≡ Menu

Frank Bidart

Galen Strawson, in his essay, “Against Narrativity,” challenges the validity of the popularly held hypothesis that human beings experience and make sense of their lives as narratives. The effects of narrative self-articulation, he says, are “potentially pernicious.” The predisposition “to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding.” He distinguishes between Diachronics and Episodics, individuals who view the narrative arc of their lives as continuous, versus those who see their lives as discontinuous. The Episodic view, he shows, is less dangerous because it tends to mitigate the temptation to fabricate and revise our stories in order to reflect what we want to see ourselves as rather than who we really are. “Diachronicity” “is not a necessary part of the ‘examined life.’”

Bidart’s “Golden State” might be seen as an examination of the diachronic urge in the form of a dramatic monologue. On the surface it’s a poem about the poet coming to terms with his father through therapeutic autobiography. But it also questions the role of narrative to decipher experience and achieve self-understanding.

The poem is divided into ten numbered sections that relate to each other in complicated and multifaceted ways. There is linear progression, but the more important structure is a psychological one. The speaker encounters each scene like he is flipping through a photo album or shuffling a pack of cards in which each card contains a riddle or puzzle that must be solved. The poem emphasizes the process of reaching insight—a personal “dawn”—rather than a finished product or presentation of the son’s discovered meaning. Finally, the recurrence of subjects creates a partially cyclical structure. Each section returns to the same problem from a different angle, and the son’s slowly-evolving ability to respond is realized only through repeated encounters.

The first several sections of the poem recount frustrating altercations with his father, who is a constant source of disruption. The father is a wild and confusing force that the speaker fails to understand: “And yet your voice, raw, / demanding, dissatisfied [. . .] remains [. . .].” By the middle sections of the poem, the speaker is determined to analyze the father’s failure in life because he recognizes his own need to understand and appropriate that failure as part of his own identity. The process starts with resisting the easy explanation, which he relied on previously. This means revisiting the facts of his father’s history and puzzling over the baffling patterns of behavior.

By the eighth section, the speaker starts to see his father’s failures as part of the wider scope of human struggle. This requires reconfiguring the father’s role in the son’s narrative: “I must unlearn; I must believe // you were merely a man— / with a character, and a past.” The son must transform his father, who he has always experienced as the villain, into an antihero. Section “IX” allows this to happen, wherein the son recognizes that his own attitude and actions, motivated by bitterness, has implicated him in his father’s downfall; he then sees himself as part of the same inevitable cycle of contradictory forces that defined his father’s life.

The final section claims that narrative approach has failed: “no such knowledge is possible.” The speaker is left with disparate images of his father—looking at old photographs, he “cannot connect” the “handsome, dashing, elegant” man in early adulthood with “the defensive / gnarled would-be cowboy” of later life. The son concludes that his father is “happy / to be surprising; unknowable; unpossessable . . . // You say it’s what you always understood by freedom.” The father remains allusive—narrative, in the end, fails to (de)mythologize him.

The speaker’s ultimate discovery is that he must let his father remain unknown, untellable, beyond narrative. By letting go of the need to explain his father’s life, the son allows the father remains “free,” and the son, while not finding what he originally sought, discovers himself as part of the same set of forces that governed his father’s life, although he has avoided their destructive forces.

As Bidart explains in his interview with Halliday, the son’s “way of ‘solving problems’” is the converse of the persona of “Herbert White,” who “give[s] himself to a violent pattern growing out of the dramas of his past.” The speaker of “Golden State” steers clear of the pitfall of a revisionist or reductive account of his father. The episodic, discursive structure of “Golden State” reflects the skepticism of the final section. Rather than a linear, “ordered” narrative, the poem assumes a fragmentary nature, with partial, juxtaposed glimpses of the father’s life. This method of writing seems to go to the heart of Bidart’s poetics: “I needed a way to embody the mind moving through the elements of its word, actively contending with and organizing them, while they somehow retain the illusion of their independence and nature, are felt as ‘out there’ or ‘other.’”

Poetry & Episodic Narration

Is poetry, especially lyric poetry, intrinsically predisposed toward episodic, rather than diachronic, narration? We know that the traditional dichotomy of narrative v. lyric is false, but on the other hand, modern poetry has substantially shifted toward story telling through implication by means of images. The “image narrative” offers mere snapshots that are often temporally isolated clusters of events and images. Consider Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” The middle stanzas are simply a series of snapshots: “At fourteen I married My Lord you. / … At fifteen I stopped scowling, . . . / At sixteen you departed . . . .” The image narrative, one might argue, is the natural way for a lyric poem to tell a story. It allows the poet to stay concrete, to “show not tell,” to compress and to juxtapose. As a series of shots or tableaux with little or no connecting “syntax,” the image narrative foregrounds discontinuity, fragmentation, isolated scenes and episodes. It resists closure and false cause-and-effect logic.

