Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"And the Winner is...": The 2014 Madeleine P. Plonsker Award Winner Revealed!

The Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize, now in its sixth year, honors an author under forty years old with no major book publication.  The winner receives ten thousand dollars, publication of his or her manuscript by Lake Forest College Press (with national distribution via Northwestern University Press), a spot in the Lake Forest Literary Festival, nd a two-month residency at the Glen Rowan House, with the time to be spent revising the manuscript.  The prize alternates each year between fiction and poetry.  It's a great thing, and I'm glad to have been a part of it since the beginning.

This year's winner, Matthew Nye, was selected by guest judge Anne-Laure Tissut, Professor of American Literature at Rouen University, France (some of you may know her as one of the organizers of the 2012 &NOW Festival in Paris).

Matthew Nye's manuscript, Pike and Bloom, is a work of fiction of which Tissut writes "[it] leads the reader into a refreshingly comic immersion in major metaphysical and existential questions."  Nye is a graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Utah, and currently lives in that wondrous little outpost of civilization that is Athens, Georgia, where he is pursuing his doctorate.

2013-14 Plonsker Prize winner Matthew Nye

The Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize is made possible by a donation from a local philanthropist who was impressed by the College’s recently established publishing enterprise, Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books. The previous winners are:
  • Jessica Savitz for Hunting Is Painting (poetry);
  • Gretchen E. Henderson for Galerie de Difformité (fiction);
  • Jose Perez Beduya for Throng (poetry);
  • Elizabeth Gentry for Housebound (fiction, forthcoming in November);
  • Cecilia K. Corrigan for Titanic (poetry, forthcoming in Fall 2014).

The 2014-2015 Plonsker Prize will be awarded to a poet under forty years of age who has not yet published a full-length book. Poets interested in applying should submit a curriculum vita, a 30-page excerpt from a manuscript in progress, and a one-page statement of plans for completion to &NOW Books / Lake Forest College press via

The submission period is January 1 through March 1, 2013; no more than 200 submissions total will be considered. There is no entry fee.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Kenneth Rexroth's Other Worlds: Notes on "On What Planet"

So there I was, rooting around on the Bureau of Public Secrets website, when I ran across Kenneth Rexroth's "On What Planet," a poem I hadn't thought about since I'd chanced to see it in the library as an undergraduate, when I was wandering through the stacks and pulling down random books of poetry to read.  The moment I ran across this poem on the BPS site, the whole thing came back to me: that coastline, those owls, and that final turn out toward something much bigger.  I think the reason the poem had lodged itself in the back of my brain, waiting for something to trigger its resurgence into consciousness, has something to do with the simple, powerful structure of the thing.  Mike Theune is very keen on the notion of the turn, or volta, as a structural device at the core of poetry—so much so that he's devoted a web journal to giving readings of the various ways poems turn.  It's the turn, here in Rexroth's poem, that's the trick: it takes us from one kind of experience into something different and much more powerful, something that can make us rethink the experience of those stanzas that precede the turn.  Check it out.

The first stanza, taken by itself, is a decent enough bit of landscape. 

Uniformly over the whole countryside
The warm air flows imperceptibly seaward;
The autumn haze drifts in deep bands
Over the pale water;
White egrets stand in the blue marshes;
Tamalpais, Diablo, St. Helena
Float in the air.
Climbing on the cliffs of Hunter’s Hill
We look out over fifty miles of sinuous
Interpenetration of mountains and sea.

It really shows you where Robert Hass gets some of his sensibility for landscape, doesn't it?  The sense of forces moving dynamically through the landscape, the proper names of specific places, the land and water equally important.  But so what?  Well, there's this:

Leading up a twisted chimney,
Just as my eyes rise to the level
Of a small cave, two white owls
Fly out, silent, close to my face.
They hover, confused in the sunlight,
And disappear into the recesses of the cliff.

