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Interview by Aaron Rench

Provisional Conclusions

A conversation with poet Stephen Dunn.

Stephen Dunn was born in New York in 1939. He earned his B.A. in History from Hofstra University, where he also played varsity basketball, and later received his M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in 1970. In 2001, Dunn was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Different Hours.

Dunn is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, but currently spends most of his time in Frostburg, Maryland with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd. His most recent collection of poems is Everything Else in the World (Norton). Please visit him on the web at www.stephendunnpoet.com.

This conversation was conducted by phone.

In discussing your poetry my friend Douglas Jones pointed out that parts of it read very much like the book of Ecclesiastes.

Because you had mentioned this before, I was rereading Ecclesiastes this morning, and was reminded what great poetry it is.

I have been rereading your poetry, and there is a sense in which it has the quality of poetic wisdom literature.

I know you mean that as a compliment, but it is risky stuff, such thinking. I have written an essay on the difficulty of writing anything like wisdom poetry. Though, because of the difficulty, sometimes one might wish to try and get away with it. If you sound like you are coming from on high, it won't feel trustworthy. If the "wisdom" feels like a discovery for the poet, well, there's a chance. It helps, of course, if you have a genuine sense of being complicit in the ills of the world, which I do. Wisdom that sounds superior, or as received truth, makes me suspicious of it. It is a matter of trusting the voice. Poetry responds to the way things are. If my poetry affirms at all, which it sometimes does, the only affirmations that I tend to trust are ones that acknowledge the condition of the world. Without an acknowledgment of darkness, affirmation is rather vapid.

At the very end of your poem "At the Restaurant," you say, "inexcusable the slaughter in this world, insufficient the merely decent man." Here you sound very much like the psalmist David, who is complaining to God, and I mean complaining in a good way. How would you respond to someone recognizing you as part of the tradition of the Psalmist?

I do not think of myself that way at all. Those last two lines were the poem's discovery that arose out of the material, a kind of self-indictment, actually. Given the horror that is in the world, it might be insufficient just to be a decent person and not to be, say, someone who is more of an activist.

Do you view your poetry as an accurate extension of reality?

More like a correction of reality [laughs]. Most of the language used in a day, I would say, maybe about 75 percent of it, is designed to deceive you. So between government speak, official speak, advertising—any of the oversimplifications you regularly are confronted with—if you're me, you find yourself listening to or being given a world that does not resemble yours. I think one thing that poetry does is bring us a little closer to the real by the precision of its language. To get the world right is a hard-won thing. It's not easily done.  Wallace Stevens says that one of the jobs of the poet is "to put people in agreement with reality," which I like a lot.

How is poetry not just an escape from reality?

Bad poetry is [laughs]. Oh, there are all kinds of poems. There are some that please us with their music, or the quality of their inventiveness. But the poems that most matter to me are the ones that put me a little closer to the real. And I think the real is elusive. I don't know if you know the French mid-century poet Paul Éluard. He has a statement which I have always loved, a credo for my poems. He said "there is another world and it is in this one."

How does your faith make your poetry beautiful?

I usually find out what I believe by writing. I write myself into beliefs. And I think of beliefs as provisional. They're not things that constitute anything fixed. It's very easy for me to entertain lots of possibilities, to wear a lot of beliefs, to test them out, to plumb them. I tend to be a skeptic about firmly held beliefs. I think the world confounds them constantly. So each poem is really a little enterprise in which I'm finding out what I think and what I believe as I go.

G. K. Chesterton once said, "The moment you have a fixed heart you have a free hand." He thought that freedom and surprise were most healthy, most robust when they have a fixed point. If everything is surprise, then nothing is.

That's one of those comments that's very interesting, but I'm somebody who immediately entertains the opposite of what I hear, and I know the opposite of that statement is true also. The unfixed heart gives you a free hand: both things are true.

A little earlier you said that you tend to be a skeptic about firmly held beliefs. Do you ever entertain the opposite of that? Are you ever skeptical of the firmly held belief in skepticism?

I would substitute "cynicism" for "skepticism." The skeptic is in search of language or truths that pass hard tests. The cynic, as Wilde says, "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." I'm skeptical of the cynic.

Imagine for a moment that you live in a Christian universe. I know that you are not there personally, but your poetry, I think, invites these questions. What sort of poetic style do animals express? And let me just give you a concrete example of what I am asking about. A line that I really love in your poem "Nature" talks about how you like the "preposterous mad god creations," the rhinoceri and things like that. How do animals reveal a wild God?

I don't know what you mean about poetic style in relation to animals. But all the things in the world, collectively, attest to some kind of grandeur. And Christians would like to call that God. I have no problem with that. I think of God as a metaphor. God is a metaphor for the origins and mysteries of the world. I don't want to quarrel with people who believe in their version of that great mystery. My quarrel is with those who hold that their religion has the answer. If we examine things cross-culturally, we see that there are many gods. As a species, we are god-creators. Every culture seems to need its god. And so I tend to think anthropologically about such things.

In that line about the "preposterous mad god creations," how is it that they are somehow revealing a wildness in God?

