Michael Benedikt Essay - Benedikt, Michael (Vol. 4)

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.