It takes a bit of a different tack from the opening stanza, since we find we are not just looking at the landscape from on high, at a kind of Apollonian distance, as observers above the action.  We're a part of the scene, and disturb it.  And what's more alarming, we suddenly see the landscape—or, at any rate, its inhabitants—looking back at us.  Those owls in Rexroth's are perfect for this, since they're all eyes.  When I read these lines, I remember a particularly terrifying moment in my Canadian youth, when I stood on a granite outcropping high above an isolated lake, and what I'd taken to be a large white stone on the cliff's edge suddenly swiveled its head around and fixed me in its horrible, huge glare: it was a snowy owl, and I, the observer, suddenly became the observed.

Anyway: the more I think about Rexroth's poem, the more I think Hass owes to it: there's a moment in part four of Hass' "On the Coast Near Sausalito" when the speaker looks right into the living eye of the fish he's caught, and feels himself caught in that uncanny gaze—so alien, but still something we recognize, and that recognizes us—is a moment straight out of "On What Planet."

But even with this development, the poem has yet to take its major turn.  Look what happens in the concluding stanza of the poem:

All day I have been watching a new climber,
A young girl with ash blonde hair
And gentle confident eyes.
She climbs slowly, precisely,
With unwasted grace.
While I am coiling the ropes,
Watching the spectacular sunset,
She turns to me and says, quietly,
“It must be very beautiful, the sunset,
On Saturn, with the rings and all the moons.”

The girl is a kind of further development of the owl image: just as we'd added more characters to the poem with the owls, we add another here; and just as the owls introduced the concept of a gaze other than the speaker's to the poem, the girl is given to us as a seeing entity, with her "gentle confident eyes" foregrounded.  And the real turn comes when we get to see what she sees: she takes in the landscape to which we've been introduced, and combines it with her own sense of wonder, to ask about even more exotic and spectacular sunsets. 

There's so much going on here I hardly know where to start.  For one thing, the introduction of a younger, more naïve viewer of the landscape places the poem in the Romantic tradition, specifically in the tradition of Wordsworth's great "Tintern Abbey," where the speaker (let's call him Wordsworth) turns to his younger sister and thinks about the difference between how she perceives the landscape and how he sees it.  We get some great themes.  There's the importance of each person's particular subjective experience—how we share an objective world, but nevertheless have our own private interiority.  There's also the difference between adult perception and childhood perception.  Both Wordsworth and Rexroth give the edge to childhood perception, but for different reasons.  For Wordsworth, the child's perception is less mediated by thought and memory than the adult's.  For Rexroth, the child sort of juices up or amplifies the existing scene, allowing wonder at the present beauty to lead to even greater wonder at imagined beauties.  (I think it's significant that Rexroth has the adult engaged in some mundane, utilitarian tasks while this happens—it heightens the contrast between down-to-earth or practical adult and wonder-oriented child).

But to put Rexroth's poem in the Wordsworthian context doesn't exhaust the thing.  There's more!  The girl's observation about Saturn defamiliarizes the whole scene.  We've been thinking about the landscape of the early stanzas as impressive, but when we're asked to compare it to a sunset on Saturn, everything becomes less familiar.  We think of the exoticness of other worlds, and then we think of our own world not as something complete in itself, but as one of many worlds—not as nature, but as one little particular articulation of galaxy upon galaxy of nature's variants.  Our world doesn't just seem grand—it becomes strange, as weird and particular a combination of elements as are found on Saturn, or anywhere else.  The large richness of infinite planetary beauties opens before us, and this makes our own scene not just spectacular and big, as it had seemed, but particular and small too: it's a big place of grand forces and jutting sea cliffs, but it's also, at the same time, our own dear little home in the vastness of space.  The effect is to render the scene uncanny, familiar and strange at the same time.

