Monday, September 24, 2007

Poetry Book Club Discussion: Frank Bidart's Star Dust

Here is our discussion post for the September Poetry Book Club Selection -- Frank Bidart's Star Dust.

I'll start by posting the same questions I always do, plus a couple of new ones.

Discussion Questions

Overall, did you like the book? What about it did you like?

Were there specific poems that spoke to you? Which ones? Why?

Was there anything that confused you about the overall book? What was it?

Were there any individual poems that confused you?

The stated theme of the book is the human need for creation and work. Which poems best carried out that theme? Was the theme clear to you?

How would you describe the author's style? How did he use language to convey images, ideas, or voice?

How would you describe the structure of the book? Did you see any sense of movement or progression from one poem to the next?

Would you choose to read this author again? Why or why not?

I think that's a good start. I'm going to post my own answers later today, after work, but feel free to comment or leave any extra information about your experience reading the book in the comment section.



Jessica said...

I think I waited a little too long tonight to answer these questions. I'm a little tired (it being 9 o'clock in the evening, and all) but I'll try to give a go at these questions anyway.

Overall, did you like the book? What about it did you like?

I really did like this book. I read it slowly, over about a week and a half, which seemed to help. I tend to devour books, missing some details from reading too fast.

I especially liked the earlier poems in the book. I felt that there was an element of surprise in his writing and I liked his commitment to his theme.

Were there specific poems that spoke to you? Which ones? Why?

I liked "Little Fugue" a lot. I loved the directive second person voice, the competing lines (in italics and plain) and the use of repetition.

I also liked the next poem, "Advice to the Players" because it seemed to build on "Little Fugue." I especially liked the line "Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves." I felt it was so concise and true.

"Heart Beat" was also interesting, in a very dark way. The repetition of the heart beat -- less life -- was brilliant, if tragic.

"Lament for the Makers" -- also good. I really think our parents' relationship to work shapes us and he captures that perfectly.

Lastly, "Phenomonoogy of the Prick" had to be my favorite poem. It was such a surprise and so funny and touching and slightly sad, although I'm not sure how it fits within the theme of the book.

Was there anything that confused you about the overall book? What was it?

Yes -- the ending movement. I didn't get the "Hours of the Night" at all, even after reading his interview and notes at the end of the book. If anyone else gets these, please help me. :) I sort of get that the goldsmith was an artisan and a worker, and was betrayed, but other than that, I 'm lost.

Were there any individual poems that confused you?

See above.

The stated theme of the book is the human need for creation and work. Which poems best carried out that theme? Was the theme clear to you?

I think the theme was mostly clear. I got it until the ending movement. For me, the book took such a dramatic turn that I couldn't follow his line of thought. I think his poems about his parents, especially "Lament for the Makers" really held the theme well.

How would you describe the author's style? How did he use language to convey images, ideas, or voice?

I don't know if I can typify Bidart's style. I'm unsure what "school," if any, he belongs to. At times, it felt sort of Beat-ish, in the use of repetition and the jazzy sort of lines. But he also broke lines at really odd, almost anti-rhythmic places, which threw me. His language or voice is varied -- at times he's colloquial, at others he's really elevated or almost academic. He's a chameleon, I think.

How would you describe the structure of the book? Did you see any sense of movement or progression from one poem to the next?

Other than sticking the hard-to-read/understand-long poems at the back, I don't get the structure. Which is why I'm asking this question. :)

Would you choose to read this author again? Why or why not?

I would definitely want to read Bidart again. While reading this book, I wondered how I had not read him before.

So there's my start -- I'd love to hear what y'all think.

...deb said...

Here are my comments, not in an organized fashion, though I appreciate your questions! I look forward to reading your responses (and others) and seeing what we've come up with.

I have complex feelings about this work.

I read the Travis/ interview at the back of the book first, and it intimidated me a bit, before I even started the first poem. The discussion of "making" was helpful though, and that theme is represented clearly throughout the work. I was anxious about the rape/murder--and that anxiety was born out. I didn't care for it, at all, though I can agree it is powerful, visceral, a testament to the power of unmaking--the dark side of human nature.

