Frank Bidart

Frank Bidart
Dept. of English, Wellesley College

A Poetry Reading
(The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series)
Kresge Auditorium, Stanford University
Monday, February 3, 2003, 3:30 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Monday, February 3, 2003, 8 PM, Kresge Auditorium, Stanford University:
Eavan Boland, Director of Stanford's Creative Writing Program introduced Frank Bidart, praising his work and the wide range of his poetic expression, and welcoming him back to California. Bidart was born in Bakersfield, California, and was educated at the University of California-Riverside and at Harvard. His first book Golden State (1973) was about California and was selected by poet Richard Howard for the Braziller Poetry series. Since then he has published six volumes of poetry and has won many prestigious poetry awards. Bidart lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and teaches at Wellesley College. He is currently editing an edition of Robert Lowell's collected poems. Bidart says: "This reading will be about love & making."

I began learning modern poetry (1987) by typing several of Bidart's poems from his 1983 book The Sacrifice to improve my writing style. This is my first time hearing him. Bidart read his poems with much intensity. His facial and body gestures moved in sync with the emotions of his poetry. I jotted down the title of the poems he read and the first lines of each poem as well as lines that moved me. Later I found some of these poems on the web and in Bidart's books. I've tried to reproduce faithfully in HTML the line breaks, italicized words, indents, cap letters, em-dashes, etc. in Bidart's original. After his reading, Bidart signed the title page of his The Sacrifice which I checked out of the Stanford Library as well as the 4x5 ad on his Poetry Reading that I clipped from the Palo Alto Daily. I told him that my freshman English teacher at Columbia Engineering was Kenneth Koch who passed away last year (7-6-2002). Bidart said "You're lucky— Koch was a wonderful poet!" The three books that Bidart read from— In the Western Night, Desire, and Music Like Dirt were all checked out from the Stanford Library. Upon receiving notice of their return, I was able to fill the missing gaps and type them for this web page. [Remarks made by Bidart before reading some of his poems are denoted in brackets].

(1) Dark Night

                (John of the Cross)

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
    the burning in my burning heart,
night was the guide
    to the place where he for whom I
    waited, whom I had long ago chosen,
    waits: night
    brighter than noon, in which none can see—;
night was the guide
    sweeter than the sun raw at
    dawn, for there the burning bridegroom is
    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
    and left me, forgotten in the grave of forgotten lilies.

From In the Western Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1990, pp. 5-6)

(2) Love Incarnate

                        (Dante, Vita Nuova)

To all those driven berserk or humanized by love
this is offered, for I need help
deciphering my dream.
When we love our lord is LOVE.

When I recall that at the fourth hour
of the night, watched by shining stars,
LOVE at last became incarnate,
the memory is horror.

In his hands smiling LOVE held my burning
heart, and in his arms, the body whose greeting
pierces my soul, now wrapped in bloodred, sleeping.

He made him wake. He ordered him to eat
my heart. He ate my burning heart. He ate it
submissively, as if afraid as LOVE wept.

From Desire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1997, p. 5)

(3) Guilty of Dust

up or down from the infinite C E N T E R
B R I M M I N G at the winking rim of time

the voice in my head said




then I saw the parade of my loves

those PERFORMERS comics actors singers

forgetful of my very self so often I
desired to die to myself to live in them

then my PARENTS my FRIENDS the drained
SPECTRES once filled with my baffled infatuations

love and guilt and fury and
sweetness for whom

nail spirit yearning to the earth


then the voice in my head said




From In the Western Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1990, pp. 14-15)

(4) In Memory of Joe Brainard

["The Friendly Way" was a collage of voices of New England which Brainard stitched together]

the remnants of a vast, oceanic
bruise (wound delivered early and long ago)

was in you purity and
sweetness self-gathered, CHOSEN


When I tried to find words for the moral sense that unifies
and sweetens the country voices in your collage The Friendly Way,

you said It's a code.

You were a code
I yearned to decipher—

In the end, the plague that full swift runs by
took you, broke you;—

           in the end, could not
            take you, did not break you;—

you had somehow erased within you not only
meanness, but anger, the desire to punish
the universe for everything

not achieved, not tasted, seen again, touched—;

... the undecipherable
code unbroken even as the soul

learns once again the body it loves and hates is
made of earth, and will betray it.

