Never ask a poet, “Who made the greatest impact on your writing?” They’ll always do the same thing; they’ll hem and haw and then say, “There’s so many. I could never choose just one.”
This is a respectable answer.
Perhaps I’m not respectable: I can offer just one. I don’t even need to think about it. No doubt, no second guessing. No matter how much I reflect, my answer never changes.
Frank Bidart. Frank Bidart. Frank Bidart.
Chiefly known for his dramatic monologues, Bidart deals with people who are in the most extreme circumstances. Perhaps his most famous poem is “Herbert White,” written in the voice of the title character, a real-life child murderer and necrophiliac. You can imagine the knee-jerk criticism: he’s sensationalizing this monster, which is sort of understandable, even if wholly reductive, especially with Bidart’s poetic acuity.
When the remake of “Halloween” came out, I was upset at how they handled the characterization of Michael Myers. In the original, Meyers is an opaque presence: we never understand exactly what made him evil. In the remake, the director has the audacity to explain it. He turns the fun of witnessing evil into a cinematic advocacy for pathology: bad childhood, etc.etc. Bidart rarely resorts to a simple determinism.
But even more than “Herbert White,” Bidart’s poem “Ellen West” has proven to be the most impactful on my writing. West was an actual woman who suffered from anorexia. She lived from 1888-1921. Dr. Ludwig Binswanger used her as a vehicle to articulate the need for existential psychology: the understanding of a person in a more complicated, human/humane way than what mere science could provide. You could say that Bidart’s genius is to use this theory as a way of exploring the connection between form and content in the personae poem.
It may at first seem surprising that the most sophisticated poem about a woman dealing with an eating disorder was written by a gay man. (I’d award second place to Denise Duhamel’s poem “Bulimia.”) But when you think of how gay men cross-identify with women, and the fact that both groups are subject to the male gaze, it begins to make sense. Everyone wants to look good for the heterosexual father figure. Patriarchy makes demands on everyone’s body. I don’t want to go on at length about this. If one does, you make “Ellen West” seem like a remedial text in a Women’s Studies 101 class.
Look at the awesome opening section of “Ellen West”:
I love sweets, —
would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream…
But my true self
is thin, all profile
and effortless gestures, the sort of blond
elegant girl whose
body is the image of her soul.
–My doctors tell me I must give up
Only to my husband I’m not simply a “case.”
But he is a fool. He married
meat, and thought it was a wife.
I don’t want to say that Ellen West’s voice is musical. But in a poem that consists of thirteen sections, all varying lengths, there are definite crescendos and atonalities that binds us to this strange, exasperating, appealing, self-aggrandizing Ellen West. You could say it’s operatic, but then again, that implies all artifice, which would be disrespectful to Bidart’s success and Ellen West herself.
After I graduated with a PhD, I wanted a career teaching poetry. But even then, twenty years ago, the jobs had all dried up. You had to have a book from a major press. I was nowhere near that. But it was still possible to get one in creative non-fiction. They had just started using that annoying label (along with the even more annoying “cross-genre”). I searched for touchstones in magazines, but it came back again to “Ellen West.” The poem is composed of various forms: free verse, prosaic accounts of West’s behavior from the psychiatrist himself, and even a gesture to the epistolary. “Ellen West” is creative non-fiction perhaps in its purest form.
When you begin teaching, you’re always told not to bring in your favorite poems for your classes to discuss. If they don’t like them, it’ll ruin the work for you. That wasn’t the case with me. My students were flummoxed: it’s impossible to offer a thematic reading. They proved to me that Bidart has done the almost impossible: to show that the soul when composed through poetry can refuse to be reduced, simplified, obliterated, or even loved. But yet it articulates something of importance. We can feel it. For better or worse, it escapes us. We have no words.
Steve Fellner has published two books of poetry from Marsh Hawk Press, Blind Date with Cavafy and The Weary World Rejoices. In 2021, Ohio State University Press released his first collection of personal essays, Eating Lightbulbs, which deals with mental illness, poetry, and movies. He lives with his husband in Western New York.