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The Poems

Writing in 1942, Horace Gregory said of Stephen Vincent Benét that,
during the middle years of a "political decade," the 1930's [...] no poet saw the implications of that hour with greater clarity than Stephen Vincent Benét [...] Benét's verse was irrelevant to the usual definitions of politics and esthetics: it reflected the taste and the popular feeling of the moment; it never failed to "tell a story" that could be understood with the ease and the vividness of a Currier and Ives print or of a mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton, and it possessed those qualities of an historical imagination that were felt by readers of The Saturday Evening Post as well as those who shaped their opinions by the weekly digest of news in Time magazine. It was to the contradictory and amorphous public that Benét spoke, and his gifts were those that caught the public ear. (Gregory 431)

Though critically ignored today, Benét (1898-1943) was quite well-regarded during his career. His Civil War epic, John Brown's Body earned him the Pulitzer in 1929 and was, along with the rest of his work, widely read. His work is marked by an intense engery workable in a variety of modes. These range from the brief humorous sketches that appear in his Ballads and Tales to the visceral expressions of social outrage that appear in some of his later works.

Benét's work is deeply engaged in an exploration and celebration of "Americanness". We see in the "Invocation" to John Brown's Body, the poet's powerful investment in a national exceptionalism, born of a diverse population:

Stepchild of every exile from content
And all the disavouched, hard-bitten pack
Shipped overseas to steal a continent
With neither shirts nor honor to their back.

Yet, this breeds a certain incoherence on the part of the poet as he claims an essential American character, "the naked body" beneath a rag-tag collection of "altered garments". Benét cannot, then, ultimately accept the multiple as that which is, but seeks a deeper thing, a national character "seeded from no foreign grain". That the poem swings back and forth between America-as-multiple and America-as-essential without any difficulties, in an acceptance without recognition of complixity suggests what many critic find deficient in his work; as Lawrence Broer puts it, Benét "appears lacking in depth, subtlety, and originality" (Broer 1).

Nonetheless, his verse is sometimes powerfully moving, as in the "Litany for Dictatorships" in the 1935 volume, Nightmares and Visitants. The poem is simple in construction and execution; being, as advertised, a lenghty list of the expanding crimes of the totalitarian regimes of the then-young 20th Century. However, as the lines pile up and the poem takes on a repetitious chant-like quality that both stresses the extent of the crimes and also gives them a sort-of religious significance, as the victims of the modern state become unwilling martyrs to corrupt idealism.

For those denounced by their smug, horrible children
For a peppermint-star and the praise of the 
	Perfect State,
For all those strangled or gelded or merely starved
To make perfect states; for the priest hanged in 
	his cassock,
The Jew with his chest crushed in and his eyes dying,
The revolutionist lynched by the private guards
To make perfect states, in the name of the
	 perfect states.

The engery and conviction of Benét's poetry may seem to tend toward an excessive simplification, but, nonetheless, its emotional force offers a window on the poet and his times.

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