I enjoyed Part I the most. I loved his language and the variety of forms he presented. Advice to the Players was my most favorite, I think. Poetry in essay form. Or essay in poetic form. I like how he starts the use of mirror here, which is mirrored in Third Hour (p 62). I was quite taken with Young Marx (I am something of a closet Marxist, so appreciate the message. The form was great, too.) I liked the earthiness of Part II--sex (creative urge) and death ("la petite mort"?)--Star Dust was beautiful. Phenomenolgy of the Prick was amazing. If it is true--and it certainly seems it is--how humiliating, haunting.

A few poems were obtuse--I didn't always know the reference. I don't like "feeling dumb" when reading poetry, though I don't mind being stretched. Part I was even more enjoyable as I reread it this morning on the bus :-)

I thought Third Hour was okay. I think that is a work to study deeply in a knowledgeable group. I don't have the historic knowledge to understand what I assume is deep nuance. What I did get out of it was an amazing narrative about making art and the absolute power of the ancien regime. (I could see this as a play--though I don't want to see the last act.) After reading it, I appreciated even more that he had a piece about Marx in the book.

As far as tone--it seems this was a survey in tone. There were many voices and points of view. Some language was high, some low and earthy. It wasn't smutty--but it was coarse in the way dirt is coarse. I could feel furrows and clods underfoot. It was ethereal and lifting.

I think the theme of making is very well represented--and in that alone I can applaud Bidart. I would probably read more of him. I would want to read some criticism--if I could find it (though I haven't had time to look.)

...deb said...

Here's a link to a reading (sometime in the 1990s) with an interesting introduction:

It includes Music Like Dirt. For The 20th Century.

I'll get back to add some additional comments later, probably tomorrow.

kimberley said...

Sorry to disturb the discussion here - just want to know more about the book discussions.Does it happen once a month? How does it work? I would love to participate - poetry is my first love.

Jessica said...
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Jessica said...
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Jessica said...

I'm having typing issues tonight. Please excuse the copious deleting.

Hi ...deb,

Thank you for your insightful comments and the link. While I don't have a ton of time to reply right now, but will later today/tonight, I think you explained the structure of the overall book really well. A lightbulb clicked on in my head while I read your comments.

Hi Kimberly,

You're not disturbing the discussion at all. :) Every month on this site, I host a Poetry Book Club. It was inspired by a post by Neil at Poetry Thursday where he described the difficulty he felt in writing about other people's poetry. He felt that he didn't have the poetic vocabulary to discuss poetry. This led to a really interesting discussion on this site where we all discussed why this could be. I figure it's because I'm not reading enough poetry.

So I began hosting this poetry book club. At the beginning of the month, I announce the book selection, which has been voted on via poll during the previous month. (Feel free to vote now for October.) Then, we read the book and come back here to discuss it at the end of the month. If you want to see past discussions, please click on the upper left hand corner link on my blog. (It says click here to learn more about Poetry Book Club.) Anyone and everyone is welcome to participate.

If you have any more questions, please feel free to let me know!

jonas said...

Overall, did you like the book? What about it did you like?

Overall, I really like Bidart's voice, as difficult as it was for me to settle into at first, very choppy rhythmically, with line breaks where I wouldn't expect them. His shorter pieces really kept my attention more so than the epic "the third hour of the night" which had fantastic moments, but for the most part intimidated me with all the obscure historical figures which I don't have any background about. I guess I should have read the notes first and done some background reading to prepare for this epic piece.

Were there specific poems that spoke to you? Which ones? Why?

"For Bill Nestrick"-
Some terrific lines in here, not sure if the italics mean that this stanza comes from Herbert, but the idea that art is not spontaneous or unpremeditated but rather a speaking of spirit and that art is a gift of self not a product of the self, the word is "inseparable from the giver". Short poem but a lot here, even though I have no idea who Nestrick was or why he has been given this poem in tribute, "your brilliant appetite for the moment", don't we all have this hunger? We should.

