cause, of the signifier - has over the past two decades raised problems most visibly for Marxists and feminists; but it obviously raises problems also for any poet of "pathos." Indeed, pathos itself has been convincingly construed as figurative, aesthetic, or ironic.

The spectrum of late twentieth-century poetry in English could be said to stretch between two extreme positions in regard to agency and "content." At one pole is language poetry, which, in reducing or at least assimilating the problem of subjectivity to the status of language, attempts to purge poetry of origin, narrative voice, and affect. At the other pole is a flat disavowal of theory, in the form of a persistent confessionalism which regards the poem as a verbal device meant to reproduce the poet's emotion in the reader. The idea of the poem as a vehicle for the expression of something prior to it, however theoretically retrograde, is alive and well in America and England, and indeed throughout the world. Obviously, a great many poets writing today are operating at significant sites between these two extremes, often redefining the "I" - through irony, parody, and intertextuality - to retain some degree of lyric presence, without confining that presence within obsolete notions of an unproblematized mimetic realism.

The work of Frank Bidart, now collected in In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965-1990, presents a case which may be hard to place readily on a continuum between the opposed positions of language viewed as constitutive or as expressive.(1) Bidart has been read as very much a poet of pathos (reviewers quoted on his bookjacket blurbs advertise his work as "raw," "heartbreaking," "unafraid of passion") at the same time that he appears to be working out postmodern problems of subjectivity and textuality within his poems. Indeed, Bidart's poems help us to examine the supposed hostility existing between lyric poetry and contemporary, especially deconstructive, theory Deconstruction's gesture of disassociation from conventions contrasts with the (conventional) poetic impulse to submit to the affective movement of the poem and to the rhetoric of pathos with which the poetry is enacted. In an article which examines this contrast ("Contrary Impulses: The Tension Between Poetry and Theory"), John Koethe speculates on "what a poetics informed by theoretical reflection in a broader sense might be like': "Such a poetics would neither reject the domain of subjectivity, as deconstruction does, nor try to incorporate it into the domain of the objective, as the poetics of authenticity tries to do" (74). But Koethe says that such a poetics is unformulated as yet, and he expresses little optimism about its prospects. He concludes his article, "For I think that if poetry is going to recover our attention and respect, it has to ... begin to see itself as one effort among others to maintain the demands of subjectivity and the imagination against the inexorable encroachments of the real" (75).

I am not going to argue that Frank Bidart is the fulfillment of Koethe's dreamed-of poetics, but it seems to me that Bidart's work is an effort of the kind that Koethe's last sentence advocates. Moreover, Bidart's gesture is also that of contemporary theory - imparting the sense of the ongoing impossibility, in all the poems, of arriving at meaning, the continual unmasking of appearance as incomplete, and the closely related sense of the language as always under erasure, as suspect, and as never settling. This last point is troubled and troubling because there is also a sense in which Bidart is fond of strong closure, an element, associated as it is with the heightened pathos of endings, highly suspect in today's theoretical climate. Indeed, the quirkiness of some of Bidart's abstract pronouncements ("Forgiveness doesn't exist," ends one of the poems) is a quality vital to his poetry. But I am not attempting to make Bidart fit a theoretical bill; I only wish to establish at this point that the movement characteristic of Bidart's poems is one that not only embodies current theoretical issues but ultimately changes the way we understand them. The numerous "mad" narrators of Bidart's poems have in common, as we will see, their search for meaning and the failure of that search. That failure has as its parallel the failure of poetry; that is, the nonmastery which Bidart both discusses and attempts to body forth paradoxically recuperates, in a new and vivid form, the subjective power we previously associated with the now exhausted and questionable poetics of authenticity. Some of this power may be attributed to a paradox - a version of the Epimenides paradox - wherein "the poem's success as fiction undermines its fiction of failure" (Axelrod, Sylvia Plath 74).(2) But both the success (of the poetry) and the failure (of the narrator to settle on meaning) derive from the anguish of nonmastery as mediated by Bidart's "mad" voices.

Bidart's narrators are tormented historical figures, speaking from sites of loss, sickness, or imminent death. The effect of these voices - and thus the recuperation I am suggesting - can be seen to inhere in a particular poetic language, peculiar to Bidart's poems. In the following paragraphs, before focusing on the long poem "Ellen West," I will try to characterize that language by tracing a line of thought Bidart introduces in his interview with Mark Halliday (in the Collected Poems). Bidart's remarks suggest an approach to reading his poems as well as to understanding one position late twentieth-century poetry may be taking as a site of discursive thought and statement. In discussing the troublesome distinction between "artifice" and "feeling," Bidart recalls that Keats, disturbed by passages in "Hyperion" which seemed to him too "Miltonic" and "artful," proposed that his reader mark with an x lines which seemed to evince "false beauty proceeding from art" and with a double line parts that demonstrated "the true voice of feeling." Keats then discovered that the distinction could not actually be made. Bidart is similarly convinced, he says, that while "the true voice of feeling' is a necessary and useful ideal" (230), it is "not the opposite of art" (231).

This first explicit Keatsian idea is connected to another, implicit, which is the idea of belatedness - in Keats's case the anxiety that the great works had long ago been written and that he had arrived too late to be part of the pantheon of great poets, in Bidart's case the realization that what was done in high modernism and even in the late 1950s won't now work and that the poet must find another recourse:

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.... But if you turn from them, and what you look at is your life: nothing is figured out; nothing is understood.... everything remains to be figured out, ordered."

