Book Review

At the end of his new book, Frank Bidart ridicules Hamlet for thinking “the rest is silence.” One wonders what the difference might have been had the young prince said “the rest will be silent,” and perhaps Bidart hears Hamlet’s final words as prophecy when, in fact, they speak in present tense. Prophecies are about the present, anyway, in the same way history is, much to the frustration of prophets and historians.

Against Silence is itself the title of a prophecy—a present doom. “Against” is used to mean both “next to” and “opposing” (and Hamlet again disagrees that being close to death is to have a kind of moral opposition to dying). Bidart, having spent much of his recent (and, I think, best) work on poetic self-reflection in poems like “Writing ‘Ellen West’” and “Of His Bones Are Coral Made” from Metaphysical Dog, now turns to face the end, and, continuing that strain, speaks of himself as ending: “It was all a dialogue with flesh,” where “it” must refer to his entire output. “The Great, the One Subject” is “how the world we find ourselves in / happened.” Such summaries are blasphemy coming from a young mouth, but wisdom from an old. Self-consciously, self-doomingly Bidart portrays himself as looking back from some advantage age has given, as if we all walk up a mountain, and the oldest have the widest view.

Late poetry has a rich history, both in producing surprising poems, and disappointing ones. Wordsworth famously “sold out” (“just for a handful of silver he left us,” begins Robert Browning’s bitter poem), while poets like Milton, Yeats and Amy Clampitt wrote some of their best work after fifty. Like Yeats very much, Bidart is the sole living poet who seems capable of assuming his old, known poetry as the theme of his new poetry. (Perhaps Jorie Graham and Louise Glück come to mind as old poets “deserving” of self-reflective lateness, though neither has taken up the theme, at least not as explicitly as Bidart). Bidart has changed, like Yeats, though he’s always retained the terrible beauty of a complex sentence stretched to short, disruptive lines that call attention to the syntax as if it were the “lyric image” the contemporary poet is (for better or worse) expected to create. The terrifying romanticism of characters dominated what might be called the “first half” of Bidart (he likes his halves: more than one time in more than one poem he enjambs on the dash of “half-      ”). The “second half” turns more self-conscious, and he becomes a great poet on poetry; anger, though still present, mostly dissipates to elegy (he’s always read his poems like knives are in him).

Against Silence has two sections. The first is a sequence of what I think Bidart would be comfortable calling “political poems,” that is, poems that directly address national crises of race, environment, and culture. A poet-activist would be disappointed by these poems, which summon no action and reach no affirmation, but point out a disparaging similarity and unchangingness to history and human nature. He refutes, however unwillingly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “moral arc” by pointing out that the idea of progress is primordial, and therefore, ironically, unprogressive. What might be mistaken for an eco-poem (“At the Shore”) merely points to the human “instinct to wound / the earth” where that instinct is, also ironically, and however unwillingly once more, successful. Among any other poet, I think I should be ashamed to identify “history and human nature” as subjects the poet can, in any length of poem, tackle, but Bidart situates the issue in personal particularities that, in all his poetry, give rise to his universal quality. A Lincoln Zephyr driving across the Mojave is somehow the result and application of his immense and earned rhetoric: “we have succeeded at last in killing NATURE.” The logic is not, “my parents drive from Bishop to Bakersfield, and look at what that means about man and nature.” Rather: “people are at odds with nature, and so my parents drove between cities ‘carved from desert.’” Bidart’s narratives are results of the idea. They are not broad insinuations from a subtle image, meanings hinted at with metaphor. If there is an argument (and there most often is). he will write it and force your assent that it was well said.

In “Part Two” of Against Silence Bidart returns from his more recent civic poetry to the career-long synthesis of personal autobiography with public aesthetics. I mean to say that Bidart’s primary mode has always been to conjure an “ars poetica” out of personal narratives that may, at first glance, seem to have no overt aesthetic principle (much like the Lincoln Zephyr scene being paired with a prior aesthetic statement). Of course, this method permeates all of his poetry, including “Part One” of the book, but is always loudest where the spirit of Bidart’s mother presides. Therefore, “The Ghost” delivers another one of the book’s “summaries” of a career:

Each of us is to himself
indelible. I had to become that which could not

 be, by time, from human memory, erased.

The poem is complex for the fact that Bidart never acknowledges how much the ghost of the poem is really himself rather than his mother. In interviews, Bidart has made sure to state outright that the ghost is his mother, as well as the influence of Lowell’s poem, “The Ghost.” The reader of Bidart will never care about his mother like he does, but we will care about his care much more than he does. And so we hardly even need to point out that this mother genders herself as “himself,” or that, of course, she never said this. The poem is, as Bidart paraphrases from Yeats, his argument with his self.

This method has always seemed to me the principle Romantic attitude and method of writing a poem. The sheen of the canon and veneer of importance permeate Bidart’s poems, and it may be from the fact that, like so many greats before him, all arguments end in an aesthetic vision. Sometimes that vision aligns with contemporary institutions, like Eliot and old Anglicism, and sometimes it is an affront, like Shelley’s dark Platonics and free love. Bidart’s vision is certainly excruciating, and has been since the first poem of his first book, but it has little offense because it is kept so private, so individual; the implications of much of his work could be reduced to, “. . . and so I had to write poems.” This is not a weakness. Eliot survives because of the images he makes prior to any message like, “get back to Christ,” and one doesn’t read Prometheus Unbound to find out how to worship the demogorgon. The material of the message survives its meaning; if it didn’t, it would all be pure polemic.

Frank Bidart will die soon, and the larger in scale you place him, the sooner he would seem to die. I place him greatly as one of our best poets, and peer to many other times’ best, and so he dies very soon. He was never like another: he rejected the brute confessionalism of his upbringing, never swerved to the walking reflections of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and refused the image-led lyric now dominant. He was always about rhetoric, and the force of a sentence that reads as from a sovereign judge: heard unwillingly, unwillingly admitted as the truth. The best poets hate what they know and love finding it out. Such finding out becomes the poem. What makes Frank Bidart so great I can hardly say, but I feel the hate and love, and it harrows me like truth.

About the Reviewer

Keene Carter is from Charlottesville, Virginia. You can reach him at