Benedikt, Michael

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BENEDIKT, Michael


Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 26 May 1935. Education: New York University, B.A. in English and journalism 1956; Columbia University, New York, M.A. in comparative literature 1961. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1958–59. Career: Associate editor, Horizon Press, publishers, New York, 1959–61; New York correspondent, Art International, Lugano, 1965–67; associate editor, Art News magazine, New York, 1963–72; instructor in language and literature, Bennington College, Vermont, 1968–69; poet-in-residence, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1969–73; associate professor of arts and humanities, Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1973–75; Sexton Professor of Poetry, 1975, and visiting professor, 1977–79, Boston University; associate professor, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1976–77. Poetry editor, Paris Review, 1974–78. Since 1973 contributing editor, American Poetry Review, Philadelphia. Awards: Bess Hokin prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts prize, 1970, and fellowship, 1979–80; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1975. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York 10022. Address: 315 West 98th Street, New York, 10025, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Serenade in Six Pieces. Privately printed, 1958.

Changes. Detroit, New Fresco, 1961.

8 Poems. Privately printed, 1966.

The Body. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

Sky. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1970.

Mole Notes (prose poems). Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

Night Cries (prose poems). Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1976.

The Badminton of Great Barrington; or, Gustav Mahler and the >Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, and London, Feffer and Simons, 1980.

Recording: Today's Poets 5, with others, Folkways, 1968.

Plays

The Vaseline Photographer, (playlet; produced New York, 1965).

The Orgy Bureau, in Chelsea (New York). 1968.

Box (multi-media event, with others; produced New York, 1970).

Other

Editor, with George E. Wellwarth, Modern French Theatre: The Avant-Garde, Dada and Surrealism. New York, Dutton, 1964; as Modern French Plays: An Anthology from Jarry to Ionesco, London, Faber, 1965.

Editor, with George E. Wellwarth, Postwar German Theatre: An Anthology of Plays. New York, Dutton, 1967; London, Macmillan, 1968.

Editor and translator, Ring around the World: The Selected Poems of Jean L'Anselme. London, Rapp and Whiting, 1967; Denver, Swallow, 1968.

Editor, Theatre Experiment: New American Plays. New York, Doubleday, 1967.

Editor, with George E. Wellwarth, Modern Spanish Theatre: An Anthology of Plays. New York, Dutton, 1968.

Editor, 22 Poems of Robert Desnos. Santa Cruz, California, Kayak, 1971.

Editor, The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology. Boston, Little Brown, 1974.

Editor, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology. New York, Dell, 1976.

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Manuscript Collection (1960–68): Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.

Critical Studies: Benedikt: A Profile, Tucson, Grilled Flowers Press, 1978; The Poetics of the Postmodern American Prose Poem (dissertation) by Susan Hawkins Miller, n.p., 1981.

Michael Benedikt comments:

(1970) Major theme is probably the relationship of matter and spirit; sometimes the sensual and the "pure." General sources and influences: the French symbolists and surrealists until about 1968; most recently, the English romantic poets. Stylistically, I am interested in the treatment of "difficult" subjects with clarity, since their reality is very clear, at least to me. I am probably as much influenced by contemporary painting, film, and theater as I am by any movement in poetry. I have become interested in the possibilities of the poem in prose as well as verse.

(1995) Newer work is largely in verse and is concerned with the incorporation of more "realistic" materials. Titles of works in progress: Family Blessings, Family Curses (narrative poems descriptive of the difficulties of a person undergoing a so-called midlife crisis, including a divorce, and also about the new life and travels that can await him [her]); Dear Alice/Kate (one long narrative poem on the subject of two cats who were pets). Also a manuscript of poems on the joys and sorrows of living in an often interestingly technological but always, or almost always, highly materialistic society. The latter MS is intended to be a kind of "survivor's handbook" for myself and others and is tentatively entitled Of.

