Watching the Spring Festival Poems

Frank Bidart

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

72 Pages



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A Pulitzer Prize Finalist
A National Book Award Finalist
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

This is Frank Bidart's first book of lyrics—his first book not dominated by long poems. Speed, song, intimacy, and directness replace narrative elaboration. Less embattled than his earlier work, less actively violent, these new poems have, by conceding time's finalities and triumph, acquired a dark radiance unlike anything seen before in Bidart's long career.

Mortality—imminent, not theoretical—forces the self to question the relation between the actual life lived and what was once the promise of transformation. We see this against a broad landscape. The book opens with Marilyn Monroe, followed by the glamor of the eighth-century Chinese imperial court (seen through the eyes of one of China's greatest poets, Tu Fu). At the center of the book is an ambitious meditation on the Russian ballerina Ulanova, the ballet Giselle, and the nature of tragedy. All this gives new dimension and poignance to Bidart's recurring preoccupation with the human need to leave behind some record or emblem, a made thing that stands, in face of death and loss, for the illuminations of art.


Praise for Watching the Spring Festival

"Like many descriptive schemata, the Aristotelian division of poetry into lyric, narrative, and drama works perfectly until we begin to apply it. Few contemporary poets complicate this tactical distinction to such powerful effect as Frank Bidart. For this poet the storytelling function of narrative often contains the grievous and exalted emotional states more traditionally associated with dramatic catharsis. Likewise, while he has frequently drawn upon classical sources for his meditations and loose translations, he also invests what others might consider pop effluvia with a profoundly serious attention. In Bidart’s poems, the domestic becomes tragic, the incidental becomes epic, the mythological becomes intimate . . .  In order to write with such authority, the poet must be absolutely certain to devote equal measure to each constituent of the poem’s assembly. Again, the signature property of this poetry—whether one is speaking of orthographic detailing or of a syntax that must identify the proper relationship of every claim to its corollaries and implications—is precision. If the drama is to resonate beyond context, if Bidart can in fact justify the supra-contextual power of his declarations and reveal lyric and narrative as endlessly revolving into one another, then they must bow to each other before their embrace. It is the rigor and gravity of this exchange that Bidart masters, establishing himself as a poet of absolute candor and acuity."—Raymond McDaniel, Boston Review

"It is almost always better for a good poet to be recongised than to remain obscure. And yet it might well frustrate is readers—when he gets recognised for the wrong things. Frank Bidart first became famous in America (famous, that is, as American poets go) for the grisly violence of his dramatic monologues, for his poems' unusual layout and typography, and for his close association with older poets, especially with Robert Lowell (he co-edited Lowell's posthumous Collected Poems). Bidart and his poems indeed have all these qualities, but they are not the best reasons to read his poetry. That poetry—especially in his last few books—deserves to be know for the harsh, spare wisdom it imparts, for the stark, condensed style inseparable from that wisdom, and for the poet's ability to think, in verse, about memory, pain, sex, and art . . . Watching the Spring Festival asks how things, lives and people look from later life, once they belong to the past . . . In this tour de force of imageless writing, the agile phrasing at once admits the poet to a kind of aerial view, seeing all his life as if simultaneously, and denies him that view, since he is not, in fact, a character in a completed tragedy. He know, as well all know, that we will die, nit no summit of self knowledge, no work of art, can show the whole arc of his life before it ends. The last poem in Watching the Spring Festival presents the poet as a 'collector,' his psyche as a gallery of images drawn from his life and form earlier poems . . . Bidart has little use, in his own verse, for the jazzy verbal slippages younger American poets (following John Ashbery) often pursue: his terms are never ambiguous, though they are usually polysemous and ambivalent ('odi et amo'). He is never funny, never mellifluous, rarely delicate, and mostly unable or unwilling to copy in his own verse (however much he enjoys them) the details either of non-human nature or of the built environment. If we want those virtues we can read other poets. If we want profundity, harsh originality, unequalled compression, deft syntax and difficult wisdom, we should hold dear what Bidart can now give."—Stephen Burt, London Review of Books

"Recently honored with the 2007 Bollingen Prize, Frank Bidart responds not with a book defined by the longer narratives for which he is best known, but with a collection of masterful, carefully modulated lyrics, glimpses of the millennium's turn and dispatches from an ancient world. Bidart's control of tone is a defining virtue . . . From afar, Bidart the poet watches the spring festival of human life, sympathetically but with sober awareness of love's transactional, and temporary, nature. In these new poems—austere, intelligent, intense—Bidart's sharp eye remains undimmed, his ear still flawless."—Ned Balbo, The Antioch Review

