Ben Belitt 1911–
American poet, translator, and nonfiction writer.
Belitt's verse is characterized by a traditional, complex, and careful use of language. This has brought him critical praise from some, yet others agree with Randall Jarrell, who calls him "not a poet but a rhetorician."
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5: American Poets since World War II.)
It is Mr. Belitt's intention, he informs us in a preface to this outstanding first book ["The Five-Fold Mesh"], to effect a sequence which "attempts finally to establish usable relationships between the personal and the contemporary world."… Mr. Belitt has not only worked toward an orientation of outlook, every poem in this collection has been shaped with the most exquisite care; the studied art of the draftsman guides an instinctive feeling for rightness in shade, tone, balance. The compact "intellectual" manner, the metaphysical imagery, show obvious influences, and some of the poems recall, among the best writing of the twenties, the work of Louise Bogan and Leonie Adams.
Mr. Belitt's chief difficulty lies in bridging the gap between his mystical, non-realistic personal world, and the broad, complex, but essentially realistic aspects of the outer, contemporary world. One may see, specifically the discrepancies between his subjects, taken from his time, and his language—which is not of his time. If a poet seeks to interpret the life about him, to find those "usable relationships," he will draw from the idioms and cadences of the thought and speech of his day…. Much of Mr. Belitt's speech—established, "literary"—might come from the world of Herbert, Vaughan, or Donne; or from the medieval jousting field, or the cloister….
The final section of poems should be particularly mentioned, for in this sequence...
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In the first three sections of [The Five-Fold Mesh] Ben Belitt is, for the most part, the traditional lyric poet. He constructs out of a past that includes the Shakespeare of the sonnets, Donne, Keats, and, more recently, Housman and Elinor Wylie. That "metaphysical" experience so alluring to the young provides much of the substance; the "simple responses" are made in a meticulously selected language which sometimes shows the effect of too much attention. At his worst Belitt presents the familiar spectacle of the male poet at work on his lyric embroidery: he is just another spiritual nephew of Elinor Wylie. But a firm control on his line prevents disaster even when he employs sentimental clichés….
A traditional form like the sonnet shows Belitt in typical achievement. All the examples in section II have real substance, dignity, and movement; all except the last one are just a bit mannered, even for sonnets. (p. 215)
In the central section of ten lyrics Belitt is sometimes a very young and sometimes a truly mature artist. The Duel is marred by attitudinizing. The basic image is archaic; the gentle hortatory cadences are boring…. But in Charwoman and Tarry, Delight the poet finally breaks loose from his usual tightly constricted patterns to create poems that have the immediately identifiable mark of an individual style.
The last three longer poems—Brief for a...
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Read consecutively, each of the four sections of Ben Belitt's [Wilderness Stair. Poems 1938–1954] presents us with a new and higher platform of poetic development. The first part opens with Dance Piece … and ends with Nightpiece; both are excellent formal lyrics out of the poet's soul-observatory. Between these we find a "travelogue" of poems with flashing impressions of places from Mexico to Manhattan; naked contrasts of sensations are employed; hard, sharp, torpid, often inorganic things are ranged alongside the tender and lively. The language supports the choice of symbols, and consistently in this group … the intention is seen to "strike a strenuous sweetness out of brine." Most impressive is the evidence of control and equilibrium in the handling of polarities of beauty and horror in Bull-Ring: Plaza Mexico.
A steeper ascent, toward the transcendence of self-conflict, is announced in the next section by the first lines of the long poem Later Testament: "Contest the habit of angels, Tempted the man from the wilderness stair."… [Here] an evolutionary step is taken in technique: language is pared of excess and metaphors are sculptured; scrupulous detail is less sought after than an effective whole with apocalyptic and psychological reverberations….
In his wrestling with opposite angels, one an exacting moral sense and the other a willingness to be overwhelmed by the sensual, Belitt occasionally...
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Ben Bellit's book ["Wilderness Stair"] is a demanding one. But so admirably does he handle the purely aural values of verse that a reader who knew no English might well enjoy those richly patterned sounds. If his language is dense with meanings, it is also thick with other resonances. His rhythms, which recurrently approach and retreat from the classical hexameter, have a spring and balance peculiarly his own…. The literary references notwithstanding, the poems have to do not with letters but with life. Even the more opaque pages suggest what the luminous ones clarify: a sense of the tension that lies at the heart of a maintained harmony. There are, too, for the reader's immediate pleasure, glimpses of Vermont and Mexico, Nantucket or lower Manhattan, which will offer deeper significance when he returns to them again. And always there is the music of Ben Belitt's happily managed vocables and excellent phrasing.
