FRANK BIDART BATTLES ALICE OSWALD AS NORTH PLAY CONTINUES

Bidart has a long poem in Dove’s anthology and is favored to advance.  Was friends with Lowell and Bishop.

Frank Bidart writes poetry that feels like a different genre.  He violates THE POEM.   Or something like that.  He gets 11 pages in Dove’s anthology for his poem, the most of any poet in that anthology, which makes him the greatest poet of the 20th century.  Or something like that.  It’s really hard to talk about Frank Bidart.  His poetry is so intense.  Bring it, Frank.

ELLEN WEST
I love sweets,—
heaven
would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream …But my true self
is thin, all profileand effortless gestures, the sort of blond
elegant girl whose
body is the image of her soul.—My doctors tell me I must give up
this ideal;
but I
WILL NOT … cannot.Only to my husband I’m not simply a “case.”But he is a fool. He married
meat, and thought it was a wife..            .            .Why am I a girl?

I ask my doctors, and they tell me they
don’t know, that it is just “given.”

But it has such
implications—;
and sometimes,
I even feel like a girl.

.            .            .

Now, at the beginning of Ellen’s thirty-second year, her physical condition has deteriorated still further. Her use of laxatives increases beyond measure. Every evening she takes sixty to seventy tablets of a laxative, with the result that she suffers tortured vomiting at night and violent diarrhea by day, often accompanied by a weakness of the heart. She has thinned down to a skeleton, and weighs only 92 pounds.

.            .            .

About five years ago, I was in a restaurant,
eating alone
with a book. I was
not married, and often did that …

—I’d turn down
dinner invitations, so I could eat alone;

I’d allow myself two pieces of bread, with
butter, at the beginning, and three scoops of
vanilla ice cream, at the end,—

sitting there alone
with a book, both in the book
and out of it, waited on, idly
watching people,—

when an attractive young man
and woman, both elegantly dressed,
sat next to me.
She was beautiful—;

with sharp, clear features, a good
bone structure—;
if she took her make-up off
in front of you, rubbing cold cream
again and again across her skin, she still would be
beautiful—
more beautiful.

And he,—
I couldn’t remember when I had seen a man
so attractive. I didn’t know why. He was almost

a male version
of her,—

I had the sudden, mad notion that I
wanted to be his lover …

—Were they married?
were they lovers?

They didn’t wear wedding rings.

Their behavior was circumspect. They discussed
politics. They didn’t touch …

—How could I discover?

Then, when the first course
arrived, I noticed the way

each held his fork out for the other

to taste what he had ordered …

They did this
again and again, with pleased looks, indulgent
smiles, for each course,
more than once for each dish—;
much too much for just friends …

—Their behavior somehow sickened me;

the way each gladly
put the food the other had offered into his mouth—;

I knew what they were. I knew they slept together.

An immense depression came over me …

—I knew I could never
with such ease allow another to put food into my mouth:

happily myself put food into another’s mouth—;

I knew that to become a wife I would have to give up my ideal.

.            .            .

Even as a child,
I saw that the “natural” process of aging

is for one’s middle to thicken—
one’s skin to blotch;

as happened to my mother.
And her mother.
I loathed “Nature.”

At twelve, pancakes
became the most terrible thought there is …

I shall defeat “Nature.”

In the hospital, when they
weigh me, I wear weights secretly sewn into my belt.

.            .            .

January 16. The patient is allowed to eat in her room, but comes readily with her husband to afternoon coffee. Previously she had stoutly resisted this on the ground that she did not really eat but devoured like a wild animal. This she demonstrated with utmost realism…. Her physical examination showed nothing striking. Salivary glands are markedly enlarged on both sides.
January 21. Has been reading Faust again. In her diary, writes that art is the “mutual permeation” of the “world of the body” and the “world of the spirit” Says that her own poems are “hospital poems … weak—without skill or perseverance; only managing to beat their wings softly.”
February 8. Agitation, quickly subsided again. Has attached herself to an elegant, very thin female patient. Homo-erotic component strikingly evident.
February 15. Vexation, and torment. Says that her mind forces her always to think of eating. Feels herself degraded by this. Has entirely, for the first time in years, stopped writing poetry.

