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Reading John M. Bennett: How to Read and Think About the Poetry of John M. Bennett




Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino


(Originally published in Pudding Magazine: The International Journal of Applied Poetry, No. 29, 1996. It is here revised slightly.) 



In writing about an author, one runs certain risks.  To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: one is liable to solve mysteries of his own making.  So be it, then.  But where concerns such as John M. Bennett, about whose work—with its deep textures, as though inverted, lying far beneath the surface—so little critical exposition can be found, such risks are, I think, justifiable (and a little mischief, forgivable).  I should like to offer what I believe are some valid, or leastwise reasonable, and I hope useful, directions or points of view for the general reader.  This reading will in nowise be exhaustive; I will deal with what I understand to be Mr. Bennett’s most often recurring and most signal devices.  I will concentrate on what I take to be his most representative, and epitome, volume of poetry to date, that being BLANKSMANSHIP.  My intention—guided by my own interpretive inference, of course—is to guide the reader to a point within and then out of the most idiosyncratic of these devices, and then leave him to brook the more accessible passages on his own. 


I think it useful to point out Mr. Bennett’s relation to the avant-garde, and then to the school of applied poetry, leastwise to provide a general point of view or angle by which to approach him.  I will provide some informative ideas to keep in mind when reading him, with the hope that these will help the reader in what to look for and how to think about what he finds.  These ideas are, “new strategies,” “applied biology,” “revaluation,” and “logoclastics.”  Of these ideas, I should now only need to say a few words about the last, more will follow shortly.  Logoclastics is my term for “the break in discourse” (I translate logos as “discourse” and clastics as “to break,” and I do emphasize this “break” must be understood not as in to fault or to violate, but as in “to break the news,” or as in “the break of day,”or as in a “breaking out”).  The effect of logoclastics is to realize of the reader a conscious participant in the breaking out of signification.  The effect of logoclastics is not to render meaning indeterminate, but to make play of its elasticity, to make play at the very position at which signification occurs.  The effect of logoclastics is to break discourse but such that it may be reformed—in the conscious, deliberative intellection of the reading—so to actuate and to celebrate signification. It is by virtue of this logoclastics that Bennett’s poetry transcends any particular movement or school.  And as now seen by the number of younger poets who are (either consciously or unconsciously) creating in imitation of his style, he is fast become a class of writing all his own. 



New Strategies


(Bennett’s relation to the avant-garde)


John M. Bennett’s works are today still known only to the most devoted connoisseurs of the literary avant-garde.  His many chapbooks and broadsides—all handsomely and artistically produced limited editions, but for the most part still available through his Luna Bisonte Prods imprint catalogue—are instant collector’s items.  I think the term connoisseur is appropriate here because where concerns the works of John M. Bennett, when considering his readership, that is, we must take into account—but, beyond that certain speculation which seems so to move the collector proper—the essential qualities of a sympathetic if not expert understanding, and an acquired, if not well-informed, taste.  As for the term avant-garde, I must admit it is something of a convenience; that I should think it necessary to justify my use of it, and to qualify it somewhat, is evidence enough of its troublesome and ambiguous constitution; the term, the concept itself is a museum, or else—or so I would venture to consider—a brilliant but ostentatious mausoleum.  If the term has any life left in it, it is by reason of its connotations.  If the term has any application, it is by reason of what it suggests.  And what does it suggest . . . ?  As for its being a delineable genre of artistic writing, it suggests that advances in poetic grammar are not inconceivable.  And indeed there are advances—or let us say, new strategies in poetic grammar—occurring in the works of John M. Bennett. 


It pays to bear in mind, however, that “avant-garde” literature, if it may be said to be indicative of a (new) paradigm in artistic literary expression, does not supersede or render incommensurable any pre-existing or prior paradigm of “artistic literary virtue”—avant-garde literature, and altogether because of its limited appeal, simply does not have that force—but rather history has shown that avant-garde artistic writing is a parallel paradigm phenomenon, existing in large part in reaction to, and borrowing from (and being borrowed from in turn), the greater literary (and intellectual) community.  It was the inadequacies and malfunctions of this, our greater literary community, that necessitated the “advances,” or more precisely “the new strategies” that we have come to associate with the term avant-garde.  In this sense, the avant-garde is always itself a crisis (at once symptomatic of dis-ease, and the dis-ease state itself).  Avant-garde literature is not an island, but is, rather, a peninsula—existing in connection to the mainland, however far it may project into the sea. 



