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When the poet Frank Bidart read at Washington University early this spring, it was a rare performance filled with emotional daring and intellectual challenge. Rather than affect the benign, distanced stance typical of the author on tour, Bidart embodied his work. He read a long poem, "The Second Hour of the Night" from his collection Desire, the retelling of the Greek myth of Adonis and his conception as the result of incest between his mother, Myrrha, and his/her father, King Cinyras. The story of Myrrha and Cinyras is one of desperate passion and -- as Greek myth is wont to be -- of fierce revenge. As a poet and performer, Bidart makes use of operatic gestures. He began "The Second Hour of the Night" quietly, and as with an opening overture, his introduction foretold a journey that would take the audience down into the realm of tragedy.
"The underlying aesthetic in my work is one of embodiment," Bidart says, and, in performance, "I have to attempt to make that embodiment happen." That night in Wash. U.'s Duncker Hall, the bodying forth of the spellbinding, and appalling, tale of Adonis' incestuous birth took some effort on the audience's part to fully realize and contain. Again, just as in opera, with one misstep, Bidart's performance could have dissolved into camp. "Anything that's about extraordinary passion is on the edge of being ridiculous," Bidart readily admits. "And that's why the artifice involved has got to be just right, or it looks ridiculous, as opera can. The world is full of parodies of opera. Art is stylization. Art is artifice. Artifice, if you look at it at a slightly different angle, suddenly all you can see is the artifice, and it becomes ridiculous."
Callas can be absurd, and Callas can be divine. It is the risk that Callas took. It is a risk Nijinsky (whose final dance recital, reflecting the madness of World War I -- before he fell into his own madness -- is the subject of Bidart's poem "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky") took. It is a risk Bidart takes -- delving into a perilous form of art.
Bidart's reading embraced the sublime without touching the ridiculous. Yet, powerful as his reading was, the next day he was uncertain as to whether he could accept praise. "You can be candid with me?" he asked. "You mean it?"
Bidart grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., and attended the University of California-Riverside with the idea that he was going to become a filmmaker. His passion for the literary art of Milton, Eliot and Joyce led him to English, however. He attended Harvard for graduate studies, and it was in Cambridge that he encountered two of his most influential mentors, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. In addition to Desire, Bidart's works include Golden State, The Book of the Body, The Sacrifice and In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90.
During Bidart's interview with the RFT, he took great care with his responses, considering each question with thoughtful periods of silence. "Sensitive" is an overworked -- even burdensome -- phrase to use in relation to poets and poetry, but Bidart is one keenly attentive to the emotions that lie at the core of intellect.
RFT: The experience of the reading, in thinking about your word "embodiment," is that first I felt slightly repelled, moving back, getting my bearings to see how to contain all this. Then I relaxed and the poem went around me, and then even seemed to go through me. I wonder whether this approximates the experience of creating the poem, at least in the early stages, that inspirational moment.
Bidart: I think it is, that is there is a way in which when you first encounter certain material you may be fascinated; you may be horrified and scared of it. Then, as you live with it and think about it and sort of see more of what's at stake with the material, you get drawn in.
I don't know when you got drawn in, but I know when reading it aloud something happens when the nurse goes back to Myrrha and says, 'I told the king there was a young girl who would sleep with the king tonight and must remain veiled.' Suddenly this is out of Myrrha's control. It was out of her control in a different way before. She was feeling certain things, but they were all within her. Suddenly she's caught up in something and drawn into something that she thinks she knows something about. In fact she doesn't understand why her nurse is doing what her nurse is doing. In a way, she really enters a kind of labyrinth at that point. She's in some sense following her desire, and in another way she's in a mechanism she doesn't understand.
For me, something always changes in the poem at that point. At least I have the illusion that this is a surprise to the audience. They don't expect that to happen.
It becomes a poem of erotic intrigue. It becomes even like a dirty story: the daughter who wears a veil and has sex with her father. But you don't expect the poem to have that almost old-fashioned narrative intrigue. Suddenly you're in a poem of plot. I feel something changes in the audience's relation to the poem at that point.
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