Spring/Summer 2007, Volume 23.3
N. Colwell Snell
The Mysteries of the Ordinary: A Conversation with Stephen Dunn
N. Colwell Snell graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in English. He is currently president of the Utah State Poetry Society and chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, where he serves as chairman of the College/University Poetry Competition. In 2005, he edited Utah Sings Volume VIII, an anthology of contemporary verse by Utah poets. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his poetry has been published in several anthologies and magazines, including ByLine Magazine, California Quarterly and Bay Area Poets’ Coalition. He and his wife Barbara reside in Salt Lake City.
Stephen Dunn was born in New York City in 1939. He earned a B.A. in History and English from Hofstra University in 1962, where he was a key player on the basketball team that went 25-1. He attended the New School Writing Workshops and finished his M.A. in creative writing at Syracuse University in 1970. He has been, briefly, a semi- professional basketball player, a copywriter, and an editor, but has spent most of his professional life as a professor of literature and creative writing. He divides his time between Frostburg, Maryland, and Pomona, New Jersey, where he has been Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College.
Dunn won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his book Different Hours, and his newest collection of poetry, Everything Else in the World, was published in 2006. Previous collections include The Insistence of Beauty, Loosestrife (National Book Critics Circle finalist, 1996), New and Selected Poems 1974-1994, Landscape at the End of the Century, Local Visitations, and Between Angels. He is also the author of Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, and Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs. In 1995, he received an Academy Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his other awards are the Levinson Award from Poetry magazine and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Dunn’s poetry probes the tapestry of individual experiences and the corners of awareness and poses important questions about what it means to be an American, to be a man, to be a poet alive in the 21st century.
Read poetry by Stephen Dunn published in this issue of Weber Studies.
What has winning the Pulitzer Prize meant to your career?
It’s certainly done something; it’s given me more readers and a certain validation, I suppose. It hasn’t changed my life much. I think I was lucky to be of a certain age with friends in place and habits in place, so these things haven’t changed very much. People pay a little more attention to me, yes, and if there are people who resent me, they are generally kind enough to keep it to themselves.
Do you consider Different Hours to be your best book of poetry?
Well, it was an important book for me because of turning sixty at that time, and no male in my family had ever reached that age, and I never expected to. A lot of the poems were written with that sense of mortality. As to it being the best, there are certainly a number of poems that hold up for me. The poems in it feel embodied. It’s a book I can own. Whether it is the best probably is for other people to say.
Moving to a different topic: George Carlin said, "More people write poetry than read it." And Billy Collins said, "I think more people should be reading it, but maybe fewer should be writing it."
Along those lines, fifteen years ago, Dana Gioia’s famous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and caused a wave, and there are still ripples felt today. According to his predictions, the "200 graduate and more than 1,000 undergraduate creative writing programs will have produced over 30,000 accredited professional poets (by 2006)." The energy of American poetry is focused inward and has created a poetry subculture—"only poets read poetry." Would you comment on that?
It’s true and not true. I mean, "accredited professional poet" is one of those terms that probably does not apply. I don’t know any poet who feels accredited at all. It’s not a bad thing that people write poetry. I can think of nothing bad about it. That there is probably a larger visible degree of mediocrity, yes. The way the world is now, these things are just a little more visible. I try not to let it get me down. I probably, these days, in a given year, find a handful of poems that matter to me, maybe a book or two. That’s actually quite a lot.
Even though there’s more poetry around, I’m not sure that the populace in general is more interested in it. I think not, in fact. So poets are writing for other poets, yes, and I am too, but not exclusively. I like to write "as if" there is a willing, intelligent readership out there, so that there is a possible "gestalt" between writer and reader, the writer making gestures to the reader, the reader bringing his or her full intelligence to the poem. I choose not to be cynical about the relationship between writer and reader.
Currently there seems to be a rift or controversy among poets (the subculture) between "academic" and "accessible" poetry. To quote Joan Houlihan: "Collins and popular poets are interchangeable. The Billy Collins poem… is also a Mary Oliver poem, a Rita Dove poem, a David Lehman poem, a Maya Angelou poem. We feel no drive to delve." What do you think about that?
