Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lines excerpted from Bentleyisms: by Nelson Bentley

Quick acts of thievery are essential in this business.

Without poetic vision there is no love.

Everyone should write an outhouse poem.

Poets invent the language. There would be no language if it weren't for us. People would just go around grunting.

One extra word can ruin a whole poem.

Visualize your metaphor!

Avoid self-pity like the plague.

Support onamatopoeia.

There's no such thing as a cliché image — any more than there's a cliché maple tree. You don't walk by a maple tree and say "Oh God, there's another maple tree!"

Being against rhyme or villanelles is about like coming out against symmetrical trees.

Taking a chance is a very important thing. In literary magazines you'll find hundreds of poems that are overly cautious. What you need is reckless abandon balanced by a fine sense of phrasing.

Critics have a terrible fear of laughing.

It's not easy to fit a giraffe into a villanelle.

The bad kinds of pathetic fallacies are the ones where the sun is giggling and chuckling and waving hello and eating ham sandwiches. All amateur poets have a ghastly tendency to anthropomorphize everything It's like Walt Disney everywhere.

You should be an all-out romantic to listen to much Chopin. You should be dying of tuberculosis.

Every time I deliver a long speech against fragmented sentences, I compel fourteen more people to start using them.

What this world needs is fewer important poems.

Roethke's last words to me: Beefeater all right?

©  Sean Bentley, with whose permission this is reproduced.

The "Bentleyisms", "straight from the lips of Nelson", were collected by members of Nelson Bentley's poetry workshop at the University of Washington in Seattle, from 1978-81. Born in Elm, Michigan in 1918, Nelson Bentley was a poet and professor at the University of Washington from 1952 until his death in 1990.
I first encountered Nelson in 1974, at a summer writing seminar at Cornish College of the Arts. At the impressionable age of 17, I had no idea the impact this man would have on my life. As one of the dozen or so high school students in the room, I sat in awe as this gregarious man brought in a different poet every day to read to us from his/her work, and talk about the writer's life. Those two weeks made poetry real for me, began to build the foundation of a life with poetry at the center, something unfeasible to even imagine prior to this.
At college, I went on to study with Nelson, met my husband in one of his classes, and we named a son after him. 
For many of us, these "Bentleyisms" became the mantras we repeated to ourselves in the long solitary hours of writing, when the rejection slips seemed to far outnumber the acceptances, when this business of writing poetry began to feel superfluous. Because of Nelson Bentley, we kept going. We wrote poetry. And we published it.
Sitting in his workshop was at once an entertainment and an illumination. His terrific sense of humor, and his kindness, were foremost. If the only thing he could find that worked in a poem was the placement of a comma, by god, he found that comma, and pointed it out. He impelled us to go out into the world and live everyday lives: get married, go to church, have kids, do good work — whatever it is we needed to do: do it. And keep writing. And keep sending work out to magazines.
Over his 37-year university career (without a single break or sabbatical), 20,000 students came under his tutelage. I recall him telling us that the number of his current and former students who had gone on to publish was something of a record among university professors. To encourage us, every quarter he typed up a lengthy, many-page list of literary magazines, and instructed us in the protocols of submitting work. I can still see the purplish-blue ink of the ditto machine, the single-spaced lines. Nelson was a co-founder of one of those magazines on his list — Poetry Northwest — which exists today (with only a 3 year hiatus in its 55 years) as a leading publisher of contemporary poetry.
Nelson Bentley is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Divertimento, The Lost Works of Nelson Bentley, which I had the honor to publish in 2002 with Floating Bridge Press. He was a recipient of two Hopwood Awards at the University of Michigan, a Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of Washington, and a Washington State Governor's Award for Service to the Arts. As well as Poetry Northwest, he co-founded Seattle Review, and was a poetry editor for The Seattle Times. He hosted the long-running Castalia Reading Series at the University of Washington, as well as series on KUOW radio and KCTS television.

Here he is in his office — a welcoming presence always, despite the ever-looming stacks of papers.

This week's editor, T. Clear, is a founder of Seattle's Floating Bridge Press. She has been writing and publishing for nearly forty years; her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Poetry Northwest, Cascadia Review, Fine Madness, Poetry Atlanta, Cirque Journal, The Moth and Switched-On Gutenberg. She can be found blogging here.


Sean Bentley said...

Thank you, T., for a touching tribute!

Mary McCallum said...

This is so inspiring - what a fabulous man and poet you've introduced me to, T. How I wish I could meet him. I feel full up with the wonder of poetry and the joy of teaching it. Thank you.

Helen McKinlay said...

What great advice. And the one about the maple tree...perfect. Thank you Sean And thanks T. for posting this.

Michelle Elvy said...

What a fun post -- I love the inspiring lines you've included here and also your own personal commentary. How amazing that you knew this man so personally, and even named a son after him. What a rich experience it must have been as one of his students.

Wonderful to come to this -- so full of humor and candor.

I'm going to work on my outhouse poem now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I remember almost all of these lines. It's grounding to come across them again.

Marjorie Power

Terry Toy Covington said...

As one of the poets who collected the Bentleyisms (my maiden name was Terry Toy), what a kick it was to see this great tribute to Nelson Bentley! He had a lasting impact on my life, and I only wish that I could show him some of my more recent poems, as I think a lot of what I learned in his workshops only came to fruition later in my life. He was one of a kind, and I loved him.