.            .            .

Callas is my favorite singer, but I’ve only
seen her once—;

I’ve never forgotten that night …

—It was in Tosca, she had long before
lost weight, her voice
had been, for years,
deteriorating, half itself …

When her career began, of course, she was fat,

enormous—; in the early photographs,
sometimes I almost don’t recognize her …

The voice too then was enormous—
healthy; robust; subtle; but capable of
crude effects, even vulgar,
almost out of
high spirits, too much health …

But soon she felt that she must lose weight,—
that all she was trying to express

was obliterated by her body,
buried in flesh—;
abruptly, within
four months, she lost at least sixty pounds …

—The gossip in Milan was that Callas
had swallowed a tapeworm.

But of course she hadn’t.

The tapeworm
was her soul

—How her soul, uncompromising,
insatiable,
must have loved eating the flesh from her bones,

revealing this extraordinarily
mercurial; fragile; masterly creature …

—But irresistibly, nothing
stopped there; the huge voice

also began to change: at first, it simply diminished
in volume, in size,
then the top notes became
shrill, unreliable—at last,
usually not there at all …

—No one knows why. Perhaps her mind,
ravenous, still insatiable, sensed

that to struggle with the shreds of a voice

must make her artistry subtler, more refined,
more capable of expressing humiliation,
rage, betrayal …

—Perhaps the opposite. Perhaps her spirit
loathed the unending struggle

to embody itself, to manifest itself, on a stage whose

mechanics, and suffocating customs,
seemed expressly designed to annihilate spirit …

—I know that in Tosca, in the second act,
when, humiliated, hounded by Scarpia,
she sang Vissi d’arte
—“I lived for art”—

and in torment, bewilderment, at the end she asks,
with a voice reaching
harrowingly for the notes,

“Art has repaid me LIKE THIS?”

I felt I was watching
autobiography—
an art; skill;
virtuosity

miles distant from the usual soprano’s
athleticism,—
the usual musician’s dream
of virtuosity without content …
—I wonder what she feels, now,
listening to her recordings.

For they have already, within a few years,
begun to date …

Whatever they express
they express through the style of a decade
and a half—;
a style she helped create …

—She must know that now
she probably would not do a trill in
exactly that way,—
that the whole sound, atmosphere,
dramaturgy of her recordings

have just slightly become those of the past …

—Is it bitter? Does her soul
tell her

that she was an idiot ever to think
anything
material wholly could satisfy? …

—Perhaps it says: The only way
to escape
the History of Styles

is not to have a body.

.            .            .

When I open my eyes in the morning, my great
mystery
stands before me …

—I know that I am intelligent; therefore

the inability not to fear food
day-and-night; this unending hunger
ten minutes after I have eaten …
a childish
dread of eating; hunger which can have no cause,—

half my mind says that all this
is demeaning

Bread
for days on end
drives all real thought from my brain …

—Then I think, No. The ideal of being thin

conceals the ideal
not to have a body—;
which is NOT trivial …

This wish seems now as much a “given” of my existence

as the intolerable
fact that I am dark-complexioned; big-boned;
and once weighed
one hundred and sixty-five pounds …

—But then I think, No. That’s too simple,—

without a body, who can
know himself at all?
Only by
acting; choosing; rejecting; have I
made myself—
discovered who and what Ellen can be …

—But then again I think, NO. This I is anterior
to name; gender; action;
fashion;
MATTER ITSELF,—

… trying to stop my hunger with FOOD
is like trying to appease thirst
with ink.

.            .            .

March 30. Result of the consultation: Both gentlemen agree completely with my prognosis and doubt any therapeutic usefulness of commitment even more emphatically than I. All three of us are agreed that it is not a case of obsessional neurosis and not one of manic-depressive psychosis, and that no definitely reliable therapy is possible. We therefore resolved to give in to the patient’s demand for discharge.

.            .            .