"Advice to the Players"-
Most certainly "we are creatures who need to make", I love this, what is life but a meaningless existence without the shape we cut into it, our making of it, be it art or simpler yet "a conversation between friends or a meal". This poem for me is a celebration of going against what other people envision for you, or what other people say is valuable or to be sought. This poem insists the reader leave the page and make their reality.

This piece deals with origins and I'm always interested in this subject. In remembering where you came from, or forgetting where because of some shame put upon a place by a person, just as the narrator's parents no longer desired to return to Spain due to the stain left upon it by Franco. And the line, "The West you made/was never unstoried, never/artless" really leaps off the page, as this is an incredible yet often forgotten aspect of all immigrant stories. Sure they came from somewhere to this "new land" but this was a peopled and storied land already.

"Lament for the Makers"-
Are we, humans, truly the only creature who turns inward for inspiration? I like to believe that all artists (masters) become different through the creative process, through years of inward examination and scrutiny, our art, makes us somehow different from those who never turn inward and in turn experience a desire to re-invent reality or existence.
I'm not quite hitting all that is encompassed, suggested by the last line, which echoes with Zen simplicity/complexity, a ying/yang line of verse.

"Phenomenology of the Prick"-
Simple enough, don't we always envy that which is just out of reach and oh how we envy it more when we are given a glimpse of what we can't have. This poem really turned me on and reminded my of such "unobtainable" desires in my own life.

"The Soldier who guards the frontier"-
This one felt to me like the most personal poem in the collection though I am left uncertain whether or not this actually is autobiographical. I'm left wondering if the child in this poem really exists as the last line certainly seems to suggest non-existence.

"Romain Clerou"-
Also a very personal poem and because of that, and the sharpness that the death of a parent can leave in one's memory, I truly believe that the name of the doctor in this situation would be remembered always, and even praised in such a short, beautiful poem about death. So much is told in this poem, how gentle this doctor and friend of Martha treats her and her son (I guess I totally interpreted it as son though this is not in the text).

And selections from "The Third Hour of the Night" which as a whole was too much for me as I mentioned above, but I feel this piece could be much more approachable to the reader if broken up into more, short sections, perhaps I-X rather that only to III.

Though I am now definitely intrigued to read more about Benvenuto Cellini as it appears he led a mischievous life.

I loved the passage from part II on page 41, "Unless teeth devour it it/rots: now is its season"/ My teeth have sunk into firm-skinned/ pears so succulent time stopped/"
all the way through "we are electric ghosts".

Were there any individual poems that confused you?

Just as I mentioned in "the soldier who guards the frontier" i wasn't sure if the child even exists and for some reason this seemed to be important to my understanding of the piece.

The stated theme of the book is the human need for creation and work. Which poems best carried out that theme? Was the theme clear to you?

"Advice for the Players" and "Lament for the Makers" seemed to work best with this theme. I got a sense for sure, even within "the third hour of the night" you get the sense that for Benvenuto, murder and jewel working are important to him.

How would you describe the author's style? How did he use language to convey images, ideas, or voice?

his style through me at first, found the language kind of staggered, and a bit awkward but the poems I really liked became more narrative and less choppy.

How would you describe the structure of the book? Did you see any sense of movement or progression from one poem to the next?

sorry, didn't have enough time to study the structure.

Would you choose to read this author again? Why or why not?

Yes, but in moderation, not in two days like i did with this one.

Jessica said...

Jonas -- so glad that you have had the time to participate and join the poetry book club.

I'm sorry I didn't respond right away -- final projects were due yesterday, so I am grading like a madwoman. (I think this is the last time I can use grading as an excuse.) Thank you for your insightful comments.

I'm glad that you said what you did about Bidart's line breaks. I think sometimes that I feel like a bit of persnickety reader when it comes to formal elements, but that's why I write poetry and not prose. Thank god I'm not the only one who feels that he was a bit arhythmic at times.

