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Literary Treasures: The Life of a Poet with Frank Bidart

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The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Two nights ago at the 2017 National Book Awards, Frank Bidart took home his first National Book Award for Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. Comprising his nine previous volumes of poetry, Bidart’s award-winning new collection is, as the poet himself characterizes it, an artifact of survival. During his award acceptance remarks, Bidart noted,

Art has many mansions. There’s always something wrong when we treat it as if it’s one mansion, with a discernible hierarchy of values within it. I realized during the past month that I’m almost twice as old as any of the other finalists. Writing the poems was how I survived. You might well ask, ‘is it really a question of survival?’ My sense is that all human beings alive have the most enormous schisms in their experience, terrifying schisms within our feelings and within what we discover the world to be. One premise of art is that anything personal, seen deeply enough, becomes general, becomes impersonal. I hope that the journeys these poems go on will help others to survive, as well.

Frank Bidart with The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles as part of The Life of a Poet series at the Hill Center, Feb. 19, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

In 2015, we were fortunate to feature Frank Bidart as part of the second annual season of our The Life of a Poet series. Host and tugger-of-heartstrings Ron Charles of The Washington Post’s Book World opened the evening’s intimate conversation by reading a line from Bidart’s “Golden State”—the title poem of his first book—to begin to unpack some of the difficulties of the culture Bidart grew up within.

Indeed, survival and salvation are at the absolute center of Bidart’s writing and writing life. “I lodged my faith in art,” he told Ron Charles. And he continued,

I’m afraid I still do.  I mean, I have not found another thing to lodge my salvation in.  . . . In fact, you know, it is my substitute for something that gives me perspective and for which I have experienced some transcendence.

Bidart’s 50-year body of work is inextricably linked with his autobiography. He is the author of nine poetry collections, including Desire (1997), winner of the Library’s Bobbitt Prize for Poetry. He has also received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, and the Griffin Poetry Prize.

You can watch the full The Life of a Poet conversation between Frank Bidart and Ron Charles below. You can also listen to Frank Bidart (with Robert Pinsky) read his poems as part of our Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. We insist you do both, in fact. And we at the Poetry and Literature Center give our warmest congratulations to Frank Bidart on winning the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry.


Join us on November 29, 2017, at 7 PM for our next The Life of a Poet conversation: Poet Rae Armantrout will discuss her work with Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post’s Book World. This event is free and open to the public. Reservations are required.