Defining Time -- 17 Poems of Carl Dennis and an Essay

Defining Time

By Carl Dennis

If it's like a river, the current is too much for us,
Sweeping us past a moment we're still not used to
Out to the void of the not-yet-come.
Should we resist, wherever we are,
Or be reconciled?
It seems to bring us gifts. Each day
Arrives as a fresh basket of bread.
Our right hand no longer can touch our left
Around the girth of our Buddha bellies.
How can that be if the minutes of the day are fish
Nibbling away at us till our bones show through,
Nibbling away at our friends, our houses?
Let's try to ignore it, whatever it is,
As we do the thin air of the Himalayas
When we climb, breathless, to pray for enlightenment.
Can we really ignore its earthly mass
As it lies between us and the thing we hope for?
A long wait till the train goes by
And we can cross the tracks into the evening,
Our favorite time. At last we're walking after dinner
On our ritual mile to the great magnolia.
There it is, glimmering at the end of the field.
Just a handful of whatever time is
And we'll be standing beneath its branches
Looking back at the poplars we're passing now.
How young we were back there, we'll say,
How confused and moody in that early era.
We need more time to consider it,
More than the dole allowed us at any moment,
The nickels and dimes.
We need to unfold time on the table like a map,
With the years gone and the years to come
Colored as vividly as the moment,
Proving how little it means to say
Time has gone by, passed through us
Or around us, and left us old.



By Carl Dennis

Am I leading the life that my soul,
Mortal or not, wants me to lead is a question
That seems at least as meaningful as the question
Am I leading the life I want to live,
Given the vagueness of the pronoun "I,"
The number of things it wants at any moment.

Fictive or not, the soul asks for a few things only,
If not just one. So life would be clearer
If it weren't so silent, inaudible
Even here in the yard an hour past sundown
When the pair of cardinals and crowd of starlings
Have settled down for the night in the poplars.

Have I planted the seed of my talent in fertile soil?
Have I watered and trimmed the sapling?
Do birds nest in my canopy? Do I throw a shade
Others might find inviting? These are some handy metaphors
The soul is free to use if it finds itself
Unwilling to speak directly for reasons beyond me,
Assuming it's eager to be of service.

Now the moon, rising above the branches,
Offers itself to my soul as a double,
Its scarred face an image of the disappointment
I'm ready to say I've caused if the soul
Names the particulars and suggests amendments.

So fine are the threads that the moon
Uses to tug at the ocean that Galileo himself
Couldn't imagine them. He tried to explain the tides
By the earth's momentum as yesterday
I tried to explain my early waking
Three hours before dawn by street noise.

Now I'm ready to posit a tug
Or nudge from the soul. Some insight
Too important to be put off till morning
Might have been mine if I'd opened myself
To the occasion as now I do.

Here's a chance for the soul to fit its truth
To a world of yards, moons, poplars, and starlings,
To resist the fear that to talk my language
Means to be shoehorned into my perspective
Till it thinks as I do, narrowly.

"Be brave, Soul," I want to say to encourage it.
"Your student, however slow, is willing,
The only student you'll ever have."


The God Who Loves You

By Carl Dennis

It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you'd be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week?
Three fine houses sold to deserving families?
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you'd have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you're living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don't want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day's disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You'd have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you're used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You're spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven't written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you've witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you've chosen.


To Reason

By Carl Dennis

Reason, I hope I never speak ill of you,
Dependable homely friend who prods me gently
To turn to the hour that's now arriving,
Not to the hour I let slip by
Twenty years back. No way now, you say,
To welcome a friend I failed to welcome
When she returned to town in sorrow;
Fresh from her discovery that the man
Who'd seemed to burn with the brightest flame
Could show a darker side as well.

You're right to label it magical thinking
When I say to a phantom what I never said
To flesh and blood, as if the words, repeated enough,
Could somehow work their way back to an old page
And nudge the silence aside and settle in,
A delusion not appropriate for a man no longer young
At the end of a century where many nations
Have set many things in motion they can't call back
Though the vote for reversal is unanimous.

I'm glad you ask, clear-sighted Reason,
Before what audience, if my speech can't reach her ears,
I imagine myself performing. Who is it
I want to convince I'd do things differently
This time around if the chance were offered.
You're right to say that half an hour a day is enough
For these gods or angels to get the point
If they're ever going to get it, which is doubtful.
Right again that if part of myself
After all my efforts still needs convincing
I should leave that dullard behind
With the empty dream of wholeness and move on.

I should move along the road that is not the road
I'd be moving along had I said what I didn't say
To someone who might have been ready to listen,
But a road as good, you assure me, Reason,
One that might lead to a life I can be proud of
So the man I might have been can't pity me.
Thanks for arguing I can solve the problems
He may have wanted to solve but hadn't the time for;
Being, as he was, preoccupied
With the life I would be living
Had I been ready long ago.