Yes. I am entertaining that notion, and you are right to call me on it. But to me, it is a comic notion. Those tapirs and rhinoceri are so wonderfully grotesque.

They look otherworldly.

Yes. It attests …

To a creator.

Or to the mysteries of evolution, which probably somebody smarter than I could trace. These moments in my poems are all probings, not beliefs. They're provisional.  And sometimes I'm just having fun. This takes us back to where we started. I try to put people in some agreement with reality, with the real, to discover—without pre-existent impositions—what is out there, what the world is like. It is a constant groping toward. One of the things for me, as an ex-Catholic—and it's always amazing to my friends—is that I am an ex-Catholic without guilt [laughs].

Well, Martin Luther was too [laughs].

[Really laughs] I was lucky enough, though it confused me at the time, to grow up with my maternal grandparents living in the same house. My father was an Irish Catholic. My mother did not know what she was. And my grandmother was a Scotch Protestant and my grandfather was a German Jew. So there was no orthodoxy quite possible in our house. It was all confusing to me back then. Now, I rather like how it shaped me.

What would you say to someone who thought that in some ways you were a closet Christian?

I would think they are not reading me very well.

[Laughs] I don't mean that they are peering into the heart of Stephen Dunn and talking about him being regenerate in the theological sense of the word. I am thinking more of the frequent use of Christian categories in the poems, not an explicit confession of Christianity.

Well, what I hope you are talking about is a kind of moral attentiveness.

That is part of what I am talking about. There's a disagreement I would like to take up with you in your poem "Loves," which I thought was a great poem. One line says, "in spite of their lack of humor I love Thoreau and Jesus " As someone who thinks of Christ as the humorist that no one could handle, I would want to quarrel with that claim.

[Laughs] You know, it's funny, Aaron, most people quarrel with me on that and they pick Thoreau. They think Thoreau is full of humor [both laugh]. You are probably right.

Well I guess the quarrel would come from just watching the way Jesus acts, the way he treats moralists, the way he treats people who do not entertain the opposite, the way he uses parable and poetry and satire all the time—he is dangerously full of humor and poetry.

I would not argue with you on this because I am assuming you are right.

OK. I was wanting you to argue with me [laughs].

The Thoreauvians keep bringing up great moments of humor with Thoreau and I just have to yield.

In regards to your book The Insistence of Beauty, what is this notion that beauty has a demanding, compelling quality to it? Why is beauty that way?

I just think beauty is irresistible. It disarms us. It takes away our arguments. And then if you expand the notion of beauty—that there is beauty in the tawdry, beauty in ugliness—things get complicated. But I think that beauty, which is more related in my mind to the sublime, is what we cannot resist.

In the title poem of your latest book, Everything Else in The World, the speaker has received an education that gives him "a hankering for the sublime." He's not content with cubicle life. I get the sense from this poem that you have certain ideas about what a good education should be. Are you a defender of the liberal arts? Is a "hankering for the sublime" characteristic of a good education? I know these are big questions.

They are big questions, deserving of an essay rather than the kind of response I can offer here. I'll confine myself to saying some things about the poem, which I think of as a dramatization of an early crossroad in the speaker's life. His education, in a sense, has made him unfit for corporate life. He gets the job, and is good at it, but, yes, he hankers for something like the sublime, and discovers that the virtue of getting such a job is that it fills him with desire for "everything else in the world." In essence, a comic poem.

In your poem, "The Soul's Agents," I enjoy the lines: "In your case we do worry / there may not be enough / quarrel in you, or enough courage / to acknowledge your worst inclinations." What should people learn to quarrel with in general? Where can we find the courage to acknowledge our worst inclinations?

Well, to pick up on your previous question, maybe a true liberal education should give one the tools to subvert or resist that which in the culture is false, banal, spiritless. Those agents of the soul are looking for someone to pass hard tests, and some of their criteria are a kind of cultural persnicketiness combined with a courage for acute self-examination. That's what the soul's agents are looking for, which (in the terms of the poem) they will report to the soul. I don't know where we can find such courage. I imagine it would differ from person to person, and perhaps anyway it should be a rare occurrence. As we've heard, the soul selects its own society.

Throughout this collection of poems there seems to be, if not a theme, a sentiment that there is a way of being principled and efficient that misses the point and leaves one with a desire for everything else in the world. In contrast, there is a beauty and an art in the useless, in the common, daily things. To name several examples, I think of lines from "A Small Part," "Cut and Break," and "From the Tower at the Top of the Winding Stairs." Would you say that everything else in the world refers to the poetry of things?

What a lovely question. Yes, maybe, the poetry of things is always that which is slightly out of reach, and yet approachable through the language that might extend us in its direction. One can learn to love, for example, "the shadows illumination creates," as I say in "A Small Part."  Or recognize how "stunning" his friend's "useless art" is. I think most of us, deep down, are seeking what Keats calls "a fine excess," which, yes, is poetry, and has a chance to enlarge our sense of what it means to be human.

Aaron Rench received his B.A. from New Saint Andrews College, and is currently a graduate student at the University of Oxford in Creative Writing. He and his wife, Gentry, have one daughter, Eve, and make their home in Idaho.

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