( 232)

We may note in passing, as a commentary on Bidart's anxiety of influence, that the project described in the last sentence is exactly what Life Studies and Howl are up to. Bidart, at any rate, describes this revelation as a turning point, when he realized that "subject matter" had to be at the center of his poems.

I had to learn how to use the materials of a poem to think. I said to myself that my poems must seem to embody not merely "thought," but necessary thought ... [which] expresses or acknowledges what has resisted thought, what has forced or irritated it into being.

( 232)

In the first of these two passages, Bidart is repeating the familiar question novelists and critics have asked in regard to the progress or regress of the twentieth-century novel, that is, what can you write after Finnegans Wake? But after the Keatsian remark that "nothing is left to be done," Bidart, seeing that thinking about his life and constructing its meaning is a process capable of being traced out on the page as poetry, moves to the position that "everything remains to be done."

This does not, for Bidart, mean to write autobiography, to portray the past "objectively" or photographically in the manner of Life Studies. Rather, he wants to "figure out why the past was as it was, what patterns and powers kept me at its mercy (so I could change, and escape). The prosody of my poems could not reflect the eloquent, brilliantly concrete world of Life Studies; it had to express a drama of processes" (237). Bidart puts himself in the position of starting over, "from the ground up," tracing these processes, prosodically and discursively, across spacious pages, sentences branching and breaking, emphases and variety provided by capital letters, italics, quotations, and a carefully devised punctuational system - but always sentences, logical, conversational, seldom elliptical, and always in pursuit, never resting. Bidart rejects the idea of poem as artifact, which has persisted through modernism, replacing it with the idea of poem as process. This substitution in itself is not novel - one often senses poems as a working out or playing out of restless energies. It is, in addition, Bidart's multitextuality - a point I will take up later - and his rejection of virtually all previous conceptions of poetic language that place his poetry at this point in the twentieth century and at no other. The issue of language becomes an issue of thought. "Necessary thought" becomes Bidart's unexpected answer to the problem of realizing the Keatsian "true voice of feeling." If Bidart is able, in the face of wide readerly skepticism toward the confessional mode, to sustain what seems a figuration of pathos, it is especially important that he does so not through the language of affect but largely through that of thought, abstraction, discussion. As voiced by his troubled narrators - who have in common not only emotional disturbance but also intense intellectual demands upon their experiences - this language composes the discourse of enigma, of endless puzzlement over meaning.

Indeed, one way to contextualize Bidart's poetry is to see it as part of a resurgence of the "poetry of ideas," following the waning of over three decades of confessionalism, that is, from the fifties through the seventies. In her recent essay on Wittgensteinian poetics, Marjorie Perloff lists dozens of texts which may be seen in this light; she focuses especially on recent work by Ron Silliman, Alan Davies, Rosmarie Waldrop, and John Cage. But the ludic elements which Perloff, Charles Altieri, and other writers inevitably point to in their examples of postmodern poetry are entirely absent from Bidart's work. Bidart's intertextuality and his redefining of subjectivity do not, at least not in the usual sense, involve the parodic. Playful puns, ironizing, word substitutions and the like have little place in these poems.

Nor is that absence of postmodern parody filled by the presence of earlier poetic languages. If "poetic" language in its most cliched sense is absent from Bidart's poetry, so is that more characteristically mid- to late-twentieth-century literary language that tries to achieve a homely flatness through plain diction and declarative sentence structure, and where affective locution is duplicitously underplayed in order to produce heightened affect in the reader. Robert Pinsky in The Situation of Poetry cites Bidart's work as an important example of contemporary discursiveness. He says Bidart's language is "neither ironic nor ecstatic. It is speech, organized by its meaning" (134). And where other poets have used colloquial language to create an impression of the speech of "real people," who seldom seem real since they are so plainly a construction outside the poet's group (one thinks of Wordsworth's "the real language of men"), Bidart's language is that of a social class, his own, which ordinarily, in poetry, would disguise this kind of "directness." In Part 2 of "Golden State," the long poem addressed to the poet's father, one finds passages like the following:

mother is progressing beautifully in therapy, I can almost convince myself a good analyst would have saved you:

for I need to believe, as always, that your pervasive sense of disappointment

proceeded from trivial desires: but I fear

that beneath the wish to be a movie star, cowboy, empire builder, all those cheap desires, lay radical disaffection from the very possibilities of human life ...


Leaving aside for now the subject of the prosody of this passage or of the long poem of which this is a part, I can think of no other poet who would use phrases such as "pervasive sense of disappointment" or "radical disaffection," phrases which fly in the face of all poetry-workshop wisdom about being concrete, avoiding abstraction, and so on. Pinsky writes, "We are not used to poems which actually base their diction upon a heightened version of the earnest speech used by the poet's social class" (141). (One could argue that John Ashbery uses such a language, but it is always undercut by parody.)

Bidart's discursive voice has registers beyond this, but they too are imbued with the puzzlement over meaning. There are poems, for example, whose speakers' positions preclude the language we saw above in Bidart's reflections on his family, or which we see in his ruminations on Western philosophy (discussions of Descartes, Schopenhauer, Aristotle, and others). An example is "Herbert White," whose eponymous narrator begins (the entire poem is enclosed in quotation marks),

"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."


