What do we mean when we say a poet is great? When I use that adjective it has nothing to do with subject matter, with what the poet writes about—though it has much, surely, to do with a poet’s handling of the subjects they choose, or that choose them. It has little to do with the poet’s popularity, readership, age, demographic, or the volume of the work produced. What it does mean, above all, is that I trust the idea of that voice, trust it to the bone. And when I trust a voice, or the idea of a voice, I want to hear what it has to say, any time it speaks. This is greatness, if greatness exists—to create in ink the likeness of a believable voice, a voice you can’t shake. And so the conversation about greatness becomes, maybe, a conversation about which voices we believe, and why.

Against Silence is Frank Bidart’s newest collection. For fifty years, the poet has fastened to the page a voice—and voices within the voice—that score our world, that make the real more ferociously real, the loss a little less lost, and in a way more so. Fastened, fixed: I trust Bidart’s voices, even when they are personae, lying, and I go where they go to see what they see, and come away wide-awake, like after a plunge in an icy, clear stream. In “Words Reek Worlds,” for example, early in the book, ranging from a scene of morally questionable sexual debauchery to the making of poetry and the fallibility and promiscuity of words, folding into its range The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, Eisenstein on Montage, Gia Coppola’s adaptation of Palo Alto, duende, sprung rhythm, a holy warrior in Cameroon, ending eventually with this ringing couplet that some wayward and impatient twenty-first-century troubadour might’ve written: “Fucked over by the old lies, the old / words must be remade to tell the truth.”

Easier said than done. One truth is that Bidart proves an artist can work at the height of his powers in his ninth decade. His relation to his material is a model for the way to handle whatever material one has been dealt. He lays out the grounds, the psychological and personal and historical grounds, for his despondency so meticulously, book after book, and in such rich and consistent detail, that it’s as if he’s been writing one poem from the very beginning, and each collection arrives as the latest installment in a sprawling serial work. By which I mean that from his first, Golden State, on through the wonders of Desire and Watching the Spring Festival, and again now in Against Silence, Bidart has been unswerving—how, he would say, could it have been otherwise?—in his effort to make contact with the particular demons of his childhood, his parents’ simultaneous desire and tormented inability to love each other, the cost to him, to his desolate life in Bakersfield, California, not to mention the slowly-dying-even-as-it-lives flesh that we each inhabit, and above all “the abyss” which, in and of itself he argues, “is meaning.” “Only when I have no body,” he writes, “can we meet.”

Searing, serial work: This newest collection includes another “Hour” in the night, continuing Bidart’s sequence whose appearance has spanned thirty-one years and now five books. “The Fifth Hour of the Night” looks—I keep wanting to say without flinching, because the poet brings new blood to that cliché—at the collapse of the speaker’s parents’ marriage. “The terrible law of desire is that what quickens desire is what is DIFFERENT”—this as gloss on infidelity—and the capitalized words, like his intermittent use of italics, signal for this maestro of emphasis the struggle to do more with words than they can be made to do, and the despair and the rage at that limitation, sign of all limit, sign of the end of articulation if not, eventually, conscious existence itself.

So, poems in the book gesture back across that existence, back to California—and to the Central Valley where he grew up the son of farmers, where Cesar Chavez led a movement that many of those farmers resented—in, for instance, “Poem with a Refrain from LeRoy Chatfield,” we hear from a close friend of Chavez, a leader in the UFW’s struggles. Not a household name, necessarily, but a man who, before he joined Chavez, was Bidart’s high school teacher. “Last night after midnight, or would that be today? unable to sleep …”—so begins the poem, channeling Chatfield. But the voice could be a way in, a prelude, to any poem by this poet, to the poet’s voice itself. The voice that speaks rolling, precise, brilliantly detailed clarity, not of what you—or even it—wants to hear, but what must be said, and made to last.

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JESSE NATHAN: Your poems bring to mind Wallace Stevens’s idea that poetry can be a violence from within pushing against a violence from without. “We were born into an amazing experiment,” you write. “At least we thought we were.” And then, in another poem: “As you arm yourself, as you go out among the tribe of makers in / words—arm yourself with phrases…” What is this arming that you’re talking about?

FRANK BIDART: Well, the lines that follow quote Hopkins, Lorca, Yeats. Writers are full of advice about writing, and they tell you to do it this way, or do it that way, and these become touchstones. But what you want—what these things help you get at, sometimes—is representation, the secret is representation. How can you represent reality and the world in words, in a poem? “As I swagger out, armed (as I think) with / the secret of representation,” is what the poem goes on to say, “as I swagger out among the tribes / I become aware that I am armed with a pebble against the ocean, though / I speak I am silent.” The literary world is full of tribes, each with ideas about how you make poems, about what a good poem should sound like—most MFAs, for example, represent some particular attitude towards the practice of making—but as I write I set out with my own little armory, and I try to set up situations and then reveal an abyss. And I’m armed, as I set out, with the voice that I’ve been given—given by Hopkins and by Yeats and by a hundred others. But there is always something larger about what one is attempting to do, larger than any one tribe, and there is no one secret to representation.

The other thing is that armed suggests armor, and armor suggests that I have my way, the way I’ve learned to defend against the abyss and to kill the unwritten, kill the unwritable poem. I think about Whitman—Whitman was constantly giving himself advice about how to do things and about what is real and about how to write poems. And he’s constantly encountering ways to challenge his habits around making. He really makes the poem out of the encounters between the way he thinks he can proceed and what he finds he can actually do.

JN: Do your poems tend to come in fragments, or all at once?

FB: I’d say some of both, but mostly in fragments. If I can get one phrase that seems to sum up what the poem wants to be about, that phrase will tell me something about what the poem is and where it needs to go. In that phrase will be some movement, some sense of light, some sense of juxtaposition or of energy, and that’s the kernel of the secret of the poem. And the poem will be made out of that. Until I find one phrase that does that, I don’t have a poem.

JN: And you use repeated phrases—repeated lines and words—to powerful effect. Do you experience repetition to be liberating, sometimes?

FB: Absolutely. Very often, I think. Because repetition has to do with turning a thing over and over. And each time you turn it you see some aspect you didn’t see before.