Stephen Dunn belongs to the Billy Collins school. They should go on a poetry-reading tour together.
The public needs to know: this is modern poetry which is being written for you—and here are the poets who write this kind of poetry.
It’s not just Collins and Dunn. One thinks of Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, James Tate, Matthew Dickman, and maybe Louise Gluck, who—without a poem in the Rita Dove Penguin anthology—is one win away from the Final Four. The public really does need to know who these poets are, the poets who, in every poem, more than anything, want to please the public.
It’s a given that the public is 1) hard to please, and 2) they need to be led by the nose. We shouldn’t mourn this fact. We should just accept it. But po-biz will not.
Once the public discovered Billy Collins wrote to them and loved them, and he was a safe bet in this regard, Billy Collins and his poetry did alright.
Collins fell short of being a national phenomenon, but can you imagine if he were young and good-looking? Who knows? Poetry might be big again.
I asked a young writer friend of mine recently why he thought people read novels instead of poetry and what he said was: when you’re on the train and you finish a poem (which invariably makes you realize that everyone else not sharing in the beauty and wisdom of the poem you are reading is an asshole) you look up and see all the assholes on the train, but with a novel, you get to keep reading and you never have to look up at all the assholes.
If only poems could last at least as long as a train commute.
First the Louise Gluck poem, and then Stephen Dunn’s:
I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.
We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature. For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.
My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness-
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person-
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height-
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth-
In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.
POEM FOR PEOPLE THAT ARE UNDERSTANDABLY TOO BUSY TO READ POETRY
Relax. This won’t last long.
Or if it does, or if the lines
make you sleepy or bored,
give in to sleep, turn on
the T.V., deal the cards.
This poem is built to withstand
such things. Its feelings
cannot be hurt. They exist
somewhere in the poet,
and I am far away.
Pick it up anytime. Start it
in the middle if you wish.
It is as approachable as melodrama,
and can offer you violence
if it is violence you like. Look,
there’s a man on a sidewalk;
the way his leg is quivering
he’ll never be the same again.
This is your poem
and I know you’re busy at the office
or the kids are into your last nerve.
Maybe it’s sex you’ve always wanted.
Well, they lie together
like the party’s unbuttoned coats,
slumped on the bed
waiting for drunken arms to move them.
I don’t think you want me to go on;
everyone has his expectations, but this
is a poem for the entire family.
Right now, Budweiser
is dripping from a waterfall,
deodorants are hissing into armpits
of people you resemble,
and the two lovers are dressing now,
I don’t know what music this poem
can come up with, but clearly
it’s needed. For it’s apparent
they will never see each other again
and we need music for this
because there was never music when he or she
left you standing on the corner.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
The poem is saying that to you now.
But don’t give anything for this poem.
It doesn’t expect much. It will never say more
than listening can explain.
Just keep it in your attache case
or in your house. And if you’re not asleep
by now, or bored beyond sense,
the poem wants you to laugh. Laugh at
yourself, laugh at this poem, at all poetry.
Good. Now here’s what poetry can do.
Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There’s an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You’re beautiful for as long as you live.
Dunn woos the reader, outrageously. The last line is not true—but in poetryland it is. But the line is true, perhaps, because Dunn began by saying, “Imagine.” Dunn is out there on a limb, like a coach, telling the reader what to do. He has set up the relationship between writer and reader—in full confidence.
Louise Gluck never woos the reader: she talks plainly and half-hopes the reader overhears. Which is what most poets do. Otherwise, you risk being a jerk. The last line of her poem, “The love of form is a love of endings,” is not meant to be outrageous—and only true in poetryland—but actually true. Therefore, she takes a much greater risk than Dunn. We accept Dunn’s line immediately, perhaps on account that we know right away that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. We have to think about Gluck’s last line: Is the love of form really a love of endings? One understands conceptually what Gluck is saying, and one may even appreciate that “endings” ends her poem—with the two silent, contemplative friends sitting together as night falls. But in baseball terminology, Dunn hits his pitch perfectly on a line out of the park for a homerun, while Gluck hits a tremendous fly ball that’s a towering pop up, taking forever to come down, for an out. The jerk wins.
Dunn 99 Gluck 93
Congratulations, Stephen Dunn! You are in the Final Four!