This is nearly the "colloquial" tradition - though not with regard to subject - that we have seen at least from William Carlos Williams or perhaps Ernest Hemingway ("It was very fine") onward. Oddly, the last line quoted seems to comment on the language as much as on "Herbert White"'s perception and sensibility. Though there are no metaphysical terms, there are metaphysical reflections aplenty. Herbert White is a child killer, rapist, and necrophiliac. But the intensity and direction of his questioning echo that of the voice of "Frank Bidart" in other poems of the same volume, Golden State. In explaining himself, "White" says,

" - 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 ..."


This is neither the autobiography of Lowell's Life Studies and later poems nor that of the flat recital of "facts" such as we see in the opening lines of Nazim Hikmet's Autobiography" - "I was born in 1902 / I never once went back to my birthplace / I don't like to turn back" (77) - and so on for another fifty or sixty lines, most of which begin with "I." Bidart's is autobiography more in line with Augustine's, in whose Confessions the concerns with indeterminacy, self, memory, and language anticipate those of our time. (Indeed, Augustine becomes an important figure in the poem "Confessional," which concerns Bidart's need to forgive and receive forgiveness from his deceased mother.) The subject of Bidart's own poetic "confession" is the pain, the aberration, and, in "Herbert White"'s case, the crime that comes out of the need for a metaphysics ("- how I wanted to see beneath it") in a milieu where metaphysics is not possible; in a parallel manner, Bidart's subject is the movement, the turning, the "thought" that come out of the need for poetry in a milieu where poetry is not possible.

Of the several narrators in Bidart's work who are identifiably other than the "poet," "Herbert White" was the first. Bidart says, in his interview with Halliday, that he felt the need to construct an "anti-self" as a speaker, "someone who was ~all that I was not'" (238). But to be a true antiself, Bidart explains, the speaker has to share "something fundamental with me" (238). So Bidart gives White a family background similar to his own. Thus the passage above from "Herbert White" circles around the same problem as do the poems about Bidart's father - the thinking of the past's reasons for being the past. Bidart's remarks in the interview - regarding past as subject matter - are, in style and content, virtually indistinguishable from passages throughout the poems, for example, "The need for the past // is so much at the center of my life / I write this poem to record my discovery of it, / my reconciliation," from another poem, "California Plush," in Golden State (135).

Thus it is fruitful to misread "Herbert White," that is, to read it not as Frank Bidart advises us to - as the voice of an "anti-self" - but rather as a voice continuous and consistent with the other voice in that volume, that of "Frank Bidart." Their conflicts, their reflections on those conflicts, and their locutions have much in common. Indeed, Bidart discusses these voices as all "already inside me" (239).

The several narrators of Bidart's poems are "real" historical personae who are all in some way dispossessed. Maddened by the opacity and recalcitrance of the body, they speak out of "pathological" lives: the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was a schizophrenic, Herbert White a psychopathic killer, the narrator of "The Arc" an amputee haunted by his lost limb, the poet's mother in "Elegy" a cancer victim refusing to allow doctors to remove her breast, and Ellen West a famous anorexic, also in conflict with her doctors. Meaning inheres in the voices of the sick and the dispossessed. Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, speaks of the "lyricism of marginality," which he ascribes to the criminal delinquent (301). For us even more than for the romantics, those voices seem most powerful that come from the margins, whether of madness, physical sickness, poverty, crime, or oppression.

Thus one mode of restoring power and pathos to the poem is to put it in quotation marks, which, while they stress the materiality and not the denotative nature of the text, also allow a strangeness and instability not allowed to the "poet." Another mode is to make typography and prosody also mad,' as in the poetry of Michael McClure.

We should be clear that Bidart makes no pretense to madness or to mad writing as concocted or induced by the surrealists, nor to the disjointed and horrific brilliance of an Artaud writing straight from the asylum - or, on American soil, the Ginsberg of Kaddish, or Robert Lowell, or Anne Sexton. But there is a sense in which Bidart creates and locates Keats's "truth of feeling" in the nonmastery of sickness. Shoshana Felman suggests that we take on the poem to protect ourselves against madness, "to exclude it (or to put it off) in the act of speaking" (49). Felman describes "madness" variously as the "loss of meaning" and as "blindness to meaning" (49). But perhaps the latter formulation is misleading. If, while we speak the poem, we protect ourselves against madness, this cannot mean that, being sane, we are not blind to meaning, thist meaning exists. Instead, the activity, the speaking or writing of the poem, is the working out of the anguish of madness, in some sense the relief of it, and the sanity of the act is in the movement, the not coming to rest on meaning. Foucault confirms such a view obversely when he writes that "[Artaud's] madness is precisely the absence of the work of art" and, in the same passage, "all those words hurled against a fundamental absence of language, all that space of physical suffering and terror which surrounds or rather coincides with the void - that is the work of art itself: the sheer cliff over the abyss of the work's absence' (Madness 287).

In Bidart's "The Arc," the speaker, an amputee trying to erase memory, to amputate his past, says, in what could be a sentence straight from Foucault or Felman, "I tell myself: / ~Insanity is the insistence on meaning'" (86). And when we hear Herbert White demanding meaning from the grass and trees which are "just there, just there, doing nothing," we see the fiction that he is engulfed by, the mad fiction that the world ought to mean. That engulfment is a principal theme in Bidart's work, constantly undercut by assertions that there can be no ground from which to construct meaning ("But, of course, no such knowledge is possible" ["Golden State," section 10 (162)]; "Man needs a metaphysics; / he cannot have one" ["Confessional" 74)]).