The train-ride yesterday
was far worse than I expected …

In our compartment
were ordinary people: a student;
a woman; her child;—

they had ordinary bodies, pleasant faces;
but I thought
I was surrounded by creatures

with the pathetic, desperate
desire to be not what they were:—

the student was short,
and carried his body as if forcing
it to be taller—;

the woman showed her gums when she smiled,
and often held her
hand up to hide them—;

the child
seemed to cry simply because it was
small; a dwarf, and helpless …

—I was hungry. I had insisted that my husband
not bring food …

After about thirty minutes, the woman
peeled an orange

to quiet the child. She put a section
into its mouth—;
immediately it spit it out.

The piece fell to the floor.

—She pushed it with her foot through the dirt
toward me
several inches.

My husband saw me staring
down at the piece …

—I didn’t move; how I wanted
to reach out,
and as if invisible

shove it in my mouth—;

my body
became rigid. As I stared at him,
I could see him staring

at me,—
then he looked at the student—; at the woman—; then
back to me …

I didn’t move.

—At last, he bent down, and
casually
threw it out the window.

He looked away.

—I got up to leave the compartment, then
saw his face,—

his eyes
were red;
and I saw

—I’m sure I saw—

disappointment.

.            .            .

On the third day of being home she is as if transformed. At breakfast she eats butter and sugar, at noon she eats so much that—for the first time in thirteen years!—she is satisfied by her food and gets really full. At afternoon coffee she eats chocolate creams and Easter eggs. She takes a walk with her husband, reads poems, listens to recordings, is in a positively festive mood, and all heaviness seems to have fallen away from her. She writes letters, the last one a letter to the fellow patient here to whom she had become so attached. In the evening she takes a lethal dose of poison, and on the following morning she is dead. “She looked as she had never looked in life—calm and happy and peaceful.”

.            .            .

Dearest.—I remember how
at eighteen,
on hikes with friends, when
they rested, sitting down to joke or talk,

I circled
around them, afraid to hike ahead alone,

yet afraid to rest
when I was not yet truly thin.

You and, yes, my husband,—
you and he

have by degrees drawn me within the circle;
forced me to sit down at last on the ground.

I am grateful.

But something in me refuses it.

—How eager I have been
to compromise, to kill this refuser,

but each compromise, each attempt
to poison an ideal
which often seemed to me sterile and unreal,

heightens my hunger.

I am crippled. I disappoint you.

Will you greet with anger, or
happiness,

the news which might well reach you
before this letter?

Your Ellen.

Bidart’s poem is based on a German doctor’s book published in the 1950s about his patient.  Bidart dramatizes the woman’s plight by speaking through her.  It reads very quickly.  We are interested in the situation and sympathize with the woman.  The ideas are clear and cogent.  We just find ourselves asking, “But where is the art, where is the poetry?” and feeling vaguely ashamed for doing so.
Alice Oswald is not in Dove’s 20th century American poetry anthology because she’s English.
We offer her poem simply called:
SONNET
I can’t sleep in case a few things you said
no longer apply. The matter’s endless,
but definitions alter what’s ahead
and you and words are like a hare and tortoise.
Aaaagh there’s no description — each a fractal
sectioned by silences, we have our own
skins to feel through and fall back through — awful
to make so much of something so unknown.
But even I — some shower-swift commitments
are all you’ll get; I mustn’t gauge or give
more than I take — which is a way to balance
between misprision and belief in love
both true and false, because I’m only just
short of a word to be the first to trust.

Oswald’s sonnet considers the doubts lovers commonly feel; “short of a word” is very nicely done.

Marla Muse: This is like Walt Whitman v. Thomas Hardy.  I don’t know how to size this one up.

It’s an offensive team vs. a defensive team, Marla.  Differences are never as great as they seem.

Marla Muse:  But Oswald and Bidart are doing such different things!

Not really.  They both are presenting women who have lost faith.  Whitman, who had faith, is actually much different than both of them.  What Bidart presents is harrowing: a detailed a record of an actual person’s profound insanity.  Oswald’s poem, too, records the painful trial of doubting love.

