|Frank Bidart is a poet of extremes. He writes about extreme states of mind, like crippling guilt or anger. He writes about extreme people, often adopting their voices: he has written dramatic monologues in the voices of Ellen West, the first diagnosed anorexic; Herbert White, a necrophiliac child-murderer; and Vaslav Nijinksy, the schizophrenic dancer. And Bidart gives extreme readings of his work, presenting them as though they were scripts for actors rather than lyrics for thoughtful perusal. All this intensity may seem unusual for a man who grew up in the mild environs of Southern California, where his father had a prosperous farming operation in Bakersfield, and where Bidart attended college at UC Riverside. He knew as a child that he wanted to be an artist, and since film was the form of art most available to him in Southern California, Bidart aspired to be a film maker. An encounter with a few seminal books--Lionel Trilling's THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION and Ezra Pound's CANTOS, to name two--at UC Riverside changed his mind and convinced him to take up poetry. He left California after college and enrolled in the graduate literature program at Harvard. There he met and studied with Robert Lowell, and he wrote poems clearly enabled by Lowell's confessional innovations in LIFE STUDIES. But Bidart wasn't happy with lyric forms--they didn't match the intensity or the shape of the thoughts he was trying to express--so he slowly, painstakingly developed his own form of discursive and typographically experimental poems. He wrote slowly, and his slender first collection, GOLDEN STATE, contained only a handful of long poems, none of which had been published previously. Bidart began what would become a long career of teaching at Wellesley College outside of Boston, and through his own work and his friendships with Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and his contemporary Robert Pinsky he became a central figure of Boston's active poetry community. Bidart's friendship with Pinsky was especially important to the two of them: essays on Bidart helped form the core of Pinsky's first critical book on American poetry, and Pinsky helped Bidart work on his own poems. Pinsky has told the story of Bidart's work on one long poem that kept Bidart up all night writing. Every morning, as the sun rose, Bidart would call Pinsky and his wife--who were just waking up--and read them his night's work. The Pinskys would comment and make suggestions, then get up and begin the day just as Bidart was finally going to sleep. With these nocturnal work habits, it was no surprise when Bidart began a sequence of long poems--a sequence expected to be his masterpiece--named for hours of the night. "The First Hour of the Night," was published in his collection IN THE WESTERN NIGHT, and "The Second Hour of the Night" appeared in his fifth book, DESIRE, in 1997. Bidart has won many awards and been honored many times, including the unique and, for a poet, unprecedented honor of having a billboard erected to announce his first return trip to Bakersfield, his hometown, to give a reading of his work.
|Lowell's rejection of the intellectual and spiritual pedigree he was born to as the son of a prominent New England family initiated his break with American tradition, underscoring his participation in the establishment of a new American poetry for the mid-20th-century. His first significant gesture of independence occurred when he left Harvard University to camp in the backyard of Allen Tate's Tennessee home. The men in his family had attended Harvard for generations, but, moved by Tate's inspiration after a summer in his yard talking poetry, he transferred to Kenyon University on Tate's recommendation, where he encountered the influential figures Randall Jarrell and John Crowe Ransome. He further distanced himself by enrolling in graduate school at Louisiana State, where he married the writer Jean Stafford, his first of three wives. Though this constitutes a rejection of the life offered by his New England heritage, his true departure occurred when he converted from New England Protestantism to join the Roman Catholic Church, marginalizing himself in the act of conversion and freeing his poetry. The next major split with his past occurred when Lowell, whose father was an officer in the Navy, declared himself a conscientious objector during World War II when he disagreed with the bombing of civilians in German cities. He was imprisoned for months as a result, and this experience found expression in his poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke." His first book, LAND OF UNLIKENESS was completed during this period. A significant revision of this volume, entitled LORD WEARY'S CASTLE, was honored the next year with a Pulitzer Prize, officially making Lowell a major voice in American poetry. In 1948 he divorced, then soon remarried and moved to Europe, where he began suffering from the intense bouts of manic depression that would intermittently plague him for the rest of his life. Lowell's psychiatrist suggested that he begin writing therapeutically about his childhood. The book this inspired, LIFE STUDIES, characterized as being in the "confessional" mode, was a radical departure for both Lowell and American poetry, and with the momentum of a few other books of the same nature, including W. D. Snodgrass's HEART'S NEEDLE, significantly influenced the voice of American lyricism. Throughout the remainder of his distinguished career, Lowell would artfully negotiate between the public and private in his verse. He became something of a public figure, befriending the Kennedys and publicly rejecting an invitation to the Johnson White House. Divorced and remarried again, Lowell died of a heart attack in the back of a cab when he was on his way from his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, to see his second, Elizabeth Hardwick. Lowell lived a turbulent life in a turbulent era, which is consistently expressed throughout his oeuvre. The professor of both Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, Lowell directly influenced the turn of American poetry toward the personal, inaugurating the exploration of subject matter that can now be delved into without embarrassment.