"Ellen West," from Bidart's second volume, The Book of the Body, offers an instance of the pathological voice of "true feeling," which, for several reasons, is the most remarkable in Bidart's oeuvre: first, Ellen West is not a fausse-naive character of the kind that sophisticated writers (Wordsworth, say, or D. H. Lawrence, or Lowell in his "Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich") present as marginal; on the contrary, she is unusually intelligent and articulate, a sensitive theoretician. Second, the poem does not invoke a marginal space as a unified site from which the victim speaks; rather, it contains both outside and inside, the doctors who are treating Ellen and who comment on her behavior, and the voice of Ellen herself - in Foucault's terms, both the carceral and the incarcerated. Third, the poem not only draws on sources, as do numerous of Bidart's poems - in this case, the account by Ludwig Binswanger of the course of his treatment of "Ellen West" but lifts great segments of the poem verbatim from Binswanger, giving us an example of a postmodern literary phenomenon of the kind Kathy Acker has brought attention to (in her Great Expectations, among other novels), that is, a work composed of other works, so that questions of textuality and origins are problematized. Fourth, by means of the same technique we see in "Herbert White," that is, the interpolation of biographical material from the life of Frank Bidart into the poem, we have what constitutes an ars poetica.(3) This appears in the form of an admiration expressed by "Ellen West" (but actually Bidart's) for Maria Callas's singing and constitutes a view of the authentic in art which represents the romantic component in the postmodern.

For all of this, the poem, in its melancholy, its sense of loss, and its working out, from beginning to end, of a finally insoluble problem, is consistent with all of Bidart's longer poems, is in fact almost representative of a genre - one might call it "postconfessional" - which Bidart has created. One of the elements that characterizes that genre is the incorporation of theoretical ruminations within the mostly past-tense recounting, some of the poems being entirely ruminative. "Ellen West"'s theoretical question, as a case in point, pervades the entire poem - her doomed insistence on an uncontingent self, a self prior to the conditions of her existence. That question is overlaid by another, which we will see most markedly in the Maria Callas section, that is, the question of the "expressive" in art as coming from nonmastery

The voices in "Ellen West" include Ellen's own, which constitutes the bulk of the poem, prosodically broken into sections of uneven length and composed of conventionally structured sentences, many of them short and few of them relying on typographical innovation, such as the capitalization common in Bidart's other, especially later, poems; her doctor's, in the form of dated prose entries, providing the diachronic movement of the poem; and the "narrator"'s, in undated prose paragraphs, occurring only twice in the thirteen pages of the poem, as flat, informative exposition. Generic variety is also created in that, in addition to Ellen's "poetry" and the doctor's and narrator's prose, the poem ends with a letter, Ellen's last, to a fellow patient to whom she had become attached during her stay in the sanatorium.

Since "Ellen West" is a pseudonym ("the existential Gestalt to which we have given the name Ellen West" [Binswanger 292]), and since the poem is not located in place or time (contrast this with the Bakersfield so strongly evoked in the Golden State poems), we have, again, the puzzle (or its solution) of a voice of pathos speaking from a deauthored site. Binswanger refers to Ellen as a "non-Swiss" and to her birthplace as "the town of X" (237). Perhaps most importantly, the origins of Bidart's material text are not unified either: the longer anecdotes of which the poem is largely composed, as well as the "digression" on Maria Callas and the closing letter would seem to be "inventions" of Frank Bidart, while the prose segments have been taken by Bidart, selectively, from Binswanger's account of the treatment. Bidart's use of the latter requires some comment. Binswanger's The Case of Ellen West,' first published in German in 1944, consists of four sections: a "case history," which is a chronological narrative beginning with biographical sketches of Ellen's parents and continuing through her childhood, school days, marriage, her attempts at poetry, her stay at the Kreuzlingen Sanatorium, and her death; and three sections of "existential," "psychopathological," and "clinical" analyses, consisting of complex theoretical reflections, drawing as much on then current psychoanalytic theories as on German and classical philosophy. From these latter sections Bidart draws not at all. From the first section, he draws the tone of Ellen's voice and some of the content of her remarks - from letters and diary entries - though not her exact words; and he draws verbatim several of Binswanger's and his associate Emil Kraepelin's remarks, including an entire paragraph which (slightly edited) forms the penultimate section of the poem.

The matter of "quotation," whether or not acknowledged by punctuation, becomes crucial in Bidart's work, but not only in the high modernist sense of poetic eclecticism and collage. "Quotation" here also calls into question the bourgeois traditions of ownership (quotation as grounded, private property), univocality, and transcendence, freeing the language from a unified site and blurring generic and authorial divisions.

"Ellen," age thirty-two, writes to her husband, "The thought of pancakes is still for me the most horrible thought there is" (Binswanger 251). Bidart writes, rechronologizing (and with a slight awkwardness of tense), "At twelve, pancakes / became the most terrible thought there is" (112). For the most part, Bidart does not come this close to the precise wording of his source; rather, he captures Ellen's tone and the gist of her constant concern. Binswanger's Ellen writes, "it is this friction between wanting to be thin and yet not wanting to miss any food which is destroying me.... I am perishing in the struggle against my nature. Fate wanted to have me fat and strong, but I want to be thin and delicate" (264-65); and "I feel myself, quite passively, the stage on which two hostile forces are mangling each other" (264). Bidart's Ellen says:

But my true self is thin, all profile and effortless gestures, the sort of blond elegant girl whose body is the image of her soul.

- My doctors tell me I must give up this ideal; but I WILL NOT...cannot.