Applied Biology?  


(Bennett’s relation to the confessional form and to applied poetry)


The voice that drives a Bennett poem in no way sounds of a beleaguered psyche; rather so much the opposite of that, this voice tells of a self- and body-affirming persistence.  Bennett goes head to head with life; and with all of life; and he uses his entire being, his entire sensorial and intellectual capacity in his drive to persevere, to endure, to go on—to seize the moment and make of his momentum the significance of his being alive, his being here, of his being now.  This significance, this union, is the symbiosis he has achieved between his life and his poetry; they are very much one and the same—about as much as any poet can, or perhaps ought to, endure.  The truth of this is borne out, I believe, by the fact of his very prolificacy; there is a Bennett poem to go with every moment, every arisen need, of the day (and of the night).  Rather than being seized upon by life, he is quick to turn the coin and be the seizer; in this way his poetry is as a log, a daily record of incidentals and endurances.  Read this way, his poetry sounds at once a coming to terms with life, with biology, with immediate body—and the uses to which such is put—and the starkly, sometimes violently individualistic expression of a craftsman near total learning of his means.  And he will have it no other way.  Our popular, polite (mainland) tastes and sensibilities have to, in a sense, get used to him.  (This is indeed an acquired taste.)  But we are always, it seems, in a state of getting used to the uncustomary—and for that reason, impolite—ways of having ideas expressed.  Is it the idea itself that we find disquieting, or is it that, as custom would have it, certain ideas belong in certain places? 


Sylvia Plath remarked that she could not get a toothbrush into the poem, that for that end she needed the short story.  What she was referring to—and in her own way triumphing against—was the certain politeness of the poem, a politeness that had been restricting, constricting the poet, a politeness that had in a very real sense been separating the poet from his body, from his biology.  The poem as some platonic, abstract thing was precluding the poet from expressing, and addressing, himself more directly and with a sense of urgency; from turning to a more relative and satisfying simile, away from the obscure—and for that reason, concealing and disguising—metaphor.  While the maladies of the flesh, especially lovesickness, and the vicissitudes of life generally (if not the biological inconveniences), have always been available topic for poetry, what was absent was the poet writing about his own, personal maladies, and vicissitudes, in a diction that did not exalt them to the position of an Ideal.  (We know, if you will, that Shakespeare was keenly aware and adept at depicting the fortunes of human nature, and yet, what do we know of Shakespeare’s own, personal maladies?)  The overcoming of this certain politeness of the poem—to begin with, a relaxing of control and disguise—has taken many forms, one of them being the confessional form. 


For Bennett, the poem is a reflection (by which he sees and by which he knows himself), and to which and about which he comments; it is the place (the workshop) of his dialogue (his give and take) between body and soul. Writing on the uses of poetry (both aesthetic and restorative), he has said, 


Writing [applied] poetry . . . is different from writing as art only in the uses to which the creative process and the object created are put:  the creative act is basically the same in both cases.  The artist starts from a feeling of discomfort, senses a lack of balance in himself:  the act of creation seems to be an attempt to find or create a feeling of order or clarity in the world and in the artist’s experience of it.  This is [. . .] a movement toward a more informed and controllable integration of self and world. The difference between the person using poetry as a [. . .] [restorative] technique and the poet may be only in that the creative [. . .] process is an end in itself [. . .] whereas the poet uses his finished product to promote his experience of himself alive to the rest of humanity, to leave a record of his being in the world [ . . . ] Long life, health, ‘happiness’ occur in growth, not in stability or static states [ . . .]  Best said, the creative process helps achieve a state of conscious or informed change and growth.1  


And I do emphasize the words, conscious change and growth. 





