Annual Hall-Kenyon Prize to honor Bidart

  • Writer Frank Bidart attends the 68th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) Evan Agostini

For the Monitor
Monday, November 27, 2017


Poet Frank Bidart says that humans “are creatures who need to make,” and the need is as fundamental as eating and sleeping. “Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves,” he asserts in his poem “Advice to the Players.” Bidart makes poetry – poetry that is fiercely original and often startling in its unflinching exploration of guilt, desire, violence, love and the inter nal war between mind and body.

On Nov. 28 at the Capitol Center for the Arts, Bidart will receive the 2017 Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. He is the eighth winner of the annual award, which honors Hall and Kenyon, who were married and lived together in Wilmot until Kenyon’s death in 1995. Hall, who is 89, lives there still and plans to attend. New Hampshire Public Radio is sponsoring the event.

The evening will include a reading by Bidart, who is known for animated, emotionally charged performances. In his younger days, before he turned to poetry, he had considered acting and directing as possible careers.

Now 78, Bidart has written nine books of poetry, most recently Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. Published in August, Half-Light won the National Book Award for poetry on Nov. 15. It has received widespread acclaim from critics and poets. Bidart has also won the Wallace Stevens Award, the Bollingen Prize in American Poetry and the National Book Critics Award, among others, and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times. He co-edited The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell.

Bidart has long lived in Cambridge and teaches at Wellesley College. But Bakersfield, Calif., the place of his youth, generated much of his poetry – not because he loved it but because he needed to escape its conventions and his emotionally demanding mother and disapproving father. He had a ravenous intellect, and he was starting to understand his sexuality. In “Queer,” published in the 2013 volume Metaphysical Dog, Bidart writes about the choice facing gay youth in the 1940s and 1950s: to come out, risking rejection, or to live a false life, hoping to belong. Everything is at stake: “Lie to yourself about this and you will / forever lie about everything.”

After graduating from the University of California-Riverside, he went to Harvard University, where he befriended the poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and began writing poetry in earnest. But, as Bidart told an interviewer in 2013, he never fully escaped his hometown: “though everything I’ve written has been an argument with the world I’m from, I’m no less a creature of it.”

In Bidart’s poetry, the creative drive battles against an impulse toward self-destruction within the human psyche. It is a war made manifest in his poems, both lyrical and narrative. In “The Third Hour of the Night,” he calls the self-destructive impulse “a beast within you” that “does not wish you well.” It is a beast that Bidart knows well. “I feel constantly I’m contending with something that . . . wants to destroy my ability to finish a poem, or write a poem, or understand,” he said in a 2015 interview with Washington Post book editor Ron Charles.

Early in his five-decade career, Bidart was perhaps best known for the dramatic monologues that form the whole of “Ellen West,” narrated by an anorexic woman, and “Herbert White,” narrated by a child murderer and necrophiliac, and most of “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” about the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer. Bidart is considered a master of creating character. In writing “Herbert White” he aimed to make a character who was “all that I was not,” according to an interview included in Half-Light.

Bidart’s most ambitious work, widely considered his masterpiece, is the epic series “Hours of the Night,” four long narrative poems published across 25 years that draw from mythology, history, philosophy and literature. Themes and ideals such as truth, art, freedom and desire are embodied in the characters and their stories. There is little, if anything, like them in American poetry.

Half-Light concludes with “Visions at 74,” a gorgeously humane and tender poem. A vision comes to the speaker in a dream. He is dead and yet sees the planet and humanity, with all its goodness and evil. His detachment allows him to love it all, and he experiences a fleeting respite from fear and anger at his mortal nature. He awakens, but keeps the memory.

Here is the poem:

The planet turns there without you, beautiful.

Exiled by death you cannot

touch it. Weird joy to watch postulates

lived out and discarded, something crowded

inside us always craving to become something

glistening outside us, the relentless planet

showing itself the logic of what is

buried inside it. To love existence

is to love what is indifferent to you

you think, as you watch it turn there, beautiful.

World that can know itself only by

world, soon it must colonize and infect the stars.

You are an hypothesis made of flesh.

What you will teach the stars is constant

rage at the constant prospect of not-being.

Sometimes when I wake it’s because I hear

a knock. Knock,

Knock. Two

knocks, quite clear.

I wake and listen. It’s nothing.

Presentation of the Hall-Kenyon Award begins at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students. Tickets are available at nhpr.org/tickets or at the door. After the reading, Bidart will sign books.

The award has been presented to a major American poet annually since 2010. Hall’s friend, the Maine poet Wesley McNair, makes the selections after consultation with Hall. Past winners include Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Charles Simic and Mark Doty.

(Joyce Dehli, who co-chaired the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2016-17, is a writer and journalist who lives in Washington, D.C.)

Event Details

Date: Tuesday, November 28

Time: 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Location: The Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301

Cost: $10 general admission, $5 students