Binswanger's record of Ellen's "two hostile forces" provides Bidart with the movement central to the entire poem; it is particularly developed in one of the two most "theoretical" sections, where the patient's inner dialogue is finally given voice:

- Then I think, No. The ideal of being thin

conceals the ideal not to have a body -; which is NOT trivial ...

This wish seems now as much a "given" of my existence

as the intolerable fact that I am dark-complexioned; big-boned; and once weighed one hundred and sixty-five pounds ...

- But then I think, No. That's too simple, -

without a body, who can know himself at all? Only by acting; choosing; rejecting; have I made myself - discovered who and what Ellen can be ...

- But then again I think, NO. This I is anterior to name; gender; action; fashion;


... trying to stop my hunger with FOOD is like trying to appease thirst with ink.


This, Ellen's theoretical impasse, is the impasse of all of Bidart's narrators. None of them can accept the humiliation of having a body. The amputee narrator of "The Arc" swerves in his car, and the next moment his arm is gone. He looks with envy at a three-legged dog, "free of memory as a vegetable" (92). In his mother's ward, he meets a mental patient who insists on wearing nothing under her robe, since clothes would identify her: "I don't want an identity! This way I'm free ...;" she says; but the narrator comments, "I only saw her once; that's / her identity in my mind, - // and even in my mind, / sweating / she wears a body" (89-90). The maddening independence of the body also plagues the dancer Nijinsky in "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky": "I wanted to go to sleep and die ... // But my BODY did not want to die" (40).

The unappeasable hunger which Ellen mentions is - or seems so to her - the self anterior to body and gender, the ink simile marking the self's anteriority to the act of writing as well. To write is as futile a response to hunger (or thirst) as to eat is. Ellen tries to locate her self in her ideal and in her hunger for that ideal, but that effort is her pathos and hopelessness. To Ellen's doctors, the body, like Ellen's gender, is a "given." But it is the "givens" which Ellen must subvert as falsehoods; they were not chosen by the self: "I loathed ~Nature"' (112). Her disease is not her torment but her solution to that torment. That solution is then supplanted by death itself; choosing death, she at last escapes compromise.

Toward the end of the poem occurs an entire paragraph (except for one important insertion and one elision, to be discussed below) from Binswanger, presented without quotation marks:

On the third day of being home she is as if transformed. At breakfast she eats butter and sugar, at noon she eats so much that - for the first time in thirteen years! - she is satisfied by her food and gets really full. At afternoon coffee she eats chocolate creams and Easter eggs. She takes a walk with her husband, reads poems, listens to recordings, is in a positively festive mood, and all heaviness seems to have fallen away from her. She writes letters, the last one a letter to the fellow patient here to whom she had become so attached. In the evening she takes a lethal dose of poison, and on the following morning she is dead. "She looked as she had never looked in life - calm and happy and peaceful."


If it were not for the word "here" ("the fellow patient here"), we would perhaps attribute this passage to the "narrator," who at moments seems to stand outside the discourse of the doctors and of Ellen; but the "here" positions the speaker within the walls of the institution. Interestingly, in an intertext where quotation marks and their absence are so problematized, neither Binswanger nor Bidart indicates a speaker for the last sentence.

This passage is important not only for its inclusion at this point and for the alterations it undergoes in transition, but also for its capacity to generate the poem of which it is a part. The reference to the last letter "to a fellow patient here" is an invitation to actually create that last letter, which Bidart does, closing the poem with it. And the phrase "listens to recordings" allows the writing of perhaps the most important section of the poem, that on Maria Callas.

But first, the elision from Binswanger. It occurs following the words "reads poems" in the passage above. Binswanger writes, "reads poems by Rilke, Storm, Goethe, and Tennyson, is amused by the first chapter of Mark Twain's ~Christian Science,' is in a positively festive mood" (267).

Indeed, Binswanger often discusses Ellen's reading, mentioning at one point the novel Niels Lyhne, under the influence of which "her religious faith crumbles forever like a house of cards" (272). Nor are books absent from Bidart's "Ellen West"; Goethe is moved to an entry earlier in the poem - "Has been reading Faust again" (113) - together with comments from Ellen on her own "weak" "hospital poems." But the phrase about her reading which Bidart has elided is replaced by another - "listens to recordings" - which is placed there, one must suppose, to connect to and reinforce a long earlier section concerning Ellen's (actually Bidart's) fascination with the singer Maria Callas. We know from Binswanger that Maria Callas does not figure in Ellen West's life, as he has written it. We know from Bidart's interview with Mark Halliday that Maria Callas does figure in the poet's life. Discussing Philip Wheelwright, one of Bidart's professors at the University of California, Riverside, Bidart remembers:

(The first time I ever heard Maria Callas was in his living room, when he played to a final meeting of a class excerpts from her second recording of Lucia. I remember he was upset because he felt that it wasn't, compared to her first recording, nearly as well sung.)


Since the meeting at Wheelwright's house, Bidart would seem to have thought about and listened to Callas a great deal in order to come to the reflections which he attributes to Ellen in that three-page section of "Ellen West" where the breathing, deteriorating body of Callas becomes virtually a postromantic allegory for the artistic process, practically, in a moment of conflation of Bidart-Ellen-Callas, an ars poetica. Ellen reads Callas's life in the light of her own loathing of the everyday, her desire, recounted by Binswanger, to find the transcendent secret of the universe and to be "wildly consumed in my own fire" (Binswanger 246). Callas, too, Ellen senses, is being consumed, physically, by her spirit. "Callas is my favorite singer," Ellen begins, recalling the night when she saw the singer perform - not Lucia but Tosca - and heard the voice which had already been deteriorating for years. She then backs up to tell the story of Callas's physical decline. Callas had begun her career as a "fat, enormous" singer with a voice also "enormous":

healthy; robust; subtle; but capable of crude effects, even vulgar, almost out of high spirits, too much health ...