(and the Revaluation of Some Elements of Grammar)


BLANKSMANSHIP is, in this reader’s opinion, Bennett’s most successfully conceived and most satisfying volume of poetry; published in 1994, these poems mark a culmination in his decades-long pursuit.  In the ads announcing its publication (though curiously absent from the book itself) the book carries the rather Beckettian, but no less peculiarly Bennettian, subtitle, ‘A Poem of Nothing Knowing.’  If the phrase “nothing knowing” seems remote, just consider the more familiar, “nothing doing.”  What at first seems strange and unfamiliar, turns out to have been sitting beside you all along . . .  But while nothing doing is easily converted to doing nothing, “nothing knowing” defies such a conversion.  However we may cut it, our subject signals a metaphysical and existential state of perplexity—the coming to terms with nothingness.  And while philosophers continue to quarrel over the ontological status of “nothingness” (that is, over whether “nothingness” is a valid philosophical concept), our more literary thinkers, psychologists included, have continued to address it and treat of it as though it were the really real.  An immediate knowledge of nothingness—it can stop freight trains in their tracks, if only freight trains were knowing.  But so as not to leave ourselves completely in the lurch where concerns what is real and what is “nothing,” perhaps it is best to keep in mind, that where concerns a “nothing knowing,” the sense of it is (and this is wholly bound up with logoclastics) that, the real is not the rational. 


But what is “blanksmanship”?  Is there such a thing as the practice of blanksmanship?  Is there a precedent for it?  In the Samuel Beckett novel, Molloy, we read that 'you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’  This is in fine the philosophy, the manifesto, of blanksmanship.  Beckett took his words as close as possible to their literal implication—which would be silence—while still remaining a productive writer.  John M. Bennett, very much his own man, rejects silence outright (for that would imply death) in favor of life, notwithstanding life’s senseless, “speechless” or too great to be described, issueless misery.  In ‘LIGHT STEAMS,’ subtitled ‘speech’, the fifth of the ten five-stanza poems that make up BLANKSMANSHIP, the time of day is ‘in the AM’, and the body is awakening.  From the third stanza, subtitled ‘statue’, we read:


Could be’s spinal eructation... toward’s blank, er,

blanketed muffling-voice, mumbling ’n formalized

like a bell in milky sand, like a well-rounded...

stand of teeth next a breast... could be’s forced

expatriation, ex-plained, un-related... mute

radios in the trees where snotty tablecloths undulate

in the breeze, where’s hand like a fork digs in, loses

a way (but finds’s loosened belt and’s shoes’re free...

(Like’s time’s all earth’s, could be’s ...


Here we meet Bennett’s first device (first in importance, that is): his use of the apostrophe.  Ordinarily, the apostrophe serves to indicate an omission of one or more letters in the spelling of a contraction.  Most often—and again, ordinarily—the appearance of the apostrophe signals to the reader the possessive form of a nominative (a noun or pronoun used when it is the subject of a verb), and either the singular form or the plural.  These rules stand for Bennett; but then, his application of them is open-ended—that is to say, these rules are not construed (by him) so as to state fixed limits, but general, and elastic, procedures.  Bennett revalues the apostrophe.  Bennett revalues the logic of the apostrophe—as it is both concealed and revealed in grammar—beyond both its descriptive and prescriptive range, but then so as to allow for a greater range of significance (or of suggestiveness, or of expressiveness).  And the doing of this, is in accordance with the program I call logoclastics.  For instance, as a contracted form, ‘Could be’s’ is a contraction of “could be his”, as in, “could be his spinal eructation.”  And, “could be his forced expatriation.”  The apostrophe, followed by the letter s (’s), could at any time be the contracted form of the word, his.  Again, for instance, as a contracted form, “finds’s” is a contraction of finds his.  As in, “but finds his loosened belt and his shoes are free.”  Thus, the main clause in the last line in this stanza can be construed or interpreted: Like his time is all earth’s.  Furthermore, however, where the word Like’s would ordinarily have one syllable, and one sound, here it has two syllables, and two sounds.  In pronunciation, it would sound, like plus ’is (like ’is) and the stress is on the like.  There is no h sound in the ’s.  And thus (and I am using phonetic spellings), the sounds we hear are not, could bees, but, could be ’is (and the stress is on the be).  Again, there is no h sound in the ’s. 