Babette Deutsch, "Progress of Two Poets—K. S. Alling and Ben Belitt," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), July 3, 1955, p. 4.∗
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I have never understood why I could feel so little interest in Ben Belitt's work—he is a writer of skill, force, and intelligence—but I have decided, after reading and rereading "Wilderness Stair," that it is because he is not a poet but a rhetorician. He is very much influenced by that very rhetorical poet Hart Crane … but where Crane, at his best, uses rhetoric to say something, Mr. Belitt says something to use rhetoric. Underneath all his writing there is the settled determination to use certain words, to take certain attitudes, to produce a certain atmosphere; what he is seeing or thinking or feeling has hardly any influence on the way he writes. (p. 237)
Randall Jarrell, "Recent Poetry: 'Wilderness Stair'," (originally published in The Yale Review, Vol. XLV, No. 1, September, 1955), in his Kipling, Auden & Co.: Essays and Reviews 1935–1964 (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1955, 1980 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980, pp. 237-38.
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John M. Brinnin
[In "The Enemy Joy" Ben Belitt] writes with an unabashed sense of the grandeur and theatricality of the English tongue. Archaisms from which other poets turn away, the fabric and music other poets avoid like Tyrolean baroque, he embraces with pleasure and skill. He is not the man in the street and he never pretends that, just behind a gorgeous phrase or a nimble-fingered obbligato, he might be. One reads Belitt with delight in the fact that, even today, depths of feeling and the reports of a caustic eye are not necessarily presented in basic English or words of four letters.
Going against the grain, Belitt courts jeopardy, and there are occasions when he succumbs to the temptations of verbal ornament and the soufflé of pretty rhetoric. But for the greater part he is rich and vigorous, adequate to a tradition he loves and perpetuates. Among a host of new versifiers who sound like admen scratching the Madison Avenue chicken run for glittery items, he walks in self-possession, his eye elsewhere.
John M. Brinnin, "The Voices Have Range," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1964, p. 54.∗
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The Enemy Joy, which brings together early and recent poems, is a journeying to various places that are named, and also a sinking into distant levels of existences. The finite things which are everywhere in this book of poems reveal the infinite as lucidly as they reveal the selves of the poet. These selves have been joined together by means of a tremendous pressure.
Mr. Belitt favors the sequence of poems, where the exposing of a theme can be elaborated and developed and recalled from poem to poem…. [In the] five poems called Battle-Piece, deriving from Uccello's painting Battaglia di San Romano …, Mr. Belitt's art reaches its most perfected form. What the poet sees in this painting is converted into his world: a world of hardness—metal and granite—which encompasses the softness, the vulnerability of man…. (p. 324)
A study of these poems would lead one to the very heart of the poetic process. The tension in them is almost too tight. At first view, the poetry will seem solemn and majestic, but it is permeated with volatile flashes. Ben Belitt has great reverence for the vocation of words, and he searches for the exact word in his care for logic, in what I suppose he might call the continuity of speech, the vicissitudes of images. His book testifies to the responsibility of a man in the presence of his language. He knows, better than most, something of that precarious contact established...
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Belitt likes unusual words, and [in Nowhere But Light gives] them a remarkable rightness of context….
Belitt's closely packed images and echoes, together with predominantly anapestic rhythms, draw me deep into the body of a poem before much of its prose sense is clear: I come to know the poems from the inside out….
Belitt's rhythms carry me swiftly onward, as if my sensibility were being bounced like a billiard ball among the clusters of echoes, until it comes to rest on the apparent simplicity of "time is made human again."…
Belitt develops ideas about the serenity to be salvaged from a precarious life; in the first section of his book, he veers between Vermont and Mexico, and comes to see himself as an "antipodal man": a figure teetering through disparate worlds, walking on the footsoles of his mirror-image, or of his other self.
This figure conjures up risk as a fact of life and of poetry. How to live with such risks is dealt with at length in "The Gorge," a five-part work arising from the poet's sojourns in Cuernavaca, where people have learned to live on nearly vertical slopes. Like those people, this poem is precariously, masterfully balanced: Belitt combines dense texture with openness of form, and he handles a wide variety of tones. Serenity comes with acceptance of hazard….
This paradoxical joy can transform even barrenness and death. That...
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[In The Enemy Joy] Belitt receives the world more exclusively by the ear than most; he writes by a kind of radar, and a relevant sound, by the rules of his procedures, is assumed to be a relevant sense; as though the one response would naturally evoke the other. Sometimes the defect of this virtue makes him put his elements a little too close together, as when he writes "a temple's example." But more often it is this reliance on how things sound that makes possible his characteristic combination of great elaboration with great intensity, in such phrases as "the pit of a petal's serration," "the plough, on its side in the leavening cloud/And the dazzle of stubble," "the kingdom of nuance, the fiends of inhuman refinement." A menacing intensity, I was going to say, but I realize that by now he's got me doing it too.
These instances suggest another trait of the style. More than any other poet writing in English …, Belitt plays that dangerous game of the mot juste, the specialized name kept for the one occasion, what he calls, in a phrase that may serve for definition and example at once, "the matched and extortionate word." This predilection for what is not only odd but also oddly right may have been nurtured in him by his many years' work at translation, that desperate double-entry bookkeeping where you get the word exactly matched at a price you hope isn't always extortionate, the momentary perfection at the risk of...