I think it’s nonsense. Is she not capable of making distinctions, where there are considerable distinctions, between these poets? There’s a certain kind of poem that really asks very little of the reader. I don’t think it’s a Billy Collins poem. His poems are often much more complicated than they seem to be. It’s often a poem that obfuscates that asks very little of us. And the word "accessible" is annoying to me. I’m happy that my poems have clarities, but only when the clarities are in the service of complexity, or in the service of that which is difficult to say.
To be clear about that which it is easy to be clear about is not worth anybody’s trouble. But clarity (probably the best word is "simplicity") is high achievement. It takes all your verbal resources, all your exactitudes to get it. Similarly, when restraint is in the service of that which is minor, small, it’s usually tension-less. Restraint in the service of something large, something rather difficult to contain, is a virtue. So, the accessibility argument, or the accessibility word, needs to be modified, and further articulated in almost every instance it is used. I don’t consider myself similar to Billy Collins, except that we both seem to make an effort to incorporate surface clarities. Surface clarities, as I said, should be hard-won,
I also would say that I think it’s understandable that some poems might be difficult, and I think there’s no problem with that, unless you think the author is making them difficult for the sake of serving some god of difficulty. Our emotional lives, our intellectual lives, are often murky. We have feelings that we don’t have words for. We can be direct and clear up to a point, but when we can’t say it straight anymore, then we need metaphor—we have to reach for the analogue. As soon as that happens, there are higher degrees of difficulty, so a reader might have to work for certain poems. I think this is fine; it depends upon whether or not the poem finally rewards that work. So I have nothing against difficulty per se, but I would hold out that the accessible be in the service, to say it paradoxically, of the unsayable.
In his book, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry, Ed Hirsch comments on poems written by many different poets. I read his comments on "Edge" by Sylvia Plath, and it was like a revelation to me. Suddenly, a seemingly simple poem turned into a masterpiece for me because of his clarifications and insights, particularly regarding symbolism. What would you recommend for the aspiring poet who isn’t in the classroom but still has a desire to progress?
I think when we’re coming to a poem, we’re bringing the entire history of our reading to it. And that’s not just poetry reading, it’s literature in the broadest sense, it’s philosophy, history—you bring your whole wherewithal to it—so, one of the hard things is to train yourself to be a good reader. I. A. Richards, one of the fathers of the New Criticism, when he was teaching at Oxford in the thirties or forties, forbade his students to talk about a poem until they examined their own psychologies for a whole semester. So, if the poem is about the ocean and you keep bringing your dead grandmother into it, you’re a bad reader. So, it’s inevitable that the reader always completes the poem. I think we can control at best one level of meaning, maybe a little more, maybe another resonance, but the reader completes the poem. You have self-indulgent readers; you have careful readers; you have very careful readers.
The hard thing is to read the poet’s words and to make that gesture of humility to the poem, and to try to do your best to get what the author was up to. Of course there are things in the poem that are beyond the author’s consciousness, but I do think author’s intentionality matters. I’ve had annoying readings of my poems, and I’ve had enlightening readings of my poems where people have pointed out things I didn’t see myself. The occasional reader is likely to miss a lot of things.
As to what I’d say to aspiring poets, in the classroom or out, is to take themselves as seriously as other artists do. Which means years of practice. One of the comic things about beginning poets is that they believe they can do something worthwhile because they feel it. You can’t think of a fledgling musician saying, "I feel very emotional right now; I’m going to play the violin; listen, you’ll really like it." You practice; you get lucky. You don’t practice, luck always seems to elude you. Think like an apprentice.
There is a feeling that today’s poetry critics are soft for the most part, nothing like Francis Jeffrey’s criticism of Wordsworth’s Endymion—"This will never do!" That it "wavered between silliness and pathos." Or Randall Jarrell’s description of a book by Oscar Williams—"It gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter."
Where can the general public turn for candid, knowledgeable, tough reviews of new poetry/poets?
Well, I don’t know if you’ve been reading Poetry magazine, the one that Christian Wiman edits. He’s trying to do that, to correct the softness. However, some of the people he’s chosen to write the reviews write like wise guys who just want to show off. I can’t say that I’ve been very happy with that. But the direction is good. There is a certain softness in contemporary criticism. But some of the younger critics seem to want to be Randall Jarrell before they have the credentials to be Randall Jarrell.
Have you experienced any harsh or negative reviews of your own poetry?
