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Selected Poems
The Poetry Foundation: Carl Dennis

NPR interview after Dennis won the Pulitzer
UBToday: a conversation with Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis (born September 17, 1939), an American poet, wrote Practical Gods, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 17, 1939. Dennis attended Oberlin College and the University of Chicago prior to receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota in 1961. In 1966, Dennis received his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley. That same year, he became an assistant professor of English at University at Buffalo, where he has spent most of his career; in 2002, he became an artist-in-residence there. Dennis has also served on the faculty of the graduate program at Warren Wilson College.

Dennis has received several prizes for his poetry in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, including a Fellowship at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy, a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984), a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry (1988), and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2000).

Dennis is the brother of American composer Robert Dennis.

Dennis's Poetry

Dennis writes often of quotidian, middle-class life, but beneath the modest, reasonably lighted surfaces of the poems lie unexpected possibilities that create contrast and vibrancy. An example from his 1984 collection The Near World is the poem, "The Man on My Porch Makes Me an Offer," which begins:

     "Above all houses in our town
     I've always loved this blue one you own
     With its round turret and big bay window.
     Do you dream about it the way I do?
     Wouldn't you be just as happy
     On a street with more trees
     In a larger house, whose columned porch
     Impresses every passer-by?
     Does it seem fair that you've won the right
     To gaze from these windows your whole life
     Merely because you saw them first,
     And consign me to a life of envy?"

William Slaughter has given a close reading of this poem in an essay comparing poems by William Stafford, Carl Dennis, and Louis Simpson . The form of Dennis' poem - a plainspoken, dramatic monologue - is fairly characteristic of his poetry. In the poem "Progressive Health" (from Practical Gods), Dennis uses a similar approach for a proposition that is a bioethicist's nightmare.

In some of his more recent poems, Dennis invokes guardian angels and other domestic deities to animate his poetry. In his 2004 review, David Orr wrote that, "In 'The God Who Loves You,' his strongest poem in this vein, Dennis avoids bathos by deftly changing the focus from our own anguish at missed opportunities to the grief of the god who loves us. As the poet reminds us:

     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.

Dennis's language here is so quiet and straightforward that when he alters course yet again to imagine the transformation of a god in the mind of his reader, the change seems natural. This is public poetry that sounds private -- an achievement that's easy to underestimate."

In his 1984 review, Tom Sleigh addressed the originality of Dennis' art. "The reader feels hemmed in by Mr. Dennis's laconic truths because they make visible the narrow cage of circumstance and contingency in which we live. Many poets attempt this, but how many succeed? His distinctive force originates in his insidious determination to stay inside that cage, to map it inch by inch and find there - or nowhere - the justifications for human action."



The God Who Loves You

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.

[from Practical Gods (2001)]



Carpenters whose wives have run off
Are sometimes discovered weeping on the job.
But even then they don’t complain of their work.

Whitman’s father was a carpenter.
He was so happy hammering houses
That he jumped with a shout from the roof beam
And rolled with a yawp in the timothy.
This led his son to conclude wrongly
That all workmen are singers.

Whitman’s father was weak.
He had trouble holding a job.
He hoped that the house he was working on
Would be lived in by a man more steady
Than he was, who would earn his sleep,
Dreaming easy under a sound roof
With no rain in his face.

Of course, there are bad carpenters everywhere.
They don’t care if the walls don’t meet.
“After all,” they argue,
“We’re not building airplanes.”
But Whitman’s father measured his nails.
Many mornings, clacking his plane,
He crooned a song to the corners,
Urging them on to a snug fit.
No needles of heat will escape through a crack
If he can help it, no threads of light.


Days of Heaven

That was a great compliment the Greeks paid to human life
When they imagined their gods living as humans do,
With the same pleasure in love and feasting,
Headstrong as we are, turbulent, quick to anger,
Slow to forgive. Just like us, only immortal.
And now that those gods have proven mortal too
And heaven and earth can’t be divided,
Every death means a divine occasion
Has been taken from us, a divine perspective,
Though the loss gets only a line or two in the news.
Hard to believe the headlines this morning
That a banker on Mt. Olympus has been pilfering,
That a builder has been guilty of shoddy construction
On a bridge that spans a river in heaven,
Cutting corners to squirrel away his fortune
For a better day, when the great day has already come.
For news that heartens we must turn to the classifieds.
Here in what’s left of heaven it’s right to advertise
For a soul mate. It’s right to look for a job
That lets us incarnate spirit more fully
And leave something behind that time is kinder to
Than the flesh of gods. Lucky there’s work.
Lucky the streets of heaven are in need of repair.
Paint is peeling from the dream-house trim.
Holy rainwater backs up in leaf-clogged gutters
Till the ceiling sags and tiles need regrouting.
And look at the list of practical items for sale—
Used snowblowers, croquet sets, chainlink fencing.
And what about a wooden canoe with two paddles.
Why don’t we make time for a turn before sundown?
Out on the broad lake a breeze will find us
That’s wafted around the planet to cool our divinity.
The clouds will hover above us in a giant halo
As we watch our brother, the sun, descend,
His gentle face turned toward us, his godly expression
Undarkened by accusation or disappointment
Or the thought of something he’s left undone.


Spring Letter

With the warmer days the shops on Elmwood
Stay open later, still busy long after sundown.
It looks like the neighborhood’s coming back.
Gone are the boarded storefronts that you interpreted,
When you lived here, as an emblem of your private recession,
Your ship of state becalmed in the doldrums,
Your guiding stars obscured by fog. Now the cut-rate drugstore
Where you stocked your arsenal against migraine
Is an Asian emporium. Aisles of onyx, silk, and brass,
Of reed baskets so carefully woven and so inexpensive
Every house could have one, one work of art,
Though doubtless you’d refuse, brooding instead
On the weavers, their low wages and long hours,
The fruit of their labor stolen by middlemen.
Tomorrow I too may worry like that, but for now
I’m focusing on a mood of calm, a spirit of acceptance,
Loyal to my plan to keep my moods distinct
And do each justice, one by one.
The people in line for ice cream at the Sweet Tooth
Could be my aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.
What ritual is more ancient or more peaceable?
Here are the old ones rewarding themselves
For making it to old age. Here are the children
Stunned into silence by the ten-foot list of flavors
From Mud Pie to Milky Way, a cosmic plenty.
And those neither young nor old, should they be loyal
To their favorite flavor or risk a new one?
It’s a balmy night in western New York, in May,
Under the lights of Elmwood, which are too bright
For the stars to be visible as they pour down on my head
Their endless starry virtues. Nothing confines me.
Why you felt our town closing in, why here
You could never become whoever you wished to be,
Isn’t easy to understand, but I’m trying.
Tomorrow I may ask myself again if my staying
Is a sign of greater enlightenment or smaller ambition.
But this evening, pausing by the window of Elmwood Liquors,
I want to applaud the prize-winning upstate Vouvray,
The equal of its kind in Europe, the sign says.
No time for a glass on your search
As you steer under stars too far to be friendly
Toward the island where True Beauty, the Princess,
Languishes as a prisoner. I can see you at the tiller
Squinting through spume, hoping your charts are accurate,
Hoping she can guess you’re on your way.



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.

[from Practical Gods (2001)]


Improbable Story

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.

[from Practical Gods (2001)]


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Last Updated: Tue, December 5, 2006
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