Benedikt, Michael (Vol. 14)
Benedikt, Michael 1935–
Benedikt is an American editor, poet, critic, translator, playwright, and song composer. His poetry, with its surprising shifts in subject and logic, reflects his interest in surrealist art and theater. He has also experimented with prose poems. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
The purpose of Michael Benedikt's collection of prose poems, Night Cries, is straightforward enough: to see the world lying about us in a new way, to strip off the veils of familiarity (Shelley), to open the doors of perception (Blake, Huxley). It is one of the oldest and most resilient of Romantic subjects, and Benedikt re-presents it out of its modern Romantic traditions of symbolist and surrealist literature.
Mr Benedikt's project, like that of his forebears, lays down one fundamental imperative. If the world is to be seen in a new way forever …, then the source of vision and understanding has to be broken in upon and cleansed. Tradition has always dictated that such a cleansing is an inward affair, a matter (literally) of insight. Mr Benedikt is a very traditional poet, and his Nietzschean parable "The Doorway of Perception" states the programme in no uncertain terms….
[Mr Benedikt] is a selfconscious manipulator of the form. Many of the poems here are parables about the virtues of prose poetry and the vices of verse…. "The Muse in Armor" brings the obvious charge that verse is stuffy and insincere….
The second charge against verse is related to the first: that to write in verse one must calculate. Verse entails deliberations, and ends in craftiness….
Mr Benedikt's book interests me precisely because it is so selfconscious about itself, so well...
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Coming upon Michael Benedikt's collection of brief prose pieces [Night Cries], one should perhaps be reminded of the traditions of the prose poem and of French surrealism, from which these pieces appear to be derived. But what comes to mind instead is Gertrude Stein's dictum that "remarks are not literature"…. For the apparent purpose of these pieces is to pose novel hypotheses and situations and to make amusing, unexpected remarks….
[Characteristically an] arbitrary relationship will be premised, usually in the title. A dramatic situation involving the speaker and a personified physical object will then be established, and a linear narrative or conceit will be developed, employing explicit physical imagery. The theme will often be sexual or scatological. The tone will be detached, bemused, sarcastic.
The weakness of the method should be evident from the description. It is deductive, and it is very often predictable. The imagery and episodes, however shocking or clever, vivid or violent, become so many supporting instances of a proposition stated at the outset. The speaker sees a face in the trash; and since we know from previous anecdotes that he is given to personification and to establishing relationships with inanimate objects, we can pretty much predict what will follow. The result is that, although these pieces present many instances of sudden violent action … they present few surprises. From the...
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Michael Benedikt … seems to have given up on mankind altogether and makes his work a series of jokes at its expense. To write a Benedikt poem (or prose poem in the case of Night Cries …) you begin with something obvious and expand until it becomes absurd. Anyone with any wit at all can do it. The language is filled with clichés, figures of speech, puns, morals that cannot be subjected to any scrutiny at all before they begin to break down. (p. 45)
I also have an argument with the concept of the prose poem….
From a jaundiced perspective it appears that a prose poem writer throws out the craft of poetry and the bother of inventing a story with plot and character for an easier alternative. (p. 46)
Finally I admit to being alienated by Benedikt's surrealism. One of the things that people like about surrealism is that it only confirms their own worst suspicions about the world—that people are dead and all life has passed to inanimate objects. People in these poems are so dead, in fact, that they are menaced by their own clothes or furniture which are now much more alive. There must be an incredible amount of cultural masochism at work to permit people to go on believing this nonsense, or depths of self-hatred which are bottomless. People and objects are not "interchangeable" (as one of Benedikt's admirers so glowingly says they are). Is it any more profound to endow a garbage pail...
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Benedikt, Michael (Vol. 4)
Benedikt, Michael 1935–
Benedikt is an American poet, critic of art, film, and music, and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
Benedikt's poetry strikes me as being New and Improved, like soap. This is too bad, because his first book, The Body, was so good. In Sky he is slicker, more clever, more polished in his own Ogden Nashian unpolished way, but he has lost the sense of discovery that he had in The Body. There's no doubt that many of the poems in Sky are funny, but beyond that they don't do much for me…. I do like it when Benedikt's humor fastens on mundane or arbitrary things. He gives you a sense of the completely arbitrary structure of many aspects of life…. Benedikt's strategy is to take things literally, as they manifest themselves; this gives his poetry a point of view slanted enough and yet familiar enough so that ordinary things become strange and humorous and random. But the trouble is, this is pretty one-sided. When everything is random and arbitrary, poetry is finished; there's no sense in writing anymore. Ideas for poems become more or less expendable. You have to start writing list poems, as Benedikt does. List all the names for the baby, all the ways people undress, the various things an arm can do, the things that don't work, etc. Or simply list the things you see walking down the street…. This is that same kind of languid eagerness to record, without any selectivity, that one associates with a lot of New York art, especially with Andy Warhol's movies. Selectivity implies that some things are more important than others, for any number of reasons; poetry, in fact, is the act of discovery of those things and those reasons. What was good about Benedikt's first book, The Body, was the sense you got of wading through lots of junk and clutter in order to find important things and to find weird and new connections between them. In Sky, there is the junk and clutter, and a slightly more polished style, as well as a little more wit, but nothing else, no discovery, no important things, no weird connections. Everything is flattened out and exists side by side, the interesting and the dull. It's all a rather mildly entertaining background with no figure or figures set against it. Benedikt wants you to like it, although he doesn't want to appear to try too hard; and so he describes it, makes a few funny observations, artlessly disparages himself and his artlessness, and moves on, never engaging anything that he's described, and consequently never engaging the reader.
John Vernon, in Western Humanities Review, Spring, 1971, pp. 193-94.
Modern poetry has accomplished the significant task of extending the range of poetic humor. Lightness, parody, and sheer giggle have been combined to elbow out a little more dimension. Michael Benedikt's newest book, Mole Notes, is a collection of digs toward another fantastic nether-netherland.
Mole is Benedikt's protagonist. He burrows and squints his way into terrestial activities, makes a few down-to-earth comments, concludes with an appropriate understatement, and wriggles back into the ground. Mole is seen only on occasion, though he is usually felt to be somewhere underfoot. He likes to read and "if Mole seems to be a sort of bookworm it's probably because of all the literature he finds in the garbage can." His discourses are erudite enough to include a lecture on (who else?) Molière. Mole is an innocent whose simplicity cuts through muddy platitudes, whose blindness is only physical….
Mole Notes is composed of a series of prose poems, and all too often it exhibits the pitfalls of the genre. It has a frequent tendency to get carried away, leaving the reader baffled and irritated. The humor sometimes becomes shrill; the free-form associations sometimes seem interminable and dull. The fun often seems silly, and whatever profundity may creep beneath the whimsy is probably lost forever. At his best, Benedikt's prose poems are quick and amusing. At his worst, they are only paragraphs in shambles.
Contriving a method for presenting humor through poetry has always been a difficult task. And for this, Mole Notes may be more admirable for what it attempted than for what it achieved.
W. G. Regier, "Demolition," in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1973, pp. 86-7.