A few years ago, when I was researching the early writers of Montana, I happened upon Dorothe Bendon’s small volume, Mirror Images. Born and raised in eastern Montana, Bendon moved to California in her youth to attend a Normal School and later, Mills College for “only a year or two.” From there, “she went abroad in search of inspiration and further culture.” She mailed her manuscript to Gertrude Atherton, a San Francisco fiction writer, who helped her find a publisher. Atherton then wrote the forward to her small volume of poems, beginning with this sentence: “Dorothe Bendon hails from Glendive, Montana, hardly a poetic background.” She goes on to marvel at Bendon’s character, commenting on her small physical size, her presence on stage at poetry readings and as Ariel in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, her refusal to accept a patron’s offer to pay her tuition because “she preferred to be independent.” Atherton quotes one of Bendon’s teachers who says, “I have always felt that her roots were deep in the soil of decent and sane living, however lacking in background her early conditions may have been” (“A Forward” in Mirror Images).
Mirror Images received a short review in The Frontier, a regional journal published at the University of Montana. Its editor, H. G. Merriam, praises her “fine sense of phrase and . . . image,” then says, “one feels, however, that she writes too infrequently out of realized experience.” He indicates that she was influenced by the “unseeing ideas” of people such as Atherton to “see beauty in acquired information, about Dionysius, classical music, Chillon, and the conventional paraphernalia of ‘culture’ rather than in rooted life experience” (Frontier 12.1).
I imagine young Dorothe Bendon caught in the cross-fire between
Atherton and Merriam, with Merriam criticizing her work maybe not so much for
what she wrote but because of Atherton’s sense of superiority. Merriam,
himself, wrote poetry about Greek mythology in the early volumes of The Frontier, though maybe by 1931 he
had changed his mind about its relevance. What he says, however, gives insight
into the “write what you know” mantra and raises the questions, what does it mean to “know” and how do we
know what we know? Merriam asserts that “rooted life experience” is more
relevant for a writer than “cultural” experiences such as travel, education,
But the interior, the imagination, our reading and learning lives must certainly be part of what we know, along with the way we match what we’ve read to what we experience, and how we learn to see differently because of the way art, poetry, reading, music or any other cultural experience has affected our perceptions. I’m not sure why a hierarchy between exterior and interior experience would have value, when balance seems a far better approach. To quote Stevens, “The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact” (from his “Prose Statement on the Poetry of War”). When Bendon writes about “Sunday in Geneva,” or when she imagines “Buddha in repose,” I think she is writing what she knows.
It’s interesting to me that while Atherton and Merriam seem to be opposed to one another, they actually make a similar assumption about Bendon and her origins. Atherton assumed that California was more suited to poetry than Montana, yet she devotes much of her small essay to marveling at the qualities Bendon developed as a result of her upbringing, including her independence and “the poise of one who had lived in the public eye.” She also mentions that soon after her arrival, Bendon began to win nearly every poetry contest she entered. Merriam seems to assume that Bendon’s origins in Glendive would only permit limited education and development of the imagination. In his review, he asserts what he thinks Bendon should know based on her rural upbringing. The small review of Bendon’s work is long buried, as are her poems, but the assumptions Atherton and Merriam articulate are still familiar.
Bendon went on to have a career at The University of Vermont and to publish three volumes of criticism as well as Continental Literature: An Anthology. As far as I know, she didn't return to poetry, but here is a sample from Mirror Images.
Since we have chosen to be more discreet,
Let us withdraw and watch our passions coil,
Blue, naked, glistening, like fire on oil
While we remain aloof above the heat.
We shall be insulated reeds that thrust
Their sabers from a pool, the perfect norm
Reflected in their water-colored form
Though they themselves have felt the bite of rust.
Let not this clear rigidity be creased
By sudden wind; I fear that wind would break
The patterned excellence our shadows make.
Hush! Be content with seeming, for the least
Truth in this setting would disfigure me;
Use mirror gestures, speak invertedly.