Posted by Sheila Connolly
Who, you say, is Frank Bidart? Frank Bidart is a contemporary American poet (quick bio: educated at the University of California at Riverside and at Harvard University. His recent volumes include Star Dust (2005), Music Like Dirt (2002), and Desire (1997), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critic's Circle Award. He has received many and varied honors, and was elected to the Academy of American Poets in 2003.), and, yes, he is still breathing. And why do I know he likes cake? Because I assisted my daughter in the preparation of a sumptuous red velvet cake, made in his honor (hey, I provided the mixer and words of wisdom; she did the work, and even cleaned up), and watched as he consumed a heroic piece of it and heaped it with praise.
No, this is not a blog about cake (although I must say it's one dynamite cake recipe). Frank Bidart is a man who speaks with precision and insight about the art and craft of writing poetry, and I listened in as he spoke to a small group of students at my daughter's college. And that's what I want to talk about.
I don't claim to be a poet, although my daughter is striving to be. In all my varied educational history, I barely recall discussing Milton and Dante--never contemporary poetry. My loss, perhaps, but now I have a chance to learn something.
What I found most interesting was Bidart's concept of a poem as a whole: the words, of course, but also the sound of those words and their appearance on the page. Let me cite a small part of one poem he discussed.
If the gods of cyberspace are kind, this will come through with the spacing and the italics that the poet intended.
Bidart described a poem as a physical object. The words must have "body" on the page. His shift to italics and out again in this poem is deliberate, suggesting different voices--but all internal. Fragmented, disjointed. Unpunctuated (do we punctuate our thoughts?). (He also said that we should not always punctuate strangely--but then, we should not always do anything. My italics; I agree.)
He went on to say that if there is a "bad relation" between how the words are sitting on the page and the core of the poem, then the poem is not successful.
And if there's anything we as writers of non-poetry can take away from this, it's that the words and the content should be joined in a way that is seamless and interwoven. A number of us bloggers here write mysteries, and we tend to focus on plot first, characterization second, and the beauty of the language somewhere after that. But I think we're missing an opportunity if we do that. The words and the events of our stories should work in harmony to build a little universe, and that universe should be so compelling that we don't even notice the words because they are so right.
We can hope. In the meantime, we can eat cake with poets and learn.
don't worry I know you're dead
turn your face again
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
turn your face again