Monday, July 01, 2013

Six Passages: Introducing Michael Benedikt

Hot news!  We're only weeks away from the appearance of Time is a Toy: The Selected Poems of Michael Benedikt, in which the intrepid editors John Gallaher and Laura Boss bring together poems from throughout the career of this often wonderful, often under-rated poet, whose work combined New York School wit and panache with neo-Surrealist uncanniness.  The book will come with three introductory essays: one on the man, one on the strange tale of the white suitcase full of Benedikt's unpublished works that led to the creation of the book, and one on the poetry itself.  I am the author of this last one, and here it is:


 Six Passages: Introducing Michael Benedikt
In the introduction to his 1976 book The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, Michael Benedikt defines the prose poem as having six special qualities: an attentiveness to the unconscious; a impression of external reality as something mediated by our inner worlds; a feeling for the fluctuations of consciousness; a commitment to colloquial speech; a sense of humor; and a “hopeful skepticism.” Benedikt’s selections in the anthology give this definition a surprising degree of credence, but Benedikt’s list doesn't just describe the style of the prose poem: it provides the best possible brief definition of the qualities of his own writing, in poetry and prose poetry alike.

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is both distant and true, the stronger the image will be…
            —Pierre Reverdy, “The Image”

            Benedikt came by his interest in the unconscious through a long, deep, and fruitful engagement with Surrealism. Encouraged by Robert Bly in 1963 to investigate Surrealism, Benedikt became devoted to French Surrealism in particular, and in the early sixties alternated between undertaking translations from the French and writing his own poems, as if deliberately seeking the guidance of the Surrealist tradition. Indeed, by the time Benedikt’s anthology The Poetry of Surrealism appeared in 1974, he had become one of the leading American experts on Surrealist writing. So central had Surrealism become to his sense of what was most valuable in literature that, in his introduction to the anthology, he recruited his immediate influences—New York School poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch—and his favorite poets from the English Romantic school—Wordsworth and Coleridge—to the Surrealist camp. Benedikt eventually became wary of being too closely identified with Surrealism, though, claiming in 1977 that Surrealism was no longer central to his work. But, as the poems in the present volume attest, from the earliest to the latest work, his poetry frequently alternates or fuses passages of dream reality with empirical reality, following the proto-Surrealist Pierre Reverdy’s description of the process by which strong images are born via the juxtaposition of distant realities.

Modernity in the broadest sense as it has asserted itself historically, is reflected in the irreconcilable opposition between sets of values corresponding to (1) the objectified, socially measurable time of capitalist civilization… and (2) the personal, subjective, imaginative durée, the private time created by the unfolding of the ‘self.’
            —Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity

            A confirmed agoraphobe, Benedikt was always more than ordinarily attuned to the boundaries between the public world of objective events and the world of private experience. In an interview with Naomi Shihab, Benedikt spoke of how the problem of communication for the poet had to do with “bringing the internal world and the external world together” linking or “playing off or perhaps testing the language of travel folders, the language of banking, of instruction manuals” against another world altogether, the world of “internal, ‘personal,’ or psychological things.” This, he goes on to say is “not only an aesthetic imperative but a moral imperative.” We get a sense, from this comment, of just how seriously Benedikt took the fusing of dream and external realities. There are moments in his work, though, when the moral imperative to connect the inner and the outer seems almost too great for him to bear. Condsider Mole Notes, the most sustained and most powerfully imagined work in Benedikt’s oeuvre. This sequence of prose poems represents something approaching a total retreat from the external world. Here, the world out there is dangerous, and the tunneling Mole retreats in pessimism to a world of the literal and psychological underground. One understands the urge to retreat, especially given the events of 1971, the year in which Mole Notes appeared: the Weather Underground bombing of the Capitol building; the conviction of both Charles Manson, and of the America lieutenant found guilty in the Mai Lai massacre; the arrest of 12,000 anti-war protestors; the Pentagon Papers bringing to light corruption and cynicism at the highest levels; genocide in Bangladesh; the prison riots at Attica; and the continuing specter of nuclear annihilation looming over the entire planet. If, as Benedikt claimed, Mole Notes and his next book, Night Cries, represented a “black pessimism,”it was pessimism well-grounded in events. It was also a pessimism that faded, and the poems of The Badminton at Great Barrington; or Gustave Mahler & the Chattanooga Choo-Choo find Benedikt once again fearlessly exploring the boundary between the subjective and the objective realms, this time giving us a protagonist who, unlike Mole, is excessively drawn to the excitements and allures of the external world.

Their purpose of writing was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking, or, in Pascal's words, la peinture de la pensée. They knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing is not the idea that was experienced. The ardor of its conception in the mind is a necessary part of its truth…
          —Morris W. Croll, “The Baroque Style in Prose”