The real kicker, though, that comes with the poem's turn toward the girl and her observation, is the way we move from one kind of sublimity to another, more complicated kind.  The landscape in the opening stanzas of the poems is sublime in the way Edmund Burke wrote of sublimity in his famous Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  Here, Burke speaks of the qualities of sublime objects—their vastness, ruggedness, jaggedness of line, and so forth—that mark them out from the merely beautiful.  Those cliffs in the first two stanzas, and their interprenetration with the sea, are sublime stuff by Burkean criteria.  But the girl takes us somewhere else, and, indeed, somewhere more profound.  When she sees the grand, sublime landscape, she thinks of something even vaster.  We were dwarfed by the landscape before, but now we're really dwarfed by the idea of the solar system, and behind that by the idea of the infinite plenitude of worlds, each with its own sun, its own grand vistas, its own sunsets—a deep sublimity of vastness upon vastness.  But (and this is the crucial thing) we're not overwhelmed by this.  In some strange sense, we've mastered it more than it has mastered us, because we—or, to be specific, the girl, and through her, the rest of us—have contained these vast multitudes in our minds.  It's not just that there are an infinitude of planetary landscapes and exotic sunsets, it's that we have imagined them, and their possibility.  This is one of the kinds of sublimity Kant talks about in his Critique of Judgment, where the sublime isn't just constituted by vastness, but by our ability to comprehend that vastness.  This kind of sublime experience doesn't just tower over us: it affirms the power of our minds to take in such infinite vistas.  It's a kind of affirmation not only of the outer world, but of the power of our imaginations to encompass it.  The sublime experience ennobles us, as well as the world (or, in the case of this poem, the worlds).

It's particularly important, I think, that it is a child who, in Rexroth's poem, calls us back to the power of our own imaginations.  This makes such power innate, rather than learned.  In fact, it makes such power latent, waiting to be rediscovered in us through our encounter with the world as seen by the child, or by the poet.  This belief in the innate, but easily forgotten, power of the imagination is what marks Rexroth, for me, as a Romantic.  And it's why I'm glad to have found my way back to a poem whose powers remained latent in a forgotten corner of my memory.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

America, England, and the Disinheritance of the Poets: Notes on W.H. Auden

I am, and will always be, a great lover of the poetry of W.H. Auden—and, come to think of it, of his prose and plays, too.  But any honest reader of Auden ought to ask two questions: why does W.H. Auden’s early, English work read as if the most important events of the time all took place in an English boarding school?  And why does his later, American period read as if it were inspired by the syllabus of a college course called, say, “Introduction to Western Civilization”?  I think the answers to both questions come when we look at the social situation of Auden and the groups with which he associated in the English and American periods of his career.  In each case, we’re dealing with very particular kinds of disinheritance, and with poetics that speak to different kinds of disinherited people.

Many people have noted the fixation on schoolboy stuff in Auden’s early poetry: there is, most famously, The Orators, a kind of sendup of prize-day orations at English boarding schools; and the early poems are full of a kind of students-vs-elders conflict.  And it’s not just Auden who writes this way. I remember first reading Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows, and being astonished at what I took to be the narcissism of the piece: here was something claiming to be a novel that was really little more than a memoir of Isherwood’s school days, with scenes laid out as if they were of the greatest significance.  Edward Upward’s fiction can have much the same quality, Graham Greene edited a collection of essays called The Old School (to which Auden contributed) and Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, purportedly a book about what one must do to write a lasting piece of literature, consists for almost half of its length of recollections of Connolly’s time at Eton.  What gives?  Why this emphasis on one’s old school?

Connolly offers an answer that’s at least half right.  He writes, near the end of Enemies of Promise,

…were I to deduce any system from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence.  It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and their disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development.  From this it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious…

Well, it goes on, and includes a bit about homosexuality that many would feel reflects poorly on Connolly.  But for present purposes, the point is that the public schools (Americans would say private schools—both terms refer to schools paid for by individual fees, rather than by taxes) make a deep impression.  No doubt this is true: such schools are about forming an elite, and they work hard to give their students a sense of status, with duties and privileges, and with a sense of obligation to the old school itself.

Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence, though, does not fully explain the school-obsession of the generation of English writers born between, say, 1902 and 1909.  After all, other generations before them had gone through the intense experience of elite boarding schools without having their work deeply marked by specifically boarding school themes and imagery.  What was so different about Auden’s generation?  The answer, I think, is disillusion and disinheritance.  It’s not just that they had intense experiences in school—it’s that their experiences involved a terrible dissonance between the values and expectations of school and the reality into which the schoolboys entered.  They were never able to fully rid themselves of school, because they were never able to fulfill the expectations the schools created for them.