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Joan Hutton Landis
In "reading toward" the poetry of Ben Belitt, I should like to examine some of the central themes and preoccupations of a poet whose very human yearning for the things of this world, as well as things ascribable to other worlds "intact and unseen, like the orange's scent in the orange tree," have too often been obscured by the scope of his erudition or the elliptical brilliancies of his tactics. (p. 187)
Belitt's early work, roughly that of his first two volumes, The Five-Fold Mesh (1938) and Wilderness Stair (1955), establishes the primary facts and figures of his world. It is a place closely attended by the qualities of betrayal and loss, a world in which he is both literally and figuratively "orphaned." If, as he writes, "The quieter god comes early to the childhood/that is unhappy," it is equally true that neither the protective figure of this god nor the paternalism of orthodoxy can long maintain reality…. That he weeps for himself is rare, but that he does so for others who have suffered similar ordeals of trust and desertion is characteristic—for although many of these poems are tempered by isolation, anguish and despair, the poet has never been partial to the confessional or to the open-heart surgery of the self. Although he may understandably have yearned for such solipsistic indulgences, a basic severity of taste and, perhaps, an Eliotian sense of the rightness of the impersonal have served to keep his...
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[In The Double Witness the] "doublings" include kite and kiteflyer at either end of the string, changing places; salt tears and salt sea; Noah's ark and the Block Island ferry; the poet's hand and Keats's hand writing together (the one moving like a mirror-image beneath the paper), their nibs touching. Its world is a mirror-world, and many of the poems are creation-myths, calling into being whole catalogues simply by naming….
Belitt works with strings of words, polysemous lists. The list, since Homer, has been one of poetry's central devices…. Marianne Moore was the Leonardo of lists, but she did not have Ben Belitt's momentum, as of a man racing down a steep hill.
It's 40 years since Belitt first published a book of poems. Today, with the craft of a sexagenarian, he keeps an adolescent's gusto.
Hugh Kenner, "Three Poets: 'The Double Witness'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 12, 1978, p. 12.
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Ben Belitt's end [in The Double Witness] was and is to hold the mirror up to Hart Crane, and in the very torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of his passion to beget a tempest still more furious. He works at the job unflaggingly, and does it well. It is best to read him in a mood of embittered and somewhat reckless nostalgia, wondering why no one writes like that any more…. Belitt takes over all of the more easily identifiable properties of Crane's poems: the attributive noun, the doubling of catalogue-items …, plus a whole ferry-load of favorite words and things….
The Block Island sequence at the end of The Double Witness orchestrates many of the splendid and familiar sights and sounds, and takes the reader by storm. In the rest of this volume the borrowings are thinner and the results less happy. Belitt is a flamboyant language-user: no one else would write "meniscus" into a poem, and then do it again in another. He has an indifferent ear…. Most of his poems work with a five-beat accentual base which his line-endings serve to conceal not so much from his readers as from himself…. His plan to make all things full and o'erflowing is pleasant to contemplate, but, together with the bulky temperament that is his only real donnée, it conspires to make him formless in a predictable way. He belongs to the Crane of terrific thresholds rather than well-meant idioms. (pp. 171-72)
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Adam's Dream offers … a criticism of translation in which an understanding both of the functions of language and of its technical resources provides a fascinating and instructive method of language study.
The basic premise—that in translation it is a small thing to know, etymologically, the literal equivalent of foreign words, the important thing being to understand their intention and to render their effect in one's own way—is essentially sound. Thus any purely symbolic use of words can be reproduced if in two vocabularies similar symbolic distinctions have been developed. Otherwise new symbols will be required, and the degree of possible correspondence is a matter which can be simply investigated. On the other hand, the more the intuitive functions are involved the less easy will be the task of blending several of these in two vocabularies. And further, the greater the use made in the original of the direct effects of words through rhythm, vowel quality, et cetera, the more difficult it will be to secure similar effects in the same way in a different sound medium. Therefore some equivalent method has to be introduced, and this tends to disturb the other functions so that what is called the success of a translation is often due chiefly to its intrinsic merits.
Belitt's premise and its conclusion lead him to a still further conclusion: that equivalent method underlying the intrinsic merits of translation...
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By now, Ben Belitt's habits of book construction should be clear: within … The Double Witness, several single stunning pieces like "Xerox" and "The Guanajuato Mummies;" then clusters of poems embedding such earlier single poems from other books in now completed sequences…. In a kind of back-stitching forward movement, each successive book cannibalizes a portion of the last; adds titles; drops titles; whitens intervals between sections, or colors them with new material altogether. (p. 182)
[Belitt] is not a poet, then, to be read by the occasional lyric. And yet readers should also be quick to reject any simple line of chronological development, with impending climaxes wrapped up and delivered in the latest edition of a theme. Belitt tacks, goes back and forth over his ground, swells and contracts the durable scenes of his concern. (p. 183)
Disorder seems to be the key word…. The truth, or absolute nature, of any experience shaped by poems is seen by Belitt as provisional and tentative. Yet the poem, unlike life—is both repeatable and various. Or at the least, its fixed orders may be variably inserted and re-inserted in new structures that acknowledge the dominance of change and decay by challenging it…. That thing precisely that the poem is freer of, then, is the sped arrow of personal, or chronological time….
If one is to be liberated from the ultimately corrosive orders of time...
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