Essay Issue 10

   Issue # 10: July-December 2008

Mabi David

Allusion in Frank Bidart’s “Advice to the Players”

      When it comes to allusion one finds oneself disinclined to call it such in a Bidart poem for it is never simply a reference to enrich the poem by trafficking in its associations. The richness of the allusion from its original context is often brought to bear on the poem so comprehensively and profitably that it becomes indelible and no mere device. The allusion becomes crucial to the embodiment of the poem, which fixes its meaning at full tilt.

      Bidart’s “Advice to the Players” alludes to Hamlet’s counsel to the visiting players (III.ii.1-44) on acting, driven by dissatisfaction with how it has been previously done. As recommendation of future conduct, an advice is often prompted by something, whether action or another recommendation, that has proven deficient—in the case of the poem, “our definition, vision, of a human being: the need to make.” The need to correct this crucial lapse is the donnée of the poem and what sets it in motion. Immediately the negative cast of the first definition is altered in the second line as a new definition, charged with the simplicity and verity of an aphorism, and with it the swift admission to the self no longer of an absence but an instinct: “We are creatures who need to make.” This is at the heart of Music Like Dirt, the chapbook to which this poem belongs. To Bidart all human beings are fated to engage in the task of making: “But being is making: not only large things, a family, a book, a business: but the shape we give this afternoon, a conversation between two friends, a meal.”

      While the rest of the poems in the chapbook take on the theme aslant, “Advice to the Players,” the only piece set in prose, is straightforward with its assertions, in tandem with a tone that is thoughtful and without guile, and a diction that is conversational, sometimes informal. The poem’s discursive mode makes plain its persuasion for this new vision of ourselves, as it alternates provocative new propositions with appraisals that implicate society and culture in the production of these old problematic ideas on being and making, and their consequences on personal history. The few aphoristic statements in the poem—“We are creatures who need to make.”; “Making is the mirror we see ourselves.”; “Without clarity, a curse, a misfortune.”—because they appear to have been arrived at syllogistically, do not transform into the oracular. As advice the poem must forego grandiloquence or enigma. The speaker is not hesitant about making an example out of his personal history, and he is revealed as a trustworthy intimate rather than an intimidating figure of panoptic authority. More peer than seer, the speaker is artless and deliberate, offering his readers hindsight rather than prescience that is, actually, more “unprovable” than the past of which he frankly speaks. And the advice, the poem, works: the players cannot but take heed.

      The players to which the poem is addressed alludes to but now constitutes more than the actors Hamlet welcomes to Elsinore, more than the artists we traditionally conceive as society’s makers, but each and every human being. Here the allusion sinks its teeth into the poem. Hamlet’s advice to the players, while spoken in earnest (the prince knows them well and is an admirer and frequent spectator of their performances) comes at the heels of their performance of The Mousetrap, the play-within-a-play made by Hamlet as an additional scene “to catch the conscience of the king.” In this speech, Hamlet tells them that the “purpose of the playing” must be “to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature.” Briefly, The Mousetrap depicts a king’s murder via the same means employed by Claudius on King Hamlet, but this time the murderer in The Mousetrap is the king’s nephew Lucianus, who in the case of the tragedy is equivalent to Hamlet, and the production is a veiled threat that is not lost on Claudius. The play’s the thing in which Claudius sees his crime as well as Hamlet his villainous intention: the play is the making is the mirror we see ourselves.

      With Bidart’s allusion to Hamlet, the poem immediately holds our task of making, our being, alongside subterfuge and the potential destruction of a human life—false making and unmaking. Twin to the theme of creation throughout the poem is the opposite impulse of de-creation, whether it is to destroy or de-form (“corrosively” and “mis-shapes” are as repeated as “clarity” and “arc” and “shape”). Hamlet’s advice to the players reveals itself as the dark inextricable ply to Bidart’s “Advice to the Players,” and the made object in the tragedy, i.e., Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, is the annihilating double to the animating donnée in the made object that is Bidart’s poem (its made-ness more apparent by the poem’s appointed form and allusion.) But the latter is not annihilated, and the dark corrosive impulse is not the overpowering twin.

      The speaker in the poem undergoes a transformation from a trustworthy intimate albeit passive advice-giver, and two lines that are set in italics mark this change. While both sentences seem benign as either repetitions or contractions of previously made statements, their altered typography actually marks a shift in the tone. Set apart from the rest of the poem by their type, they are stripped of the particulars available to the speaker of the previous sentences. Now disembodied of the poem’s speaker—he of culture, society, and personal history—these sentences no longer partake of the ordinary. Crucial turns in the poem, they also emphasize the change apparent in the next statements that, although set again in roman, have become more formal and solemn in tone, and in an undeniably more elevated, more theatrical speech. Here it is as if the speaker has moved from the pit to the proscenium. Given both the play and the poem’s attentiveness to the centrality of the made object, which is making made manifest in form, one realizes that the term players—initially thought in the poem to mean mere participants into whose hands existence is thrust willy-nilly and have to learn to make do—has finally come to accommodate the possibility of proficiency in the maker, i.e., in every human being.

      The title and the poem’s final line are the only signposts that point to the allusion to Hamlet, but their very location serves to enclose the poem with the allusion, engaging it indelibly throughout. The poem ends with the same line that ends Hamlet’s advice to the players, and whereas in the tragedy it is to dismiss the actors after his instructions and allow them to prepare themselves for this crucial performance (an order akin to “Go make yourself ready”) in Bidart’s poem this emphatic use of the direct pronoun you is also tasked to fulfill its reflexive use, i.e., to mark the person both as agent and object, to be both maker and the made. When the speaker in the poem finally abjures his role as advice-giver, the poem has become both the enactment and the fulfillment of the transformation called upon in the poem’s first lines. Truly we are not creatures who must simply give advice on making and stand outside it—we are creatures who need to make; and at the end it is not only the poem, it is, finally, the self.