I also agree that the historical references in the third hour were a bit much. I was lucky enough to take a Renaissance history class in undergrad, yet the only thing I remember is the British professor with a lazy eye who snorted every time he mentioned the Medicis. However, I think that that little outside knowledge did help me to understand the social caste in which the narrator was intruding.

For your Bill Nestrick poem, which I also enjoyed but didn't "get", here is a link to a blog that explains the use of italics. It's interesting:

As for the personal/persona issue in poems like Phenomonology of the Prick and the Soldier of the Last Frontier, I do take them as "personal," even though I always caution against such reading. I think they both ring with such authenticity, that even if the particulars are not exact, the emotions are.

I also appreciate your comments about the twin obsessions of the Benvenuto persona -- art and murder. I think that they are intertwined -- follow me here -- as they are both such solitary expressions. Kind of a inverse of each other, the solitary need to create and the solitary need to destroy. (See ...deb's comments for more on that theme.)

I will comment more as time goes on and after I finish my last 6 papers ever. :)

...deb said...

I appreciated reading both of your takes on the books. It was validating (I breathed a sigh of relief) to hear you both struggled with Third Hour.

It reminded me of something I noticed but forgot to say: at the end of the sculptor's narrative, where he has finally achieved this brilliant creation--and has managed some meager amount of control over his art(by placing a sculpture within a sculpture), there is a quote mark (p 74). I had to trace back to p 41 to find where it began.

Having those marks helped me organize the poem in my mind. I felt a little less lost, and perhaps even understoud it as a narrative tale. (Though I would still would like biographical notes on his characters!) I read this as a play, or opera.

Some of his poetry reading's introduction points (that I put in an earlier post) talked about his use of punctuation. (Or maybe it was something I read--though I am sure I would have passed that along, and I didn't do any "research" other than that.

BTW--I haven't finished listening to that, but I think it includes nearly all--or all--of book one. And the halting style is less apparent. I think it is, anyway.

I'm going out of town, so will probably be "quiet" for several days. Thanks for reading this book and sharing your thoughts. It was a (diffucult!) pleasure.

Good week to you.

(A weird PS I am curious about. It may not matter, but I think the narrator of "Prick" is gay--he has always wanted to "see" the man in the couple. That's why I said it was "humiliating"--the "Prick" was taunting the narrator with a "you want this and you can't have it " message. Did you get that, too, or did you think it was something different?

Jessica said...

Wow, talk about close reading. :) I totally didn't notice that quote mark at all. I had assumed that all of the second section was Benventuo speaking, as it kind of blurs together in my head, but in fact the poet's narrative voice begins that section. And it begins by talking about the three fates and the ways in which they "make" fate through the action of artistic creation and therefore "make" lives:

"Three, who gave us in recompense
for death

the first alphabet, to engrave in stone
what is most evanescent,

the mind."

Intersting catch.

A PS to your PS, I also agree that the voice of Phenomonology is gay. According to this biography,, there are other poems he has written that speak to homosexual themes. I believe Bidart identifies as homosexual, but I'm not certain.

jonas said...

deb and jessica-

thanks for the great reading of Bidart's collection, I feel like I just walked out of one of my better literature or poetry writing courses in college. You know the ones where all those people who never bothered reading the required text or actually being into poetry at all, just chose not to come to class and every one who was present contributed something insightful and the interpretations of the poetry sang almost as much as the writing of it.

I'll have to go back and listen to the Bidart reading, thanks for the link. Looking forward to next months' discussion. If you don't mind, Jessica, I might post some flyers promoting this poetry discussion forum at the University here in Juneau, a friend of mine is a lit. professor and I'm sure there'd be some folks who would enjoy the casual forum.

Jessica said...

Hi Jonas -- Your analogy totally made me laugh. I hated all of those lit classes in undergrad, because I didn't understand why you would choose to be an English major if you didn't read. :) I'm glad that we're all part of the good kids.

Thanks for offering to publicize the Book Club. I think the more the merrier! Maybe I'll put some fliers up in Mpls & see if anyone bites. :)