"It would be unfair to say that Frank Bidart is purely a poet of intellect, though he’s often cast that way. The truth is that he’s a poet who needs a distance to feel from, and his poems are strategic movements to external vantage points. It’s often as though his material is too hot to handle, and the poems are the asbestos gloves that suggest the shape of the hands beneath them.  Bidart is certainly a poet who thinks on the page, but I think that perhaps more than anyone since Ashbery (circa Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror), Bidart shows just how emotional a process thinking is. To think and to feel are artificial distinctions in Bidart’s work—they always arrive together. Bidart is a poet of urgency. All of his utterances have a directness and make a demand on us. He creates a kind of vortex out of syntax, but unlike most of the poets we associate with disorientation, he always reorients us by the end of the sentence . . . One has the sense that he’s trying to get at something very important, and that he has to work in a kind of contortionism in order to get it right. In this particular book, Bidart has dispensed with the frequent capitalizations of words for emphasis—a move that has always amazed and dazzled me—and mostly uses italics to signal a switch in voices. Bidart often feels to me like he’s completely outside the rules. But it would be a mistake to think that he’s become a rule abiding citizen of the poetry world. This collection alternates between mediations and narratives, though with more weight directed towards the narrative. The book opens with a meditation on Marilyn Monroe’s destructive seductiveness, a theme picked up in a later narrative poem ('Seduction') about a failed seduction. Bidart is as stunning in his narrative details as he is in his meditative pronouncements . . . The technique that is most visible in this collection, as has long been Bidart’s métier, is collage—the blending of voices and themes and subjects. He has a talent for guiding the reader so deep into his labyrinth of associations that one forgets how it is the conclusion arrived . . . The masterful poem that anchors the book, 'Ulanova At Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle,' describes the transformative experience of watching the film named in the title. The poem blends together the dance, the film, the experience of watching the film, the story of Ulanova, and a critical text about her. The reason I think it works so well is that he cares so deeply about every single aspect of the poem . . . The poem I’ve never been able to write has a very tentative title: 'Ulanova At Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle.' A nice story about an innocent who dies because tricked by the worldly becomes, with Ulanova, tragedy. A poem about being in normal terms too old to dance something but the world wants to record it because the world knows that it is precious but you also know the camera is good at unmasking those who are too old to create the illusion on which every art in part depends. About burning an image into the soul of an eighteen-year-old (me) of the severity and ferocity at the root of classic art, addicted to mimesis. Bidart is forever breaking the rules (show don’t tell), but always making us feel the urgency that led him to break each of the rules. In describing the process of writing this poem, he’s not just giving us a gloss on how to read or what the poem means, he’s actually revealing the urgency of the work. He’s telling us how hard it was to get this right, to get to the poem we now read. Bidart’s recounting of Giselle is devastating. He invokes the tragic to explain Giselle’s refusal to let Myrtha punish the duke with the very death that he brought to her . . . Perhaps more than the collage, the vortex or the image of the storm is useful to understand his work. Bidart positions the reader at the eye of the storm. His reflective calm lets us watch the elements rage around us from a position of tenuous safety. It’s hard to describe that which mesmerizes the reader (me), and yet Bidart has managed to yet again burn his images into my soul."—Jason Schneiderman, coldfront magazine

"His excellent new book, Watching the Spring Festival, reflects a man feeling his age, the slip of time, and the tug of oblivion. It’s a slim volume, not even 60 pages long, but it brims with hard angles, tightly packed lines, and layered meanings. It’s a lyrical, tender, and melancholic ode to the void that finds a way of being spiritual without condescending to dogma. It attempts to confront the paradox of being while trying to inscribe something lasting, and also expressing unblinkingly man’s cosmic dilemma—that maybe, just maybe, there is no exit. 'Song of the Mortar and Pestle,' for instance, might be the volume’s most brutal, brief, and elegiac illustration of this. In it, Bidart balances the suffering of existence against a deeper longing for relief — from sin, from consciousness, from the nagging doubt that perhaps we are not more than the sum of our parts . . . Bidart is steely-eyed and tough in his musings, able to evoke gritty, dramatic scenes with stoic calm."—John Stoehr, Charleston City Paper

"Frank Bidart adores the savage Catullan paradox. In his 1983 collection, The Sacrifice, he included a reframing of 'Odi et amo' that in 13 words told us all we need to know about the violence of appetite: 'I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even/wants the fly while writhing.' In Watching the Spring Festival, his seventh and most recent book, Cantabrigian Bidart—now a fully emerged, Bollingen Prize–winning American poet—offers a riposte of sorts. 'Catullus: Id Faciam’ in its entirety reads: 'What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds/the nail that now is driven into itself, why.' This poem removes pleasure from the equation, but then it opens the deep question of the redemption of suffering. It also gets us close to the ongoing dynamic of the poet’s vision: the clarification and underscoring of ambivalence. If human opposites, those binary formulations we are said to live by, have a point of contact, that is where Bidart applies his probe most forcefully. In the powerful long works that have made his reputation—'Ellen West,' 'The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,' and 'The First Hour of the Night'—madness and vision, desire and self-destruction, and sin and its expiations are of imagination all compact. And they are no less present in the mostly shorter poems that make up Watching the Spring Festival . . . That said, there are a number of poems that unfold over several pages, and one, 'Ulanova at Forty-Six at Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle,' that starts to muscle toward the familiar expansiveness. But even this work has a single focus. The poet locates his awakening to the true potency of art in a long-ago screening—he was in college—of the legendary dancer. Like the first of the Catullan poems, it’s a work about the wages of yearning, and it proposes that, at least for the speaker, the gratification trumps the pain. Not in terms of the sensuous reward—getting the worm—but in the attainment of artistic expression. Bidart identifies 'Ulanova' as the 'poem I’ve never been able to write,' adding that it’s about 'burning an image into the soul of an eighteen-year-old (me) of the severity and ferocity at the root of classic art, addicted to mimesis.' He’s attesting not just to the power of art to reshape a life, to turn it from appreciation toward an idea of making, but also to susceptibility. This staging of an encounter with another kind of art, a different form of passion, attunes us to Bidart’s degree of alertness, and in his passing along of the mimetic impulse we read with greater awareness of the importance of what is being offered."—Sven Birkets, The Boston Phoenix 

