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Carl Dennis

1939–

Carl Dennis was born on September 17, 1939, in St. Louis, Missouri, and attended both Oberlin College and the University of Chicago before completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

Dennis has published twelve books of poetry, including Night School (Penguin, 2018), Another Reason (Penguin, 2014); Callings (Penguin, 2010); Practical Gods (Penguin, 2001), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; and Meetings with Time (Penguin, 1992), among others. Dennis has also published a book of criticism, Poetry as Persuasion (University of Georgia Press, 2001).

Known for its casual, plainspoken narrative style that makes its home in the everyday life of the American middle class, Dennis’s poetry is a quiet, almost intimate, meditation on the world around him. In a review of Dennis’s poems in The Washington Post, poet Robert Pinsky wrote, “The musing mind or voice reaches its object not with a turbulent roar of rhetoric, but with the penetration of fine oil. The poems of Carl Dennis proceed to startling, sometimes even upsetting conclusions by that musing process of mind, alert and patient.”

Dennis has received several honors and distinctions, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was the recipient of the 1989 Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the 1995 Bess Hokin Prize, the 1997 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize, and the 2000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Dennis taught at the University of Buffalo from 1966 to 2001, after which time he served as the school’s artist in residence. He also taught in the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson College.

He lives in Buffalo, New York.


Selected Bibliography

Night School (Penguin, 2018)
Another Reason (Penguin, 2014)
Callings (Penguin, 2010)
Unknown Friends (Penguin, 2007)
New and Selected Poems, 1974-2004 (Penguin, 2004)
Practical Gods (Penguin, 2001)
Ranking the Wishes (Penguin, 1997)
Meetings with Time (Penguin, 1992)
The Outskirts of Troy (William Morrow, 1988)
The Near World (William Morrow, 1985)
Signs and Wonders (Princeton University Press, 1979)
Climbing Down (Braziller, 1976)
A House of My Own (Braziller, 1974)

By This Poet

5

In Paris

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

Thanksgiving Letter from Harry

I guess I have to begin by admitting
I'm thankful today I don't reside in a country
My country has chosen to liberate,
That Bridgeport's my home, not Baghdad.
Thankful my chances are good, when I leave
For the Super Duper, that I'll be returning.
And I'm thankful my TV set is still broken.
No point in wasting energy feeling shame
For the havoc inflicted on others in my name
When I need all the strength I can muster
To teach my eighth-grade class in the low-rent district.
There, at least, I don't feel powerless.
There my choices can make some difference.

This month I'd like to believe I've widened
My students' choice of vocation, though the odds
My history lessons on working the land
Will inspire any of them to farm
Are almost as small as the odds
One will become a monk or nun
Trained in the Buddhist practice
We studied last month in the unit on India.
The point is to get them suspecting the world
They know first hand isn't the only world.

As for the calling of soldier, if it comes up in class,
It's not because I feel obliged to include it,
As you, as a writer, may feel obliged.
A student may happen to introduce it,
As a girl did yesterday when she read her essay
About her older brother, Ramon,
Listed as "missing in action" three years ago,
And about her dad, who won't agree with her mom
And the social worker on how small the odds are
That Ramon's alive, a prisoner in the mountains.

I didn't allow the discussion that followed
More time than I allowed for the other essays.
And I wouldn't take sides: not with the group
That thought the father, having grieved enough,
Ought to move on to the life still left him;
Not with the group that was glad he hadn't made do
With the next-to-nothing the world's provided,
That instead he's invested his trust in a story
That saves the world from shameful failure.

Let me know of any recent attempts on your part
To save our fellow-citizens from themselves.
In the meantime, if you want to borrow Ramon
For a narrative of your own, remember that any scene
Where he appears under guard in a mountain village
Should be confined to the realm of longing. There
His captors may leave him when they move on.
There his wounds may be healed,
His health restored. A total recovery
Except for a lingering fog of forgetfulness
A father dreams he can burn away.

Change

Don't be chagrined that your novel,
Which yesterday seemed done at last,
Is revealed in the light of morning
To be only your latest draft.
It could mean that your vision cleared
While you were sleeping, your sense of fitness
Grows in the night like corn or bamboo.

Don't assume you're tampering with the truth
By wanting to make your hero more likable.
He can still be someone who's liable
To fritter his life away in random pastimes.
Only now, for his sake,  you want to present him
As fighting a little harder against his temperament
So the reader, instead of looking down from on high,
Stands close enough to the action to sympathize.

As for your heroine, you can still depict her
As someone who hides, beneath her apparent warmth,
A seam of coldness.  But now you're ready to probe
What the coldness conceals: the wound, say,
That makes trust a challenge.
Where, she wonders, will her courage come from
If she's unable to find it when she looks within?

If you consider any hope of change
To be, in the end, illusion, be true to your vision.
Just don't ignore the change in yourself,
Your willingness, say, to be more patient
Exploring alternatives. Each new effort
Could prove another chapter in a single story
Slowly unfolding in which you learn
By trial and error, what the plot requires.

In the meantime, let me assure you your heroine
In this new, more generous version,
Seems to be learning something
She'll need to learn before the climax
If real change is to be at least an option.
Let me say that your hero's remorse near the end
For his lack of enterprise and direction
Is more convincing than it's ever been.

At last, instead of giving a speech already written,
He seems to be groping for words. Not sure
What he'll say until he says it, and then
Not sure if he ought to be satisfied
Or open to one more try.