But soon she felt that she must lose weight, - that all she was trying to express

was obliterated by her body, buried in flesh - ; abruptly, within four months she lost at least sixty pounds ...

- The gossip in Milan was that Callas had swallowed a tapeworm.

But of course she hadn't.

The tapeworm was her soul ...


The soul, "uncompromising, / insatiable," "loved eating the flesh" from Callas's bones but wouldn't stop there; it went on to eat the voice, which first diminishes in volume, then loses its range. But the voice is neither the body nor the soul. In Binswanger's universe, it would be the Mitwelt between the Eigenwelt and the Umvelt (Binswanger 270), perhaps a preferable paradigm to that of the Cartesian dualism which plagues so many of Bidart's characters, including Ellen West.(4) The soul as tapeworm gives Ellen a metaphor with which to counter her default model of the body as intransigent, as "there." She finally conquers her body by a willed death. But the tapeworm, as the animate physical soul, would allow one to conquer it in life. When Ellen transposes this metaphor to the artist, she sees, as usual, two irreconcilable explanations: first,

Perhaps her mind, ravenous, still insatiable, sensed that to struggle with the shreds of a voice must make her artistry subtler, more refined, more capable of expressing humiliation, rage, betrayal ...


- Perhaps the opposite. Perhaps her spirit loathed the unending struggle to embody itself, to manifest itself, on a stage whose mechanics, and suffocating customs, seemed expressly designed to annihilate spirit ...

Here we move from the discussion of the body as unwanted Other to the question of the role of the artist and the meaning of "technique." The first of Ellen's two explanations involves the idea of a "truer" art, one which expresses inner states more accurately, by virtue of an instrument which is broken; it is a familiar postromantic idea, not only in its sense of an "expressive" (rather than constitutive) means of representation, but also in that it prizes, as many mid- to late twentieth-century listeners and readers do, the unpolished, the raw, the "immediate." But the second explanation, that Callas's deterioration was her spirit's nausea at embodiment, the nausea Ellen West herself constantly voices, ends up collapsing into the first. That is, to be on a stage whose tradition and customs threaten to annihilate one's art is to be manifested both as body and as artist, and one's only recourse is, again, to speak from some imagined bedrock of the self, that is, to refuse to be an artist in the sense of a trained, polished professional who is part of that tradition, those "suffocating customs." Instead, Ellen thinks, through nonmastery Callas can attain (Bidart's/Keats's) "true voice of feeling." Thus Ellen's reaction when Callas, in Tosca, sings "Vissi d'arte / - 'l lived for art' - ':

and in torment, bewilderment, at the end she asks, with a voice reaching harrowingly for the notes,

"Art has repaid me LIKE THIS?' I felt I was watching autobiography - an art; skill; virtuosity

miles distant from the usual soprano's athleticism, - the usual musician's dream of virtuosity without content ...

We read this first, perhaps, in the context of Callas's life, her achievement being the transformation of art, finally, into what looks like life - no technique, not the Paterian ideal of pure form to which the other arts can only aspire, but rather an unmediated content of emotion. But straight-away we read it too as the achievement, if it works, of Bidart's own poetry, "Ellen West - a case in point: we feel we're watching autobiography as we read Bidart. Our feeling is one with Ellen's as she listens to Callas. The paradox, however, is that the illusion of life reinforces the sense of artistic mastery so, seemingly, deliberately abandoned - reinforces, even, the boundaries between text and nontext which would seem to have been erased.

It is always a pleasant illusion to hear a poet claim to be abandoning technique. We're accustomed to this claim; popular singers make it explicitly when, instead of "singing," - they speak, whisper, or scream. At the end of a technically brilliant career, Robert Lowell writes, "Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme - / why are they no help to me now." Instead, "everything I write / ... seems a snapshot, / ... paralyzed by fact." And so "why not say what happened?" (127). For Ellen, the way toward this sort of immediacy is through mortification of the body, but, as with Callas and Lowell and so many others, it's also a matter of Yeats's "withering into truth," the impression - always, certainly, an artful one - that one comes through all the years of discipline and ambition to something beyond "mere" art, to a kind of antiart, which is not form but content. Oddly, again, this impression occurs when matters are at their most artificial - in Bidart's case, in poems where the line-breaks, capitalizations, and clashes of genres and tones all heighten awareness of form. "The fiction of [being] non-fictional," as Steven Gould Axelrod calls it, in his book on Lowell (112), translates, in Bidart, into the Ellen-Callas concept of genuineness through weakness, even inability. It is a notion which arises out of necessity in a poet who feels a lack of "technique." One thinks of the humility of a painter like Cezanne, and the pressure upon him, in the absence of a facility in learned traditional techniques, to find his own way. "I never had a romance with writing verse" (224), Bidart says. His example, rather, was the Pound of the Cantos, which were liberating for him in that "they say that anything can be gotten into a poem ... if you can create a structure that is large enough or strong enough, anything can retain its own identity and find its place there" (224-25).

