Smile Politely

Considering Robert Bensen’s What Lightning Spoke

When Robert Bensen received his PhD from the University of Illinois Department of English in 1974, there were naturally questions about what to do after completing a dissertation on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. How transferable was detailed knowledge of 17th century poetry to the modern world and how marketable was it? If you are not familiar with his distinguished teaching career at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, or his current job at the State University of New York at Oneonta, you might want to examine any one of his six previous books of poetry or his five edited editions. His modern voice and sense of linguistic mastery is everywhere present.

It is especially present in What Lightning Spoke, New and Selected Poems (Bright Hill Press, $18.95), his latest collection which offers 33 pages of new poems, selections from his six previous collections and fifty some pages of translations facing their original texts. In a single book, you can sample the breadth of his achievements as a published poet. But, for our community, his story means even more.

In a conversation with Robert Bensen at his home in Oneonta, he recalled how came to start the Red Herring Poets at Channing-Murray Foundation. “I was looking for work and a friend, Gerry White, suggested I start a poetry workshop. I dismissed this idea at first, but Gerry brought me around to the idea and we placed an ad in the News-Gazette and around six or eight people from the community answered the ad and we began meeting at Channing-Murray in 1975. The group slowly grew, and although it was community based, a few students joined.” The Red Herring Poetry Workshop continues to this day.

The Red Herring poetry group soon began publishing Matrix, with Bensen as it its first editor. The reputation of the Red Herring Workshop soon went community wide and Bensen was offered a job at Parkland in 1976, where he taught creative writing and poetry from 1976-78 and continued with the Red Herring Workshop until he left for Hartwick College in 1978. In his new venue, he has continued to teach creative writing and conduct poetry workshops.

This outstanding collection gives the reader an opportunity to sample his career as a published poet and his current thoughts. There is everywhere a sense of place, and places are diverse from the U.S. to the Caribbean, to the Arab World, to Europe and the culture of Native America. His verse explores the historical backgrounds in metaphor and maps many images with a musical touch. His source material is equally broad and fascinating from rain forests in the Caribbean to a grade school fire drill.

In “Rain Forest, St. Lucia”, Bensen superbly demonstrates his mastery of multiple images, with references to geography, W. H. Hudson’s prose, his friend and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, food and love. Here is a sample geography lesson through the poet’s eye from that referenced poem: “Giant ferns spread their fonds burst after burst, and dry, segmented trunks raise their serrated crowns.” The best news about this poem is that it is from his new poems. Maybe the golden age is now?

Author Janet Kauffman, whose works include both poetry and prose, wrote this about modern poetry: “Poets were stretching language, using it in individual ways. Language wasn’t just something to communicate clearly; it was plastic and variable and malleable.” She could have written these words about about Robert Bensen’s poetry and they would be perfect fit.

Top image of Robert Bensen and the cover of his new book from Bensen’s website

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