Thursday, June 23, 2011

Stephen Benét: Poet Shepherd

If you’re someone who’s easily intimidated by others’ achievements, you may not want to read about the prolific Mr. Benet. I personally find his multi-genre success (poetry, fiction, historical fiction, radio, opera, and screenwriting) to be quite sexy, despite his fastidious side-part and frightening little mustache. His life has the easy biographical trappings of romantic literary clichés:

1. Survived scarlet fever at the age of 10 and suffered from subsequent health issues, including vision problems, which later brought him a desk job during his wartime military service. (This is technically two clichés.) 2. Forced to attend military school where he suffered among his less sensitive, more athletically inclined classmates. 3. Despite being an Army brat, his father had a soft spot for poetry and instilled this love in his three children. 4. Went to Yale with Archibald MacLeish, where he received both his B.A. and M.A., handing in a book of poems “in lieu of” (hah!) his Master’s thesis. It was his third book of poems. 5. Moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne and live all bohemian-like. 6. Obviously he fell in love with another writer. They got married and had babies (this isn’t necessarily a romantic cliché, but I gotta get the lesser details in somehow). 7. Dying of a heart attack at the age of 45 has the tinge of “a life cut short,” but is decidedly less cliché. Does the fact that it happened in New York City make it a little more compelling? There’s a great poetic/literary tradition of dying in New York City.

But Benet wasn’t just a pretty biography; he had chops. Like most PPP winners I’ve come across, he won small poetry prizes in his early teens. At 17 he’d sold his first poem, and later that year he finished his first book. While he was at Yale, he worked on the literary and the humor magazine on campus, and later during his grad-school years, he solidified the reputation of the Yale Series of Younger Poets (he was an editor of this still-prestigious series and Prize, and he worked on the judges committee up until his death).

I believe that a mark of a great poet is someone who isn’t just looking out for their own place in the poetry world, but rather is dedicated to shepherding others for the sake of having more good poetry in the world. Benet was one of these people, introducing some notable poets into the field through the Yale Series, including the incredible Muriel Rukeyser. It probably didn’t hurt that he enjoyed enormous notoriety during his lifetime, though not enormous monetary compensation. After winning the PPP in 1929 for his book-length poem about the American Civil War, John Brown’s Body, Benet continued to write narrative, historical poems and later included short stories, such as his most-famous work, The Devil and Daniel Webster (maybe you've heard of it?). He won another Pulitzer Prize after his death for his unfinished narrative poem Western Star. As radio and film gained popularity, Benet dabbled in both, though sometimes for the money more than anything else. Or so the internet has claimed, but I’m hesitant to insult him like that.

While reading excerpts from his work (I’m not exactly compelled by historical fiction), I came across a poem that I actually recognized. I’m going to post it here because I really dig Benet’s infatuation with language. A word or name can transform a place/object/ person just by our interaction with the language. Language, in this poem, has power and dimension—it’s Benet’s home, both physically and metaphysically.

American Names

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy’s horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy’s Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.

I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman’s Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmédy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

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