Wellesley Professor Frank Bidart Named a National Book Award Finalist in Poetry

Professor Frank Bidart in classroom
October 12, 2017

Frank Bidart, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and professor of English, who joined the Wellesley faculty in 1972, has been shortlisted for the National Book Award in poetry for his 2017 collection, Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016.

Originally from Bakersfield, Calif., Bidart is considered one of the most significant American poets writing today. As a graduate student at Harvard, he was a protégé of the poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. At Wellesley, he’s taught a range of courses, including creative writing workshops and seminars on modernist poetry.

Bidart’s first two books, Golden State (1973) and The Book of the Body (1977), attracted some critical acclaim, but it was his third, The Sacrifice, that established him as a truly original poet. Since then, several of his writings have been nominated for the National Book Award, and he’s been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize a number of times. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for his 2013 volume, Metaphysical Dog.

The Boston Globe, in a September 13 article, wrote of his new collection, “At more than 700 pages, Half-Light is a monument to fearless interiority and le mot juste.” The article noted that, at a mid-August reading in Cambridge, Mass., “Bidart read a carefully curated selection of his work to a rapt audience.” He delivered “Writing Ellen West,” a follow-up to one of his most acclaimed earlier poems, which was based on a well-known psychological study of a woman with an eating disorder. Bidart explained that his work is often about “the war between the mind and the body.”

Bidart told the Globe that he “may write another book or two, ‘but I’m not going to write another 60 years.’ The work collected between the covers of Half-Light ‘is basically how I’m going to be understood, and how I have to understand myself as a writer,’ he said. ‘That’s scary, but it feels like an event.’”

The Globe said Bidart has greatly inspired his students, much as Lowell and Bishop inspired him as a young grad student. As the Globe said, “For a time he taught courses at Brandeis University, where one of his students was the poet and novelist Ha Jin. At the recent reading in Harvard Square, Nausheen Eusuf ’02 waited for the book-signing line to subside so she could say hello to her former teacher. She went to Wellesley to study computer science, she said, but one class with Bidart ‘changed everything.’ Fifteen years later, she’s about to publish her own first full-length book of poetry.”

Bidart told Daily Shot writers that he’s had marvelous students at Wellesley, both in creative writing and literature classes. “I’ve directed some moving and intensely memorable creative writing honors theses,” he said. “It’s a thrill to watch a student discover herself as a writer, and this has happened consistently, year after year. In literature classes, whenever I teach a published poem that I know extremely well, I always learn something. It’s been a privilege for 45 years to be at Wellesley.”

Professor of English Dan Chiasson, also a poet and critic, said of Bidart, “When I met Frank, in the 1990s, he was already among the foremost American poets—one of the last great poets of the 20th century, capturing its marvels and horrors with ferocious personal power. In the meantime, he’s become one of the first great poets of the 21st century. I’ve watched with awe the majesty of each new poem and volume as it takes shape.”

Chiasson adds that Bidart is a treasured friend and colleague, as well as a great teacher: “He’s part of the air we breathe.”

The winners of the 2017 National Book Awards will be announced at a ceremony in New York on November 15.