Ben Belitt (1911–2003)


Ben Belitt was an American poet and translator born in New York City and educated at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He was a professor of comparative literature for fifty years at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont. In his long life, he published eight books of poems, two books of essays, and numerous translations, notably of the Spanish-language poets Jorge Luis Borges, Federico García Lorca, and Pablo Neruda. This Scribe, My Hand, his complete poems, was published in 1998. Belitt’s reputation is that of a vital and gifted poet who was somewhat under-recognized in comparison to his peers.

Belitt was born on May 2, 1911, in New York City to Lewis and Ida Belitt. He spent the first ten years of his life in an orphanage and then moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, after his mother and her second husband reconnected with him. He received two degrees from the University of Virginia, and was a doctoral candidate from 1934 until 1936 but never completed the degree. He began his career at Bennington in 1938, and while there influenced a number of well-known poets, including Susan Wheeler, Reginald Shepherd, and Lynn Emanuel.

His own work is not easily located within the predominant contemporary schools. It is known for a quality of riotous sound, what Wheeler has called “a gorgeous, guttural English,” as in these lines from his poem “On Quaking Bog”: Night-sweat clotted their palms. They tasted
their gall. The sumac flickered a swatch
of its leaves in the lichens and venoms …

Critics have also noted Belitt’s embrace of both scholarly references and earthy detail, and have described the way his poetry creates meaning through a nonlinear accretion of pattern or form, or in Howard Nemerov’s words, the way “in which the meaning of the poem is gained not from reading through it so much as from reading around in it.” Similarly, the succession of his published books indicates a circular movement through chosen themes, with the work examining the same concerns again and again from different points of view.

Belitt’s work is praised for its tonal range, with one often-explored register being an elegiac intensity that one critic has said represents an “insistence upon connection, meaning, and wholeness.” His work was often autobiographically based, but in its density and its attention to sound, it attempted to reach a level well beyond the quotidian—as Shepherd puts it, “to write for the past and for the future which one will no longer inhabit though one hopes that one’s poems will.”

As a translator, Belitt sometimes was criticized for favoring the coherence of the translation over a strict adherence to the original. Although he won many awards in his lifetime, including a Guggenheim fellowship (1946) and National Endowment for the Arts (1967–1968) and American Academy of Arts and Letters (1981) awards, many of his admirers consider him to be under-represented in anthologies and in the twentieth-century canon generally. He also published poetry and criticism in a number of journals, including the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Nation, and Harper’s.

A lifelong bachelor, Belitt died at age 92, on August 17, 2003, in Bennington.

Major Works


  • The Five-Fold Mesh (1938)
  • Wilderness Stair (1955)
  • The Enemy Joy: New and Selected Poems (1964)
  • Nowhere but Light: Poems, 1964–1969 (1970)
  • Adam’s Dream: A Casebook on Translation (1977)
  • The Double Witness: Poems, 1970–1976 (1977)
  • Adam’s Dream: A Preface to Translation (1978)
  • Possessions (1938–1985) (1986)
  • Graffiti (1989)
  • This Scribe, My Hand: The Complete Poems of Ben Belitt (1998)


  • Lorca, Federico García, Poet in New York: A Bilingual Edition (1955)
  • Neruda, Pablo, The Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda (1961)
  • Guillen, Jorge, Cantico (edited by N. T. DiGiovanni; 1965)
  • Neruda, Pablo, Poems from the Canto General (1968)
  • Neruda, Pablo, A New Decade: Poems, 1958–1967 (with Alastair Reid; 1969)
  • Alberti, Rafael, A la Pintura (1972)
  • Neruda, Pablo, New Poems: 1968–1970 (1972)
  • Neruda, Pablo, Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta (1972)
  • Borges, Jorge Luis, Selected Poems (edited by N. T. DiGiovanni; 1972)
  • Neruda, Pablo, Five Decades: Poems, 1925–1970 (1974)
  • Neruda, Pablo, Skystones translation of Las Piedras del Cielo (1981)
  • Lorca, Federico García, The New York Poems: Poet in New York/Earth and Moon (1982)
  • Neruda, Pablo, Late and Posthumous Poems, 1968–1974 (introduction by Manuel Duran; 1988)


  • Four Poems by Rimbaud: The Problem of Translation (1947)
  • The Forgèd Feature: Toward a Poetics of Uncertainty, New and Selected Essays (1995)
May 2, 1911
Ben Belitt is born in New York City.
Ben Belitt receives a BA degree from the University of Virginia.
Ben Belitt receives an MA degree from the University of Virginia.
Ben Belitt wins the Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry.
Ben Belitt works as assistant literary editor of the Nation magazine in New York City.
Ben Belitt becomes a professor of literature at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont.
Ben Belitt serves in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Ben Belitt works as an editor/scenarist for the U.S. Photographic Center in the Department of Historical Films.
Ben Belitt is awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in poetry.
Ben Belitt is awarded a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry.
Ben Belitt is awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ben Belitt is awarded the Russell Loines Award for Poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
August 17, 2003
Ben Belitt dies in Bennington, Vermont.
APA Citation:
Howsare, Erika. Ben Belitt (1911–2003). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/belitt-ben-1911-2003.
MLA Citation:
Howsare, Erika. "Ben Belitt (1911–2003)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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