Introduction

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Benedikt, Michael 1935–

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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.)

JEROME J. McGANN

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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 made, that the conventions of its art—the art of the prose poem—are easily visible….

The final argument suggests that verse encourages "poetical" inflation of the ordinary and the human…. Night Cries parodies many standard poetical topoi, and brings them down to earth….

The prose poem offers an alternative in all three areas. What interests me most above these alternatives is that they make up a set of poetic conventions in terms of which the prose poem carries out its manoeuvres….

Mr Benedikt has mastered these general conventions, as he has mastered the many stylistic devices which they call forth…. His book is important—it is also enjoyable—because it offers a fine, a clear opportunity to understand the craftsmanship of poetry, and particularly the craftsmanship of a poetic form whose general ideology, Romanticism, has so far succeeded in its programmes that many still find it difficult willingly to suspend their disbelief while reading it. Like all poetry, this sort of work is neither to be believed (romantically) nor disbelieved (critically). One must either respond to it selfconsciously (if one is inclined to the Romantic), or follow one's understanding of its forms until one appreciates the grace of its art….

Jerome J. McGann, "The Virtues of Prose," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3880, July 23, 1976, p. 911.

Ben Howard

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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 first sentence, if not from the titles alone—The Sarcophagus of the Esophagus, The Nipplewhip, How to Disembark from a Lark—one can usually guess the outcome.

The predictability of the pieces is in direct conflict with their apparent purpose, which is to subvert the reader's conventional perceptions. Judging from their many obscenities, these narratives have been designed to offend the reader; and at their more vulgar moments … they succeed in doing just that. But if their larger purpose is to jar the reader's established modes of perception, they must be deemed a failure, because their lack of any evident conviction allows them to be relegated rather easily to the shelves of the novelty shop. Benedikt's methods do result in fresh perceptions, as when he invites us to view sleep as a place to which one drives "down the highways of staying awake", or when he suggests that "passing through" the eyes of his "detective wife" is like "clearing Cuban-American customs!" But the bulk of the statements in his book seem based on nothing more compelling than a pun or a rhyme or a roll of the dice. And though they provide many new perspectives on ordinary experience, they make no case for adopting any of those perspectives. Indeed, the author seems to dare us to believe in his fictions. (pp. 289-90)

Ben Howard, "Four Voices," in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXX, No. 5, August, 1977, pp. 285-92.∗

Kathleen Wiegner

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

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 with the personality of a tart ("A Face in the Trash") than for Joyce Kilmer to give a tree the personality of a loving mother? Benedikt's poem is certainly more in tune with modern sensibility not only in its imagery but in the note of hysteria on which the poem ends. His poems hover lovingly over the worst that can happen in any situation…. When Benedikt cuts close to the accident-prone nature of existence free of the bad puns and corny jokes, as he does in this poem, his vision is quite convincingly real. Too often there is no more grace and wit in his anger than the man in a barroom argument who, when baited beyond endurance can only respond "shove it…." (pp. 46-7)

Kathleen Wiegner, "Heroes and Heroines of Private Life," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1977 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Kathleen Wiegner), Vol. 6, No. 5, September-October, 1977, pp. 45-7.

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Benedikt, Michael (Vol. 4)