From Desire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1997, p. 13)

(5) The Yoke

don't worry     I know you're dead
but tonight

turn your face again
toward me

when I hear your voice there is now
no direction in which to turn

I sleep and wake and sleep and wake and sleep and wake and

but tonight
turn your face again

toward me

see upon my shoulders is the yoke
that is not a yoke

don't worry     I know you're dead
but tonight

turn your face again

From Desire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1997, p. 14)

(6) In the Western Night

1. The Irreparable

First, I was there where unheard
harmonies create the harmonies

we hear—

then I was a dog, sniffing
your crotch.

I asked you why you
were here; your answer was your beauty.

I said I was in need. You said
that the dead

rule and confuse our steps—

that if I helped you cut your skin
deeply enough

that, at least, was IRREPARABLE...

This afternoon, the clouds
were moving so swiftly—

massed above the towers, rushing.

2. In My Desk

Two cigarette butts—
left by you

the first time you visited my apartment.
The next day

I found them, they were still there—

picking one up, I put my lips where
yours had been ...


Our not-love is like a man running down
a mountain, who, if he dares to try to stop,

falls over—
my hands wanted to touch your hands

because we had hands.


I put the two cigarette butts
in an envelope, carefully

taping shut the edges.
At first, the thin paper of the envelope

didn't stop

the stale smell of tobacco ...
Now the envelope is in my desk.

3. Two Men

The man who does not know himself, who
does not know his affections that his actions

speak but that he does not

                    who will SAY ANYTHING

and lie when he does not know that he is
lying because what he needs to believe is true

must indeed
be true,

            THIS MAN IS STONE ... NOT BREAD.


The man who tries to feed his hunger
by gnawing stone

                        is a FOOL; his hunger is

fed in ways that he knows cannot satisfy it.

4. Epilogue: A Stanza from Horace

At night in dreams I hold you
    and now I pursue you
fleeing through the grass of the Campus Martius,
you, through the waters (you are cruel) fleeing.

                                                Berkeley, California; 1983.

From In the Western Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1990, pp. 7-11)


["The Gorilla" is a movie and the Ritz Brothers were detectives in that film.]

What I hope (when I hope) is that we'll
see each other again,—

... and again reach the VEIN

in which we loved each other ...
It existed. It existed.

There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,—

... for, like the detectives (the Ritz Brothers)
in The Gorilla,

once we'd been battered by the gorilla

we searched the walls, the intricately carved
impenetrable paneling

for a button, lever, latch

that unlocks a secret door that
reveals at last the secret chambers,


(the disenthralling, necessary, dreamed structure
beneath the structure we see,)

that is the HOUSE within the HOUSE ...

There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,—

... there were (for example) months when I seemed only
to displease, frustrate,

disappoint you—; then, something triggered

a drunk lasting for days, and as you
slowly and shakily sobered up,

sick, throbbing with remorse and self-loathing,

insight like ashes: clung
to; useless; hated ...

This was the viewing of the power of the waters

while the waters were asleep:—
secrets, histories of loves, betrayals, double-binds

not fit (you thought) for the light of day ...

There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,—

... for, there at times at night, still we
inhabit the secret place together ...

Is this wisdom, or self-pity?—

The love I've known is the love of
two people staring

not at each other, but in the same direction.

From In the Western Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1990, pp. 3-4)

(8) For the Twentieth Century

[This poem is about the centrality of making in our lives. Tapestry about making— sexuality,
love, mortality. Josef Szigeti is my favorite violinist. K-218 is a Mozart violin concerto.]

Bound, hungry to pluck again from the thousand
technologies of ecstasy

boundlessness, the world that at a drop of water
rises without boundaries,

I push the PLAY button:—

... Callas, Laurel & Hardy, Szigeti

you are alive again,—

the slow movement of K.218
once again no longer

bland, merely pretty, nearly
banal, as it is

in all but Szigeti's hands


Therefore you and I and Mozart
must thank the Twentieth Century, for

it made you pattern, form
whose infinite

repeatability within matter
defies matter—

Malibran. Henry Irving. The young
They are lost, a mountain of

newspaper clippings, become words
not their own words. The art of the performer.

