Friday, June 24, 2005

While I may not approve of the idea of having heroes in poetry, I do have a few of my own. One of these is – and has been for decades – Steve Benson. He has all the requisite elements: enormous courage to try new things, unblinking honesty as to what he is doing, a great mind, a gentle soul, and terrific writing chops. That’s an unbelievably rare combination of “must-have” qualities. I’ve learned an enormous amount from Benson in the 30-plus years I’ve known him, and the careful reader of my work will note pieces – Paradise in The Alphabet is one, BART is another – that could never have been written without his example & inspiration.

the ball (30 times in 2 days) takes the concept of the micropress right to the level of the nano – its 4¼-by-5½ inch pages are simply plain copier paper cut rather roughly in half, stapled twice for binding, the texts appearing on the right-hand side of the page only. No publisher, address or price is listed & I have no idea just how many copies Benson printed & sent out.

I flip the book open to its center page & read the following:

If I do this, does that exempt me from
having to do that? Side effects are numberless,
I vow to ignore them. In order to focus on the task
at hand, you’ve got to, uh . . . Just a glance at
the hourly news headlines – That’s enough! The
big picture: on the one hand there’s static, color
distortions, snow, that rolling image effect, more
focus problems, and the nerve-wracking jump
cuts; on the other hand there’s terror, denial,
numbness, overwhelment, obsessionality,
delirium, rage, and more trouble with the focus

This would seem to be – at once! – both an extremely casual, or at least casual-sounding, text & a remarkably tight one that both comments upon & enacts the mind’s challenge with focus in a media-driven world. I find myself dazzled at the gem of overwhelment, a perfect neologism coming as it does after terror, denial, / numbness. Overwhelment is exactly the right term to pull the text into utter clarity at that particular instant, setting up the remainder of that list perfectly. There is a comedy being enacted here – all these powerful & negative emotions ultimately have to give way to the problem of focus, whether we mean that word in its “bang the TV & see if that helps the reception” or purely internal context.

I flip to another example, slightly earlier in the sequence:

That was walking together. I held
you on a leash, and you decided
where we would go and at what
tempo. In five minutes we got about
twenty feet away from where we
started. But I was going to say,
rather, the discontinuity is at the
beginning. The end is interrupted,
true, but that’s artificial, arbitrary,
I mean, or illusory – I forget why.
Is this convincing? But the initial
entry, getting underway, weighing
anchor, setting pen to paper after not,
shifting frame so radically that one
”knows oneself to be” doing that which
one was not before then up to – that’s
where an interruption really occurs,
and where confusion and disorder reign,
as idea, act, being, consequence
jockey for position, uncertain of

Again, that absolute balance between the off-the-cuff remark & a high philosophical treatise. Not really since Frank O’Hara has there been somebody who so completely masters these two levels of discourse simultaneously as seamlessly as does Benson. It’s a gift – I don’t think it can be learned & so much of what we do learn would seem only to get in its way. I give a big sigh, knowing that this is one skill that I will never have.

A note at the back explains the project:

Saturday and Sunday, April 23 and
24, 2005, every hour on the hour,
when my wristwatch alarm sounded,
I wrote five minutes in a brown book
Lyn gave me several years ago, as
well as I could. This is the transcript,
completed two weeks later.

Lyn presumably would be Lyn Hejinian, but that is in fact a presumption. Much of Benson’s work has always been about attention & one consequence of reading any batch or book of his writing is that the reader’s (this reader’s) own awareness is heightened as a direct result of the process. I love being in the middle of his texts, but when I set them down, I find that even the colors in the room seem brighter, the demarcations between instants more easy to see/hear/feel.

So far as I can tell, it was Benson who really pioneered the idea of “the sitting” – as in “write for five minutes” – as a unit for poetry. No doubt that is what many poets – think O’Hara, think Whalen, think Blackburn – have done for decades if not centuries. But it was Steve who really got it & was thus able to raise it up to the level of visibility, that any poet might be able to make use of the form. For Benson, for whom being present in the moment is so much what his writing is about, it’s a perfect fit, particularly as no two moments will ever be identical, yet they will always be sharing the same timeless truth: this is now. I turn again to another page, this time further back in the book:

Anyone can do it, but generally speaking,
few do. You can see it in the morning,
a subtle glimmer behind the glare. Whenever
treetops are brought plummeting down by
winter winds, lightning, or collisions, some
people, like animals, wake with a start. At
each evident instance, I start again. What
makes it seem one might be a perception
of ending, or it might be my refusal to
continue as I had been, as when, planning
or daydreaming or rehearsing recriminations,
I stop and notice that I am breathing again,
what color the moss is in this light, the
sounds no one is making

Here’s hoping the ball (30 times in 2 days) shows up in a newer, larger edition, so that everyone can read it, every word.