The theatrical origins of poetry— from the Homeric bard with the lute passing on the stories that shaped his culture, to the Greek chorus celebrating Dionysius, and of the course the Bard—seems to me to be an element often over looked in contemporary poetry. This feels like a radical statement when Shakespeare is, and will most likely always be considered the quintessential poet and dramatist of English verse. While we still look to Shakespeare and still read The Odyssey, it is easy disregard or over look the role of drama and ritual in contemporary poetry. (Contemporary plays written in verse, such as The Spoon River Anthology, are too often sequestered only to the theatre) And yet, Edward Hirsch is right when he asserts “every poem is a scene of language. It is a rite without ceremony.” Every poem is rooted, though sometimes unwittingly, to a tribal and theatrical purpose.
Frank Bidart’s poem “Dark Night” from In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90 exemplifies the notion that poetry is the sister of theatre. Marked by syntax, punctuation, and voice, Bidart has created a poem that is self-consciously a ritualistic “scene of language.” The reader follows the speaker’s journey as he engages in a rite of passage into spiritual maturity. His poem is a rite of passage, sculpted to release the divided self as entity to be embraced and celebrated.
The poem opens with the speaker leaving the known world of his home, beginning a journey that can only be attended to at night, the time of day associated both with mystery and Duende:
The speaker is in total darkness, the only light is from the “burning of love,” the inner life-light of the speaker. The speaker goes on to distinguish between two kinds of darkness: 1) the kind suggestive of passion, 2) the kind suggestive of death. The speaker seeks to leave his “dark house” because it is “silent, grave, sleeping” and he seeks “fortuitous night, fated, free;”—night filled with possibility, chance, destiny and liberation. Only by leaving his home, (his known, and therefore circumscribed reality), can the speaker embrace the unknown potential of himself. Night, often symbolic of fear of the unknown, here becomes a rite of passage into maturity and self-discovery.
In both stanzas the final end stop serves to encase the speaker’s thought and create a fresh beginning for the next stanza, a pattern that is sustained throughout the poem. The stanzas can thus be regarded as chapters in a book or acts of a play: they are interconnected and move the poem forward, yet also are self contained. The syntax is relatively simple and accessible, which allows Bidart to establish a kind of tribal chant. The word “dark” and the variation “darkness” is repeated five times, “night” appears three times; with the rhyme “light” making it seem all the more repetitious. The last line of both stanzas is the same, as is the aside “(fortuitious night, fated, free,--)”. The repetition of key words and phrases pulses the poem forward, reminding me of a monkey swinging from branch—one hand still on the previous branch, as he grabs the new branch—creating a tone of ebullience.
The enjambment of the second and third lines of both stanzas add to the speaker’s surging enthusiasm, while the elongated punctuation after “fated, free,--)” reveals the speaker’s hesitation over what he will actually find in the night. Together the syntax and punctuation establishes a voice that the reader is immediately able to identify with: we have all felt both excitement and uncertainty when facing the unknown. The ambiguity of words such as “dark” and “night” captures the imagination because they so easily mold into the reader’s own experiences of the shadowy underworld.
The speaker’s hesitation recedes as he begins to develop a personal relationship with night:
The term of endearment “sweet” followed by the description of night as “secret” is redolent of a burgeoning new romantic love; somewhat illicit and therefore all the more desirable. Interestingly, when the speaker becomes distanced from his home, the already threadbare syntax is even more simplified, and the meaty end-stops are momentarily dropped. The thinness of the language and punctuation helps to invoke the concept of “blankness”: “seen by/ no one and seeing/ nothing.” The speaker is only a voice; he exists only within himself and within night.
What is perhaps most interesting in these two stanzas, however, is how the speaker transitions into personifying night. The speaker first identifies himself with light: “my only light or / guide/ the burning in my burning heart”. Light is equated with speaker’s inner self, and is also regarded as a guide. Then at the beginning of the next stanza the speaker reorients his identity by declaring, “night was my guide,” reversing his initial declaration that “light” was his only guide. The speaker is not having an identity crisis, but is embracing the interplay of the opposing forces of the psyche; he is embracing his divided self.