By Carl Dennis

The world will be no different if the twin sisters
Disputing now in the linen aisle of Kaufman’s
Resolve their difference about table napkins,
Whether the color chosen by one is violet
Or lavender or washed-out purple. No different,
But that’s no reason to deem the talk insignificant.
It’s important for people to make distinctions,
To want their words to fit appearances snugly.
Why wait to get home before they decide if the napkins
Match the plates Grandmother gave them years back
For their twentieth birthday. A pleasure to hear them,
Like the pleasure hearing people in a museum
Discuss how closely the landscape approaches
In their experience the best of the Renaissance
Or would if the paint hadn’t cracked in spots
And darkened. Should they deem it fine or very fine
Or remarkable? The world no different but the subject
Not insignificant, the whereabouts of the beautiful,
Just how near it lies to the moment
According to a measurement all can agree on.
That was a beautiful conversation last night
About Vermeer though my friend Ramona
Went off on a tangent, hammering home her theory
As to why he never painted his wife or children.
Could be she was feeling resentful she’s only third
On her husband’s selective roster of women
Who’ve left the deepest marks on his character.
But this morning she may be asking herself what right
She has to complain when he’s second on hers,
Below the passionate man she walked away from,
Whose curtain lectures on the plight of Cambodia
Bored her silly. No joy for her, back then,
In loving a man whose conscience burdened itself
With the crimes of others, not simply his own.
Now it seems she lost out on a lucky chance
To widen her heart. However painful that thought
It’s useful when she finds herself too satisfied
With the life she has, forgetting where it fits exactly
On the spectrum of ripeness. Meanwhile, out in her garden,
It’s a beautiful morning. The air is a little gritty,
Granted, and the low clouds in the west
Have lowered its ranking to seven points out of ten
On the scale of likely prospects. But that doesn’t mean
She can’t make it a ten on the scale of hope,
Ten for her willingness to be proven wrong.



By Carl Dennis

Whatever your limits, you're free of the bias
Toward the familiar that the senses and feelings
Can't seem to shake off, familiar faces and neighborhoods.

You love the laws that are universal,
Those that don't change with custom and climate,
That shine with the same clarity everywhere.

For you it's obvious that the hungry of Madagascar,
However remote from the senses and feelings,
Are just as needy as the hungry of home.

And at the public meeting about the wisdom
Of damming the river, you give the waitress
As fair a hearing as the banker or judge.

It sounds like a good idea, you say, all things considered,
To provide the farmers dependable irrigation
And the towns down river protection from floods.

As for the village or two that must soon
Be turned into lake bed, you don't dismiss the nostalgia
Flooding the senses and feelings with a scornful

"Like it or lump it." You reason with them.
This is their chance to prove their detractors mistaken,
To choose public good over private convenience.

And then you show them the plans of the village
You're going to build for them on higher ground,
A village of brick, not clapboard, with pleasing lake views.

And when they invite you for a farewell stroll
At dusk through the streets scheduled for sacrifice,
You rearrange your schedule to indulge their whim.

As long as they'll work all day in the here and now,
You won't reproach them if they sit by the fire all evening
And dream of how much softer the light was

In the town now lost, how peaceful its busy streets,
How joyful. With the evidence out of reach,
It's your word against theirs; and for them

Repetition will serve as proof. When you go to bed
They'll still be wondering what their ghosts will do
Now that the only town they've ever wanted to haunt

Is closed to all but fishes. And how lonely they'll feel
Knowing no generations to come will be sheltered
By the same houses that sheltered them.

But home for you is wherever the thoughtful few
Gather to deliberate and reach a consensus
That the wise of any nation would be glad to second.

So you must tell yourself when the senses and feelings
Complain you've never listened to their opinions,
That you've tried to teach them but not to learn.

Writing at Night

By Carl Dennis

This empty feeling that makes me fearful
I’ll disappear the minute I stop thinking
May only mean that beyond the kitchen window, in the dark,
The minions of the past are gathering,
Waiting for the dishes to be cleared away
So they can hustle supper into oblivion.

This feeling may only mean that supper’s done
And night has the house surrounded
And the past is declaring itself the victor.
It doesn’t deny that tomorrow I’ll wake to find
That the usual bales of light have been unloaded
And distributed equally in every precinct,
That the tree at the corner will be awash in it
And the flaming yellow coats of the crossing guards.

This empty feeling could be a gift
I haven’t yet grown used to, a lightness
That means I’ve shaken off the weight of resentment,
Envy, remorse, and pride that drags the soul down.
A thinness that lets me slip through a needle’s eye
Into the here and now of the kitchen
Without losing a button.

An emptiness that betokens a talent for self-forgetting
That lets me welcome the stories of others,
Which even now may be on their way,
Hoping I’ll take them in however rumpled they look
And gray-faced as they drag themselves from the car

With their bulky night bags and water jugs.
It’s late. Have I gone to bed? they wonder.
And then they see the light in the kitchen
And a figure who could be me at the table
Still up writing.