Consider the timing of their births: Auden’s generation came of age too late to participate in the First World War.  They saw their elders at school—often their brothers—go out to war, to face what Isherwood called “the test”—the battle in which one would prove one’s value as a man, a leader, and a representative of one’s elite training. The schools preached sacrifice and the military virtues, knowing that they were creating officers for a desperate struggle, and even a future skeptic of all things jingoistic, the 11 or 13 year old Eric Blair (we know him as George Orwell) wrote poems in which he anticipated “the test.”  Here’s the first stanza of one called “Awake! Young Men of England”:

Oh! Give me the strength of the lion
  The wisdom of Reynard the Fox,
And I’ll hurl troops at the Germans,
  And give them the hardest of knocks.

One could go on quoting the rest of it, but the point is already clear: one must muster one’s courage and one’s wisdom, appeal to one’s God, and above all lead (it is the speaker who will, as an officer, hurl troops at the Germans).  That the result of all this will be the giving of hard knocks is enough to show us the puerility of the poet: this is no Wilfred Owen writing, but a child whose sense of war comes from the old men teaching at his school and telling stories about Nelson and Wellington trouncing Napoleon, or quoting from the more heroic passages of Macauley’s Lays of Ancient Rome.

We may well think that Auden’s generation should be grateful for having missed the slaughter, and I’m sure in some sense they were.  But in addition to a kind of survivor’s guilt, there’s a significant sense of not having been allowed to take the test for which one had prepared—a failure to fulfill one’s set task.  It’s important not to underestimate the effect of this on a generation whose elite status was in large measure justified by a rhetoric of service through leadership.  Many of Isherwood’s travels and adventures, including his dangerous trip to China during the Sino-Japanese war, were in his own estimation attempts to take “the test” he’d missed.  And Auden, the least militaristic of men, took an inordinate pride in his American major’s uniform when, after the Second World War, he worked as part of a group surveying the psychological damage caused by bombing.

There was another role the boys at England’s elite schools were meant to inherit, beyond that of military leadership: they were meant to rule over the greatest and most expansive economic empire the world had ever known.  This world, of course, was destroyed: war debt and the resulting taxation ruined the landed families, and the Depression (or, in English terms, the Slump) destroyed the industrial economy.  If you were a middle-class schoolboy, hoping to get ahead by your wits and your elite school credentials, you were in terrible trouble: of two million middle-class jobs in England during the Slump, some 400,000 disappeared.  Joining the workforce when one in five of the positions you might have aspired to has disappeared is a terrible thing, far worse than the dire conditions faced by current graduates in America, and more on a par with what we’re seeing now in Greece and Spain.  One was meant to be a valiant leader at war and a prosperous leader at peace, and instead all of one’s intense training and indoctrination at school led to… well, to a sense of failure, and perhaps of betrayal.  The arrested development and permanent adolescence of which Connolly speaks wasn’t just the product of intense school experiences: it was the product of the failure of these experiences to be fulfilled.  It was a matter of disinheritance.  And if you want feel how powerful a sense of disinheritance, consider how largely the American Civil War looms in the consciousness of the southern states as compared to the states of the north.  If we had to go by the numbers of war re-enactors, we’d think that the Confederates outnumbered the Union troops ten to one.

But what about Auden’s American period, from 1939 on?  I’m going to have to sit down and make a proper study of Auden’s vocabulary and allusions some day, but my sense is that there’s a marked turn away from psychological and Marxian terminology and a serious uptick on overt references to what we might call the classics of Western high culture after Auden settles in America.  It’s certainly true that his work appears in fewer political contexts and in more academic and cultural reviews (a quick survey of his bibliography reveals that about half of the appearances of his writings in journals during his English period appeared in politically-oriented publications, while only about 15% of them did during his American period, which would make sense for a poet shifting from theory and politics to high culture).  But let’s grant, on the basis of my experience as a longtime reader of Auden, the assertion that there are a lot more poems like “The Fall of Rome,” “The Shield of Achilles,” “Voltaire at Ferney,” and “At the Grave of Henry James” — that is, a lot more of the overtly high-culture themed poems—in the work of the American Auden than in the English Auden.  What explains this turn toward overt high-cultural references?

