Throughout his career, Frank Bidart has produced poems marked by extreme states of consciousness. Many of these poems are built around characters drawn from myth, or newspapers, or movies, or literature, others from his own family history. But whatever the persona he inhabits, Bidart has been a poet of roiling intensity, a poet singularly unafraid of excess. And there, precisely, has been the great and singular achievement of Bidart’s work, for this is a poet who has found many different ways to contain excess without neutralizing it.

No poet of our time has so embodied conflict, creating living expressions of a consciousness moving through guilts and unmastered desires without resorting to easy resolutions. A model to younger poets who marvel at his ability to encompass both rage and tenderness, he has also been exemplary not only in tackling a wide range of lyric forms but in boldly investing in long narrative poems. Now in his mid-seventies, Bidart is clearly working at the height of his powers, and his recent volume Metaphysical Dog seems to many poets the best book he has ever written. Surely it is fair to say that he is an absolutely essential poet on the current American scene and that the legacy of his original, consistently powerful work will be felt in American letters for generations to come.

Frank Bidart is the winner of the 2014 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. The award is given to a poet whose distinguished and growing body of work to date represents a notable and accomplished presence in American literature.

Ellen West \ Three Poems from Star Dust \ Two Poems from Desire



Those Nights

Those nights when despite his exhaustion or indifference
you persisted, then finally it

caught, so that at last he too

wanted it, suddenly was desperate to reach it,
you felt his muscles want it

more than anything, as if through this chaos, this

wilderness he again knew the one thing he must reach
though later, after

he found it, his resentment implied he had been forced.

Those nights ended because what was
missing could never be by
the will supplied. We who could get
somewhere through
words through
sex could not. I was, you said, your
shrink: that’s how
I held you. I failed as my own.

Now you surely are dead. I’ve searched
the databases: you everywhere
elude us. Long ago without your
reaching to tell me, surely
the plague killed you. Each thing in your life
you found so
incommensurate to the spirit
I imagine that becoming
untraceable makes you smile.



For two years, my father chose to live at

The Bakersfield Inn, which called itself
the largest motel in the world.

There, surrounded by metal furniture

painted to look like wood, I told him that I
wanted to be a priest, a Trappist.

He asked how I could live without pussy.

He asked this earnestly. This confession
of what he perceived as need

was generous. I could not tell him.

Sex shouldn’t be part of marriage.

Your father and I,—
. . . sex shouldn’t be part of marriage.

That she loved and continued to love him
alone: and he, her: even after marrying others—

then they got old and stopped talking this way.

Ecstasy in your surrender to adolescent

God-hunger, ecstasy
promised by obliterated sex, ecstasy

in which you are free because bound—

in which you call the God who made
what must be obliterated in you love.

In a labyrinth of blankets in the garage

at seven
with a neighbor boy

you learned abasement

learned amazed that what must be
obliterated in you is the twisted

obverse of what underlies everything.

Chaos of love, chaos of sex that
marriage did not solve or

mask, God did not solve or mask.

Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby,

in which Grant finally realizes being
with her is more fun than anything.

What they left behind

they left behind
broken. The fiction

even they accepted, even they believed

was that once
it was whole.

Once it was whole

left all who swallowed it,
however skeptical, forever hungry.

The generation that followed, just like their
famished parents, fell in love with the fiction.

They smeared shit all over

their inheritance because it was broken,
because they fell in love with it.

But I had found my work.


These poems were first published as part of the PEN Poetry Series. Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).

Excerpted from Metaphysical Dog: Poems by Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Frank Bidart. All rights reserved.

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