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There are many ways to imagine the poet: warbling his native woodnotes wild, legislating unknown to the rest of us, speaking in the language that men do know, giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name, making things that are palpable and mute. Michael Benedikt typifies the poet as the eternal outsider, the poet against the world. And what a world it is, filled with "traditional poets," "collegiate English instructors," "Women of the Earth" (who use their allure "to snatch at people with"), "Power People" (who shout through loudspeakers, "Get up off your asses and make a revolution!"), guests at garden parties in Scarsdale, "X" (whose lovers are dull, "so that others glimpsing them, and after conversation, would remark, 'Agh! phooey! you wouldn't catch us talking to them at even the dullest cocktail party ever thrown!' &" ["For Love or Money"]). So many cocktail parties; so many references to the Upper West Side of New York; a whole poem devoted to sneering at Troy, New York, which all New York poets know is Nowheresville. I sense in this work a life dedicated to chastising opponents of true culture, true art, true life, whatever that is. In his book Mole Notes there is a passage that for me sums up Benedikt's work, expresses the stance he takes toward the world: "Also, at this very moment, there is someone in a Civilian Submarine at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico whose actions affect us all with their secluded elegance, their secret grandeur, grace, and repose" ("Molar Advent in Retrospect"). In poem after poem Benedikt takes the position of the commander of this submarine, alternatively raving about his enemy the world, lamenting its abysmal ignorance, or pitying its failure to be sensitive, graceful, grand, or elegant. Submarines keep appearing throughout his work, always as outmoded vehicles of transport, whether "civilian" or "pleasure" submarines, the very latest model for the year 1915. These and other images and objects in the work give it a dated air, reminiscent of those surrealist collages that juxtapose steam engines and harpies, corset ads and patent velocipedes.

Benedikt has translated a great deal of surrealist poetry and edited The Poetry of Surrealism. It would be surprising if this interest were not reflected in his own poetry. But what does it mean to be writing surrealist poetry in the 1970s, to be guided by an avant-garde aesthetic half a century old? The very objects in many of his poems recall the interiors of early twentieth-century Europe: umbrella stands, mirrors, bowler hats, décolletage. I do not mean to say that Benedikt is a kind of verbal Edward Gorey, camping out among the Edwardians, for many of his poems are set firmly in the present. It is just that he has not always been able to resist using the same things that are familiar to us from that earlier work, and so his poems necessarily partake of the earlier poetry's peculiar historical feel.

Some of Benedikt's poems read like exercises in surrealism. "The European Shoe," for example, consists of fifteen short sections, each having the shoe as its subject: "Tears fall from the eye of the European Shoe as it waves goodbye to us/from the back balcony of the speeding train" (The Body). The use of the same incongruous object in a repetitive pattern and the animation of the inanimate (or the other way around) are devices made familiar to us by the surrealists, and to find them in a contemporary poem is to be reminded of the poet's forebears and also to perceive the poem as a crafted thing, a consciously made artifact. Hence my difficulty with this and other poems in The Body and in Sky, for the surrealists despised the idea of art as craftsmanship. We are confronted here with something that seems very much like the antisurrealist poem. The destruction of what one wishes to celebrate must necessarily accompany the use of surrealism as a style. In "A Beloved Head" Benedikt employs the surrealist device of turning something organic into something mechanical. Here surrealism exists only at the surface of the poem, decorating the straightforward idea that some men manipulate women as if they were machines. André Breton would not have approved.

Mole Notes, an elegantly printed volume of short prose pieces, seems a logical development in Benedikt's work. In The Body and Sky there is a gradual but noticeable drift toward the long line, a growing sense of paragraphs rather than stanzas or stanzalike forms. But the tone of Mole Notes remains consistent with the earlier work, having the sense of a series of collisions, of unexpected juxtapositions. In some of the pieces the comic and the serious work beautifully together ("The Bewitched Lover"):

   And whenever you carry me away, it is as if you
   were bringing me something! O come to me, true
   beloved, so that you can go away in a hurry again!

Here there is a kind of fusion or, better, an alternating current that expresses exactly the attraction and repulsion cycle of love. But the common problem of poets who turn to short prose works appears here as well, the sense that in writing prose the poet can be unbuttoned and casual and can kick over the traces of form. Many of these mole notes seem loose to the point of carelessness. "The Secret of Scotch" and "The Pain Alarm" strike me as being very good stand-up comic routines, and no doubt they lay them in the aisles at readings, but they disappoint the reader.

—Steven Young

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Benedikt, Michael

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