Once again, a certain kind of disinheritance comes into play.  We can get at it by first considering some words Edmund Wilson wrote about Auden in 1954.  Surveying Auden’s Collected Poems, Wilson notes a difference between the English Auden and the American Auden.  “He is no longer rebelling against British institutions,” writes Wilson, he is dealing with a very different world, a hypermodern, industrialized, commercialized, materialistic and rootless world, and with “the problem of how to live in it… to avoid being paralyzed or bought by it.”  Wilson continues:

It may well be that this aspect of Auden is more intelligible to an American than an Englishman, for this feeling oneself a member of a determined resistant minority has been now for nearly a hundred years a typical situation [for cultivated humanistic writers] in America.  Such people in the later nineteenth century were likely to be defeated or embittered.  In our own, they have felt the backing of a partly inarticulate public who are not satisfied with the bilge that the popular media feed them in their movies and magazines, and who are grateful to anyone who will take a stand for that right to think for themselves which is supposed to be guaranteed us by the Bill of Rights and that right to a high level of culture which the framers of the Constitution—taking it so much for granted—would never have thought to include.  These American writers of which I speak do not constitute a group, they do not frequent an official café; and on this account the visitor from Europe is likely to come to the conclusion that, except in universities, we have no intellectual life.  He cannot conceive that the American writers are functioning in the crevices of cities, on the faculties of provincial colleges or scattered all over the country in the solitude of ranches and farms.  This kind of life was now [since his arrival in 1939] to be Auden’s lot…

Wilson is describing a very real America, one dominated by a materialistic elite that, in the later part of the nineteenth century, displaced the old cultivated and civic-minded elite of which the purest model is the Boston Brahmin.  It is the world T.S. Eliot, whose family had once dominated St. Louis and paternalistically run the town as a kind of colony of cultivated Boston, fled, seeking to find something like it surviving in England.  And it was a world from which Wilson, himself descended from the older and more cultivated and paternalistic elite, felt profoundly alienated.  Here’s something he wrote only two years after the piece on Auden, something about the destruction of the old elite by the new ruthlessly commercial and materialistic elite, and how that destruction effected his father’s generation:

The period after the Civil War—both banal in a bourgeois way and fantastic with giant fortunes—was a difficult one for Americans brought up in the old tradition…. They had been educated at Exeter and Andover and at an eighteenth-century Princeton, and had afterwards been trained… for what had once been called the learned professions; but they had then to deal with a world in which this kind of education and the kind of ideals it served no longer really counted for much…. Of my father’s close friends at college, but a single one was left by the time he was in his thirties; all the rest were dead—some had committed suicide.  My father, though highly successful, cared nothing about making a fortune or keeping up with current standards of luxury, which in our part of the world were extravagant.  Like many Americans who studied law, he had in his youth aimed at public life…. But he could not… be induced to take part in the kind of political life that he knew at the end of the century…

The new America that arrived in the late nineteenth century was triumphant in the middle of the twentieth, and disinherited class of people committed to high culture functioned, in mid-fifties America, as a kind of resistance to the dominant commercial culture, and its badge of membership came in the form of references to that culture.  All this would change soon enough: generations that saw no conflict in citing Henry Adams and Mickey Mouse in the same novel or poem were on their way.  But the view from Wilson’s desk in 1954 was of a high culture that was a form of resistance to the values of commodity and commerce—the disdain for pop culture implicit in his statement about Auden is almost at an Adornan level.  And there was a sense among a broader segment of the population that there was something to this sense of high culture as resistance: it’s what sent the young Allen Ginsberg to the poems of Blake, for example, and caused him, in a poem written in the year between these two passages of Wilson’s prose, to denounce America as “Moloch”—an ancient Ammanite god, and hardly a figure out of popular culture. 

Auden was, of course, caught between the residual world of the American poet as highbrow or leftover Brahmin, and the then-incipient, now-dominant world of the American poet as academic (or, more precisely, as creative writing professor).  His work wore the badge of the older, highbrow caste, and his poems provided something the caste, and those sympathetic to its resistance to commercial culture, needed: the Collected Poems that Wilson reviewed sold some 30,000 copies—a success even in the commercial terms that dominated, and still dominate, American life.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Rabbitarse Revealed!