In Paris

By Carl Dennis

Today as we walk in Paris I promise to focus

More on the sights before us than on the woman
We noticed yesterday in the photograph at the print shop,
The slender brunette who looked like you
As she posed with a violin case by a horse-drawn omnibus
Near the Luxembourg Gardens. Today I won't linger long
On the obvious point that her name is as lost to history
As the name of the graveyard where her bones
Have been crumbling to dust for over a century.
The streets we're to wander will shine more brightly
Now that it's clear the day of her death
Is of little importance compared to the moment
Caught in the photograph as she makes her way
Through afternoon light like this toward the Seine.
The cold rain that fell this morning has given way to sunshine.
The gleaming puddles reflect our mood
Just as they reflected hers as she stepped around them
Smiling to herself, happy that her audition
An hour before went well. After practicing scales
For years in a village whose name isn't recorded,
She can study in Paris with one of the masters.
No way of telling now how close her life
Came to the life she hoped for as she rambled,
On the day of the photograph, along the quay.
But why do I need to know when she herself,
If offered a chance to peruse the book of the future,
Might shake her head no and turn away?
She wants to focus on her afternoon, now almost gone,
As we want to focus on ours as we stand
Here on the bridge she stood on to watch
The steamers push up against the current or ease down.
This flickering light on the water as boats pass by
Is the flow that many painters have tried to capture
Without holding too still. By the time these boats arrive
Far off in the provinces and give up their cargoes,
Who knows where the flow may have carried us?
But to think now of our leaving is to wrong the moment.
We have to be wholly here as she was
If we want the city that welcomed her
To welcome us as students trained in her school
To enjoy the music as much as she did
When she didn't grieve that she couldn't stay

Our Death

By Carl Dennis

From the point of view of the dead, it's likely nothing,
As Epicurus argues, but from ours
It's the point on the page where the hand
Writing our story stops moving, no matter
How far the story lies from completion,
And the blank pages ahead are torn away.

The point when friends stop phoning for our opinion
Or to tell us what they always intended to say
But couldn't. And if we imagine a letter then
Placed in our hands, we have to imagine as well
No strength to unfold it, no light to read by
Or to pen an answer with if we had a pen.

Hard to believe the library board meets Tuesday
With us not there to ask why our clients
Still fail to read what we've recommended.
And to think the chairman who seemed to support us
Now recommends that the list we cherished
Be altered to fit the taste of the crowd.

And those still voting our way, listening in the evening
To the discs we left them, will be surprised
At the widening gap between our taste in music
And theirs. And then they'll turn to sketching the plans
For enlarging the summer house we never approved of,
That kept them away from their friends too long.


The Master of Metaphor

By Carl Dennis

Even on days when his body seems too heavy
And broken to live with gracefully,
He tries not to think of it as a prison,
Not to consider himself a spirit
Who merely happens to be embodied.
Better for him, he believes, to begin with body,
Body enlivened, awakened, inspirited.
As for the earth, how can it be a prison
When he's an earthling, his lungs having evolved
To thrive in an atmosphere richly imbued
With the exhalations of earthly plant life,
His legs evolved to carry him to a stand of pear trees,
His arms and hands to reach up and pluck?

And when he wakes in the dark an hour past midnight
With his lungs aching, gasping for breath,
He doesn't blame the weight of his body
Or the weight of the earthly atmosphere.
It's simply the weight of the dark itself.
And when he's tempted to call that dark a prison,
He reminds himself its walls and bars will dissolve
Like mist when dawn finally arrives,
Dear dawn striding across the hills to lift the stone
Night has rolled on his chest and let him rise.
A miracle, he believes he can say without hyperbole,
If the term can refer to familiar splendor,
Not only to what's revealed to the faithful
Far less often than once a day.



By Carl Dennis

You'll never be much of a prophet if, when the call comes
To preach to Nineveh, you flee on the ship for Tarshish
That Jonah fled on, afraid like him of the people's outrage
Were they to hear the edict that in thirty days
Their city in all its glory will be overthrown.

The sea storm that harried Jonah won't harry you.
No big fish will be waiting to swallow you whole
And keep you down in the dark till your mood
Shifts from fear to thankfulness and you want to serve.
No. You'll land safe at Tarshish and learn the language
And get a job in a countinghouse by the harbor
And marry and raise a family you can be proud of
In a neighborhood not too rowdy for comfort.

If you're going to be a prophet, you must listen the first time.
Setting off at sunrise, you can't be disheartened
If you arrive at Nineveh long past midnight,
On foot, your donkey having run off with your baggage.
You'll have to settle for a room in the cheapest hotel
And toss all night on the lice-ridden mattress

That Jonah is spared. In the space of three sentences
He jumps from his donkey, speaks out, and is heeded, while you,
Preaching next day in the rain on a noisy corner,
Are likely to be ignored, outshouted by old-clothes dealers
And fishwives, mocked by schoolboys for your accent.
And then it's a week in jail for disturbing the peace.
There you'll have time, as you sit in a dungeon
Darker than a whale's belly, to ask if the trip
Is a big mistake, the heavenly voice mere mood,

The mission a fancy. Jonah's biggest complaint
Is that God, when the people repent and ask forgiveness,
Is glad to forgive them and cancels the doomsday
Specified in the prophecy, leaving his prophet
To look like a fool. So God takes time to explain
How it's wrong to want a city like this one to burn,
How a prophet's supposed to redeem the future,
Not predict it. But you'll be left with the question
Why your city's been spared when nobody's different,

Nobody in the soup kitchen you open,
Though one or two of the hungriest
May be grateful enough for the soup to listen
When you talk about turning their lives around.
It will be hard to believe these are the saving remnant
Kin to the ten just men that would have sufficed
To save Gomorrah if Abraham could have found them.