From Quarternote Chapbook Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, pp. 7-8)

(9) Music Like Dirt

                for Desmond Dekker

I will not I will not I said but as my body turned in the solitary
bed it said But he loves me which broke my will.

music like dirt

That you did but willed and continued to will refusal you
confirmed seventeen years later saying I was not wrong,

music like dirt

When you said I was not wrong with gravity and weird
sweetness I felt not anger not woe but weird calm sweetness.

music like dirt

I like sentences like He especially dug doing it in
houses being built or at the steering wheel.

music like dirt

I will not I will not I said but as my body turned in the solitary
bed it said But he loves me which broke my will.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 9)

(10) Young Marx ( Daedalus, Winter 2002)

That man's own life is an object for him. That animals
build nests, build dwellings,

whereas man contemplates himself

in the world that he has created:
That you cannot find yourself in your labor

because it does not belong to your essential being:

That estranged from labor the laborer is
self-estranged, alien to himself:

That your nature is to labor:

That feeling himself fleetingly unbound only when
eating, drinking, procreating, in his dwelling and dressing-up,

man erects means into sole and ultimate ends:

That where he makes what he makes, he is
not: That when he makes, he is not:

Thus the ground of our self-estrangement.

— Marx in 1844, before the solutions that he proposed
betrayed him by entering history, before, like
Jesus, too many sins were committed in his name.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 10)

(11) For Bill Nestrick (1940-96)

Out of the rectitude and narrow care of those who
teach in the public schools,—
                        a mother
who would not let her son watch cartoons of
Porky Pig because we must
not laugh at someone who stutters,—

... the mystery, your brilliant
appetite for the moment.


For Herbert, the aesthetic desideratum is

unpremeditated art, not as "natural" or "spontaneous"
but a speaking of the Spirit as it becomes
conscious, a fidelity to

the moment itself. The only

appropriate gift is discovered to be
inseparable from
the giver, for man can only give himself.

In 1975, the magazine that printed your great essay
announced: He is writing a book on Herbert.


You lived in the realm where coin of the realm
is a book,

and despite the fact that by the end of
graduate school you
already had published twenty thousand articles

you never published a book.

Against the background of this bitter
mysterious lapse your brilliant
appetite for the moment.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, pp. 11-12)

(12) Little Fugue

at birth you were handed a ticket

beneath every journey the ticket to this
journey in one direction

or say the body

is a conveyor belt, moving in one direction
slower or swifter than sight

at birth

you were handed a ticket, indecipherable
rectangle forgotten in your pocket

or say you stand upon a moving walkway

as if all you fear
is losing your

balance moving in one direction

beneath every journey the ticket to this
journey in one direction

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 13)

(13) Advice to the Players (Harvard Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1999)

There is something missing in our definition, vision, of a human being:
the need to make.
We are creatures who need to make.
Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to
make something— if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives.
My parents saw corrosively the arc of their lives.
Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves.
But being is making: not only large things, a family, a book,
a business: but the shape we give this afternoon, a conversation
between two friends, a meal.
Or mis-shape.
Without clarity about what we make, and the choices that underlie
it, the need to make is a curse, a misfortune.
The culture in which we live honors specific kinds of making
(shaping or mis-shaping a business, a family) but does not
understand how central making itself is as manifestation and
mirror of the self, fundamental as eating or sleeping.
In the images with which our culture incessantly bombards us,
the cessation of labor is the beginning of pleasure; the goal of work
is to cease working, an endless paradise of unending diversion.
In the United States at the end of the twentieth century, the greatest
luxury is to live a life in which the work that one does to earn a
living, and what one has the appetite to make, coincide— by a kind
of grace are the same, one.
Without clarity, a curse, a misfortune.
My intuition about what is of course unprovable comes, I'm sure,
from observing, absorbing as a child the lives of my parents:
the dilemmas, contradictions, chaos as they lived out their own often
unacknowledged, barely examined desires to make.
They saw corrosively the shape cut by the arc of their lives.
My parents never made something commensurate to their will to
make, which I take to be, in varying degrees, the general human
condition— as it is my own.
Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves.
Without clarity, a curse, a misfortune.
Horrible the fate of the advice-giver in our culture: to repeat
oneself in a thousand contexts until death, or irrelevance.
I abjure advice-giver.
Go make you ready.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, pp. 14-17)

(14) Stanzas Ending with the Same Two Words

At first I felt shame because I had entered
through the door marked Your Death.