In W.H. Auden's long poem "Letter to Lord Byron," he compares the lives of poets of his own generation to the hyper-glamorous bad-boy life of Byron.  Unsurprisingly, the comparison leads him to find the lives of his peers in the financially-strapped England of the 1930s a bit unglamorous:

The only thing you never turned your hand to
    Was teaching English in a boarding school.
Today it’s a profession that seems grand to
    Those whose alternative’s an office stool;
    For budding authors it’s become the rule.
To many an unknown genius postmen bring
Typed notices from Rabbitarse and String.

Like many an Auden reader before me, I'd long assumed that Rabbitarse and String were Auden's comical names for fictitious minor public schools of the sort at which a young poet might find himself employed.  In reading over a great many Auden-related documents for the chapter on his work I'm writing for a book I'm writing (now called Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself), I noticed something that led me to believe I must have been wrong in my assumption.  The employment agency that placed young university graduates with various schools was called Gabbitas and Thring.  That this was, indeed, the source of Auden's phrase was confirmed by a look at No Home But the Struggle, the third novel in Auden-generation writer Edward Upward's trilogy The Spiral Ascent.  Here, we're told that the character Richard (based on Auden) invented the nickname "Rabbitarse and String" specifically for the Gabbitas and Thring agency.

These are dark times for humanistic scholarship, people, times in which the relevance of our work is questioned by bean-counting utilitarians.  Let the triumph of this moment, in which the meaning of Rabbitarse is revealed, be trumpeted from the hills.  Let the narrow-minded vocationalists and fetishizers of marketable research outcomes tremble.  More research funding, please!

Monday, July 01, 2013

Six Passages: Introducing Michael Benedikt

Hot news!  We're only weeks away from the appearance of Time is a Toy: The Selected Poems of Michael Benedikt, in which the intrepid editors John Gallaher and Laura Boss bring together poems from throughout the career of this often wonderful, often under-rated poet, whose work combined New York School wit and panache with neo-Surrealist uncanniness.  The book will come with three introductory essays: one on the man, one on the strange tale of the white suitcase full of Benedikt's unpublished works that led to the creation of the book, and one on the poetry itself.  I am the author of this last one, and here it is:


 Six Passages: Introducing Michael Benedikt
In the introduction to his 1976 book The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, Michael Benedikt defines the prose poem as having six special qualities: an attentiveness to the unconscious; a impression of external reality as something mediated by our inner worlds; a feeling for the fluctuations of consciousness; a commitment to colloquial speech; a sense of humor; and a “hopeful skepticism.” Benedikt’s selections in the anthology give this definition a surprising degree of credence, but Benedikt’s list doesn't just describe the style of the prose poem: it provides the best possible brief definition of the qualities of his own writing, in poetry and prose poetry alike.

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is both distant and true, the stronger the image will be…
            —Pierre Reverdy, “The Image”

            Benedikt came by his interest in the unconscious through a long, deep, and fruitful engagement with Surrealism. Encouraged by Robert Bly in 1963 to investigate Surrealism, Benedikt became devoted to French Surrealism in particular, and in the early sixties alternated between undertaking translations from the French and writing his own poems, as if deliberately seeking the guidance of the Surrealist tradition. Indeed, by the time Benedikt’s anthology The Poetry of Surrealism appeared in 1974, he had become one of the leading American experts on Surrealist writing. So central had Surrealism become to his sense of what was most valuable in literature that, in his introduction to the anthology, he recruited his immediate influences—New York School poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch—and his favorite poets from the English Romantic school—Wordsworth and Coleridge—to the Surrealist camp. Benedikt eventually became wary of being too closely identified with Surrealism, though, claiming in 1977 that Surrealism was no longer central to his work. But, as the poems in the present volume attest, from the earliest to the latest work, his poetry frequently alternates or fuses passages of dream reality with empirical reality, following the proto-Surrealist Pierre Reverdy’s description of the process by which strong images are born via the juxtaposition of distant realities.