You'll have to tell them frankly you can't explain
Why Nineveh is still standing though you hope to learn
At the feet of a prophet who for all you know
May be turning his donkey toward Nineveh even now.


Improbable Story

By Carl Dennis

Far from here, in the probable world,
The stable reign of the dinosaurs
Hasn't been brought to a sudden, unlooked-for end
By a billion-to-one crash with an asteroid
Ten miles across at impact, or a comet.

No dust cloud there darkens the sky
Till it snuffs out half the kingdom of vegetation,
As it might in a B movie from Hollywood,
And half the animal families,
The heavy feeders and breathers among them.

The dinosaurs rule the roost over there,
And the mammals, forced to keep hidden,
Only survive as pygmies. No time for the branching
That leads to us. None of our lean-tos or igloos,
Churches or silos, dot the landscape,

No schools or prisons. Not a single porch
Where you can sit as you're sitting here
Writing to Martha that your fog has lifted,
That despite the odds against transformation
You've left the age of ambivalence far behind you.

Over there, in the probable world, your "yes"
Means what it always has, "Who knows?"
Your "maybe" means that your doubts are overwhelming.
Martha doesn't believe one sentence as she reads
In the shade of a willow that could never survive

The winter's killer ice storms. No purple martins return
In the probable world to the little house you made them,
Ready to eat in a week their weight in mosquitoes
While Martha completes a letter that over there
She'll never be foolish enough to begin.



By Carl Dennis

If I chew these sesame seeds slowly,
As the book advises, and do my rhythmic breathing,
I may end the year comparing myself to Buddha,
Thinking of myself as his companion.

No more wasting my energy on my will,
The will afraid if it ever stopped wanting
I’d disappear. Head forward,
Shoulders stooped under its sack of ambitions,
It butts its way through the crowd.
It halts in clearings to count its losses.

Now I can turn to meditation and vision
If I chew these sesame seeds slowly,
Walking behind myself at a saving distance,
Glancing around at a world not seen before.

Soon I’ll be free to play, to leave my projects behind
And wonder what it’s like to be a stone
Or a tree, or the dog asleep by the lawn chair,
Or the woman in the chair, gray-haired and frail,
Knitting a sweater for her daughter’s baby.

To be them, and then to leave them.
To hope they’re not as stranded in what they are
As the blue flowers in the yard at the corner
Which seem to keep shouting only one name,
Blue flower, blue flower.

Just a mouthful of sesame seeds and salt
To neutralize the acidity of the blood
And maybe in a week or two the fretful yin child
Will be a contemplative, joyful yang.

And if I can change, my friends can follow
If they’re willing to be more flexible
And don’t insist, as they have till now,
On their own vivid, unchastened perspectives.

Strange to love those who resist me,
Who block the sidewalk when I go exploring
And won’t give ground, who force me
To step aside with my ears ringing,
My eyes watering, and move on

Under awnings that flap their colors
As awnings do, under lindens
Shaking their leaves as lindens will
When they want to refresh themselves
In gusts from the mountains, gusts from the sea.



By Carl Dennis

A middle aged man inspects the painting
That seems to present a boy with a bird and a whale.
Though his children, perhaps, have refused his counsel,
Though his wife has a lover who borrows money,
And his job at the savings-and-loan isn't inspiring,
He lays no blame on his country's decline,
Or his mother's coldness, or the slope of his chin,
But humbly supposes his ignorance does him in.
So he looks hard at the painted scene.
Maybe the boy with the bird and the whale
Would tell him something useful about the soul
If only he hadn't neglected his studies.
He needs a teacher, he thinks, to help him see,
And looking around the room discovers me
Looking at him with my sympathetic stare.
If he comes this way, I'll have to tell him the truth
About the shortage of teachers everywhere.



By Carl Dennis

The way up, from here to there, may be closed,
But the way down, from there to here, still open
Wide enough for a slender god like Hermes
To slip from the clouds if you give your evenings
To learning about the plants under his influence,
The winged and wingless creatures, the rocks and metals,
And practice his sacred flute or dulcimer.

No prayers. Just the effort to make his stay
So full of the comforts of home he won't forget it,
To build him a shrine he finds congenial,
Something as simple as roofed pillars
Without the darkness of an interior.