So that we may become more familiar with his apostrophic technique, and in the process display some of the structures, the byways, accessible here, let us derive a short-list (we will stick with the poems in BLANKSMANSHIP).  First we’ll list his word (his contraction), and then an interpretation, and then a phonetic spelling of how it sounds (to the mind’s ear). 


o’er’s . . . . . over his . . . . . oar ’is

so’d . . . . . so he would . . . . . so (h)e’d (there is no h sound)

it’s’s . . . . . it’s his . . . . . it’s is

so’s . . . . . so his . . . . . so is

’s . . . . . his . . . . . is

’er . . . . . her . . . . . (h)er

’e . . . . . he . . . . . (h)e


Going back to its Greek root, the apostrophe means a turning away from.  I believe Mr. Bennett is using the apostrophe, not only as a sort of shorthand, but also as a (necessary) means of distancing himself from his art, as a means of dislocation.  In this way, he is, so to speak, severing the cord between his selfhood, and the art that is so much a product (born of) his selfhood.  This enables Mr. Bennett to send his art (bearing so much the stamp and development of his selfhood) out into the world at large, where it can stand as a record of his being in the world. 


Of somewhat lesser importance, but not of effect, is Bennett’s use of ellipsis dots and of parentheses.  An ellipsis, strictly speaking, is an omission of words (or paragraphs) from a quotation.  And generally this rule stands (at least as there are an abundance of quotes—quotation marks—in Bennett’s poetry which are as likely as not to command it).  However, once again, as in the case with the apostrophe, his use of the ellipsis dots is open-ended.  Going back to its Greek root, an ellipsis is a falling short.  And what “falls short”—as a matter of the poetry—is the thought or imagery being conveyed.  In the poetry of John M. Bennett, the ellipsis dots may signal a pause for thought; as in, there is probably more to be said (on this point).  Thus, when the poet writes, ‘Could be’s spinal eructation...’ we should expect that he will at some time to come take up this thought again and either complete it with more detail, or carry it forward to another point or separate image; as when he rejoins with, could be’s forced expatriation.  Or, with the more final and open-ended: ‘(Like’s time’s all earth’s, could be’s...’.


Also, ordinarily ellipsis dots are written with a space left before each dot and also after the last (dot) if a word follows; Mr. Bennett does not follow this custom.  Rather, Mr. Bennett revalues the ellipsis dots.  He makes of the ellipsis his own poetical device.  Generally speaking, in the poetry of John M. Bennett, the (ellipsis) dots signal a pregnant pause; also they may separate images; but overall they signal (imply) an ongoing stream of thought (that may or may not find its terminus in the individual poem, but that may be carried over to another poem, or that may be explored throughout his entire volume, or his entire body of poetry, even; and thus a single but imposing summary—“a poem of nothing knowing”—can inflict itself upon a poet’s entire pursuits).  This idea of revaluation, is also relevant to an understanding of his procedure with the parenthesis.  Once again, the customary rules stand; but then, and again, Bennett revalues the logic contained in these rules, so as to make of the matter his own poetical device.  His use of the parenthesis is open-ended.  And where he does not write a “close parenthesis,” it signals that his thought is, quite literally, open-ended—and ongoing . . .  The ambiguity, and multiple byways, and sounds, brought into accessible being by these devices, are all the stuff of logoclastics.  These rendered devices and strange (unfamiliar) contractions serve to distinguish and render non-prosaic Bennett’s diction.  But these are technical matters . . .


