Quick Notes on Stephen Dunn

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Stephen DunnStephen Dunn (1939) is an American poet. His book Different Hours won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. He studied under Donald Justice, Philip Booth, and W. D. Snodgrass.

At the end of Dunn’s poem “Introduction to the 20th Century,” he writes, “In difficult times, we come to understand, / it’s the personal and only the personal matters” (83). I think that is a good summary of part of Dunn’s poetry, but there’s more which I’ll I get to in a moment. I also think these lines speak to contemporary American poetry, in general, especially when this poem is read, on one level, as an allegorical history of 20th century Anglo-American poetry. The first stanza traces the metronomic meters and Edwardian poetic imagery of early 20th century poetry to which Modernist poetry reacted. The first stanza also presents the bourgeois sensibility that was beginning to develop at the same time. The next stanza introduces a modernity of people working for “hours, days, weeks,” as well as the rise of city life with its subways. Then there’s the hint of the poets who “felt they had a say in the universe,” as the poet of Modernism felt he/she was a hero doing the important work of saving culture. And so the poets create “a rhythm and a hunch, something local / we could possibly trust.” They created free verse, new localities, and something to believe in. Part of Modernism poetry is the move away from temporality, or causality and the narrative flow of time, and the move towards the place, especially the juxtaposition of places to represent the poly-perspectives of reality, which is best evidenced with Cubism. And then Dunn’s poem arrives at the personal of contemporary American poetry. And when I think about this some more, especially in relation to Dunn, I find the personal also means less hermeneutic. When I read a poem between around 1914ish to 1945ish (the time of Modernism), I feel like a lot of work has to be done to read and understand those poems. I have to look up allusions, look up etymologies, scan quantitative and qualitative rhythms, and, in essence, I almost feel like I’m measuring poetry for how good it is. After 1945, I feel less of that, especially with Dunn.

Dunn, I think, is concentrated on choosing words and putting them in the most evocative and/or effective order, but he’s also creating experiences but not excavation sites. The reader doesn’t have to dwell on each word and dig layers down into the poem. The reader just needs to experience the poem of the personal level that is filled with detail, and then think about what it means to have inhabited that experience. Dunn’s language is easy to follow, but it’s certainly tight.

I think one way to look at Dunn’s poetry, in general, is too look at “Essay on the Personal” (139), which appeared in Not Dancing from 1984, six years after “Introduction to the 20th Century,” which appeared in A Circus of Needs.

     Essay on the Personal

     Because finally the personal
     is all that matters,
     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. How good
     someone else abandoned the farmhouse,
     bankrupt and desperate.
     Now we can bring a fine edge
     to our parents. We can hold hurt
     up to the sun for examination.
     But just when we think we have it,
     the personal goes the way of
     belief. What seemed so deep
     begins to seem naive, something
     that could be trusted
     because we hadn’t read Plato
     or held two contradictory ideas
     or women in the same day.
     Love, then, becomes an old movie.
     Loss seems so common
     it belongs to the air,
     to breath itself, anyone’s.
     We’re left with style, a particular
     way of standing and saying,
     the idiosyncratic look
     at the frown which means nothing
     until we say it does. Years later,
     long after we believed it peculiar
     to ourselves, we return to love.
     We return to everything
     strange, inchoate, like living
     with someone, like living alone,
     settling for the partial, the almost
     satisfactory sense of it.

The poem’s, or essay’s, thesis is, “the personal / is all that matters,” and the poem attempts to prove this twice. The first way occurs in lines 1 to 19, and the second from line 20 to the end. In line 6, Dunn writes, “it’s a matter of precision,” and there is precision of detail throughout Dunn’s poems. It’s a concern of Dunn to be exacting, as he explains in an interview with William Walsh. Dunn tells Walsh how Philip Booth influenced him with this need for this precision: “Philip was an old Puritan and he would write in the margins [of Dunn’s workshop poems], ‘Deepen your concerns!!’ I couldn’t get away with anything. He loved exactitude. Anything imprecise pissed him off” (78). This precision allows Dunn to get intimate and personal. As Norman Dubie says, “details create intimacy,” and I think this is true for Dunn, too, but not wholly true. In the middle of the poem is a turn, and this turn also mimics Dunn’s poetry. The turn begins and ends with, “But just when we think we have it, / the personal goes the way of / belief. What seemed so deep / begins to feel naïve, [. . .] because we hadn’t [. . .] held two contradictory ideas.” This also describes how Dunn’s poetry moves. Dunn also tells Walsh, “My working habits are essentially to doubt everything I write, to refine, and to work myself down the page by disagreeing with myself until I have something I can hold. Then doubt that for a while” (77). Dunn moves by questioning what he writes or assumes. His poems present and consider in order to create hard, believable, and felt experiences. His poetry in other words is a “style, a particular / way of standing and saying, / the idiosyncratic look / at the frown which means nothing / until we say it does.” His poetry, in part, is the poetry of interpreting the personal experiences of himself or a loved one, and then, through language, sharing what the experience means, but it’s a meaning that doesn’t have to be excavated for like a Modernism poem. It’s excavated by the reader turning inward and experiencing the empathy that Dunn experienced.

And now for a non sequitur. In a note I wrote in this book a long time ago, I said, “Stephen Dunn takes the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary, and makes them magical. It’s magical realism that gives middle-class America life, movement, meaning, love, and awe. . . . His poem are ‘approximately true’.”


Works Cited

Dunn, Stephen. New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994. New York: Norton, 1995. Print.

Walsh, William. “An Interview with Stephen Dunn.” Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art 16.1 (2014): 74-91. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. PDF.


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