If you're lucky, he'll want to sit on the steps
Under the stars for as long as you live
And sniff the fragrance of wine and barley
As it blows from the altar on a salty sea breeze.
He'll want, when you die, to offer his services
As a guide on the shadowy path to the underworld.

Not till you reach the watery crossing
Will he leave your side, and even then
He'll shout instructions as you slip from your shoes
And wade alone into that dark river.



By Carl Dennis

"Thou shalt not covet," hardest of the Commandments,
Is listed last so the others won’t be neglected.
An hour a day of practice is all that anyone
Can expect you to spare, and in ten years’ time
You may find you’ve outgrown your earlier hankering
For your neighbor’s house, though his is brick
And yours is clapboard, though his contains a family.
Ten years of effort and finally it’s simple justice
To reward yourself with a token of self-approval.

Stand tall as you linger this evening
In the sweater section of Kaufmann’s Department Store
By the case for men not afraid of extravagance.
All will go well if you hold your focus steady
On what’s before you and cast no covetous eye
On the middle-aged man across the aisle
In women’s accessories as he converses quietly
With his teenaged son. The odds are slim
They’re going to reach agreement about a gift
Likely to please the woman they live with,
Not with the clash in what they’re wearing,
The father dapper in sport coat and tie, the son
Long-haired, with a ring in his ear and a shirt
That might have been worn by a Vandal chieftain
When he torched a town at the edge of the Empire.

This moment you covet is only a truce
In a lifelong saga of border warfare
While each allows the other with a shake of the head
To veto a possibility as they slowly progress
From umbrellas to purses, from purses to gloves
In search of something bright for the darker moments
When the woman realizes her life with them
Is the only life she’ll be allotted.

It’s only you who assumes the relief on their faces
When they hold a scarf to the light and nod
Will last. The boy will have long forgotten this moment
Years from now when the woman he’s courting
Asks him to name a happy time with his dad,
A time of peaceable parley amidst the turmoil.
So why should you remember? Think how angry
You’ll be at yourself tomorrow if you let their purchase
Make you unhappy with yours, ashamed
Of a sweater on sale that fits you well,
Gray-blue, your favorite color.



By Carl Dennis

We here at Progressive Health would like to thank you
For being one of the generous few who’ve promised
To bequeath your vital organs to whoever needs them.

Now we’d like to give you the opportunity
To step out far in front of the other donors
By acting a little sooner than you expected,

Tomorrow, to be precise, the day you’re scheduled
To come in for your yearly physical. Six patients
Are waiting this very minute in intensive care

Who will likely die before another liver
And spleen and pairs of lungs and kidneys
Match theirs as closely as yours do. Twenty years,

Maybe more, are left you, granted, but the gain
Of these patients might total more than a century.
To you, of course, one year of your life means more

Than six of theirs, but to no one else,
No one as concerned with the general welfare
As you’ve claimed to be. As for your poems—

The few you may have it in you to finish—
Even if we don’t judge them by those you’ve written,
Even if we assume you finally stage a breakthrough,

It’s doubtful they’ll raise one Lazarus from a grave
Metaphoric or literal. But your body is guaranteed
To work six wonders. As for the gaps you’ll leave

As an aging bachelor in the life of friends,
They’ll close far sooner than the open wounds
Soon to be left in the hearts of husbands and wives,

Parents and children, by the death of the six
Who now are failing. Just imagine how grateful
They’ll all be when they hear of your grand gesture.

Summer and winter they’ll visit your grave, in shifts,
For as long as they live, and stoop to tend it,
And leave it adorned with flowers or holly wreaths,

While your friends, who are just as forgetful
As you are, just as liable to be distracted,
Will do no more than a makeshift job of upkeep.

If the people you’ll see tomorrow pacing the halls
Of our crowded facility don’t move you enough,
They’ll make you at least uneasy. No happy future

Is likely in store for a man like you whose conscience
Will ask him to certify every hour from now on
Six times as full as it was before, your work

Six times as strenuous, your walks in the woods
Six times as restorative as anyone else’s.
Why be a drudge, staggering to the end of your life

Under this crushing burden when, with a single word,
You could be a god, one of the few gods
Who, when called on, really listens?

A Brief Biography of the Poet and an Article

Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis' most recent poetry collection, Practical Gods, was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In this collection Dennis throws light on ordinary experiences through metaphor borrowed from religious myth. Despite the fact that the poems revolve around deities (Greek, Roman, Christian, Buddhist, even extra-terrestrial) the language is not that of the sacred but is, instead, pure and simple, the language of a friend speaking to a friend.

Thomas Lux has written that "the surfaces of Dennis' poems may seem relatively simple, but always one is drawn beneath that surface to the poem's real depth, to richnesses."

Dennis has said that he writes his poetry for what Emerson called "the unknown friend." He does so in a voice that is both humble and introspective, calm and mature, but that allows itself a laugh now and then, sometimes even at its own expense. It is his wry approach to exploring the larger issues of life that makes Dennis' poetry so accessible, so wonderfully human.