"Half of poetry is suspended silence . . . a white blank on the page. Frank Bidart cultivates that space as he collects the seeds of language and positions them. High tone and complex diction set the stage for fear, ghosts and tragedies. Bidart has been described as fastidious—the work is chiseled but admits a touch of humor and genuine piety . . . The poet strings communication lines between the living and dead. The casualties of Gettysburg file by accusing us of betrayal (and recalling Robert Lowell's 'Union Dead'). The title poem is based on Tu Fu's observations of an imperial fete in 753. Power is illustrated, exposed and recognized as dangerous. In a later poem, Bidart returns to the 'Festival' and accepts responsibility for 'the problems of making// art.' He even identifies one big problem: 'a great abundance / which is the source of fury.' His moral compass isn't lost in the bid for immortal verse. Finally, 'Collector' is a reverie in which the poet hoards and stores seeds (read words) to carry sustenance and design into the future."—Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, Brooklyn Rail

"Long admired for his lengthy dramatic monologs, Bidart here channels his poetic energies into relatively compressed lyrical forms, honing what could have been expansive meditations on mortality, illusion, transformation, and rebirth down to thunderbolts of image and aphorism. Nearing 70, Bidart writes as if under a deadline, emphasizing essence over exposition and cutting straight to the poem's metaphysical core. This work exudes an almost visceral poignancy—a bitter half-acceptance of a world that distracts us from recognizing the brevity of our lives with fleeting manifestations of beauty. Bidart sometimes speaks through the imagined lives of others (Marilyn Monroe's mother, Tu Fu), but his masks have grown transparent, and when he writes, 'the fewer the gestures that can, in the future,/ be, the sweeter those left to you to make,' we know who's really doing the talking."—Fred Muratori, Library Journal

In his seventh book, Bidart condenses his searing, guilt-ridden meditations on the possibilities and limits of the imagination into shorter lyrics, as opposed to the long poems for which he is known. Mostly written in the second person, this speaker addresses himself, fighting the fear that ' . . . all that releases/ transformation in us is illusion' with the flailing hope that, '[t]he rituals// you love imply that, repeating them,/ you store seeds that promise/ the end of ritual.' Bidart's rituals of consolation include replaying records from the early decades of recorded music; revisiting and revising old, failed loves (' . . . you persuade yourself that it can be/ reversed because he teasingly sprinkles/ evasive accounts of his erotic history'); watching a film of the aging Russian dancer Ulanova, who is 'too old to dance something but the world wants to record it'; and learning caution and peace from the Tu Fu poem from which the collection takes its title. In his most intimate and vulnerable book, Bidart enacts a troubled longing to parse the real from the merely imaginary, the transcendent from the merely real, which is answered, even if incompletely, only by the human capacity to create, as 'the irreparable enters me again, again me it twists.'"—Publisher's Weekly

Table of Contents

Marilyn Monroe
Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival across Serpentine Lake
The Old Man at the Wheel
Like Lightning across an Open Field
You Cannot Rest
Poem Ending with Three Lines from “Home on the Range”
An American in Hollywood
Catullus: Id Faciam
Song of the Mortar and Pestle
With Each Fresh Death the Soul Rediscovers Woe
Sanjaya At
Winter Spring Summer Fall
Ulanova at Forty-Six at Last Dances before a Camera Giselle
Under Julian, C362 A.D.
To the Republic
God’s Catastrophe in Our Time
Little O
Watching the Spring Festival
If See No End In Is


In the Press

Frank Bidart's NBCC Award Acceptance Speech | Work in Progress
Early in my life Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell gave me the great gift of their friendship.  The dilemma they faced at the beginning of their writing life is the same dilemma that every serious poet has faced since

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Frank Bidart’s most recent full-length collections of poetry are Star Dust (FSG, 2005), Desire (FSG, 1997), and In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965–90 (FSG, 1990). He has won many prizes, including the 2007 Bollingen Prize in American Poetry.
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  • Frank Bidart

  • Frank Bidart's most recent full-length collections of poetry are Star Dust, Desire, and In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965–90. He has won many prizes, including the 2007 Bollingen Prize in American Poetry. He teaches at Wellesley College.
  • Frank Bidart Emma Dodge Hanson