Walter Benton: The Passionate Poet
By: Larry L. Conners
Walter Benton has been my bedside companion for a very long time, going back to college where I discovered him 50 years ago. I have shared him with many " creatures of an hour ", most intimately with my beautiful bride, and have never tired of his passionate and lyrical prose.
Walter Benton was born in Austria, in 1907, to a Russian couple. They fled to America with the coming of the First World War in 1913. After high school, Benton worked several menial jobs until he had enough money to put himself through Ohio University, graduating in 1934. After working as a window washer, steel plant worker, and salesman, he finally landed a position with the City of New York as a social investigator. With the onset of World War Two he enlisted in the Army, being commissioned a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps, later being promoted to Captain.
At the end of the war he returned to his position with the City of New York and began writing prose and was published in the Yale Review, Fantasy, and the New Republic. His first published volume, " This is My Beloved ", a diary from 1943 put to verse, was very controversial due to the graphic intensity of his prose. Some even called it pornography. It has since been hailed as a remarkable journey of love, love lost, and love unrequited. It is recognized as an American classic.
Here are a few of my favorite snippets from " This is My Beloved ", better appreciated in context, but giving you a feel of the intense passion, his use of metaphor and simile, and the stark clarity of his love:
Entry May 4
You rise out of sleep like a growing thing rises out of the garden soil.
Two leaves part to be your mouth, two tender seed leaves...and your eyes are wonderfully starlike,
Your eyes are luminous and soft as the velvet of pansies.
Darling, good morning.
The entry continues with a rather passionate awakening.
Entry May 11
Your hair is not like the silk of corn or spiders but like your hair, your mouth resembling nothing so wonderfully much as your own mouth.
Why should I say you are like a slender water bird on wing ? This is but a slide of you, a fraction. Or that your thighs are lilies...lilies are cold, lilies are neither quick nor scented....they do not stain the night with velvet musk...they cannot fire love and quench it.
I mean.....compliments become you as tinsel becomes a tall snow covered cedar in a mountain cedar wood.
I love the visual beauty of his writing.
Entry June 8
( After a long night of lovemaking )....Now you are all sleep, alone with yourself...and a tall blue fence around you: not a tendon taut, not a secret secret, you are all sleep and alone in a warm and velvet world...
Many an idle dream is looking for a home of sleep like yours to happen in.
Entry June 12
Sleep late, nobody cares what time it is. Sunday morning, coffee in bed....then love with coffee flavored kisses. And your tongue dripping honey like a ripe fig.
I have been hours awake looking at you lithely at rest in the free natural way rivers bed and clouds shape.
Your bedgown gathers up your full round thighs, rolls over your hips. Your breasts are snub like childrens faces...your navel deep
as a god's eye.
He published only two volumes of prose, " This is My Beloved ", followed in 1948 with " Never a Greater Need ". The first is a diary of new love, a deep and passionate love that slowly becomes a tragic hell he cannot escape. When I first read his August 9 entry about forgetting her in each season, I wept.
He dedicates the first volume to Lillian, so we are reasonably certain she did exist. The last is a dark and sad diary of love lost and love unrequited, and ends with stark wartime images he cannot forget. Walter Benton died in 1976, bitter and alone.
This is such a tragic and poignant story, A love story, during the war, where two souls are united in need... his to last a lifetime, hers to end when he recognizes that she is " marketing your love ", as he writes in the November 19 entry.
The writing is so powerful, his descriptions of Lillian are so full of love. How could she have left..? I feel his tragic love and pain every time I read him.
I have also found a wonderful cd, " The Family of Mann ", featuring Herbie Mann ( Jazz ) and Sir Lawrence Harvey reading excerpts from " This is My Beloved ".
OK, you guys. You want to have a great evening around the fireplace with your wife or girlfriend ( hey, a wife is a girlfriend ), then pick up " This is My Beloved ",put on the cd, pour your favorite adult beverage, put out a box of Kleenex, and revel in a love for the ages.