“Do the third passage from ‘The Third Hour of the Night’!” insisted one admirer. Bidart promised to get around to it. To break the ice, however, he read some shorter lyrics from the first half of Star Dust, including “For the Twentieth Century,” “Young Marx,” “For Bill Nestrick,” and “Advice to the Players,” which he characterized as “a manifesto written by somebody who doesn’t believe in manifestos.” The poet had an urgent platform manner: he shook his fist or made sculpting motions at the audience, many of whom were following along in their own, black-jacketed editions of the book. Except for the girl in front of me, nervously wiggling her heart-shaped ring on and off her finger, the crowd was motionless and rapt. They applauded warmly when Bidart broke off for some Q-and-A. Then a student asked him to continue reading with “The Curse,” which represents something of a departure for the metaphysically inclined poet.
Noting the influence of Robert Lowell—who, Bidart said, wrote about current events without turning them into “disposable poetry”—he read the poem, a biblical blast of rage directed at the 9/11 hijackers: “May what you have made descend upon you.” Next he discussed a signal irony. When this rare venture into public verse appeared in the Threepenny Review in April 2002, it got him into hot water with pundit-for-all-seasons Andrew Sullivan, who interpreted it as condemnation of the victims. There was a certain amount of online skirmishing as the poet’s fans rode to his defense. And did Bidart himself fire back at Sullivan? “I wasn’t online at the time,” he explained—a perplexing notion for his twentysomething audience. “But I did eventually send him a respectful note.”
As promised, Bidart read some passages from “The Third Hour of the Night.” This is the latest installment of a massive enterprise he began in 1990, borrowing structural elements from the inscriptions on the sarcophagus of Seti I. Earlier episodes of this insomniac’s delight dealt with phenomenology and eros. This time around, the poet has explored the creative impulse, along with its paradoxical links to power and violence. (The sequence concludes with a rape scene that would make Quentin Tarantino blanch.)
The generational divide surfaced once again as the discussion turned to the title poem of Bidart’s latest collection, with its uncharacteristic opulence of language. Bidart confessed his distaste for such verbal filigree: “There’s a false luxuriousness in some poems that is a kind of alcohol.” In “Star Dust,” surely one of his finest creations, Bidart serves up some intoxicants of his own. But the problem, it soon became clear, was one of cultural allusion: few students were familiar with the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust,” whose mood of nostalgic reverie the poem inverts like a photographic negative. (Bidart called “Stardust” a “summit” of American popular music and indicated his preference for Nat King Cole’s ethereal version.) Nor did they pick up the nod to Sam Cooke’s “Touch the Hem of His Garment.” A word to the wise: both songs are available on iTunes, and it’ll be the best $1.98 you ever spent.