Ben Belitt

1911–2003
Ben Belitt
Poet, translator, and professor Ben Belitt was born in New York City in 1911. He earned degrees from the University of Virginia and taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont. Sometimes described as one of the neglected masters of 20th century American poetry, Belitt taught and influenced poets such as Susan Wheeler, Reginald Shepherd, and Lynn Emanuel while at Bennington. Susan Wheeler has described Belitt’s predilection for “tropes… iconography: mummies, doppelgangers, quarks. Nature was fierce, fecund, indifferent; coming to terms with this involved a wrestling. His was a gorgeous, guttural English, with both Chaucer’s choices and court English.” Belitt’s poetry is often characterized as ornate, baroque, privileging sound over sense. An early champion of Belitt’s work, Howard Nemerov, pointed out that, “Belitt receives the world more exclusively by the ear than most; he writes by a kind of radar, and a relevant sound, by the rules of his procedures, is assumed to be a relevant sense… This reliance on how things sound… makes possible his characteristic combination of great elaboration with great intensity.”
 
Over the course of eight collections of poetry, Belitt reworked, expanded, condensed, and rearranged his poems so that successive volumes examine the same themes from varying perspectives. Poems like “Block Island Crossing,” originally published in Nowhere But Light (1970), were added to and reformulated in subsequent collections, eventually becoming “Block Island: After The Tempest” in The Double Witness (1977). In Salmagundi, Lorrie Goldensohn noted, “each successive book cannibalizes a portion of the last; adds titles; drops titles; whitens intervals between sections, or colors them with new material altogether.” Packed with allusions to literature, biology, and autobiography, Belitt’s dense, catholic approach to subject matter and form earned him praise but few followers. According to the late poet and critic Reginald Shepherd,  “part of the reason for the neglect of Ben’s work, besides his lack of interest in self-promotion, is the density and obliquity of his work, and what Howard Nemerov calls its ‘menacing intensity.’”

A complete collected edition of Belitt’s poems, This Scribe, My Hand, appeared in 1998. Richard Eberhart wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “In reading the best poems of Ben Belitt one is passed through a screen of artistry into the open air of mature, deep, universal significance …We do not have to worry about these poems. We do not have to think of the author, the style, the value. The poet’s subtlety makes them a perfect vehicle for the understanding of what we already know. He has pointed his finger to the depths of the heart.”
 
A translator of the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca, Belitt’s translations were sometimes accused of taking liberties with the original verse. Wheeler has defended Belitt, though, arguing that his “translations took liberties, much as Lowell’s did, in his deliberate enterprise to re-imagine the poems in English, to create parallel, vital new works.” Belitt won numerous awards during his life, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ben Belitt died in Bennington, Vermont in 2003. 


Career

Nation, New York City, assistant literary editor, 1936- 37; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, professor of literature, 1938. Editor/scenarist for U.S. Photographic Centre, Department of Historical Films, 1945.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • The Five-Fold Mesh, Knopf (New York City), 1938.
  • Wilderness Stair, Grove, 1955.
  • The Enemy of Joy: New and Selected Poems, University of Chicago Press, 1964.
  • Nowhere But Light: Poems, 1964-1969, University of Chicago Press, 1970.
  • The Double Witness: Poems, 1970-1976, Princeton University Press, 1977.
  • Possessions: New and Selected Poems, 1938-1985, D.R. Godine (Boston), 1986.
  • Graffiti, designed and illustrated by Debra Weier, Emanon Press (Easthampton, MA), 1989.
  • This Scribe, My Hand: The Complete Poems of Ben Belitt, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge), 1998.

OTHER

  • Four Poems by Rimbaud: The Problem of Translation, Alan Swallow, 1947.
  • Adam’s Dream: A Preface to Translation (essays), Grove, 1978.
  • The Forged Feature: Toward a Poetics of Uncertainty: New and Selected Essays, Fordham University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
AS TRANSLATOR
  • (And editor) F. Garcia Lorca, Poet in New York, Grove, 1955. (And editor) Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda, Grove, 1961.
  • (And editor) Antonio Machado, Juan de Mairena, University of California Press, 1963.
  • (And editor) Rafael Alberti, Selected Poems of Rafael Alberti, University of California Press, 1966.
  • (And contributor) Jorge Guillen, Cantico, edited by N. T. DiGiovanni, Little, Brown, 1965.
  • Neruda, Poems from the Canto General, Racolin, 1968.
  • (With Alastair Reid, and editor) Neruda, A New Decade: Poems, 1958-1967, Grove, 1969.
  • (And editor) Neruda, New Poems: 1968-1970, Grove, 1972.
  • (And editor) Neruda, Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta (play), Farrar, Straus, 1972.
  • Alberti, A la pintura, Universal Limited Art Editions, 1972.
  • (And contributor) DiGiovanni, editor, Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems, Delacorte, 1972.
  • (And editor) Neruda, Five Decades: Poems, 1925-1970, Grove, 1974.
  • Neruda, Skystones, translation of Piedras del cielo, Emanon Press, 1981.
  • Lorca, The New York Poems: Poet in New York/Earth and Moon, Grove, 1982.
  • (And editor) Neruda, Pablo, Late and Posthumous Poems, 1968-1974, introduction by Manuel Duran, Grove Press, 1988.
Also author of a prose journal, “School of the Soldier,” published in Quarterly Review of Literature, 1949. Contributor to Poets on Poetry (1965), edited by Howard Nemerov; also contributor of prose and poetry to Poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review, the Nation, Southern Review, the New Republic, Salmagundi, Sewanee Review, the New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s, the Partisan Review, and other periodicals.
 
 

 


Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Belitt, Ben, The Forged Feature: Toward a Poetics of Uncertainty: New and Selected Essays, Fordham University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
  • The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume V: American Poets since World War II, Gale, 1980.
  • Nemerov, Howard, Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics, Rutgers University Press, 1972.
PERIODICALS
  • Commonweal, February 18, 1972.
  • Library Journal, August, 1964; August, 1970.
  • Midway, February, 1965; winter, 1970.
  • Modern Poetry Studies, spring, 1976.
  • Nation, June 11, 1955; January 25, 1971; November 11, 1978.
  • New Leader, April 24, 1978.
  • New Yorker, April 30, 1955.
  • New York Herald Tribune, October 30, 1938.
  • New York Herald Tribune Book Review, July 3, 1955.
  • New York Times, October 16, 1938; December 18, 1955.
  • New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1964; February 12, 1978.
  • Poetry, January, 1939; August, 1955; February, 1965; December, 1978.
  • Quadrille, spring, 1973.
  • Salmagundi, December, 1972; spring-summer, 1973; spring-summer, 1979.
  • Saturday Review, May 30, 1964.
  • Sewanee Review, autumn, 1973; spring, 1979.
  • Society, April, 1979.
  • Times Literary Supplement, December 7, 1979.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1973.
  • Voyages, fall, 1967.

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Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

LIFE SPAN 1911–2003

Ben Belitt

Biography

Poet, translator, and professor Ben Belitt was born in New York City in 1911. He earned degrees from the University of Virginia and taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont. Sometimes described as one of the neglected masters of 20th century American poetry, Belitt taught and influenced poets such as Susan Wheeler, Reginald Shepherd, and Lynn Emanuel while at Bennington. Susan Wheeler has described Belitt’s . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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