Modernity in the broadest sense as it has asserted itself historically, is reflected in the irreconcilable opposition between sets of values corresponding to (1) the objectified, socially measurable time of capitalist civilization… and (2) the personal, subjective, imaginative durée, the private time created by the unfolding of the ‘self.’
            —Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity

            A confirmed agoraphobe, Benedikt was always more than ordinarily attuned to the boundaries between the public world of objective events and the world of private experience. In an interview with Naomi Shihab, Benedikt spoke of how the problem of communication for the poet had to do with “bringing the internal world and the external world together” linking or “playing off or perhaps testing the language of travel folders, the language of banking, of instruction manuals” against another world altogether, the world of “internal, ‘personal,’ or psychological things.” This, he goes on to say is “not only an aesthetic imperative but a moral imperative.” We get a sense, from this comment, of just how seriously Benedikt took the fusing of dream and external realities. There are moments in his work, though, when the moral imperative to connect the inner and the outer seems almost too great for him to bear. Condsider Mole Notes, the most sustained and most powerfully imagined work in Benedikt’s oeuvre. This sequence of prose poems represents something approaching a total retreat from the external world. Here, the world out there is dangerous, and the tunneling Mole retreats in pessimism to a world of the literal and psychological underground. One understands the urge to retreat, especially given the events of 1971, the year in which Mole Notes appeared: the Weather Underground bombing of the Capitol building; the conviction of both Charles Manson, and of the America lieutenant found guilty in the Mai Lai massacre; the arrest of 12,000 anti-war protestors; the Pentagon Papers bringing to light corruption and cynicism at the highest levels; genocide in Bangladesh; the prison riots at Attica; and the continuing specter of nuclear annihilation looming over the entire planet. If, as Benedikt claimed, Mole Notes and his next book, Night Cries, represented a “black pessimism,”it was pessimism well-grounded in events. It was also a pessimism that faded, and the poems of The Badminton at Great Barrington; or Gustave Mahler & the Chattanooga Choo-Choo find Benedikt once again fearlessly exploring the boundary between the subjective and the objective realms, this time giving us a protagonist who, unlike Mole, is excessively drawn to the excitements and allures of the external world.

Their purpose of writing was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking, or, in Pascal's words, la peinture de la pensée. They knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing is not the idea that was experienced. The ardor of its conception in the mind is a necessary part of its truth…
          —Morris W. Croll, “The Baroque Style in Prose”

In an essay much-loved and quoted by poets as diverse as Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Bernstein, the critic Morris W. Croll described the tenor and technique of baroque prose, which eschewed classical reserve for “the energy and labor of minds seeking the truth, not without dust and heat.” Benedikt’s work frequently proceeds in the baroque manner, showing the probings of the conscious mind as well as the interweaving of the rational and the irrational. Not for Benedikt the paring down of an initial prolixity into the austere perfection of the mot juste in the manner of, say, the young Ezra Pound when he cut the 36 lines of an initial draft down to the spare couplet that is “In a Station of the Metro.” Instead, Benedikt shows the mind working to find the right expression. Consider “Invitation to Previously Uninvited Guests” from Mole Notes, in which the smoke of a rare cigar melting into a room full of guests is described as being “like a sugar cube melting on the tongue” and “like honey in the mind of a diabetic,” similes which launch a long catalog other comparisons:
…like your wallet in the hands of a prostitute, like chopped liver in the heart of the professional caterer, like surviving leaves in midwinter sleet, like ant feces in a vat full of nitrate, like an inexpensive tieclip before the onslaughts of rust, like conversation into silence among boring company, like the conception of generosity after December 26th, like space beneath even the tiniest hand caressing even the tallest lover discovering the joys of some novel perversion, like the idea of 18th century chamber music in the minds of the oppressed, like truth in a Latin-American newspaper, like dialogue in the mouth of the megalomaniac, like meaning in the mind of the poet.
What we see here is the mind of the poet seeking the mot juste, rather than the mot juste itself. While there’s a certain humorous quality to the proliferation of similes—when we arrive at the final image of meaning dispersing like smoke in the mind of the poet, we’ve reached a point of comic exasperation—there’s a serious purpose to Benedikt’s method. Just as he saw the exploring of the intersection of the inner and outer worlds as a moral imperative, he saw the depicting of the mind in thought as a moral as well as an aesthetic matter. His representation of the mind’s processes, he once claimed, had to do with “incorporating more and more and the incorporation doesn’t make you lose focus… but rather makes you get a greater part of your mind in focus.” For Benedikt, if one is to write truthfully, one must write the process of the mind into the poem.