But it is curious that, given this lack of a "romance with verse" and this emphasis on mastery through nonmastery, Bidart, in fact, self-consciously establishes his relation to verse as well as to poetic tradition in general by inserting, in each of his books, nods to and revisions of the canon. These include translations of Catullus, Virgil, Saint John of the Cross, chapters of Genesis, and formal exercises such as "Poem in the Stanza of the Rubaiyat" (extending Bidart's themes of the lost mother and of textualizing the past) and a villanelle ("Envoi") which, though Bidart complies with the form, seems to underscore his antiaesthetic response to the poem as formal artifact. This latter example of Bidart's numerous "verse" forays deserves comment. Bidart retains (or contrives) a certain awkwardness, partly by disguising the iambic pentameter with a missing foot in one of the repeated lines and partly by forced rhymes and syntax. And we see again the themes:

Mother, I didn't forgive you. Conceal unreal forgiving. Show me your face in fury - ; not dead. If it resists me, I know it's real. I feel too much. I can't stand what I feel.

Not incidentally, this last stanza echoes the most famous villanelle of our century, whose last stanza reads:

And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Bidart addresses his mother as Dylan Thomas did his father, both poets pleading for the negative emotion of anger - "your face in fury" and "your fierce tears" - as an indication of the strength to go on living, rather than the mere blessing without the curse, or "unreal forgiving," which signals weakness and surrender.(5) Only if it resists is it real, in Bidart's stanza; only if it rages against the dark can it live, in Thomas's.

But these ostensibly "traditional" writings in Bidart's work can be seen as another type of "quotation" by the poet, another complicating of textuality and polyvocality, placed as these writings are in the midst of the larger, more free-ranging poems - where the artifice of prosody is not less but more conspicuous, increasingly so in the 1990 work.

Through all these examples runs the sense of the poem as not only antiformal but antiaesthetic, an idea familiar from the work of Julia Kristeva, who insists on a view of poetry as a force of negation and opposition to identity and cultural modes in general (though Kristeva's downplaying of cognition, of the "saying" that goes on in a poem, does not account for the power of discursive content in a poet such as Bidart).

Denis Donoghue, while praising Bidart's achievement, has raised questions about his typography: "Is it a matter of volume, sonority, pitch, timbre?" (44). Eventually, Donoghue points out, "The possibilities are exhausted . . . by wanted, wanted, WANTED, ~wanted,' ~wanted,' ~WANTED' and the addition of an exclamation mark to any of these" (44). But for Bidart, as for any poet, prosody and typography are ultimately inseparable from questions of voice and of content. Bidart arrived at his own prosody slowly and painfully, according to his own account, solving by trial and error the problems of emphasis and space through capitals, italics, and idiosyncratic punctuation marks, including one characteristic of his work, the dash followed by the semicolon (which, though Bidart doesn't mention it, one often finds in Keats). One can see his typography as part of his central effort to present the antisocial voice as authentic. It is a means of creating space, tempo, and seriousness in passages some of which would read too quickly, too simply, too prosaically otherwise. In the case of "Herbert White," for example, without the line-breaks, capitals, the artifice in general, which establish the introspective voice, we might have porno-violent pulp. In fact, Bidart moves only slightly away from conventional prose, none of the line-breaks seeming erratic or slowing down the reading, a technique which amounts to preserving those "pulp" elements. Still, put into "prose," there is a difference:

When the body got too discomposed, I'd just jack off, letting it fall on her . . . . It sounds crazy, but for a minute everything was possible; and then, then - well, like I said, she didn't move: and I saw under me, a little girl was just lying there in the mud.

(I have, in addition to putting Bidart's lines in paragraph form, also conventionalized punctuation - dropping "-;" for example.) Such an exercise allows us to see how Bidart seldom departs, in diction or in syntax, in style or in tone from the vernacular of "reality." Breaking down the prosody also shows us how closely reasoned and connected is the train of thought, no matter how alien he sensibility.

Bidart has remarked that he never begins with prose and then breaks it up, as some poets do (a veiled reference to his poetic father, Robert Lowell); rather, the "way to get down the motions of the voice in my head" is "to write in lines" (224), not meter or "verse," and "not only sentences or paragraphs." "The voice in my head," a phrase Bidart often uses in discussing his work, appears to take us back to an instrumental or expressive notion of poetry and of language, where the poem becomes the vehicle of the prior "voice in my head." And yet a "voice" is not the same as a personal experience or concept or emotion, which would presumably exist prior to both voice and writing. "Voice" is an indeterminacy, a psychic draft at most, not pre-existent but part of the writing process, rather than an entity (concept, experience) to be translated from a nonverbal to a verbal sphere. Bidart explains the relation of the "voice" to his syntax, punctuation, and the layout of his pages:

As the voice moves through what it is talking about - trying to lay out, acknowledge, organize the "material" - it needs dependent clauses, interjections, unfinished phrases, sometimes whole sentences in apposition. The only way I can sufficiently articulate this movement ... is punctuation.... Punctuation allows me to "lay out" the bones of a sentence visually, spatially, so that the reader can see the pauses, emphases, urgencies and languors in the voice.

We should note the quotation marks of suspicion or erasure around "material" in this discussion. As the voice moves through "what it is talking about" the layout takes place; it is a single movement. Eventually," the poem on paper suddenly seems a truer embodiment of the poem's voice than what I still hear in my head.... at that point, the entire process is finished" (236). It is not, then, a question of being faithful to a prior thing but of working out the "necessary thought" the voice demands; once this is worked out, the "voice" no longer has anteriority; it is on the page.

