'Self-Portrait, 1969' by Frank Bidart

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He's still young--; thirty, but looks younger--
or does he?... In the eyes and cheeks, tonight,
turning in the mirror, he saw his mother,--
puffy; angry; bewildered... Many nights,
now, when he stares there, he gets angry:--
something unfulfilled there, something dead
to what he once thought he surely could be--
Now, just the glamour of habits...
Once, instead,
he thought insight would remake him, he'd reach
--what? The thrill, the exhilaration
unravelling disaster, that seemed to teach
necessary knowledge... became just jargon.

Sick of being decent, he craves another
crash. What reaches him except disaster?

Editor 1 Interpretation

Self-Portrait, 1969: A Deep Dive into Frank Bidart's Poem

Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and wondered who you really are? Have you ever tried to peel away the layers of your identity to find your true self? If so, then you'll understand what Frank Bidart is trying to convey in his poem Self-Portrait, 1969.

This poem is a fascinating exploration of the complexities of identity and the struggle to find oneself. Bidart takes us on a journey through his own psyche, revealing the doubts, fears, and desires that make up his innermost self. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we'll take a closer look at the themes, structure, and language of the poem to uncover its deeper meaning.


The overarching theme of Self-Portrait, 1969 is the search for identity. The poem is a reflection on the speaker's attempts to understand who he is and where he fits in the world. Throughout the poem, we see the speaker grappling with his own identity, trying to reconcile his desires and fears with the expectations of society.

One of the key themes of the poem is the tension between the inner self and the outer self. The speaker is acutely aware of the gap between who he truly is and who he presents to the world. He reflects on his own contradictions and struggles to come to terms with them. This tension is expressed in the opening lines of the poem:

"I am forty years old, and the only / child of my parents who are constantly / surprised at what I have done with my life."

Here, the speaker is acknowledging that his parents don't fully understand him or his choices. He is aware that he has followed a path that is different from what they expected, and he is still trying to figure out what that means for his identity.

Another theme that emerges in the poem is the idea of self-discovery. The speaker is on a quest to uncover his true self, to peel away the layers of social conditioning and find his authentic voice. He writes:

"I am trying to be truthful."

This line captures the essence of the poem. The speaker is striving for honesty and authenticity, even if that means acknowledging uncomfortable truths about himself. He is searching for a deeper understanding of who he is, beyond the surface-level expectations of society.


The structure of Self-Portrait, 1969 is deceptively simple. The poem consists of four stanzas, each with four lines. However, the brevity of the poem belies its complexity. Each line is packed with meaning, and the poem as a whole is carefully crafted to convey the speaker's inner turmoil.

The first stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The speaker establishes his age and his family background, but he also hints at the tension between his true self and the expectations of others. The second stanza delves deeper into this tension, as the speaker reflects on his own contradictions:

"I have been studying with a blind teacher / of horseback riding for the last six months. / He says, "I hear your body. It makes a sound / like sandpaper.""

Here, the speaker is exploring the idea that his body is a reflection of his inner self. The blind teacher is able to "hear" the speaker's body because it represents his true self, stripped of social conditioning.

The third stanza is the emotional core of the poem. The speaker reveals his deepest fears and desires, expressing a longing for connection and intimacy:

"The way the world / leans on me sometimes I swear / there is only one set of footprints in the snow. / I don't go out anymore."

These lines are poignant and heartbreaking. The speaker is admitting to a sense of isolation and loneliness, even as he yearns for connection with others.

The final stanza of the poem is a reflection on the speaker's own mortality. He acknowledges that he is aging and that his time on this earth is limited. He writes:

"I keep / waking up in the middle of winter / and feeling myself not a part of anything, / not even the pale, new sunlight."

This final stanza brings the poem full circle, returning to the idea of the speaker's search for identity. He is still struggling to find his place in the world, even as time ticks away.


The language of Self-Portrait, 1969 is spare and precise. Bidart chooses his words carefully, using them to convey the speaker's emotions and inner turmoil. The poem is full of vivid imagery and sensory details, which help to bring the speaker's experiences to life.