Marla Muse: Yes, I see what you are saying; there are regions of thought where many dare not to go—why should they?  It causes pain and suffering.  How much suffering—even in a poem—should one experience?  And how many people, or artists, do we trust to take us to the regions of suffering?

Not many.  Unless we are suffering so much ourselves that we are numb.

Oswald 55 Bidart 54

A nail-biter. Almost painful to watch.

17 Comments

  1. Argent said,

    April 11, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    A close one!

    The last two plays/last four poems have been fantastic. Also, that Wilbur poem – wowsa. So literary. I’m going to get all of his books.

    You know, at the auto-repair place I work at we don’t talk about poetry too much. As an aspiring poet, I’ve been checking out the Harriet site. They’re always on about Conceptual Poetry? I just don’t get it. Furthermore, it doesn’t uplift my soull, or stir my ‘creative juices’. I guess I prefer these more solemn lietray types, in the end.

    Danke, cus! I’m glad mom told me you were doing this.

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 12, 2012 at 1:50 am

      thank you, dear argent….

      i’m thinking of visiting wilbur…i hear he lives in MA. His daughter used to come into my bookstore in harvard square. the last truly great living poet…91 years old!

      conceptualism: a way to not talk about poetry.

      i’m glad you found scarriet…

  2. noochinator said,

    April 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Sports page headline:

    PERPLEXITY BEATS ANOREXITY

  3. Garsy01 said,

    April 13, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Spring Factory

    I’m woken by the crucial sounds of spring’s
    machinery; by bird cacophony, the pause
    between the before in a rhythm of repeated
    industry; and church bells’ peels in stereo
    adrift upon the breeze this Sunday morning.
    Day comes from the die, a glowing ingot,
    blue as furnace fire expanding huge against
    my bedroom window. I must leave confined
    space imprinted pressing and perfectly cast
    copy of the productive spring conveyed
    amongst it’s holy machintions, holy with time
    space & energy. I go into the world remade,

    a brand new thing.

    • noochinator said,

      April 13, 2012 at 11:15 am

      Nice to read of manufacturing
      ‘midst nature’s autonomy—
      Especially laboring as I am
      In a service economy.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    April 23, 2012 at 1:54 am

    Frank Bidart read “Ellen West” at the headliner reading at the Salem Poetry Festival today.

    I was in the front row with my daughter.

    I chose “Ellen West” for Frank’s Scarriet March Madness entry completely at random.

    Frank also read a new poem about writing “Ellen West.” He wrote “Ellen West” after his own mother died, which was a traumatic event for him.

    Frank is a witty man. The person introducing him said someone wept at an earlier reading he gave, and as he took to the stage with applause, he said, “you are applauding the prospect of weeping…” LOL

  5. David said,

    April 23, 2012 at 5:49 am

    We just find ourselves asking, “But where is the art, where is the poetry?” and feeling vaguely ashamed for doing so.

    I certainly see the art in Bidart’s poem, but it seems more cinematic than poetic. Or it is like one those films that makes me say: “That film was like a poem.” But a very modern poem. Were I not under the spell of Keats and Shelley, my admiration for it would be unbounded.

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 23, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Bidart introduced the “Ellen West” briefly by saying the doctor’s reports were in prose and Ellen’s words in verse.

      But it all sounded like prose to me.

      The word in the hall was the poem was too long and he lost the audience…

      Still, a noble effort…

  6. David said,

    April 24, 2012 at 4:38 am

    … the doctor’s reports were in prose and Ellen’s words in verse …

    Yes, that’s how it looks on paper.

    But it all sounded like prose to me.

    Looks like a poem, walks like a poem, quacks like a duck.

  7. thomasbrady said,

    April 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Yea, Keats and Shelley set the bar, but what the modern poets have done is thrown that bar away and buried it. Anything that resembles that bar must be destroyed. It all becomes a matter of not how their poem sounds, but what it must never sound like: Keats or Shelley. So they make their poem as interesting as possible—as long as it’s in prose. Otherwise, they’ll get compared to Keats and Shelley—and can’t have that. Can’t even bring Keats and Shelley into the room. Keep them away, keep them out. Keep saying ‘people don’t write that way anymore. They can’t write that way anymore. They just can’t.’ Until the young students believe it.