Previous to his Pulitzer Prize, Dennis was the recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dennis earned a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and is professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. (Bio Source:

CARL DENNIS: Sitting in Emerson's Chair | by Karen Lewis and Jennifer Tappenden | photos by Dellas | drawing by Breverman

Under a low ceiling of branches, the shade a well watered green, robins rummage among the pachysandra at our feet. Carl Dennis’s soft voice rises to compete with the urban chatter of dogs and the ringing clatter of horseshoes emanating from the neighbor’s yard. We were invited into his well tended garden to discuss this poet’s life, a life carved from words in much the same way that Thoreau’s cabin was shaped from wood. Dennis’s poems are built to last; they have solid frames meant to withstand the test of time.

“Certain critics congratulate themselves for having discovered that poets are really not prophets, that they really don’t have a special source of information from on high, but are just like you and me… and still you can say that even a platform of a couple of feet above the street is enough to give (you) an angle of vision that might be useful.” Dennis’s vision has been celebrated with fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He received the Ruth Lily Prize for career contribution to American Poetry from The Poetry Foundation, and in 2002 was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Practical Gods, his eighth collection of poetry. In an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth, the dueling aspects of his humility and ambition were wryly acknowledged: “Your humble side thinks of the many people that you admire who haven’t won it, and then your ambitious side says something like, ‘Well, it’s not a miscarriage of justice.’”

Carl Dennis was born in St. Louis in 1939 to a family that championed the virtues of “independence, industry, loyalty, and good posture.” He reluctantly speaks about the influence of his family. His mother, a practical nurse, wrote a little in high school, and he characterizes her as “extremely independent, headstrong and stubborn.” Upon further reflection he adds that she was a “confident” and “principled” woman. His father was founder of a chemical company. The youngest of three boys, he reminisces most easily about his eldest brother Robert, who grew up to become a composer. “I always thought of him as a free spirit, someone who I could go to for an opinion that wouldn’t be filtered through the usual conventions. He lived elsewhere, in the world of music, and visited the world his parents and brothers lived in, and took pleasure in their company; but he didn’t rely on it for his deepest satisfactions. It was liberating to grow up with a brother who spent the earliest hours of the morning of his Bar Mitzvah listening to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring.’” His parents wanted their children to play instruments and to that end Carl was given piano lessons. “That was a painful experience. I had no gift for it, and with my brother so gifted, why would I want to try?” He turned his attention to the flute but it sat in his attic for so long that he finally gave it away two years ago.

It isn’t an accident, as I sit in the yard reading poems
Under the hemlock, that I’m drawn to Basho.
It’s clear that his blood flows in my veins
Practical Gods

Dennis feels that “it’s very hard to trace any characteristic of a child back to his parents; it presumes too easily a series of causes.” He would much rather discuss his poetic lineage. “The poem ‘Basho’ in part is about roots. It mocks the notion that you could really understand someone by understanding their ethnic or genetic roots. I make up fanciful notions of parentage and then at the end I choose Basho as my real brother or uncle because I feel more kin to him than I do to my blood ties, uncle and so on. I mean... your deepest roots… are the roots that you choose to be influenced by, so Basho may be a deeper influence, even though he’s a cultural choice of mine rather than anything that comes with family influences.”

If Basho is a fanciful uncle, then Emily Dickinson is likely mother to Walt Whitman’s father. Dickinson is a “woman who was in conversation with belief.... She is a sensitive, discriminating poet.” Dennis remarks that “she often speaks with the ardent hope and painful disappointment of a frustrated believer.” As for the relation between Dickinson’s religious questioning and his own, Dennis’s poet in Practical Gods “is not so much a believer as someone who is trying to find out what he can learn by engaging believers in dialogue.” To balance Dickinson there is “Whitman’s ‘Walt’ who wants to celebrate every fact in the world and find its equivalent within himself.”

When asked what mythical figure he might find a connection with, Dennis states “Orpheus is someone I can identify with a little since he was a poet. He had big dreams about what poetry can do.” Orpheus thinks that poetry “can bring the dead up from the underworld. Metaphorically poets do that. They write about things that seem to be lost to that extent, try to keep what is lost from sight from being lost for good… and he’s doing it for love.”

To be a vehicle for the dead to speak through,
Surely that’s an improvement over being a showman
Who shifts his costume to please a moody audience.
It’s a comfort as long as I’ve many dead to choose from
Practical Gods

“From early on in my writing I’ve been thinking… that the life you happen to be living is only one possible life. (I) have written over and over again about the issue. What kind of presence do those other lives have in your life? Do they still exist somehow, somewhere? What do they give? What do they take away? It’s one of my central concerns, if not one of my obsessions.”

Carl Dennis graduated from University City high school in 1957. He then attended Oberlin College in Ohio, transferring to the University of Chicago, and then to the University of Minnesota. He received his PhD in English from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 and started teaching at the University of Buffalo that same year. He has resided here ever since and has been an active community member. He remains a resource to UB students as a Writer in Residence, though he is no longer defining curriculum, teaching classes, or even a paid faculty member. He does teach occasionally for Warren Wilson College in their low residency MFA program, corresponding directly with students, offering detailed critiques of their work.

