The Double Witness

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The Double Witness runs against the tide of contemporary confessional poetry. Here is no self-pity, no sentimental nakedness. Ben Belitt writes handcrafted poems, both meditations and lyrics of the sort that have not been in fashion these last fifteen years or more. It is the sort of poetry that the undisciplined reader will probably dismiss as “academic”: in other words, it makes considerable demands on the reader’s mind. About these poems, Belitt has said:This volume—my fifth—extends and deepens a preoccupation I have had with the visible and invisible manifestations of people, places, and things. It offers a variety of poems of formal and textural density and, in addition, a system of doublings and solitudes whose oppositions express the drama of reality and appearance.

Any poet dealing with invisible manifestations is basically a Romantic, a visionary. But Belitt does not see angels in trees like William Blake; he is not a mystic. His visions peer into the nature of people and landscapes to get at truths not present on the surface. Like Neruda, Machado, and Keats, who are his touchstones, Belitt continually affirms the worth of the individual, continually insists that art gives meaning to our existence. As Wallace Stevens defined modern poetry, Belitt’s poems are the act of the mind finding what will suffice.

Like the good translator that he is, Belitt is almost too much aware that any event or object can be seen from at least two perspectives, that every thesis contains its antithesis. Throughout these poems, it is the doubling of vision that produces the conflicts, the tensions that make the poems work: internal/ external, light/dark, past/present. For example, in the fourth section of the volume, This Scribe, My Hand, the poet is constantly aware of his spiritual and artistic kinship with Keats:

You are thereon the underside of the page,a blue flower in my Baedeker,writing on water, I know it.The paper pulls under my pen. . . .

Unlike the popular confessional poets who sometimes write as if the world were not created until their birth, Belitt knows that it is the past that gives the present meaning, that it is not uniqueness that makes experience precious but its heritage. In his bleakest insights, he feels his kinship with Baudelaire, Machado, Dante, and Keats. What makes the bleakness bearable is the realization that the poet is not alone.

It is this realization that also makes great demands upon the reader in the form of allusions—classical, literary, and historical. For example, in Belitt’s poem “Swan Lake,” it is essential to the poet’s irony that the reader be familiar with the ballet of that name. It would also help if he were vaguely familiar with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and had seen at least a reproduction of Picasso’s “Guernica.” The poem contrasts, ironically, the external beauty of the swan with its brute personality. Painters, poets, musicians, and sculptors have traditionally used the swan to personify beauty and grandeur. Belitt’s double vision reminds us that the swan is unsentimental, knows nothing of art, and has a deep streak of “homicidal hate” that hisses “Bastards! Bastards!” to any intruder. Out of tawdry, frequently base reality, the artist creates beauty; this beauty, in turn, transforms the way in which we perceive reality.

If the reader has not observed the testy bad humor of a male swan, he will not appreciate the poem, for it violates his sentimental view of swans. If the reader has not experienced the swan in art, he will miss the irony entirely. The poet...

(The entire section is 1553 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Library Journal. CII, October 15, 1977, p. 2166.