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The Insistence of Beauty
The day before those silver planes
came out of the perfect blue, I was struck
by the beauty of pollution rising
from smokestacks near Newark,
gray and white ribbons of it
on their way to evanescence.
And at impact, no doubt, certain beholders
and believers from another part of the world
must have seen what appeared gorgeous -
the flames of something theirs being born.
I watched for hours – mesmerized -
that willful collision replayed,
the better man in me not yielding,
then yielding to revenge’s sweet surge.
The next day there was a photograph
of dust and smoke ghosting a street,
and another of a man you couldn’t be sure
was fear-frozen or dead or made of stone,
and for a while I was pleased
to admire the intensity – or was it the coldness? -
of each photographer’s good eye.
For years I’d taken pride in resisting
the obvious – sunsets, snowy peaks,
a starlet’s face – yet had come to realize
even those, seen just right, can have
their edgy place. And the sentimental,
beauty’s sloppy cousin, that enemy,
can’t it have a place too?
Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?
When word came of a fireman
who hid in the rubble
so his dispirited search dog
could have someone to find, I repeated it
to everyone I knew. I did this for myself,
not for community or beauty’s sake,
yet soon it had a rhythm and a frame.
-from The Insistence of Beauty
BIO: Stephen Dunn was born in New York City in 1939. He earned a B.A. in history and English from Hofstra University, attended the New School Writing Workshops, and finished his M.A. in creative writing at Syracuse University. Dunn has worked as a professional basketball player, an advertising copywriter, and an editor, as well as a professor of creative writing.
Dunn's books of poetry include Everything Else in the World (W. W. Norton, 2006); The Insistence of Beauty (W. W. Norton, 2004); Local Visitations (2003); Different Hours (2000), winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry; Loosestrife (1996); New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994 (1994); Landscape at the End of the Century (1991); Between Angels (1989); Local Time (1986), winner of the National Poetry Series; Not Dancing (1984); Work & Love (1981); A Circus of Needs (1978); Full of Lust and Good Usage (1976); and Looking For Holes In the Ceiling (1974). He is also the author of Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry (BOA Editions, 2001), and Riffs & Reciprocities: Prose Pairs (1998).
Dunn's other honors include the Academy Award for Literature, the James Wright Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. He has taught poetry and creative writing and held residencies at Wartburg College, Wichita State University, Columbia University, University of Washington, Syracuse University, Southwest Minnesota State College, Princeton University, and University of Michigan. Dunn is currently Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and lives in Port Republic, New Jersey.
Two Interviews with Stephen Dunn
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner in poetry this year was Stephen Dunn for his collection of verse "Different Hours." Dunn is professor of creative writing at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, and author of ten other volumes of poetry, as well as two books of prose. A new book of essays, "Walking Light," is due out in May. He was born in Queens, New York, graduated from Hofstra University where he played varsity basketball, and received a masters in creative writing from Syracuse.
Thanks for being with us, congratulations. And what's your reaction to this, you who write so well about the need for limited expectations?
STEPHEN DUNN: (Laughs) Well, I've changed that little bit. The reaction has been overwhelming, and I'm just getting used to it. I think I actually, though, could get used to it for a long time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it especially sweet now after you turned 60? You write in this book about how so many members of your family died before they reached 60.
STEPHEN DUNN: Well, the book was composed in the years... the three or four years before I reached 60, and I guess I was sometimes consciously, probably more unconsciously aware that I was nearing the age that nobody in my family... no male in my family had ever reached. And I think that notion, that consciousness, colored a lot of the poems. I think because my parents died in their early 50s, mid 50s, I always thought I would die young. And that's been both a useful thing and I suspect something that's haunted me a little bit.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us a little bit more about the book, the title "Different Hours."
STEPHEN DUNN: Well, the title... When I wrote the poem "Different Hours," it seemed to collect a lot of poems around it. I think most poets work disparately unless you're working on a sequence of some kind. And so I had many different poems. And then I wrote the title poem, and it seemed to make sense of a lot of other poems around it. And essentially, to be reductive, it started to take on the different hours of not only my life, but I hope that my life resonating into the life of others in this particular time, this juncture in history.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read one of the poems for us? And also, set the context for us.
STEPHEN DUNN: Okay. Read a poem called "Before the Sky Darkens." The speaker in the poem begins with a certain sense of, I think, bemused despair, and the poem moves through that. "Before the Sky Darkens." "Sunset's incipient storms, the tableaus of melancholy-- maybe these are the Saturday night events to take your best girl to. At least then there might be moments of vanishing beauty before the sky darkens, and the expectation of happiness would hardly exist and therefore might be possible. More and more you learn to live with the unacceptable. You sense the ever-hidden God retreating even farther, terrified or embarrassed. You might as well be a clown, big silly clothes, no evidence of desire. That's how you feel, say, on a Tuesday. Then out of the daily wreckage comes an invitation with your name on it, or more likely that best girl of yours offers you once again a small local kindness. You open your windows to good air blowing in from who knows where, which you gulp and deeply inhale as if you have a death sentence. You have. All your life, it seems, you've been appealing it. Night sweats and useless stratagem reprieves."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The you in this poem is redeemed by an invitation or a small local kindness.
STEPHEN DUNN: Um-hmm.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I read these poems and sounds you so eloquent about the most ordinary things. Is this something you've always been able to do or is it something that's come late in life?
STEPHEN DUNN: Well, I think perhaps I have a little more control over it as I've gotten older and a little more crafty. But, in fact, I've always tried to take on the dailyness which-- of our lives-- which I think is mysterious. I think most of our lives are made up of both things visible and things interior, with a large chunk of them being interior. So whenever I've been able to arrive at clarities about that which is elusive about dailyness, that has pleased me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you start writing poetry?