However, while the speaker maintains that the light solely comes from within himself, night, on the other hand, comes from within himself (if we are to assume that the speaker is still referring to an internal guide) and from outside himself. Night guides the speaker “to the place where he for whom I / waited, who waited, whom I had long ago chosen, /waits: night”. Literally: night guides the speaker to night. Night as an unseen force leads the speaker to the physical manifestation, the personification, of night. Both entities, man and night, are thus shown to be part and apart of each other. Though the speaker insists that he “chose” night, there is also a parallel sense that the coming together of man and night was predestined, a necessary part of the development of consciousness. If we deny night, we deny our wild unseen selves. In order to achieve spiritual maturity man must face the darkness within and outside himself.
The speaker proceeds to tell us that night is “brighter than noon / in which none can see—;” the speaker clearly prefers the light of night over the light of day. The return of the elongated punctuation at the end of the line, the end of the stanza, mimics the uncertainty of not knowing what is ahead. The speaker prefers night, because he prefers the mystery of the unknown. He continues:
As the speaker’s journey of self-discovery arcs, his voice heightens in intimacy: he marries himself. He is both light and night, both bridegroom and bride. The speaker’s illicit desire of darkness is sanctioned by marriage, “and he who chose at last is chosen.” The ambiguity of this last line is striking: does the speaker mean he chose darkness, and that personified darkness has finally returned his affection? Or does the line mean that the speaker has finally embraced his dark self, and that he has achieved a longed for self acceptance? In any case, the speaker prefers night over the “sun raw at dawn” because dawn suggests newness and purity, and the speaker prefers the wild-archaic wisdom of night.
The language has become much more elusive and lyrical, and it would be a disservice to the poem to try to wrestle out a literal rendering. Night rests in the body of the speaker, who has saved and gifted his body precisely for this purpose. The syntax, while maintaining its characteristic simplicity, also adopts a level obscurity. The speaker, noticing the physical world apart from himself for the first time, inverses nature so that the “fragrant cedars moved the restless winds,” instead of the wind moving the trees. The speaker consumed with his own journey until now, awakens and connects with the world. Just as he makes this connection though, night reacts against the speaker:
Night rested on man, but never relinquished his power. A kind of magical realism has occurred: personified night seduces and then murders his man-lover. The speaker, though, feels no remorse, and the wound does not appear to be given in vengeance.. The speaker speaks tenderly of night both when stroking his hair, and when realizing that his wound was struck by an intangible entity. The ellipses give an effect of continuation and surprise. for the darknesses felt so real, but is physically not really there, and yet clearly he is dying, for the next stanza reads:
The speaker is freed by darkness, specifically by death—ironically the kind of darkness he was trying to avoid by leaving his home. While the speaker began the poem differentiating between two kinds of deaths (that of passion, and that of death) he ends the poem with the spiritual realization that the two are components of each other. The return of the aside in italics is a kind of response to his initial aside: (fortuitous night, fated, free, --). His murder turns out to be his “fortuitous night.” The image of “smooth white breast” is almost angelic, giving me more reason to think that the personification of darkness or night might be better labeled as the personification of Duende. The speaker is released by all worldly connections leaving him. He does not mourn his death, and he does not mourn that he is forgotten. “Forgotten lilies” can be read as a symbol of “forgotten beauty.” With his death the speaker is not only liberated, he is able to join beauty too intense for the material world, and therefore become a part of that beauty.
“Dark Night” is a celebration of arrival, even though that place of arrival is death. The speaker is enacting a tribal ritual of coming into his own, though he has only himself, and us, to share the rite of passage with. The syntax and repetition creates a kind of tribal chant that sustains the poem and elevates the speaker’s journey. Punctuation serves as indicators of the speaker’s voice and thought, while personifying night is a way to enact the rite of passage in a mythical way. Ironically, by coming into his own and realizing spiritual maturity, the speaker surrenders his life. Embracing the “divided self” requires that we come to terms with both the light and dark of our lives, to see there is life in death and death in life.
The poem follows a linear arc: we are with the speaker when he leaves his home, we follow him in his discovery of night, and we are with him as he dissipates into the everythingness of life. Thus, the reader is the audience, the witness that can validate this ritual. Though not every poem is written in a form like this poem that lends itself to being so easily interpreted as a rite of passage, readers and writers would do well to examine the rituals and scenes that are often hidden in the text of a poem. By disconnecting poetry from its tribal and theatrical origins, we disconnect poetry from its potential. Poems are not merely for entertainment, we have plenty of mind numbing venues for that. Poems like “Dark Night” that are read as scenes of ritual have the power to reconnect the reader to forgotten aspects of life, to take the reader on a spiritual quest—or at the very least to initiate an inner quest inside the reader.