In an essay much-loved and quoted by poets as diverse as Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Bernstein, the critic Morris W. Croll described the tenor and technique of baroque prose, which eschewed classical reserve for “the energy and labor of minds seeking the truth, not without dust and heat.” Benedikt’s work frequently proceeds in the baroque manner, showing the probings of the conscious mind as well as the interweaving of the rational and the irrational. Not for Benedikt the paring down of an initial prolixity into the austere perfection of the mot juste in the manner of, say, the young Ezra Pound when he cut the 36 lines of an initial draft down to the spare couplet that is “In a Station of the Metro.” Instead, Benedikt shows the mind working to find the right expression. Consider “Invitation to Previously Uninvited Guests” from Mole Notes, in which the smoke of a rare cigar melting into a room full of guests is described as being “like a sugar cube melting on the tongue” and “like honey in the mind of a diabetic,” similes which launch a long catalog other comparisons:
…like your wallet in the hands of a prostitute, like chopped liver in the heart of the professional caterer, like surviving leaves in midwinter sleet, like ant feces in a vat full of nitrate, like an inexpensive tieclip before the onslaughts of rust, like conversation into silence among boring company, like the conception of generosity after December 26th, like space beneath even the tiniest hand caressing even the tallest lover discovering the joys of some novel perversion, like the idea of 18th century chamber music in the minds of the oppressed, like truth in a Latin-American newspaper, like dialogue in the mouth of the megalomaniac, like meaning in the mind of the poet.
What we see here is the mind of the poet seeking the mot juste, rather than the mot juste itself. While there’s a certain humorous quality to the proliferation of similes—when we arrive at the final image of meaning dispersing like smoke in the mind of the poet, we’ve reached a point of comic exasperation—there’s a serious purpose to Benedikt’s method. Just as he saw the exploring of the intersection of the inner and outer worlds as a moral imperative, he saw the depicting of the mind in thought as a moral as well as an aesthetic matter. His representation of the mind’s processes, he once claimed, had to do with “incorporating more and more and the incorporation doesn’t make you lose focus… but rather makes you get a greater part of your mind in focus.” For Benedikt, if one is to write truthfully, one must write the process of the mind into the poem.

That’s part of Personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it.
            Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto”

            The comic quality of Benedikt’s work comes with an impressive pedigree. An exclamation-mark laden, buoyant, faux-naïve quality is especially evident in the earlier work, which was very much written in the shadow of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, whose works the young Benedikt would often read for an hour or so before setting down to write his own poems. A decade or so younger than the leading poets of the New York School, Benedikt was, like most of the more established poets, a Francophile, an ivy leaguer, and a professional art critic. Like them, too, he tended to write with an awareness of the hip, knowing intimacy of the New York poetry scene.  He’s not above dropping a proper name or two in a poem, and once you start counting the pronouns in Benedikt’s poetry, you’ll be surprised at how many times you’ll find “you,” “we,” and “us”— both of these are techniques that help to build a sense of reader-writer community. Indeed, much of the charm and warmth of Benedikt’s comic gestures depends on one’s sense of being taken into a little imaginative circle, where we communicate as intimates. His is a poetry that cracks a wry smile in a small room, rather than sounding a barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination...
            William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads
            Benedikt was prone to abuse T.S. Eliot in his critical writings, and one understands why. Unlike Eliot, whose strongest work could read like a polyglot tissue of quotations from classic or arcane texts, Benedikt insisted on a certain plain-spokenness, an ordinary language as the medium for poetry. He complained in Poetry about poets who asserted their bardic privilege, which was really nothing more than a “bardic abuse,” whose method was tediously “‘kultural,’ involving ponderously ‘literary’ phrases or phrases whose grace is meant to astonish, representing, by stuffing implication, the poetic soul.” This is not to say that Benedikt limits his range of diction to that of the ordinary man on the street, as the high incidence of the Romantic exclamatory or classically apostrophic “oh!” in his writing makes plain. What Benedikt does, though, is to shy away from the notion of the poet as a kind of collagist piecing together the fragments of tradition, and insist on language that appears to be the expression of a speaking subject, a talker talking to us. The notion is at least as venerable as Wordsworth, and as modern as Frank O’Hara, with his idea that the telephone can replace the poem—and it is an idea Benedikt inherits from both poets.
A particularly perceptive analysis of Benedikt's Mole Notes contains the following passage:
Ironically, what Mole seeks by way of unreason is a more reasonable, rationally utopian world. Throughout the poem… Mole’s dominant emotion is, as Benedikt puts it, disappointment…. Mole-Benedikt cannot locate or establish Mole City on earth as it is; he finds only war, riots, crime, delusion. The great climax of the poem occurs therefore in what the poet calls Mole’s apotheosis, his literal flying through space like a projectile. What in the individual man amounts to a personal Thoreauvian-like revolt must perforce divorce him from society.
            —Louis Gallo, “Benedikt’s Blues: Reason and Unreason in Poetry”

The passage captures the hopeful skepticism of Benedikt’s work: skeptical of any great claims for poetry or the renewal of the world, his poetry remains optimistic about the power and prospects of the individual imagination. Even after he had given up on many things—academe, fame, even the publication of his work, Benedikt could ask that we

…suppose then that, following our sudden realizations & quasi-epiphanies, madly
With our eyes rolling around wildly, our tongue hanging out & our hair standing
                            up on end despite the breeze,
One of us rushes to our clattery, old-fashioned, pre-computer-era typewriter,
      To make at least a temporary little household racket…

Even if this racket might “Risk being mistaken by some, for a ‘Throwaway Poem’” that the poet writes only “for the light amusement of himself or herself & perhaps a few old friends” it remains the medium of enthusiasm and hair-raising enthusiasm. And even if the unpublished poems were tucked away in a suitcase, the hope remained—it is there in that line about the poem being “mistaken” as something only for the poet’s friends—that they would find their way out into the world, to you.

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