Not a valuable word written
unsteeped in your death.

You are the ruin whose arm encircles the young woman
at the posthuous bar, before your death.

The grass is still hungry
above you, fed by your death.

Kill whatever killed your father, your life
turning to me again said before your death.

Hard to grow old still hungry.
You were still hungry at your death.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 18)

(15) The Poem Is a Veil

[This is a short poem— only three lines. I'm reading it just once.]

V E I L,— as if silk that you in fury must thrust repeatedly
high at what the eye, your eye, naked cannot see

catches, clinging to its physiognomy.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 19)

(16) Luggage

You wear your body as if without
illusions. You speak of former lovers with some

contempt for their interest in sex.
Wisdom of the spirit, you

imply, lies in condescension and poise.

... Fucking, I can feel
the valve opening, the flood is too much.

Or too little. I am
insatiable, famished by repetition.

Now all you see is that I am luggage

that smiles as it is moved from here
to there. We could have had ecstasies.

In your stray moments, as now in
mine, may what was not

rise like grief before you.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 20)

(17) Hammer

The stone arm raising a stone hammer
dreams it can descend upon itself.

When the quest is indecipherable,—
... what is left is a career.

What once was apprehended in passion
survives as opinion.

To be both author of
this statue, and the statue itself.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 21)

(18) Injunction (Ploughshares, Fall 2001)

As if the names we use to name the uses of buildings
x-ray our souls, war without end:

Palace. Prison. Temple. School.
Market. Theater. Brothel. Bank.

War without end. Because to name is to possess
the dreams of strangers, the temple

is offended by, demands the abolition of brothel, now theater, now
school; the school despises temple, palace, market, bank; the bank by

refusing to name depositors welcomes all, though in rage prisoners each
night gnaw to dust another stone piling under the palace.

War without end. Therefore time past time:

Rip through the fabric. Nail it. Not
to the wall. Rip through

the wall. Outside

time. Nail it.

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 22)

(19) Heart Beat

ear early tuned to hear beneath the call to end
eating flesh, sentient suffering beings (creatures

bred now for slaughter will
then never be bred)    less life    less life    tuned to hear

still the vow solemn and implacable I made as a kid
walking a sidewalk in Bakersfield

never to have a child, condemn a creature
to this hell    as the prisoner

chorus in wonder is released into the sun, ear early tuned to hear
beneath the melody the ground-bass)     less life     less life

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 23)

(20) Legacy (The Atlantic Monthly, Oct. 1999)

[At the end of this poem there's a quote of Robert Frost & one of William Carlos Williams.]

When to the desert, the dirt,
comes water

comes money

to get off the shitdirt
land and move to the city

whence you

direct the work of those who now
work the land you still own

My grandparents left home for the American

desert to escape
poverty, or the family who said You are

the son who shall become a priest

After Spain became
Franco's, at last

rich enough

to return you
refused to return

The West you made

was never unstoried, never

Excrement of the sky our rage inherits

there was no gift
outright         we were never the land's

From Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, pp. 24-25)

(21) Lament for the Makers

[This poem pays tribute to a 15th century poet William Dunbar (1465-1520)]

Not bird not badger not beaver not bee

Many creatures must
make, but only one must seek

within itself what to make

My father's ring was a B with a dart
through it, in diamonds against polished black stone.

I have it. What parents leave you
is their lives.

Until my mother died she struggled to make
a house that she did not loathe; paintings; poems; me.

Many creatures must

make, but only one must seek
within itself what to make

Not bird not badger not beaver not bee

Teach me, masters who by making were
remade, your art.

