Carl Dennis Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although Carl Dennis is one of the most prolific and successful American poets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, he came relatively late to poetry. His first collection did not appear until he was in his mid-thirties. Before then and after, Dennis, a career academic, published literary criticism in prestigious academic journals. As Dennis’s national reputation as a poet grew, so did interest in his critical writings. He drew on nearly a quarter century of his publications to fashion Poetry as Persuasion (2001). The volume, dealing with writers such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and William Butler Yeats, argued for the importance of voice in a poem, how a poet must define a specific voice to establish an effective intimacy with a reader. The book also offered practical advice for working poets on using irony, point of view, symbols, and rhythm and rhyme in free verse to achieve a resonant and stable voice in a poem.

Carl Dennis Achievements

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In a body of poetry marked by a subtly musical, almost conversational voice, Carl Dennis, profoundly influenced by a spiritual perception of the material universe, draws on everyday experiences to distill from them quiet and understated insights that create an intimacy with the reader. In the first few decades of his career, he published regularly, and his verse drew critical praise but did not enjoy a wider success. He was a poet’s poet. He received the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest (1980) and the Bess Hokin Prize (1995) and the J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize (1997), both from Poetry magazine. He was awarded a variety of fellowships, most notably from the Guggenheim Foundation (1984), the National Endowment for the Arts (1988), and the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy (1988). However, his stature as a poet grew, beginning in 2000, when he was selected for the prestigious $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, presented annually to a poet for lifetime achievement. Then, in 2002, his Practical Gods was the surprise choice for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

Carl Dennis Bibliography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Altieri, Charles. “Sensibility, Rhetoric, and Will: Some Tensions in Contemporary Poetry.” Contemporary Literature 23, no. 4 (1982): 451-479. A groundbreaking early reading of Dennis by a fellow poet, who sees in Dennis’s early poetry a nascent romanticism (like that of John Ashbery and Robert Pinsky) that celebrates something higher in human nature.

De Nicola, Deborah. Orpheus and Contemporary Poems on Greek Myth. Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999. Investigates a critical aspect of Dennis’s poetry within the context of other contemporary poets who juxtapose mythic elements with modern experiences.

Dennis, Carl. Poetry as Persuasion. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. Collects a lifetime of readings of poets most influential on Dennis’s own poetry. Investigates the relationship between reader and writer, which is central to Dennis’s own poetry.

Ford, Marcia, and Andrea Jaeger. Finding Hope: Cultivating God’s Gift of a Hopeful Spirit. Woodstock, Vt.: SkyLight Paths Press, 2006. Uses Dennis’s late poetry as examples of contemporary poets who tap traditional spirituality as a strategy of hope in difficult moments of crisis. Insists too stridently on Dennis as a Christian poet.

Grossberg, Benjamin S. Review of Unknown Friends. Antioch Review 66, no. 1 (Winter, 2008): 189-191. This review of Dennis’s collection on the distance between friends and the connections between strangers notes that at his best, Dennis “transmutes casual language into convincing lyricism.”

Ryan, Michael. A Difficult Grace: On Poets, Poetry, and Writing. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. Accessible and illuminating reading of Dennis’s generation of poets. Particularly strong on how poets create voice and shape the dynamic of reader participation.