  8. David said,

    April 25, 2012 at 5:14 am

    Tom,

    One of the ironies of the Modernist escape from Romanticism is how the Modernists, who so often demonstrate a vulgar fixation on the body and bodily functions (we see this for instance in Sharon Olds’s March Madness entry), have lost all sense of “the material base of poetry”, which M.H. Abrams describes in his essay on the material dimensions of Keats’s poems. Keats, Abrams argues, “heightens our attention to the palpability of his material signifiers, and makes their articulation, juxtaposition, repetition, and variation into a richly sensuous oral activity.” Quoting the opening of Ode to a Nightingale (“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk”), Abrams observes:

    In such passages, Keats enforces the realization that a poem, like other works of art, is a material as well as a significant thing; its significance is apprehended only by being bodied forth, and the poem’s body is enunciated speech, which has a complex kinetic and tactile as well as auditory physicality. Of all forms of art, furthermore, the material base of poetry, whether spoken or sung, is the most intimately human because it is constituted solely by our bodily actions, and because its vehicle is the breath of our life. (M.H. Abrams, “Keats’s Poems: The Material Dimensions”)

    There is an awful lot of the human body in Bidart’s poem, “Ellen West”, yet the bodily dimension that distinguishes poetry from other artistic forms is missing. When you heard it read aloud, it sounded like prose.

    David

  9. wynn said,

    April 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    loved the comments afterwards, would have liked to see more. if it takes Bidart a whole wing of a gallery (and not always using artifice that forces me to pay attention to every word), while Oswald captures the same theme in a sonnet-wouldn’t you say that Bidart would benefit from some concision? i agree with the stunning last line in Oswald, but her poem meanders so much in the set up, that it is hard to feel like what should be emotional isn’t just a philosophical exercise. lay on macduff, good stuff!

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 25, 2012 at 3:30 pm

      Wynn,

      Your point re: “concision” is a good one.

      Obviously, Bidart is not interested in being concise with the poem “Ellen West.”

      The moderns are pre-Renaissance—-they hearken back to a distant age in which there was no distinction between history and poetry.

      The subject, psychology, is all, in the case of “Ellen West.”

      A self-conscious distinction between prose and poetry developed from 1400–1900.

      Since 1900, the distinction has gradually collapsed, so that when Bidart presents psychology, it is simply assumed it is also poetry. It is just that: an assumption, without any thinking or theorizing involved. It’s a silent dropping of a weight, cutting off the old distinction.

      Keats advocated a “fine excess” for poetry; Shelley called Plato a “poet,” so perhaps Romantcism began the trend of snapping the distinction.

      But it seems the moderns got it wrong, assuming that prose should eclipse poetry, rather than poetry making gains in the mix…

      Tom

  10. David said,

    April 26, 2012 at 4:38 am

    Shelley called Plato a poet, but I don’t think that he mistook the Dialogues for poems.

  11. David said,

    April 26, 2012 at 4:57 am

    A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all other minds. The one is partial, and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature. Time, which destroys the beauty and the use of the story of particular facts, stripped of the poetry which should invest them, augments that of poetry, and forever develops new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains. Hence epitomes have been called the moths of just history; they eat out the poetry of it. A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful; poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
      The parts of a composition may be poetical, without the composition as a whole being a poem. A single sentence may be considered as a whole, though it may be found in the midst of a series of unassimilated portions; a single word even may be a spark of inextinguishable thought. And thus all the great historians, Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy, were poets; and although the plan of these writers, especially that of Livy, restrained them from developing this faculty in its highest degree, they made copious and ample amends for their subjection, by filling all the interstices of their subjects with living images.

    - Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry”

  12. David said,

    April 26, 2012 at 5:14 am

    A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.

    Odd that Shelley didn’t recognize Jesus Christ as a poet. Or, maybe, deep down, he knew that Jesus is … The Poem.


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