MARGARET ATWOOD V. STEPHEN DUNN: THE LAST SWEET 16 SPOT!

And the final Sweet 16 spot belongs to…

Atwood is Canadian, so she’s not represented by Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry;  Dunn’s got a couple of poems in the Dove, including this one:

ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE

He climbed toward the blinding light
and when his eyes adjusted
he looked down and could see

his fellow prisoners captivated
by shadows; everything he had believed was false.
And he was suddenly

in the 20th century, in the sunlight
and violence of history, encumbered
by knowledge. Only a hero

would dare return with the truth.
So from the cave’s upper reaches,
removed from harm, he called out

the disturbing news.
What lovely echoes, the prisoners said,
what a fine musical place to live.

He spelled it out, then, in clear prose
on paper scraps, which he floated down.
But in the semi-dark they read his words

with the indulgence of those who seldom read:
It’s about my father’s death, one of them said.
No, said the others, it’s a joke.

By this time he no longer was sure
of what he’d seen. Wasn’t sunlight a shadow too?
Wasn’t there always a source

behind a source? He just stood there,
confused, a man who had moved
to larger errors, without a prayer.

Stephen Dunn writes poems with confidence: let’s write the allegory of modern man using the allegory of Plato’s cave: why not?  Dunn talks himself into—and then out of—great rhetorical challenges, and that, it would seem, is the secret of his compositional method.  Ballsy talking.  More poets ought to practice this method.  It’s certainly better than the aesthetic tip-toe method or the obscure to prove I’m smart method.
Margaret Atwood has a similar kind of forcefulness in her poems; it’s the voice of the ultra-confident knower, confident that a poem will be enough to cow all objection.  It’s a poem—it doesn’t have to know a lot, but sounding wise is more than half the battle in sounding poetic.

IS/NOT

Love is not a profession
genteel or otherwise

sex is not dentistry
the slick filling of aches and cavities

you are not my doctor
you are not my cure,

nobody has that
power, you are merely a fellow/traveller

Give up this medical concern,
buttoned, attentive,

permit yourself anger
and permit me mine

which needs neither
your approval nor your surprise

which does not need to be made legal
which is not against a disease

but against you,
which does not need to be understood

or washed or cauterized,
which needs instead

to be said and said.
Permit me the present tense.

This is a love poem, but sounds, even in its wisdom, a little too hectoring.  “Love’s not love which alters when it alteration finds,” Shakespeare said, and this is what Atwood is doing: chasing down love’s bad habits, trying to make love behave. You’re objecting too much, Ms. Atwood.  If your lover wants to “fill a cavity,” let them, Shakespeare would say.

The Dunn’s  a little too obvious, as is the Atwood.

Dunn 74 Atwood 71

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