Frank Bidart: “Night Was the Guide Sweeter Than the Sun Raw at Dawn”

Photographers Unknown, Night Was the Guide

In a dark night, when the light
burning was the burning of love (fortuitous
night, fated, free,—)
as I stole from my dark house, dark
house that was silent, grave, sleeping—

by the staircase that was secret, hidden
safe: disguised by darkness (fortuitous
night, fated, free—)
by darkness and by cunning, dark
house that was silent, grave, sleeping—;

in that sweet night, secret, seen by
no one and seeing
nothing, my only light or
guide
the burning in my burning heart,

night was the guide
sweeter than the sun raw at
dawn, for there the burning bridegroom is
bride
and he who chose at last is chosen.

.

As he lay sleeping on my sleepless
breast, kept from the beginning for him
alone, lying on the gift I gave
as the restless
fragrant cedars moved the restless winds,—

winds from the circling parapet circling
us as I lay there touching and lifting his hair,–
with his sovereign hand, he
wounded my neck=
and my senses, when they touched that, touched nothing. . .

In a dark night (there where I
lost myself, —) as I leaned to rest
in his smooth white breast, everything
ceased
and left me, forgotten in the grave of forgotten lilies.

Frank Bidart, Dark Night

Born in Bakersfield, California, in May of 1939, Frank Bidart is an American academic and a poet, and the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He started his studies in 1957 at the University of California at Riverside where, after reading works by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, he decided on a career in poetry. He continued his studies at Harvard, where he became both a student and friend to Robert Lowell, the sixth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and Elizabeth Bishop, the 1956 Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry and, after Lowell’s departure, the subsequent Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Bidart’s work is written in the style of Confessional poetry which emerged in the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this personal form of poetry, the speaker focuses on extreme moments of individual experience, thoughts, and personal traumas, which may include such experiences as mental illness, sexuality, and self-harm. These issues are often set against the broader themes of society. In the 1950s, confessional poets often wrote about the unhappiness in their lives in opposition to the idealization of domestic life which was propagated at the time.

Frank Bidart’s early work often disregarded the formal conventions of poetry. His narrative works are not seamless dramatic monologues but rather snippets of speech, anecdotes, reminiscences, analogies, and notes and letters which are spliced together in a cinematic progression. In his poetry, Bidart uses unusual typography and takes liberties with capitalization and punctuation; this process allows the reader to visualize, spatially, the urgencies, emphases, pauses and fatigue in the poem’s voice.

Frank Bidart gained critical attention with his first two books, the 1973 “Golden State” and the 1977 “The Book of the Body”. However, it was his 1983 “The Sacrifice” that made his reputation as an original, uncompromising poet. These three early works, focused on the origins and consequences of guilt, were later published together in the 1990 collection “In the Western Night: Collected Poems1965-90”.  Among Bidart’s most notable works are monologues spoken by central characters.Two examples of these are “Herbert White” from the “Golden State”collection, a monologue spoken through the voice of a psychopathic child murderer, and “Ellen West” included in “The Book of the Body”, spoken by a woman with an eating disorder.

Bidart’s 1997 collection “Desire” began with thirteen short poems, one of which was a memorial to artist  and writer Joe Brainard, who was associated with the New York School movement of poets, painters, dancers and musicians active during the 1950s and 1960s. A prodigious artist known for his collages and his memoir “I Remember”, Brainard died from AIDS in May of 1994. The second half of the book, “The Second Hour of the Night” was a long poem that questioned the traditional assumptions about love told through a recounting of Ovid’s tale of Myrrha’s incestuous love for her father.This collection, which also included writings by Dante and Marcus Aurelius, received the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and was a finalist for three awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. 

Frank Bidart’s sixth book “Star Dust”, also divided in two parts, was nominated for a National Book Award and employed the familiar Bidart typography, including block capitals, italics and blank spaces, and used the techniques of quotations, paraphrases and monologues. His 2008 “Watching the Spring Festival” was his first book of lyric poems. Bidart’s  2013 collection “Metaphysical Dog” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and “Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016” won both the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry and the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. 

Frank Bidart has taught at Brandeis University and, since 1972, at Wellesley College, both located in the state of Massachusetts. Bidart’s poem “Herbert White” became the basis for actor and poet James Franco’s  2010 short film of the same name. Bidart became a chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2001 and, in 2017, won the Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award.

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