Douglas Dunn Essay - Critical Essays

Dunn, Douglas

Dunn, Douglas 1942–

Dunn is an award-winning British poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Douglas Dunn … displays symptoms of premature ageing…. [His] melancholia is … representatively and powerfully communicated by a landscape of 'silent places, dilapidated cities'…. This landscape is appropriately inhabited by a population of transients and vagrants. Dunn is unequalled in his ability to suggest the whole nature of modern city life, as for instance an anonymous or heartless stream of traffic:

           Again I watched the fast and slow
           Enact their licensed rodeo
           Of aluminum and chrome
           Tame instruments that take them home.

What is heartening is his own compulsion to go with them…. Dunn's desire to be 'taken too' denotes a compulsion towards empathy which is a fundamental imaginative response:

      They will not leave me, the lives of other people.
      I wear them near my eyes like spectacles….

This compassionate voyeurism often results in a deeply moving penetration of the suburbs and provinces of the heart. (pp. 93-4)

Two slightly worrying portents, however. Dunn's obsession with including a cast of four hundred thousand in his poems is already tending to produce a kind of human and material clutter…, nor are empathy and compassion always complete…. The verbal clutter and cacophony also exemplifies some surprising technical and formal uncertainties.

I value the lyrical rather than the documentary aspect of Dunn's gift…. Dunn's prosaic strengths similarly quicken into richer resonance in those poems where … he returns to the landscapes of childhood…. A promising conflict is emerging in Dunn's poetry between images of a Marvellian garden Eden and a fallen urban landscape—though in the title-poem he subtly recognises that there are no Edens or Arcadias. However if the half-rural countryside of Renfrewshire took over more firmly from Hull it might nourish what is 'fixed and visionary' in his poetry, control an over-restless response to a restless world. (p. 95)

Edna Longley, in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), July, 1973.

Douglas Dunn made his poetic debut with two salient advantages: a fine clear writing style and a subject-matter he could call his own…. In Terry Street we heard a distinctive new voice. The subject-matter was working-class life, although the politics, we later discovered, were only slightly to the left of Larkin. (Since then,… Douglas Dunn has turned Marxist.) In this collection, however, the tone which was once so self-assured has become less certain, and the subject more diffuse. The poetry is very much hit and miss: it can be both better and worse than before.

Taking the worse first, there is Dunn in his philosophising mood—being the artist…. [He] becomes pompous and ridiculous. He is posing. He should stop it.

Should stop it because, when he is not playing the poet, he is capable of producing very good poetry indeed. There are several poems here in an autobiographical vein, which deal with Glasgow and a Renfrewshire upbringing. More unusual and surprising, however, though not always more successful, are those works in which he creates fictional characters and personae, which give him a chance to exploit a rich, lyrical vein. (p. 832)

James Fenton, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 6, 1974.

In Love or Nothing Mr. Dunn certainly satisfies the conventional notions of what is 'poetic' and what is not. He concerns himself with certain private and domestic themes ('wryly', of course) and he uses external forms to mark the boundaries of what can reasonably be said in a poetical manner. The effect is that of a thin and single voice which is conscientious without being adequately self-conscious. Given the fact that the inherited poetic language has become somewhat strained at this late date, Mr. Dunn's tone is necessarily over-emphatic; he uses a great many adjectives where none would do, for all the world as if he were trying to write prose…. He is forced back upon a flat and denotative language, of points rather than themes, of 'content' rather than expression, and it is one which can be rescued from prosiness only with the aid of external and rhetorical gestures…. (p. 13)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 18, 1975.

One of the poems in Love or Nothing, "Ars Poetica", takes a marvellous sentence from Randall Jarrell ("This poem looks as if it had been written by a typewriter on a typewriter") and uses it as a lever into a droll fantasy about "The squalid hutch of the iambic line" where the Muses hang out. "The familiar and the ordinary"—those touchstones of Douglas Dunn's first book, Terry Street—have become on the whole the merest reference points: he has become a writer of fictions, a sardonic fantasist rather than a melancholy reporter, a wearer of disguises. Renfrewshire and Hull are places of the mind, or stage-sets which Dunn can re-design and slot in at will. Yet this expansion into worlds untethered to documentary hasn't meant that his forms and language have become indiscriminate; the diction is more scrupulous and fastidious than ever, the cadences shifting but almost always carefully poised and adjusted. Here and there (as with Dunn's second book, The Happier Life) I was in fact disconcerted by a dandified obscurity which is the price you have to pay, I suppose, for these fictive ambitions: I have a notion that Dunn ought to stop reading the French Symbolists now, having learned what he can from them. What Arthur Symons called the "fatal evasiveness" of Laforgue can become a mannerism as pervasive, and almost as crippling, as Auden's lexical tricks. But Dunn is such a serious and inventive poet, and by now so accomplished, that advice handed down like this has probably already been overtaken by some new shift or turn. Wherever the Muses hang out, he has their number. (pp. 76-7)

Anthony Thwaite, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1975.

Having established a distinctive and largely informal personal voice in Terry Street, [Dunn] seemed in The Happier Life deliberately to be submitting himself to the exercise of formal techniques. If that schooling, particularly in couplets, sometimes seemed a little unnecessary for someone with a fine existing sense of cadence, the good effects can now be seen in Love or Nothing, where the couplets give way to a skilful use of stanza forms, handled over poems of some length. Dunn's sense of character has become progressively more articulate too, particularly his use of humour, and of an unusually detailed novelistic invention, which combine here in the exhilarating 'The Global Fidget'.

What is new in Love or Nothing is the ambition, and the increasing abstraction, of Dunn's phrasing, coupled with an associative use of imagery….

Love or Nothing marks a change from implicit social criticism to an explicit critique. For the first time in Dunn's poetry, consciousness is set against its environment, rather than reflecting from within it.

This has its obvious dangers, and Dunn doesn't always avoid them. (p. 106)

Paradoxically, the more detached a manipulator a poet becomes, the more evident is his human stance and the more crucial the tone of his work. Two great virtues underwrite Dunn's development towards human comedy. The first is his unusual degree of empathy, the intelligent tenderness which marks 'The House Next Door' and which creates perhaps the best poem in the book, 'In the Small Hotel'. The second is his wary democratic instinct, on which the satire of 'The Global Fidget' is based…. (p. 107)

Roger Garfitt, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), February/March, 1975.