At the home of some good friends this past weekend, reclined nicely in a warm armchair, the warmth of various ales coursing through me, I picked off the shelf by my right hand a crumbling first edition of Modern Library’s A Comprehensive Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken. I opened at random and found a small and perhaps undue joy that my stochastic flipping led to sections 10 and 11 of Song of Myself—maybe my favorite parts of Walt Whitman’s longassed poem.
Do you recall these bits? The trapper’s wedding? The runaway slave? The twenty-eight bathers and the woman who spies on them? I read them aloud to the room, ostensibly to the people in the room, but maybe just to myself. Walt Whitman’s storytelling is at its best when he moves most away from himself, when he puts on different hats, wears different ears, strolls around America a bit. I love his free verse in spite of—or even maybe because of—its swollen scope, its tendency toward bombast or even hamminess. O Walt! Get over yourself!—but not really, never change! Song of Myself is one of my favorite novels, or one of my favorite epics, or one of my favorite monologues—whatever it is, it’s one of my favorites (especially taken with doses of Emily Dickinson’s strange potions).
I don’t really know a lot about poetry, despite teaching the study of it in certain literature survey classes.
But hang on, it seems I was telling a story, or at least teasing out an anecdote, or at least going somewhere with all this: So, after riffling through the anthology a bit more, my friend says, Hey, if you want to read some really terrible poetry, check out that book to your right. Here is the book:
I had never heard of Walter Benton or his (unintentionally) hilarious volume This Is My Beloved until that moment. So what is it? Combining the worst elements of Whitmanesque free verse with a downright silly conceit that these are diary entries, This Is My Beloved attempts to be the erotic record of a passionate love affair. Benton tries to keep his language sultry, sexy, and sensuous without veering into pornography, but the results are bizarre and grotesque. Here’s an entire page as evidence:
“Your breasts are snub like children’s faces”?!
“…your lips match your teats beautifully”?!
And my favorite: “The hair of your arm’s hollow and where your thighs meet / agree completely, being brown and soft to look at like a nest of field mice.” A nest of field mice! Women love to be complimented on their matching pits and pubes, followed by a simile comparing said regions to a rodent’s hovel.
Indeed, Benton loves animal similes for his lady—later he writes: “Yes, your body makes eyes at me from every salient, / promises warm, lavish promises— / curved, colored . . . finished in a warm velvet like baby rabbits.”
But it’s not just the rabbits and mice that are gross. Lines like “We had loved hard—it’s all over your throat and hair” are simply queasy, bad writing. Or this nugget: “The white full moon like a great beautiful whore / solicits over the city, eggs the lovers on / the haves . . . walking in twos to their beds and to their mating. / I walk alone. Slowly. No hurry. Nobody’s waiting.”
Or this snippet:
It’s just really, really bad—I mean, at least when Henry Miller is gross, he’s deeply, earnestly gross, abject even, depraved perhaps (recall the famous lines: ”I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel”).
So, to return to my little story, we read most of Benton’s book aloud, doubling over laughing at times at just how wonderfully awful it is. And, wiping the tears from my eyes, I went to my trusty dusty iPhone to do a little background research—surely the world knew of this awful, awful poetry? Surely folks were getting the same giggly fun as happy we from poor Benton’s lurid verse?
And here, really, comes the occasion for this post, the real reason I write: It turns out that folks love this book—in a sincere, earnest, serious way. No fewer than four audio recordings were made of the book, all set to music (the most famous seems to be by Arthur Psyrock); the book has near-perfect five star review averages on both Amazon and Goodreads; and, perhaps most shocking of all, the book has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1949—it’s in its 34th edition (prestigious hardback with prestigious deckle edges, by the way). And of course you can buy an ebook version! (Unlike, say, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual). Even worse, hack crooner Rod McKuen cites Benton as a major influence, so we have that to thank him for as well.
I don’t know. Am I wrong? Is Benton’s stuff actually good? I mean, I’ll concede that I enjoyed reading the book, but only inasmuch as it made me laugh so much. I don’t know. I already admitted I don’t know much about poetry. (As I write this, I pause to watch and listen to Richard Blanco read his inauguration poem “One Day”; I have no idea if it’s good or not). Benton’s verse seems so hammy, clumsy, indelicate; too earnest, too priapic, tripping over its own boners. It reads like a bad cribbing of Whitman and Miller, with an occasional lift from Hemingway. Even worse, it strikes me as amateurish, as the sort of thing that a teen might scrawl in his Moleskine only to cringe at later before hiding it somewhere. I just can’t believe that this book has been in continual publication from a major house (Knopf) for more than a half-century.
But maybe I’m misreading. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe the poem is beautiful and profound and not icky solipsistic dreck. But I doubt it.