I breathed upon the teacher’s throne, the wooden chair with
Yellow pillow
“Mind Breaths”
Allen Ginsberg

When Carl Dennis was 27 years old he made a pilgrimage to Emerson’s house in Concord, Mass. “I had a special feeling about it… It was a magical visit. The woman there let me sit in his chair. She said, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’” Emerson is especially resonant for Dennis as “the great celebrator of self reliance, and that means being courageous enough, energetic enough to resist pressures to conform that are all around us.”

A House of My Own, Dennis’s first collection of poetry, was published at age 35. This volume is dedicated to Augusta Gottlieb, a favorite English teacher from high school. He found that teaching came naturally to him and he attributes this to his interest in reading and enjoying literature. For him “the best kind of teaching is sharing your enthusiasm.” Besides American literature, he deliberately chose to teach Ancient Greek and Roman writers in translation. “The more distant they are from your own culture, the more likely they are to possess excellences that stand outside of your own cultural biases, to play a fundamental part in the history of taste.” He believes that “you can’t be the best judge of the effect of your own teaching—all you have to do is do the best you can and try not to talk down to your students, imagine them as good as they should be.” Dennis “looks askance on the teaching of skepticism.” As for the kind of criticism he most admires, he prefers “criticism that doesn’t try to approach the work as a cultural document that illustrates the writer’s entanglement in cultural convention.”

He wrote Poetry As Persuasion, a book of prose, to “attempt to persuade people that this is what is important in poetry.” It “approaches poetry as a special form of rhetoric, one that depends on the virtues of a strong speaking voice more than on logical argument.” He believes that lasting writing doesn’t trade “in the going clichés of the moment.” Dennis recommends “poets that are immediately engaging... such as Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch; poets from The New York School.” He found Koch’s “New Addresses charming, especially the wonderfully funny ode ‘To Jewishness.’” Among strong-voiced poets now writing, he remarks, “Tony Hoagland, Mark Halliday, Louise Gluck, and Adam Zagajewski come immediately
to mind.”

Who would believe you in the morning
Unless you’d practiced for years
A convincing style?
So you must learn to labor each day.
“Useful Advice”
A House of One’s Own

He has said that writing poetry “was the thing that gave me the most pleasure, the thing I felt most alive when I was doing.” Dennis is an early morning writer, and quotes Thoreau, “Dawn is when I am awake.” According to his friend and critic Alan Feldman, “He seems to live with the worthy deliberateness of Thoreau, rising well before dawn each morning, living a whole day of creative work before most of us have gotten out of bed.”

Dennis is disinclined to write solely autobiographical poetry and in fact finds writing about family quite difficult. He quotes from Coleridge’s Biographia in his doctoral thesis: “A mark of genius,” Coleridge contends, commenting upon Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, “is the choice of subjects very remote from the private interests and circumstances of the writer himself.” “My life,” Dennis remarks “has been essentially uneventful… on the whole without grand, dramatic trauma... I started reading because I wanted to increase the variety of my life. I felt that my life was provincial... and somehow unremarkable and I wanted to write to widen my perspective.” His point of view was fueled by “a wish to turn from myself to the world, because I feel that the world interests me more than I do myself.” He says the “danger of autobiographical poetry is that you are lead to believe that things are important because they happen
to you.”

His writing style has changed little over the years. Richard Howard wrote in the introduction to A House of One’s Own about Dennis’s “easy diction” and his “characteristically American speech,” a statement that still rings true seven volumes later. R.D. Pohl, editor of the Buffalo News Poetry Page, in a review of Practical Gods writes, “What remains unique and compelling about Dennis’s approach… is the intimate, conversational tone of his narrative, which permits him to take on the weightiest subjects in his quietly insistent voice.” William Slaughter writes that Dennis’s poetry “grants its reader privileged access to a man’s mind,” it “stops me… I have my own desert, a private Nevada, inside me. Dennis’s poem makes me go there, won’t let me forget it.”

Criticism being subjective, not everyone finds his straightforward style engaging. Elisabeth Lund, commenting on Practical Gods, said that “not every poem is equally successful or memorable. At times, the speaker is too distant, too trapped inside his own head; and the work jumps unconvincingly from one thread to another. The language, which is always understated, sometimes feels a bit too pedestrian, too obvious as the poems progress quietly, uneventfully, until the last segment of the poem… the endings however are often a delight.”

Dennis affirms that poets often begin to write because “your heart is broken, something has hurt you.” He is quoted in an interview with Nicole Peradotto for UB Today as saying “When you write poetry you are giving a lasting shape to temporary states of mind.” He believes that to “write poems you need to have some standard of what you want to achieve... You need to keep your mind moving around the material... by the third draft you are asking if it’s working, what it’s really about, does it have direction, a plot that moves it from one point to another?” And “When you think that every part is as good as every other part, then you stop.”