Let’s not leave this stanza—subtitled ‘statue’—of ‘LIGHT STEAMS’ so quickly.  Let us involve ourselves with this diction—with the constituents of this vocabulary—and see what we can find by way of “the elasticity of meaning.”  I believe what we come up with will be (as a general rule) representative of Bennett’s entire body of poetry.  Again, the time of day is ‘in the AM,’ and the body is awakening:


Could be’s spinal eructation...  toward’s blank, er,

blanketed muffling-voice, mumbling ’n formalized

like a bell in milky sand, like a well-rounded...

stand of teeth next a breast...  could be’s forced

expatriation, ex-plained, un-related...  mute

radios in the trees where snotty tablecloths undulate

in the breeze, where’s hand like a fork digs in, loses

a way (but finds’s loosened belt and’s shoes’re free...

(Like’s time’s all earth’s, could be’s...


Let’s begin with, ‘eructation.’  An eructation is the act of belching.  A ‘spinal eructation’ is, I imagine, a belching of the entire nervous system—a belching of the entire organism.  What can it be—a belching of the entire organism?  If ordinarily an eructation is a passing of wind from the stomach, then a “spinal eructation” is a passing of wind through (across) the nerves—and the nerves play like eolian harp strings out of tune.  Much as in the case of Mr. Beckett with his farts, for Mr. Bennett, the poetic afflatus is no semi-divine inspiration, but is, rather, very much a bodily expiration.  The poetic afflatus, here, works not so much in accordance with fancy, as with quick viscera.  The poet’s irresistible impulse to write poetry is as much a form of dyspepsia (or indeed, his need to repatriate, to return and to keep (himself) safe in his native land (his selfhood), the place from where he is brought out, and made exile, by his circumstances), as it is of some professional duty.  But consider the violence of the imagery—and moreover, that we are not certain whether Mr. Bennett is employing a simile here, that he may mean his image literally.  The movement in this passage—that is, the movement of a heretofore inanimate or sleeping body (a statue in the pose of Rodin’s Le Penseur) in its quickening—is initiated not by the touch of dulcet nature, but by successive jolts, in the form of bodily inconveniences, to the nervous system! 


A distinctive feature of Mr. Bennett’s style, for better or worse, is that he does not develop to the full his ancillary images or ideas; he mentions “spinal eructation” and moves on (albeit he does so with the “ellipsis dots”).  He does not linger to explore, to advance the image with additional information; he states the case, then pauses, and then resumes only to lead us away, onto another image.  If we are to follow him, to follow the poem, that is, we must accumulate and unite these images into one solid image; this solid image then becomes, in turn, but one element, one article, toward the composition and fulfillment of his theme, the theme of blanksmanship and of the poem of “nothing knowing.”  The “spinal eructation,” whatever it may be, is an indispensable note in this course of events (so too, I believe, the image of the Le Penseur, which I have read into the poem).  This course of events amounts to the doing of “blanksmanship.” 


So far as logoclastics goes, John M. Bennett seems to break fresh ground with each new volume.  His approach to the technical matters at hand is as practical and unbiased, and playful, as is his search for a personal yet communal diction.  He makes poetry of the very obstacles and impediments that would otherwise clog his way.  And as a writer of applied poetry, he demonstrates without exception that poetic procedure is itself a way of life, that there exists a universe of “new strategies” just waiting to be discovered.  I declare we must identify John M. Bennett as being one of the most active and present forces happening today. 




copyright © Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino



Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino has a degree in philosophy from Fordham University. He is a poet and theorist living in New York City where he edits the online journal eratio postmodern poetry. His poetry and prose have appeared in print in The Germ, Barrow Street, Washington Review, jubilat, Xcp: Cross-Culrural Poetics and online at xStream, Nthposition, Rattapallax--Fusebox, Cordite Poetry Review, Samsära, Softblow, Aught, Malleable Jangle, In Posse Review and at Xcp: Streetnotes. His e-books include Stephen’s Lake, a novel in parts (xPress (ed) 2004) and Go (xPress (ed). 


1  From an article entitled  'Poetry Therapy as Art' in Pudding Magazine: The International Journal of Applied Poetry, No. 1, 1980.


2  BLANKSMANSHIP (ISBN 0-935350-47-0) is available from Luna Bisonte Prods.