It is interesting in this connection to remember Freud's early view of the purely formal in art, that is, that form is an ego function, a bribe to get us to accept the offensive content of the id. Freud calls the aesthetic a "fore-pleasure." In fact, "all the aesthetic pleasure which a creative writer affords us has the character of a fore-pleasure of this kind" (141). But Bidart's prosody/typography represents a reversal of Freud's idea of artifice as superego and content as id. In an effort to write an apparently content-oriented poetry in a time when we view language as constitutive, Bidart's approach is antiaesthetic. It is content that is ego-driven and ego-exposing (if we can elide the contemporary pejorative nuance of "ego"); it is form that is "unacceptable," broken, antiformal, the dream and chaos of the id. Indeed, as we saw in the case of "Herbert White," the content seems too conventional until it is broken up by the anguished "voice" which dictates the lines.

I have suggested that Frank Bidart's work is theoretical in important respects, that the pathos that it achieves is inextricable from a discursive treatment of the most profound theoretical issues, including that of the primacy or anteriority of a "self." Through his articulation of the "voices" of the anguished and the "mad," Bidart has arrived at a poetics and a poetry where the elements of the confessional mode - pathos, existential pain, grief, guilt, desperation, and the indeterminacy of the self - are recuperated within a post-modern context. He has done so in part by a rejection of both earlier and contemporary ideas of poetic language, developing instead a "thinking" voice that puzzles through the unevenness of lived experience, but also by means of intertextuality, an opening of the question of ownership and origin of text; by a positioning of the speaking subject such that no unified site can be identified - indeed, so that the voice questions and annihilates itself; and through a self-conscious and extreme prosody which reminds us of the thick materiality of language at the same time that it disguises "mere" prosaism and, with its range of notational effects - diminuendos, crescendos, pauses - allows an unusually wide affective range to its voices.

Bidart's characters insist on finding meaning, and they fail, thus allowing us to find meaning in their intensity and their failure. If they succeeded, we would not believe them; because they fail, we can believe. That nonmastery before the opacity of the world, coupled with the refusal to give up the desire for meaning, is the "madness" out of which Bidart's characters speak. Embedded as they are in material language, they achieve not the true feeling of confession but the "true voice of feeling," which comes in the wake of the confessional mode.

There is a strategic advantage and a final victory to the "mad" position, which Foucault points out at the end of his Madness and Civilization:

The world that thought to measure and justify madness through psychology must justify itself before madness, since in its struggles and agonies it measures itself by the excess of works like those of Nietzsche, of Van Gogh, of Artaud. And nothing in itself, especially not what it can know of madness, assures the world that it is justified by such works of madness.

This is the malaise which Ellen West leaves as legacy to the doctors, friends, and relatives who are forced to admit their helplessness and who fail to be justified before madness, before the space which Ellen West has constructed and left. It is also a legacy bequeathed to the reader by all such voices in the poetry of Bidart. Far from being able to dismiss the problems or reflections of such voices - or the echoes of such voices - as resulting from their marginality or pathology, we are, precisely because of their sites of discourse, all the more made to see their importance. It is the intensity of their consciousness of themselves, in the midst of their failure, which threatens to become our own. She "knows about herself unceasingly," writes Binswanger of Ellen West. "What is constantly denied her is unconcern" (Binswanger 258). This is the one thing - unconcern - that is finally denied the reader of Bidart also.

(1.) This collection contains Bidart's three earlier books Golden State (1973), The Book of the Body (1977), and The Sacrifice (1983) - presented in reverse chronological order - and two 1990 sections which open and close the book, respectively "In the Western Night" and "The First Hour of the Night." The appendix consists of a 1983 interview with Mark Halliday in which Bidart discusses prosody, voice, early influences, and the composition of several of the poems in the volume. (2.) Axelrod's phrase refers to Sylvia Plath's poem "Words." (3.) Some comment is necessary regarding the presence or absence of quotation marks around certain names. There was a historical Herbert White, just as there is a "Herbert White" - poem title and subjectivity created by the poem. If it weren't so awkward, we should refer to "Frank Bidart" in quotation marks throughout, thus doing away at the outset with the intentional fallacy and attributing validity only to that author created by the text, and by documents such as the interview with Mark Halliday; but in a text where quotation is already so problematized, it seems best to risk dropping this device. The quotation marks around "Ellen West" pose a special problem: where one can at least try to distinguish the historical from the textual Frank Bidart, this is not possible with "Ellen West," who has a name unknown to us. Though once a living person (Binswanger 292), she is already figured ("Westernized") before she becomes a subject in the poem which bears her name. Here then we would have to distinguish between the poem title "Ellen West"; the subjectivity created by Binswanger's text, "Ellen West"(a), perhaps; that created by Bidart's text, "Ellen West"(b); and even the historically nameless person "Ellen West," where double quotation marks would serve as an erasure sign for the tentative name given her. Since none of this is practical, the various Ellen Wests will be allowed at times to collapse in this text, as they so often do in the others. (4.) Umwelt, the "world-around," is the biological world, the environment; Mitwelt, the "with-world," is the world of beings of one's own kind; and Eigenwelt, the "own-world," describes the mode of relationship one has to one's self. Binswanger's analysis of Ellen West relies heavily on these terms, especially 270-92. For a more developed discussion of the terms themselves, see May 61-65. (5.) Dylan Thomas knew his father as an irascible, contentious man, who began to lose his fierceness as he began to lose his health; thus his curse would have been a blessing to his loving son, as it would mean he had not begun to die. Vernon Watkins told me this in conversation.


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Author:Gray, Jeffrey
Publication:Contemporary Literature
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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