The first time I heard Stephen Dunn read I was 15 years old. At the time, all of my intellectual abilities were held captive by the irregularities of adolescence and I wasn”t particularly interested in poetry. To this kid, the language of poetry was as accessible and comprehendible as Sanskrit.
In the four years since that November reading, Stephen Dunn”s work has found its way into every aspect of my thinking. Favorite writer. Period. I am officially obsessed, and I love poetry or at least, his poetry.
Today Dunn is reading from his new collection, “Different Hours,” at Rackham Auditorium.
Dunn, a New Jersey native at the Rackham School of Graduate Studiesfaculty-in-residence, has published eleven books of poetry, including “Loosestrife,” “Between Angels,” “New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994” and “Riffs and Reciprocities (Prose Pairs).” He has also published a book of prose, “Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs.” He is the recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Livens and Oscar Blumenthal Prizes from The Journal of Poetry, among other homes. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council of the Arts and the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. The New York Times called him “one of the strongest voices of his generation.”
Dunn”s work is compelling by virtue of its brutal honesty. It is compelling by the light he casts on our seemingly routine actions. It is compelling by his uncanny ability to capture the most accurate and revealing details of our lives. “Because finally the personal/is all that matters,” he writes in “Essay on the Personal.” “We spend years describing stones/chairs, abandoned farmhouses/until we”re ready. Always/it”s a matter of precision/what it feels like/to kiss someone or to walk/out the door. How good it was/to practice on stones/which were things we could love/without weeping over.”
To call his work simply “accessible” would be to undermine the very complexity which makes it function so accurately. It is true that his work is accessible, but he makes it so by revealing the secret functions of what once seemed vague or abstract. He puts life into words. As writer Richard Wilbur said, “To read a few lines of a Stephen Dunn poem is to feel suddenly in touch with the way things are, and the way we really feel about them.”
His work focuses on a variety of subjects, but he tends to stray frequently towards the realm of relationships. In his poem, “After Making Love,” Dunn writes: “No one should ask the other, “what were you thinking?”/No one, that is, who doesn”t want to hear about the past/and its inhabitants, or the strange loneliness of the present/filled, even as it may be, with pleasure, or those snapshots/of the future, different heads on different bodies.”
Often, he is also extremely humorous perhaps my strongest recollection of that first reading is “Decorum,” a poem that sent the captivated room into stitches.
If you have ever enjoyed a poem, ever enjoyed a word or a sentence made of words, ever hated a poem, ever had a thought, ever had a feeling, ever lived, or ever breathed, see Stephen Dunn today. As Judith Kitchen wrote, “What is at stake in his poetry is more immediate and more essential: How to live the one life we”re given with integrity, with humor and exuberance, and, yes, grace.”