Oh, yes. I’ve had some that ruined a few weeks.
You have said, "Most poets are made rather than born original geniuses." Yet we have Keats, Dylan Thomas, Byron, Shelley, Burns and Plath—all dead before age 40. Some think if Wordsworth had died at 30, he would be revered even more than he is. There seems to be a thread of genius with these poets—and a martyr syndrome. Can you give your thoughts on this, and whether there are contemporary poets who think that poetry is worth dying for—that dying would validate their work?
There are some original geniuses—Keats and Rimbaud—but they are the real exceptions. The other ones you mentioned are made poets. They paid their dues. We could call it genius, but it’s not a Mozartian genius, where you can start to do this thing at five years old. You need experience to write poetry. However, youth favors the pure lyric, the poem that extols the moment. The lyric is essentially the poetry of inexperience. And in the pure lyric, it’s quite possible that people like the ones you mentioned, people of extraordinary talent, can be very good when young and inexperienced. But not the way that mathematicians are brilliant while young, not the way that composers are. It’s quite different. Keats, though, wrote extraordinary poems in his teens. Rimbaud, in fact, stopped writing when he was around nineteen.
What about Dylan Thomas?
Well, he had extraordinary lyric talent, but the reality is that most poets make themselves poets, and he is one of those.
To answer the second part of your question, the age of the romance with self-destruction is over. So many mid-century poets committed suicide, or drank themselves into oblivion, or had various ways to achieve the suffering they thought was necessary to the enterprise. There’s little of that going around now. I’ve always thought that to seek suffering was stupid. Live long enough, it’s sure to come your way. Poetry is not worth dying for. It’s worth giving your life to.
When did you know for certain you were going to be a poet?
I’m trying to think how to answer that honestly. I think well into my thirties, even after a book or two, if somebody had asked me if I were a poet, my answer was that I write poetry. But there was a certain time, during the writing of my book Work and Love where I felt I was starting to write my own poems rather than the poems of my education, and it was somewhere around that time that I could say I was a poet, that I felt driven to do it, that poetry was what I was going to do.
Do you have a signature poem?
Well, probably there are two poems that come to mind. One is "The Routine Things Around the House," which is a poem about my mother, an elegy for her, a poem that seems to transcend its potential for vulgarity. The other is probably "At the Smithfield Methodist Church." People, mostly in the South, tend to walk out when I read it. Both poems are provocative and in some ways challenge the reader, but I can think of many others, more ambitious ones like "Loves," and "Loosestrife" that I’d prefer to represent me.
In your book of essays Walking Light you address poems of affirmation: "The affirmative poems that interest me are those which affirm while acknowledging failure, limitation—the recognizable undersides of experience." In many of your poems, there seems to be what I would term a "cleansing melancholy." Can you expand on the affirmative poem and melancholy?
I don’t know the answer to that latter part, but affirmative poems that say the world is good and look at this great thing I just did are always uninteresting because they don’t cooperate with or acknowledge the recognizable world. It’s a triumph, for example, to love well; it’s a triumph to be decent, so the affirmative poems that I trust always have the hint or the spectre of darkness behind them, the spectre of difficulty. With these poems, we know we’re affirming some kind of passage.
As to my own melancholy, I don’t know. It’s so interesting, in my new marriage, to be wholly in love, to not have a whole lot of second thoughts, which I’ve had all my life. I’m in some rarefied place right now. So when I look back at some of the poems I’ve written over the years, the melancholy in them seems very conspicuous. Certainly they’re full of longing. You know, the human condition.
I’m a great fan of Ingmar Bergman films. People say they are so depressing and that there is no pleasure in them, but I’ve always tended to be exhilarated by them. To get the world a little right—even with its sadness, loss, and horror—is a big thing. The great moments in reading for me have been when you find yourself nodding because the writer has just articulated something you half knew, felt, but did not yet have the language for. When a writer gets that right, it is literature doing what it should do—bringing you into the common fold. It’s what I hope my poems do, whatever their tenor.
That’s exactly what happened to me when I first read Losing Steps.
After reading your memoir on TRUTH, should we believe anything you say? Seriously, can you talk about truth in poetry and the personal poem.