STEPHEN DUNN: Badly, I think.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: (Laughs) Who doesn't?
STEPHEN DUNN: I started somewhat late, in my mid 20s. I had been working at a corporate job in New York and doing rather alarmingly well, which frightened me -- and quit at some point to take a chance on seeing if I could write. And my wife and I went to Spain to live for a year where I started to write a novel and that turned into poetry -- and got lucky with, I think my only literary friend, Sam Toperoff, came over to visit and validated what I was doing, and things really began from there on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do your poems come easily? Do they start with an image or a word or an idea?
STEPHEN DUNN: All of the above. They start variously. I usually have no particular design in mind when I begin. But, yes, sometimes with an idea, sometimes with an image, and my habit of mind is to resist what I find myself saying. So often a poem progresses by a series of resistances, where I might say something... My habit of mind is every time I say something, I almost always hear its opposite. And I think my poems progress... often progress that way, where an idea or a notion is refined as I move down the page.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Dunn, do you again the Pulitzer will change your life or the way you work inn any way?
STEPHEN DUNN: I hope not. It might change a few things. I think one of the advantages of winning something like this and being... is being my age, where my habits are in place, my friends are in place; all the things that limit me are very much in place so that I imagine certain... there will be certain opportunities for me that were not there and opportunities for the work itself that were not there before. But in terms of day-to-day living, I suspect not too much will change.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stephen Dunn, congratulations again and thanks for being with us.
STEPHEN DUNN: You're welcome.
Next month, Norton will publish Stephen Dunn's thirteenth book of poetry, The Insistence of Beauty, his second offering since his Different Hours won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. In a writing career that has spanned three decades, Dunn has also been honored with the Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the James Wright Prize from the Mid-American Review, and the Levinson Award from Poetry magazine, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He divides his time between Frostburg, Maryland, and Pomona, New Jersey, where he teaches creative writing at Richard Stockton College.
Poets & Writers Magazine asked Dunn how he came to write poems.
SD: It has something to do with—and this will sound melodramatic—saving my life. I felt that I was living a soulless life. My first job out of college was writing in-house brochures for Nabisco in New York, and I kept getting promoted. I was in danger, literally, of becoming like the men who were around me. So I quit and went to Spain to write a novel, and wrote a bad one. But I was trying to write poetry too, and those efforts seemed more promising. The rest, as they say, is history, or my history. I went then to graduate school at Syracuse, and got lucky by studying with Philip Booth, Donald Justice, W.D. Snodgrass, and George P. Elliott, and to have had, among others, Larry Levis as a friend and fellow student.
P&W: Do you have a writing ritual?
SD: I did. For twenty years, I'd work almost every morning. Of course I was lucky enough to have a teaching schedule where I didn't have to teach until 2 p.m. But I had a kind of driven-ness back then, combined with a kind of writing-as-practice. Maybe it had to do with an early sense of mortality because my parents died so young—a sense that I didn't have a lot of time. Now I tend to do a lot of work in the summers, usually at one of the writers' colonies. But during the year I work haphazardly, without a fixed schedule. And my poems have to pass harder tests before I let them go or even call them poems. I spend more time worrying them into existence.
P&W: What constitutes a "failed" poem to you?
SD: A failed poem would be one in which I didn't get beyond what I already knew. Or one in which I'd deluded myself into believing that my life and its tribulations or joys actually mattered to others. The poem of the solipsistic error. There are any number of ways to fail your subject, and one is not to allow for the unforeseen. But I think there can be noble failures. I think that if you find yourself trying for a lot and falling short, the result might still be a poem you decide to keep around.
P&W: What is the rough ratio of your failures to successes?
SD: In spite of what I've just said, pretty good these days—maybe about two or three out of five; that is, with poems I choose to stay with. I'm more likely to abandon those in which I don't startle myself into some true concern or into some phrasing that seems promising. The fact is that I no longer consciously wish to write a trivial poem. I say "consciously." [Laughs.]
P&W: What is a trivial poem?
SD: A poem that may do it’s little thing, may have some satisfactions, but is not one that anyone should care about, that maybe isn’t contrary or bold enough. Any poem that’s nice.
P&W: What makes a great writing teacher?
SD: The ones who don’t waste time on cosmetic problems when there are fundamental problems with a poem. The ones who can identify those fundamental problems, problems of conception or just bad thinking. The ones who can say, You have three authentic lines here, throw everything else away. And of course the ones who can point to good poems as examples of how certain poems might be pulled off. They’re the great writing teachers. Ruthless and compassionate.
P&W: Has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed your life, and if so, in what ways?
SD: I think I was fortunate when I won it to have been old enough to have many of my habits in place, and to have my friends in place. So not too much changed. Larger reading fees, yes. A more overt sense of a readership, yes.
P&W: What about emotionally—in terms of just having something like that in your back pocket?
SD: It was very sweet, really. And it tends to precede you wherever you go. The other side, of course, is that I likely have more enemies now.
P&W: Has jealousy been a factor?
SD: I'm sure it has, and I'm grateful to those people who've kept it to themselves. But does it exist? Of course.
P&W: What has life withheld from you?
SD: I suppose it's invidious to say so, but probably it's the kind of historical circumstance that would make the personal—my personal—political. I don't, of course, wish for tragedy in my life, or a spate of 9/11s, but I confess to being a little envious of the Mandelstams, the Milosczs, the Ahkmatovas, for whom historical circumstance heightened and deepened their immediate concerns. But the fact is that I've had a rather full life. We can only write the poems that are ours to write.
P&W: You've written your own eulogy, your own post-mortem guides; you've imagined your own brilliant farewells. What about a tombstone inscription?
SD: "He rattled his cage. He would not be appeased."