Frank Bidart, "The Fourth Hour of the Night" (Poetry Magazine, May 2015)

(from Part X, the Taoist Master to the Great Khan)


Because you could not master whatever

enmeshed you


you became its slave — 


You learned this bitterly, early.

In order not to become its slave


you had to become its master.


You became

its master.


Even as master, of course, you remain its slave.


I was listening to Bidart read his poem this morning and when I came to these lines they felt like a commentary on the argument I was having with myself here yesterday: mastery versus refusal of mastery (or is it the appearance of the refusal of mastery?) or Yeats and Auden versus Beckett and Zbigniew Herbert. I suppose mastery is another word for power, over words, over people. Blanchot in The Book to Come, which I am still reading, has a chapter on Beckett in which he analyzes Beckett's silences, that I think is relevant, too, although I only partly understand it. Bidart's poem is a take on the whole existential problem of why write--and a lot of other things--being itself the performance of this argument in a long narrative poem ostensibly about power, or mastery. I was skeptical when I began to listen to it; by the end I felt Bidart had--had what? Well, he moved me.