Ben Belitt (May 2, 1911 – August 17, 2003) was an American poet and translator. Besides writing poetry, he also translated several books of poetry by Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca from Spanish to English.
Ben Belitt was a true visionary poet, one of the few inheritors of Hart Crane (Alvin Feinman is another), as well as a fine translator of Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca, among other Spanish language poets. He was a member of no school or movement. Although his work has been rather neglected, I consider him one of the major figures of twentieth century American poetry.
At least 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.” As Nemerov writes,
“Belitt receives the world more exclusively by 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; as though the one response would naturally evoke the other…. It goes with this that he very often writes poems in which the discourse is more radical than linear, in which the meaning of the poem is gained not from reading through it so much as from reading around in it, and from listening to recurrences and obsessive preoccupations in a series of poems…. The attraction of a poetry somewhat deeply enciphered is… that we get to know it rather as we might ideally get to know this world itself, not by moralizing instructions but by the repetition and variation of its forms; such a poetry may contain sermons no less than the plainer sort, but the sermons will be in the stones, and not white-washed across their surfaces” (“The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” in Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics).
Ben was also one of my first poetry teachers at Bennington College over twenty-five yearsa ago, one who constantly brought me back to the wedding of world and word at which poetry aims. By means of his delight in letting language take the lead on the one hand ("the enemy joy," in his phrase) and his insistence on accuracy and precision on the other, he tried to help his students steer between the Scylla of quotidian commentary or recounting and the Charybdis of fluency for its own sake, that is, for the sake of one’s poetic ego.
In one of our first meetings, Ben asked me if I always told the truth in my poems. Being a rather earnest young man, and taking it as a test of my probity, I responded, “Yes, of course I do.” He smiled and said, “That’s too bad. You should let yourself lie in poems.” It was his reminder that art is the lie that tells the truth, and that the truth art tells need not be about oneself. While “honesty” might make the writer feel good about himself, in poetry it is beside the point.
“This Scribe, My Hand,” the title poem of his complete poems, which was published in 1998, is more straightforward than many of Ben's poems, but no less dense and rich. Addressed to John Keats, who died believing himself a failure, a man who had merely written words on water, it speaks both to Ben’s knowledge of the neglect of his work, his fears of being forgotten, and to his hope that, as for Keats, something would survive.
The poem can also be read as a kind of ars poetica: to write "in the posthumous way" is to write for and as the dead, as if one were dead, to write for the past and for the future which one will no longer inhabit though one hopes that one's poems will, that they will endure to be "posthumous."