Is it possible, then, that generic customs tend to align poetry to episodic thinking, whereas novels, for example, pressures individuals to frame experience diachronically? If so, might poetry offer an important corrective to society’s apparent preference for diachronic thinking? One might facetiously cite an example like Twilight and other teen fiction (or any fiction for that matter) with formulaic plot structures that create a false sense of coherence to life and suggest the inevitability of one’s (eventual) fulfillment and self-actualization (or cosmic justice or closure).

If a diachronic framework for interpreting our lives is at least partially misguided, as Swanson and Bidart suggest, a good many of us might be living in self-deceiving fictions. Ironically, this implies a critique opposite to the one we often here leveled against the 21st century—the libel bemoaning our diminished ability to think in terms of the “big picture,” to act out of a sense of the whole of life and history. While, of course, an inability to think outside of the present is pathological, so is forcing all experience into a “big picture.” The problem for all of us is that narrative seems to hold a privileged position in the hierarchy of meaning-making and we have subconsciously absorbed it as an the overarching structure for comprehending reality. So: what to do with the diachronic urge? Do episodic “image narratives” offer a viable alternative?

James Schuyler is back from the dead with the lovely “Other Flowers”  a posthumous book of his unpublished, uncollected poems.  Everything I have come to know and love about Schuyler’s eye and heart is here in generous supply.  The poems are – like so many of the poems published in his lifetime – made from a kind of brilliance disguised as innocence; a sadness disguised as joy.  They feel closer to jazz and painting than to another kind of poetry.   And, like  they are peculiarly of their own time: still timeless as any poetry this indelible (though more in the sense of memorable than something held down or restricted by an era), but they are also poems that feel (somewhat like Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard and, later, Frank Bidart) almost immediately nostalgic.

The subject matter here is still the same as it’s always been:  New York, adventures in intimacy, pop culture, gossip, longing and traveling and most of them are famously brief in scope of time and how they fall upon the page.  In their brevity, they feel as important and quietly beautiful as leaves we use as summer bookmarkers.

What I find most fascinating about Schuyler’s poems (and probably one of the most interesting aspect of this collection is the fact that there are probably more not so good poems than in his other collections) is how slight they may appear and yet are not slight at all.  Like interpretive inkblots that use tea for color instead of ink, the poems are there and not there; emphatic, authoritative, but also whispered.  There’s confrontation and resistance – exemplified, in part, in “Vila Della Vite”, which tracks the desire to be a different kind of thinker than he already is:

I’m not happy
My spirits that lifted
me so high, went off like smoke
after a shot.  How can
I fear so many diverse things?
I want to think of other things.
Is it all
in how you think?
I want to think of a washing machine
in a basement….

Being a different kind of thinker than he is or wants to be is actually one of the aspects that makes Schuyler such a great poet, if that makes sense.  His intelligence is fixed in time but it is also mutable as the subjects it lands on, and rather than the heavy hand of the writer casting a shadow on the subject and/or cadence of the poem, the poem casts the shadow on the writer.  In this way, each poem is its style:

It darkens, brother
and your crutch-tip grinds
the gravel the deer stepped delicately along
one breakfast, you were a kid.
Mother says after thirty,
decades clip by
‘and then you have the sum’
or spent it.

(From “Coming Night”)

And each poem – especially this one – is stacked in terms of form – a way of making information happen by making each line take on a different subject – what Richard Hugo talks about in his book on poetics, “The Triggering Town”.  Here, each next line in that first stanza stands in unison and independently:  it darkens, there’s a crutch-tip, gravel and deer, breakfast, Mother, decades, the sum, and then “or spent it” – the culmination.

And while the eye in many of Schuyler poems is in a beautiful gaze about making the moment larger, the mind is also wondering what is really being seen, considered and what the stakes are.  Each poem in a way – whether it literally asks a question or not – is wondering who someone is, what something is.   Each poem is deceptively simple in that inquiry, but mysterious, too:

The mind dies down.
Nerves, unsheathed, stir.
Radios.  A water tap
Depart, flesh, trailed
by barbwire hair.  Sea salt
explores lips of lacerations
cut on you like a christening
nick.  A yellow light
in blue light.  Twilight
and hydrangeas watery
through hedges.  Was the hideous
lesson worth the pleasure?

(From “The Exchange”)

It’s so good to have these poems in the world now; to have James Schuyler back, uncollected, saluting the various field:  these other flowers.