“You Cannot Rest”: Bidart, Lowell, Bishop and the Sonnet
Sonnet writers in the twenty-first century, like their predecessors, must face the challenge of being both novel and natural. What strategies does Frank Bidart use to carry on a conversation with the tradition in Watching the Spring Festival and in which ways does he depart from it? Bidart’s “You Cannot Rest,” a fourteen-line poem with a white space in between each couplet, turns in part on its relationship to Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven,” the elegy for Robert Lowell (which ends, “Sad friend, you cannot change”). “You cannot rest,” while it flamboyantly defies the traditional shape of the sonnet, adheres to its emotional proportions, offering shifts in thinking and a concluding couplet which reflects upon the whole. Reading this poem as a sonnet which resists certain conventional strains and conforms to others reveals Bidart’s engagement in and management of the tradition. I will look closely at a few other representative poems from the new volume, “Like Lightning Across an Open Field” and “Coat,” and discuss Bidart’s formal strategies, paying particular attention to the latter two poems, both of which contain fourteen lines. Can these poems be read as sonnets?
Meg Tyler is Associate Professor of Humanities at Boston University where she also chairs the Institute for the Study of Irish Culture (ISIC). She is the author of A Singing Contest: Conventions of Sound in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney (Routledge). Her chapbook of poems, Poor Earth, came out in 2014 (Finishing Line Press).