By James Scruton
photography by Heather Maxwell Hall
In a poem entitled “Simon Pell” (“The leader of the first workshop / I wanted to be a part of”), Carl Dennis passes along his teacher’s lessons from “the Somehow School” of writing:
According to all the rules, the poem Under discussion this evening Can’t work, yet somehow it does. So let’s stop a moment to ask why.
Undoubtedly, there are readers who have felt the same about Dennis’s own work over his long and illustrious poetic career. Earthborn, his fourteenth collection, is characteristically ruminative, clear-eyed and -voiced, eschewing verbal pyrotechnics and experiments in form. There is little in the way of figurative language, either; the Somehow School would seem to follow the late Stephen Dunn’s principle of writing as far as you can before resorting to metaphor. And yet there is no American poet today who is more compelling, more devoted to an honest appraisal of our times and habits and morals than Carl Dennis.
The six sections of Earthborn trace an arc of topics that have preoccupied this poet for years, from his determination to be “one of the witnesses of the familiar / Open to revelation but not disposed / To insist on it” (“Canadian Hemlock”) at the book’s outset to the closing reflection about “what can be done / With a single breath” as he describes how the soloist on a recording of Mozart’s oboe concerto “sends his theme, finely phrased,” into the world:
May it meet with good luck On its unpredictable journey, Riding farther than many suppose A theme can ride on a puff of air. (“Breath”)
Such a wish would apply to poems, of course, and Earthborn does not disappoint. Though they are untitled, each of the collection’s sections rides a theme, the first of them that very witnessing of the familiar. The most ordinary of situations affords a probing of our motives and actions, whether it’s deciding not to kill a spider in the sink or bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner party or helping clear trash from a local creek. The personal is political here in the broadest yet most specific sense, Dennis often questioning his (and by implication, our) intentions and ethical reasoning in civic, environmental, and planetary terms.
Hence the sections that center on the tensions between love and duty, art and life, reason and faith—the latter section containing a memorable addition to the long list of modern poems addressing the risen Lazarus (“Would you say, for instance, / You look forward to dying again, / Now that you know what lies beyond it, / Or would you say that once was enough…”) as well as “At Chartres,” a mordant and guardedly optimistic update on Philip Larkin’s “Church-Going.” Both poems are good examples of the quiet humor found throughout Dennis’s work. For all their honestly, unflinching perception, and intellectual rigor, the poems are not so much verse essays as they are engaging, often arch or irreverent thought experiments, scenarios in which conscience need not make cowards of us all.
Indeed, the poem “Thought Experiment” is in many ways the quintessential Carl Dennis poem. Its opening lines offer us a philosophical conundrum wrapped in a caveat inside a compromise (if not a complete retraction):
I believe I can say with Socrates that I’d rather Be thought a bad man while in fact a good one Than be thought a good man while in fact a bad. But I can’t be certain I’d be strong enough To persist in my choice without one friend I could share the truth with…
A reader is at once challenged and delighted by such opening gambits in Dennis’s poems. There is no one I’d rather listen to as he tests such propositions, as he second- (and third-) guesses conventional thinking and living. He brings the same scrutiny to our views of art, of our trust in the power of language itself. “Is the newest version truer to life / Or simply more shapely, more charming?” he asks about a theoretical novelist’s latest draft. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell,” he admits, going on to declare that the novel’s hero will be more convincing if his speech has been made to seem spontaneous. Here Dennis seems to be concurring with W.B. Yeats’s lament, in “Adam’s Curse,” that “A line will take us hours maybe, / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” Finally, though, the poet identifies not with the novelist but with the invented character, who
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. (“Art and Life”)
Groping, not sure, open… For all their intensity of thought and acuteness in examining our choices, these poems somehow avoid hectoring and preachiness. They are among the most humane and sensitive of our time. In his justly celebrated career, Carl Dennis has received the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and numerous other honors. Earthborn, a rich volume of new poems, should garner him still more.
by Carl Dennis
Penguin Books $20.00
James Scruton’s most recent collection is The Rules (Green Linden Press, 2019). He has poems and reviews appearing in current or upcoming issues of Poetry South, Comstock Review, Connecticut River Review, Molecule, Southern Poetry Review, and NewPages.com.