so try as you will/you cannot make me feel/embarrassment//at what I find beautiful – Frank Bidart

I went to see Ciarán Carson with Peg and Declan last week, and Frank Bidart with them this week, both as part of the Vanderbilt Visiting Writers series.

Ciarán Carson is a poet from Belfast who I think is chiefly famous for writing about the troubles there, but my favourite poetry of his is the stuff about his wife. He read extensively from Until Before After, which is tremendous – very minimal, stripped down (stripped raw, really), all about a time when his wife was in hospital for a serious illness. (The Guardian has some excerpts in their review, and Poetry Daily has posted three of his poems from On the Night Watch, another of his recent books.)

He started the reading by playing on a tin flute (he’s also a musician and an expert on Irish music), which was a lovely way to ease into his devastating poems.

After, Alice Quinn (Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America) interviewed him. (They taped it, but I can’t find it online.) He said two things I thought were especially fabulous: “Everything that’s important in life happens in small back rooms.” and “In order to title a poem, you have to know what it means and not be bluffing.” Ha.

Frank Bidart read some shorter poems, including a sestina (“it’s my only sestina; it will be my only sestina – I feel lucky to have escaped with my neck”) and a very long poem about Giselle (“Ulanova at Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle”), during which I fell asleep. In fairness to Bidart, I was working on a substantial sleep deficit and the reading was in one of those university lecture halls seemingly designed to sedate students. Long-time readers may remember that I saw the Winnipeg ballet perform Giselle during my cross-Canada trip in 2001, but it didn’t help me understand the poem, which combined several speakers with a meditation on the writing of the poem itself, as far as I could tell. I do much better with poetry on the page when it’s as convoluted as this.Â

I was frustrated with the reading, because I felt stupid; this isn’t entirely Bidart’s fault – he’s obviously a genius, and he expected the audience to be as well, and, alas, I am not. I find his poetry distancing and cold, completely aside from its difficulty. I think he’s doing something (modernist, allusive), that I’m just not interested in. I wish he’d read “Marilyn Monroe,” the opening lines of which are quoted in this Boston Review review, or some of his other, more approachable poems.

I really liked some of the things he said in the question-and-answer period though: “punctuation has to do with the body the words make on the page” and “I think I believe in the aesthetics that the body makes.” I think I believe in that too.

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