I’ve long argued that poets need to think of themselves as fictionists. Obviously fiction writers think of themselves as fictionists, but poets—they are makers; they are not just emoting; they are making structures so that emotion will be framed and thus better revealed. The "truth" is something that needs to be orchestrated, managed.
I’m always in the act of making something for the sake of approximating truth. I’m not much interested, say, in personal honesty, whatever that is. At a dinner party last week, the subject of honesty came up. I admit to trying to be provocative and have fun, but I meant it when I told my companions that honesty was terribly overrated, that I wouldn’t trust anybody who believed in absolute honesty. First of all, I said, to be honest at all you need to know yourself well. Most people are unreliable narrators of their own lives. Good fictionists, on the other hand, know to use unreliability. They manage their narrators. I hope I do that in my best "personal" poems. Honesty is an achievement. It’s often as much a technical and formal achievement as it is saying what you think you mean. But, I prefer truth to honesty. People who tend to be honest almost never tell anything like the truth because they’re too happy with their first thought. People who are interested in something like the truth, not only need to know themselves well, but they need to resist their own assertions, be very suspicious of them. So, to tell anything like the truth is very difficult. What artists do, rather than make assertions, is dramatize, they enact—better to enact a truth than assert a truth. And it helps to remember what Coleridge said—that poems must give pleasure before they can instruct.
You have said, "A good poet needs to have read all the other poets. It is mostly work. You’ve got to practice. When a poet realizes that and gives his life over to it, he succeeds." This sounds like a full-time career. What about the poet whose other obligations preclude his giving his life over to it? Can he still succeed? Is there a place for a part-time poet?
Yes, of course. The people who write poetry, who keep at it, I assume derive pleasure from it. They become more sensitive to language; they become better readers, but I don’t think that the weekend poet will be a great poet, maybe not even a good poet. I don’t know of any who would be in the first rank or the second rank. You have to compare it to what other artists do, or how one becomes a good carpenter, or mechanic. There are no shortcuts.
I think of Li-Young Lee, who once was a warehouse worker in Chicago. That is what his "job" was, so would he be an exception?
Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive, T. S. Eliot worked in a bank. Of course, you don’t have to be a teacher. There are many things you can do and still be a poet. William Bronk, who nobody has heard of, but whom I like a lot, ran the family lumber business his whole life.
Many poets recommend that you adopt a mentor (poet). Did you do that in your career? If so, who? Which poet/poets have influenced you the most?
I had great teachers. Quite serendipitously, I was pointed in their direction. When I went to graduate school, I didn’t know very much about contemporary poets. I had never heard of W. D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, or Philip Booth, or George P. Elliott, all of whom were my teachers at Syracuse, and whose work was variously important to me. I just listened to a friend who said I should go there. And then, of course, I started to read voraciously, find my mentors that way, the old fashioned way. Roethke was enormously important to me early—and Yeats. The other graduate students were 23, and they knew so much more than I did. I was playing catch up. Wallace Stevens became enormously important to me. W. C. Williams, James Wright.
You tell about "the history of your silence." Can you elaborate on that period in your life, how it affected your poetry?
In retrospect, my quiet youth, painful as it might have been at times, was a good period of storing up, of listening. I was lucky enough to be around some very good talk, and I knew it was good talk—so I didn’t talk. I knew I couldn’t equal it, so I just was storing up. I wished to participate; I wished to be articulate. Writing, for me, at first, was a way of speaking.
What is your opinion of poetry slams? Are they good for poetry, or more like "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal?"
Again, I don’t think they hurt. They’re fun, but I don’t take them seriously. They’re probably all right, but not for me. In terms of their worth as poetry, they encourage people to write for applause, which means that the poet, as he composes, is likely thinking about the wrong things. The poems probably haven’t passed very many hard tests.
You have said that your poetry is geared to your interest in "the mysteries of the ordinary." Can you give some examples of what you mean by that? Which poem/poems of yours illustrate this concept?
All of them! I’m being a little glib, but, yes, all of them. I don’t know if you know Paul éluard’s famous line, "There is another world and it isn’t this one." It’s my credo as a poet. I think my job is to deliver that world, to get at—through the visible—some of what is less visible. Or not easily sayable. Not by rendering it exotic, but rather the opposite, to normalize the strange.
If you were a specialist performing a thorough examination to determine the health and/or condition of poetry in America today, what would be your final diagnosis?
The patient is alive.