“For Mary Ann Youngren,” from In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965-1990, FSG, 1991†
Frank Bidart’s poem “For Mary Ann Youngren” begins with twelve lines evoking this woman’s imperious drive to escape from the human world, to repudiate it and become “untouchable” and absolutely free from human connections. The twelve lines would make a powerful poem by themselves – an unforgettable poem, indeed – ending thus:
Dip a finger into the River of Time,—
it comes back
But that is not the end of “For Mary Ann Youngren.” There is a second section, of fourteen lines, beginning with what may be the most blatant, most naked, most urgently corrective turn I’ve ever seen in a good poem. I am not sure what happened in the actual process of Bidart’s composing the poem, but in the drama of the poem on the page, what we are made to feel is the poet’s temptation to settle for a very impressive, austerely authoritative one-directional vision, followed by a painful silence in which he can’t help realizing that he has failed to catch the full truth about his dead friend, followed by an outburst of self-correction in which the poet is willing to sacrifice lyricism (“River of Time”) and risk bald flatness of speech for the sake of a more complicated human truth.
For me, this is one of the poems by Bidart that achieve a sword-sharp effect of having cut through layers of impressions to a stark exposure of fundamentally ambivalent truth – achieving this effect so convincingly that poets who worry about making each line attractively musical or colorful seem trivial by comparison. Yet it would not be right to say simply that this poem turns by substituting prosaic reporting for lyricism; in fact the poem ends with an image, an image I have found unforgettable, the image of a human spirit returning from oblivion to the world and pacing, pacing near a telephone, hoping for renewed contact with other human voices.
The drama of a mind digging toward truth – this is the central drama in Bidart’s best poems. We notice that the second section of “For Mary Ann Youngren” does not erase the first section, even though the first section’s vision is declared to be “not true, wrong –”. The poem does its work not by amalgamating the two perceptions of Mary Ann into one smoothly cohering statement about a two-sided person, but rather by showing the mind of her friend, the poet, moving through the two perceptions, reaching the second perception through the realizing of the incompleteness of the first perception.
In showing this movement so openly, so blatantly, Bidart is finding a form that can represent the drastic ambivalence and scary swerving of one woman’s intensity. At the same time, he is making nakedly visible something that happens more subtly in countless poems: a self-critical turn from one tempting but problematic idea to a deeper or wiser idea. Poems that include such a turn are poems that have not chosen to confine themselves to the deeper or wiser idea; instead, the underlying intuition is that the full experience of the poem’s wanted truth depends on the co-presence of both ideas and the vibrations between them.
Frank Bidart was my great mentor during my formative years as a poet. His sense of a poem as a drama performing itself on the page became crucial in my own thinking and writing. When I try to write a poem, there usually – or always? – comes a moment when what I’m feeling (whether I can become conscious enough of this or not) is some version of “No, that’s not enough, — / not true, wrong –”. In the talky style I often use, there’s a phrase that tries to climb into my poems embarrassingly often; the phrase is “But that’s not my point.”
I’ve had to realize that if I allowed myself to turn with “But that’s not my point” in every poem, the effect would become predictable and formulaic – the opposite of dramatic. I’ve had to seek ways of intelligently avoiding such blatant turns – perhaps by creating an atmosphere or a sense of the speaker’s personality whereby the reader can be trusted to deduce or infer that one idea in the poem is deeper or “farther along” than another. Similarly, a thorough study of Frank Bidart’s poetry would find many moments where a self-critical turn is implicitly present but not explicitly shouted like the turn in “For Mary Ann Youngren”. The drastic stop-the-presses move of “No, that’s not enough” needs to be saved for when its cold (or hot) splash-in-the-face is most appropriate, most in tune with a speaker’s painful or tense ambivalence.
So my point (!) is not that the starkest, most right-in-your-face turns are necessarily the most powerful; but I’ve tried to explain why Bidart’s use of this move in “For Mary Ann Youngren” seems to me so honest and revelatory and has stayed powerful in my memory.
Mark Halliday teaches in the creative writing program at Ohio University. His sixth book of poems, Keep This Forever, was published by Tupelo Press in 2008.
†As we were unable to attain reprint permissions or find a link to an accurate online version of the poem, we offer a citation in lieu of the poem itself. We encourage interested readers to consult the print version.