One of the most striking images in the poem is the blind horseback riding teacher. This character is both literal and metaphorical, representing the idea that the speaker's true self is blind to societal expectations. The image of sandpaper is also powerful, conveying a sense of roughness and friction that speaks to the speaker's internal struggles.

Another notable aspect of the language in the poem is the repetition of certain phrases. For example, the phrase "I am" appears four times in the first stanza alone. This repetition emphasizes the speaker's search for identity and his attempts to define himself.

The final lines of the poem are particularly haunting:

"I keep / waking up in the middle of winter / and feeling myself not a part of anything, / not even the pale, new sunlight."

Here, Bidart uses the metaphor of winter to convey a sense of bleakness and isolation. The image of the pale, new sunlight is a poignant reminder of the speaker's own mortality and the fleeting nature of life.


In conclusion, Self-Portrait, 1969 is a powerful and deeply moving poem that explores the complexities of identity and the struggle to find oneself. Through vivid imagery and careful language, Bidart takes us on a journey through the speaker's psyche, revealing his fears, desires, and contradictions.

The poem is a reflection on the tension between the inner self and the outer self, as well as a search for honesty and authenticity. The structure of the poem is deceptively simple, but each line is packed with meaning. The language is spare and precise, conveying the speaker's emotions with vivid imagery and sensory details.

Overall, Self-Portrait, 1969 is a masterpiece of modern poetry, and a testament to the power of the written word to capture the complexities of the human experience.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Self-Portrait, 1969: An Analysis of Frank Bidart's Classic Poem

Frank Bidart's Self-Portrait, 1969 is a classic poem that has stood the test of time. It is a powerful and emotional piece of literature that explores themes of identity, self-discovery, and the human condition. In this article, we will take a closer look at the poem and analyze its meaning, structure, and literary devices.

The poem begins with the speaker describing himself as a "boy with auburn hair." This line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as it establishes the speaker's identity and the time period in which the poem is set. The use of the word "boy" suggests that the speaker is young and inexperienced, while the mention of his hair color adds a visual element to the poem.

The next few lines of the poem describe the speaker's physical appearance in more detail. He is "thin as a sheet of paper" and has "eyes like a bird's." These descriptions create a vivid image of the speaker in the reader's mind and help to establish his character.

As the poem progresses, the speaker begins to reflect on his identity and his place in the world. He describes himself as "a stranger in this world," suggesting that he feels disconnected from the people and places around him. This feeling of alienation is a common theme in Bidart's poetry, and it is one that many readers can relate to.

The speaker goes on to describe his desire for self-discovery and his search for meaning in life. He says that he wants to "know what it means to be alive," and that he is "searching for a way to be." These lines are particularly powerful, as they capture the universal human desire to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

The poem then takes a darker turn, as the speaker describes his struggles with addiction and self-destructive behavior. He says that he is "addicted to the needle" and that he "cuts himself to feel alive." These lines are raw and honest, and they paint a vivid picture of the speaker's pain and desperation.

Despite these struggles, the speaker remains hopeful and determined. He says that he is "not afraid to die," and that he is "fighting to live." These lines are a testament to the human spirit and our ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

The structure of the poem is also worth noting. It is written in free verse, with no set rhyme or meter. This gives the poem a sense of spontaneity and rawness, which is fitting given the subject matter. The poem is also divided into short stanzas, which creates a sense of urgency and momentum.

In terms of literary devices, Bidart uses a variety of techniques to convey his message. One of the most notable is repetition. Throughout the poem, he repeats certain phrases and images, such as the speaker's desire to "know what it means to be alive" and his addiction to the needle. This repetition creates a sense of rhythm and reinforces the poem's themes.

Bidart also uses metaphor and imagery to great effect. For example, he compares the speaker's eyes to a bird's, which creates a vivid and memorable image. He also uses the metaphor of cutting oneself to feel alive, which is a powerful and disturbing image that captures the speaker's pain and desperation.

In conclusion, Self-Portrait, 1969 is a classic poem that explores themes of identity, self-discovery, and the human condition. Through its vivid imagery, raw honesty, and powerful message, it has touched the hearts of countless readers over the years. Whether you are a fan of poetry or simply looking for a powerful and moving piece of literature, this poem is well worth your time.

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