When asked about his first readers, Dennis mentions two friends in particular: “Martin Pops and Alan Feldman see almost everything before I send it anywhere.” He revises the material between them. “There is always something there that I need to attend to.” He adds that “women are not my readers but my supports.” While the majority of his poems “are addressed to a woman or he is thinking about a woman,” he asserts that “I’m writing for both men and women.” He uses poems to enter into a dialogue and maintains the faith that poets can reach a diverse audience. As for his ideal reader, he quotes Emerson’s remark in his journal about trying to address ‘the unknown friend.’ “Friend,” he comments, “not friends, because the poet does not address a corporate entity. And unknown, so that one cannot make any easy appeals to a particular constituency.”

He recommends writing groups, especially to beginners, remembering with much fondness a small group he was a part of 30 years ago. “Mac Hammond, Alan Feldman, Charles Baxter, and I, would get together every other week for 2 or 3 years. We’d talk about what we’d written and show our work to each other and it was wonderful.” He noted that “writing is a solitary activity; it can be quite lonely if you are starting out. So a small group of three or four like-minded writers can be very important.” He continues, “You have to be careful;” if you “respect the critical powers of these people, it can be a real asset.”

Reading Poetry As Persuasion reveals how important earned authority is to Carl Dennis. He writes there that “I agree with Emerson... the voice that convinces is the voice of an individual, the voice of a speaker who persuades us that he has not accepted his notions ready-made from others but has figured out what he believes on his own.” In speaking with him you also come to understand just how critical freedom is to his creative sensibility. “Freedom, I can’t think of anything more useful than that.” He has found over the years that certain combinations of playfulness and subject matter, a blend of the personal and comic, can loosen up his writing and help him to be more productive. A reading given 30 years ago at UB by Allen Ginsberg, which included the poem “Mind Breaths” is remembered appreciatively for this combination of elements. These days Dennis is more inspired by what he reads.

Currently issues of age figure prominently in the poet’s life. “Growing older inevitably makes you see yourself and your world differently. And the growing begins early, as your frame of reference begins to expand, and you have a wider notion of the subjects that impinge on your life, including the people you know that the world does not seem to have treated fairly, or the values that you think have been neglected.”

It also means the poet’s perspective of his own work has changed. The New and Selected Poems due out in April of 2004 contains very few poems from his earliest books. In speaking of older work that he chose not to include, Dennis states “I can see why I wrote them, but I no longer believe they were successful, and I want to include in the book only poems I still can stand behind. Some with only local problems I’ve worked to revise.” He goes on to say that he was “probably least discriminating about the last book. Maybe if I were farther away from it I’d leave more out.” Dennis’s new collection will also include 20 new poems. They were part of a larger manuscript themed around questions of gratitude: “How do you express gratitude toward impersonal things, like good luck? To what extent do you live in a world in which you’re dependent upon other people?” Eventually, he realized the manuscript “wasn’t really a free-standing book.” “It was clear to me,” he comments, “that I’d be much better off taking the best of these and letting the rest go.”

This cultivated distance also allows Dennis some perspective on the modern American poetic scene. “Postmodernism was a necessary corrective to certain aspects of modernism that people became rightly suspicious of. The moderns, for example, were system builders, and too many rigid systems of belief have in our times proven extremely destructive. And sometimes in its wish for the monumental modernism ignored the mortal. I think in this regard of modern architecture, which goes wrong when it strives for the grand monolith coolly indifferent to questions of context, proudly ignoring basic human needs.” But postmodernism has its own failings. According to Dennis, “In its suspicion of grand claims to truth, it loses sight of the real difference of an honest attempt to hold up one’s beliefs to critical scrutiny and a passive acceptance of cultural cliché.”

It is notable that Dennis was invited to the White House for a symposium entitled “Poetry and the American Voice” that was to have taken place on February 12, 2003. Sam Hamill was hoping to attend and present a petition of poets who were opposed to a U.S. led war against Iraq. For Carl Dennis there was “no moment of deep soul searching on this one… It was very easy to refuse. I couldn’t come to the White House without seeming to endorse (their) policies. The notion that somehow poetry was walled away from politics that they were operating on was so silly. What did they imagine people would do in the literary community?” The event was cancelled by First Lady Laura Bush because she “did not believe poetry should be used for political purposes.” This opposition of the poet engaged with society and yet standing a step back from it is just one of the ironies that continue to create tension in Carl Dennis’s work.

The poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth....
“The Poet”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

If a poet, as Emerson said, “turns the world to glass,” how fitting for us to look back through decades of Carl Dennis’s life, to see him as a young man, sitting in Emerson’s chair, looking out at a life that would include literature’s highest honors. It’s as if Dennis heard Emerson whispering into his ears… “For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down… The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of nations.”

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  1. Hello ... nice work you have here ... I was looking for a poem from Carl Dennis (unfolding) ....I don't know if you have come across that? If so can you let me know ... my Email is

    Thanks .... Javad


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