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.