From Music Like Dirt, (Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2002, p. 26)

(22) The Second Hour of the Night (Part III)

On such a night, at such an hour,

when the inhabitants of the temple of
delight assume for each of us one
profile, different of course for each of us,

but for each of us, single:—

when the present avatar of powers not present though
present through him, different for each of us,

steps to the end of the line of other, earlier
inhabitants of the temple of
delight, different for each of us:—

when the gathering turns for its portrait

and by a sudden trick of alignment and light and
night, all I see

the same, the same, the same, the same, the same—
on such a night,

                at such an hour,

... grace is the dream, half-
dream, half-

light, when you appear and do not answer the question

that I have asked you but courteously
ask (because you are dead) if you can briefly

borrow, inhabit my body.

When I look I can see my body
away from me, sleeping.

I say Yes. Then you enter it

like a shudder as if eager again to know
what it is to move within arms and legs.

I thought, I know that he will return it.

I trusted in that none
earlier, none other.


I tasted a sweet taste, I found nothing sweeter.
My pleasant fragrance has stripped itself to stink.
The lust of the sweetness that is bitter I taste.
Custom both sweet and bitter is
the intercourse of this flesh.
the milk that is in all trees,
the sweet water that is beneath.
The knife of cutting is the book of mysteries.
Bitterness sweetness, eat that you may eat.
I tasted a sweet taste, I found nothing sweeter.
These herbs were gathered at full noon, which was night.


... bodies carrying bodies, some to bury in
earth what offended earth by breathing, others

become the vessels of the dead, the voice erased
by death now, for a time, unerased.


infinite the sounds the poems

seeking to be allowed to S U B M I T,— that this

dust become seed

like those extinguished stars whose fires still give us light


This is the end of the second hour of the night.

From Desire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1997, pp. 57-59)


Poetry Books by Frank Bidart: (at
Music Like Dirt
Sarabande Books, Louisville, KY, (2002)
Farrar Straus & Giroux, NY (1997)
In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90
Farrar Straus & Giroux, NY (1990)
Random House, NY, (1983)
The Book of the Body
Farrar Straus & Giroux, NY (1977)
Golden State
G. Braziller, New York (1973)

Web Links to Frank Bidart
Frank Bidart: The Academy of American Poets
  (Short Bio & Web Links to Bidart's poetry)
Frank Bidart: The English Department Faculty
  (Faculty Bios at Wellesley College's English Department)
Frank Bidart Receives National Poetry Award
  (Press Release January 5, 2001 by Wellesley College)
Frank Bidart Awarded Bobbitt Prize
  (Library of Congress Information Bulletin, December 1998)
Frank Bidart: Readings in Contemporary Poetry
  (Poems: To the Dead, Dark Nigth, Guilty of Dust)
Frank Bidart reads his poetry
  (In RealAudio from Ohio University's Wired for Books)
Frank Bidart at Ploughshares
  (Issues edited by Frank Bidart & Articles by or about Bidart)
Frank Bidart: Advice to the Players
  (Harvard Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1999)
Poet Frank Bidart explores "unity of thought"
  (By Deborah A. Levinson, MIT's The Tech, Vol. 111, Feb. 22, 1991)
"The Poem Is a Veil" from Frank Bidart's Music Like Dirt
  (Poetry Daily's Bio on Frank Bidart & Book Review)
Benjamin Paloff's Book Review of Frank Bidart's Music Like Dirt
  (Boston Review, Oct.-Nov. 2002)
Frank Bidart: Mourning glory (Boston Phoenix, 10-27-1997)
  (By Elizabeth Schmidt, Book Review of Bidart's Desire)
Turn Your Face Again (Bookwire)
  (Book Review of Bidart's Desire by Joseph Lease)
Self-Portrait, 1969
  (from Frank Bidart, Golden State, 1973)
Miriam Levine admires Frank Bidart's poem "The Yoke"
  (The Cortland Review, July 1998)
What's American About American Form?
  (By Frank Bidart, Essay in The Poetry Society of America)
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979): Letters to Frank Bidart
  (47 letters & cook book at the Houghton Library, Harvard University)

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email: (5-7-2003)