The Benedikt Suitcase

by John Gallaher

I didn’t understand the precise anxiety of editing a book until I received in the mail from Laura Boss Michael Benedikt’s papers. I’m supposed to be able to put out of my head that all his books are currently out of print and that he died several years ago and that the papers I now have in my possession are the only copies of his unpublished work. I’m supposed to be able to just sift through and make the best book I can.

Problem one: Michael Benedikt couldn’t leave well enough alone. He was an obsessive reviser, even of his published work, enough so, that I decided early on that there are no definitive versions of many of his poems. The poems never collected into book form are especially difficult to work with.

Benedikt, as most of these poems were written before the advent of computers, annotated in small, blurry pencil, numerous asides, notes, and alternate possibilities on his drafts. Usually these drafts were dated, so there is that, but often, as happens in drafts, he would go back to an earlier version later and incorporate parts of it, or he would write notes to himself along the lines of “is this necessary?”

Because I’m working with the papers of a dead man, I can’t ask, I can only go back to the work. What I’ve tried to do is to both find what I think is the core of each poem and to compromise with his obsessive revising.

One of these compromises was his use of “&” for “and.” In his early work, he rarely used the “&,” but by the mid 80s, he settled on it as a house style. Later, when he went back to early work, he tended to switch the “and” to “&,” so I’ve followed this practice throughout the book. That was a fairly easy compromise to make. More difficult were the many content changes he made to his poems over time.

From looking at his drafts and notes, it quickly became obvious that Benedikt’s obsessiveness in regards to his practice was part of his sensibility. His changes are almost never toward concision, but nearly universally toward “more.” His attempt to see the world, to get as much of it as he could into his work, became a project of adding more and more asides, detours, and ways of turning an idea.

Here’s an example, “The Pills,” as first published in Night Cries (1976)

THE PILLS

Midnight; its hidden significance; all over the city a million of the sleeping pills people are supposed to take one hour before bedtime are starting to dissolve in five hundred thousand stomachs. Now, at last, absolutely without sentimentality, we are truly part of a world of brothers beneath the skin

*

He tossed and turned so that when he tried to catch up on lost sleep in the late afternoon, just before dinnertime, his wife used to secretly affix a salad bowl to his backbone, as he lay there. Russian dressing was his specialty.

*

We use the phrase “going to sleep” because sleep really is a place to go to; we spend all day arriving there, driving hard down the highways of staying awake, under the underpasses and across the shortcuts; and we have to travel far, speeding through all of time at the rate of 16 hours per day.

*

Looking for cool places on a pillow on a summer night – No Columbus ever set out on a more difficult mission, or a more perilous one, we have come to recognize; consider our fate, for example, lying here completely upsidedown, having fallen out of bed, with our feet in the air.

Several years after publishing Night Cries, Benedikt revisited it this poem, lengthening the sections. Somehow in my notes I’ve lost track of where the revision comes from. It was among his papers in the suitcase. In the end, I made a compromise between the two versions. Here it is as it will be appearing in the selected poems, with a revised and expanded opening section:

THE PILLS

Midnight—An alternative way of looking at it: All around the globe, whenever & wherever the clock strikes midnight, billions & billions of the prescription & non-prescription sleeping pills which restless, stressed-out people worldwide take about an hour before bedtime, are starting to dissolve in billions & billions of stomachs. Now at last, without resorting to any of our usual, overblown social rhetoric—& in fact, without any kind of sentimentality whatsoever—we well-intentioned people around the globe can truly claim that we belong to a world of “Brothers & Sisters Beneath The Skin.”

*

He tossed & turned so that when he tried to catch up on lost sleep in the late afternoon, just before dinnertime, his wife used to secretly affix a salad bowl to his backbone, as he lay there. Russian dressing was his specialty.

*

We use the phrase “Going To Sleep” because sleep really is a place to go to; we spend all day arriving there, driving hard down the highways of staying awake, under the underpasses & across the shortcuts; & we have to travel far, too, speeding through our lives at the rate of 16 hours per day.

*

Looking for cool places on a pillow on a summer night – No Columbus ever set out on a more difficult mission, or a more perilous one, we have come to recognize; consider our fate, for example, lying here completely upsidedown, having fallen out of bed, with our feet in the air.


This is just one example. There are very few others from the published poems (Laura Boss and I talked about this, that we should, as much as we can, defer to the published versions). Most of the decisions of this sort I’ve had to make are regarding his unpublished poems, which constitute nearly half of the final selected poems. One day I hope Benedikt’s archives (really, it’s just the suitcase so far, but there are many hints about other poems that as far as I can tell at this time, are lost.) will find a permanent secure home.




To read more of Michael Benedikt’s work, visit here to see the feature guest-edited by John Gallaher.

1 Comment
  1. Trina Gaynon says:

    I feel as if I stumbled across a treasure trove while following up on a call for submissions. The first poetry book I ever bought was Benedikt’s The Poetry of Surrealism. I must have been about twelve. I pulled it out of a bargain bin at Woolworth’s during a family trip to New Orleans. I still savor the poems in the book from time to time. Though the paper cover is long gone, the end flaps are still tucked into the back. Thank you for this Monthly Special. I’m going to serach Pwell’s online for Time is a Toy.

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