That’s part of Personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it.
            Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto”

            The comic quality of Benedikt’s work comes with an impressive pedigree. An exclamation-mark laden, buoyant, faux-naïve quality is especially evident in the earlier work, which was very much written in the shadow of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, whose works the young Benedikt would often read for an hour or so before setting down to write his own poems. A decade or so younger than the leading poets of the New York School, Benedikt was, like most of the more established poets, a Francophile, an ivy leaguer, and a professional art critic. Like them, too, he tended to write with an awareness of the hip, knowing intimacy of the New York poetry scene.  He’s not above dropping a proper name or two in a poem, and once you start counting the pronouns in Benedikt’s poetry, you’ll be surprised at how many times you’ll find “you,” “we,” and “us”— both of these are techniques that help to build a sense of reader-writer community. Indeed, much of the charm and warmth of Benedikt’s comic gestures depends on one’s sense of being taken into a little imaginative circle, where we communicate as intimates. His is a poetry that cracks a wry smile in a small room, rather than sounding a barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination...
            William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads
            Benedikt was prone to abuse T.S. Eliot in his critical writings, and one understands why. Unlike Eliot, whose strongest work could read like a polyglot tissue of quotations from classic or arcane texts, Benedikt insisted on a certain plain-spokenness, an ordinary language as the medium for poetry. He complained in Poetry about poets who asserted their bardic privilege, which was really nothing more than a “bardic abuse,” whose method was tediously “‘kultural,’ involving ponderously ‘literary’ phrases or phrases whose grace is meant to astonish, representing, by stuffing implication, the poetic soul.” This is not to say that Benedikt limits his range of diction to that of the ordinary man on the street, as the high incidence of the Romantic exclamatory or classically apostrophic “oh!” in his writing makes plain. What Benedikt does, though, is to shy away from the notion of the poet as a kind of collagist piecing together the fragments of tradition, and insist on language that appears to be the expression of a speaking subject, a talker talking to us. The notion is at least as venerable as Wordsworth, and as modern as Frank O’Hara, with his idea that the telephone can replace the poem—and it is an idea Benedikt inherits from both poets.
A particularly perceptive analysis of Benedikt's Mole Notes contains the following passage:
Ironically, what Mole seeks by way of unreason is a more reasonable, rationally utopian world. Throughout the poem… Mole’s dominant emotion is, as Benedikt puts it, disappointment…. Mole-Benedikt cannot locate or establish Mole City on earth as it is; he finds only war, riots, crime, delusion. The great climax of the poem occurs therefore in what the poet calls Mole’s apotheosis, his literal flying through space like a projectile. What in the individual man amounts to a personal Thoreauvian-like revolt must perforce divorce him from society.
            —Louis Gallo, “Benedikt’s Blues: Reason and Unreason in Poetry”

The passage captures the hopeful skepticism of Benedikt’s work: skeptical of any great claims for poetry or the renewal of the world, his poetry remains optimistic about the power and prospects of the individual imagination. Even after he had given up on many things—academe, fame, even the publication of his work, Benedikt could ask that we

…suppose then that, following our sudden realizations & quasi-epiphanies, madly
With our eyes rolling around wildly, our tongue hanging out & our hair standing
                            up on end despite the breeze,
One of us rushes to our clattery, old-fashioned, pre-computer-era typewriter,
      To make at least a temporary little household racket…

Even if this racket might “Risk being mistaken by some, for a ‘Throwaway Poem’” that the poet writes only “for the light amusement of himself or herself & perhaps a few old friends” it remains the medium of enthusiasm and hair-raising enthusiasm. And even if the unpublished poems were tucked away in a suitcase, the hope remained—it is there in that line about the poem being “mistaken” as something only for the poet’s friends—that they would find their way out into the world, to you.