Bidart grew up Catholic, in Bakersfield, the son of a prosperous potato farmer, Frank Raymond Bidart, and his wife, Martha. Bidart’s father was, according to his son, energetic and melancholy; he drank and chased women. His mother was resentful and dreamed of other lives—the ones she saw in movies. (Los Angeles, the dream capital, was about two hours away.) Film, particularly American film, was the one art that Bidart remembers having access to in his home town. A sensitive only child, from an early age he was an inveterate moviegoer. (His 2008 poem “Marilyn Monroe” describes the roots of the actress’s ambition with great understanding: “Poor, you thought being rich is utterly / corrosive; and watched with envy.”) And he saw his parents’ lives unfold like a film, the backdrop of which was the macho-cowboy ranching culture of Bakersfield. “It was a culture that was intolerable to me,” Bidart said, in a 1996 interview with Ashley Hatcher. “I knew very early that I wanted to get out of Bakersfield. I’m sure a lot of this had to do with my mother, who always wanted to get out and never did. She was scathing about the dominant value systems and dominant ways of thinking, but never escaped them.”
One means of escape for Bidart was school. Enrolling at the University of California at Riverside, in 1957, he thought he would be an actor or a director, before settling into English. At Riverside, he fell under the spell of T. S. Eliot and other modernist poets. It was “The Cantos of Ezra Pound” that showed Bidart what a poem could be: unlimited in scope, mind-blowing in its dance with the mind. “ ‘The Cantos’ are very brilliant and they’re also very frustrating,” he told the poet Mark Halliday in 1983. “But they were tremendously liberating in the way that they say that anything can be gotten into a poem . . . if you can create a structure that is large enough or strong enough, anything can retain its own identity and find its place there.”
It took Bidart years to understand that anything that went through him could be included in a poem, and, if it came to it, a poem could take on any shape, even one that matched the contours of his own difference. One of the hallmarks of his writing is the way it looks on the page and, by extension, sounds: he capitalizes individual words that underscore what was stressed in the preceding line, or he cuts a statement of fact in half, letting it float into the white space of doubt, even as other voices are introduced—voices that are separate from but inseparable from the author’s “I.”
In graduate school, at Harvard, Bidart attended a poetry workshop taught by Robert Lowell, in whose poems history, politics, and the personal converged in deep and controlled meditations on all that could not be controlled, including the poet’s struggle with manic depression. In a recent e-mail exchange, Bidart described to me his association with the older writer:
He was, of course, brilliant to listen to in class. Fairly often I didn’t agree with his judgment about new work, but his way of thinking about the alternatives of how a line could be put together—the practical intricacies and options of how it could be written—was dazzling. I was in the presence of a master, one I could argue with in my head. One could also argue with him in person. He invited graduate students back to his rooms at Quincy House to see his new work. He had a lot of new work: he had begun to write the unrhymed sonnets. I liked much of them and had very specific moments that I didn’t think were quite right. I knew my response would be useless unless I was candid. He was eager for this. He liked to quote Auden to the effect that the best reader is someone who is crazy about your work, but doesn’t like all of it. That fit me.
Here was a father figure with whom Bidart could communicate without trepidation. He told me, “Once, I asked him something that involved Jean Stafford”—Lowell’s first wife—“and then said, ‘Maybe that’s too personal.’ He replied, ‘We are personal.’ ” Lowell’s friendship, Bidart says, was “healing,” after a youth spent with a father of whom he wrote, in the extraordinary title poem of his first book, “Golden State” (1973):
When I was a child,
you didn’t seem to care if I existed.
. . .
forgave me for being your son, and in the nasty
shambles of your life, in which you had less and less
occasion for pride, you were proud
of me, the first Bidart
who ever got a B.A.; Harvard, despite
your distrust, was the crown;—but the way
you eyed me:
the bewilderment, unease:
the somehow always
tentative, suspended judgment . . .
—however much you tried (and, clearly,
you did try)
you could not remake your
taste, and like me: could not remake
yourself, to give me
needed to look in a mirror, as I often can
now, with some equanimity . . .
Bidart’s poem “Confessional,” from “The Sacrifice” (1983), is a kind of companion piece to “Golden State,” one that addresses his relationship with his mother, toward whom he admits he was “predatory”—“pleased to have supplanted my father / in my mother’s affections, and then / pleased to have supplanted my stepfather.” This pleasure had its price, though: “I was the center of her life,— / and therefore, / of her fears and obsessions.” A devout Christian, in the poem Bidart’s mother tells her son that it is their duty “to divest ourselves / of the love of CREATED BEINGS.” A refrain of the poem is “THERE WAS NO PLACE IN NATURE WE COULD MEET.” The eternal question for the gay boy: where to find natural common ground with his straight mother, whose body he does not desire but may identify with? Does this amount to rejection or a powerful form of acceptance?
Through Lowell, Bidart met Elizabeth Bishop, with whom he did find a more natural meeting ground. Lowell and Bishop became muses of a sort for Bidart. He told me that he didn’t expect the older poets to understand his prosody, “how I made lines and the relation between my lines and space on the page and common speech.” And he knew that “imitating them would have been death for me as a writer.” Lowell and Bishop were less teachers than parents of his own choosing, who encouraged him to become the artist he couldn’t be back home. “I knew that knowing them—and the fact that, in some sense, they had needed me, an eager kid from Bakersfield obsessed with poetry and art, in their life—was the most unlikely gift,” he told me. “How on earth had it happened?” He added, “I had such conflicted relationships with my real parents. Then I had been given, miraculously, the chance to be the ‘good son’ rather than the ‘bad son.’ ”
Still, every family can be alienating, despite, or sometimes because of, the love its members feel for one another. “I adored them, and they knew it,” Bidart wrote. “There were moments of great pain—but knowing them, and being useful to them, was the greatest privilege of my life. Now it’s over, and not over.”