Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469
Carl Dennis was born in St. Louis to a mother who was a nurse and a father who started a hugely successful chemical company specializing in elastomers and adhesives. Dennis’s parents encouraged their three sons to learn a musical instrument. Dennis’s older brother Robert would become an avant-garde choral composer known primarily for his musical contributions to the 1969 experimental musical Oh! Calcutta! However, rather than pursue music, before he turned six, Dennis began writing, some poetry but mostly fairy tales in which the fabulous, even magical elements provided him escape from the constraints of suburban life.
Restless, curious, and certain only of his love of literature, Dennis found the college experience disappointing. He was searching, he would later say, for the Platonic ideal of gifted students and wise teachers engaged in lively discussion of literature in order to gain life lessons from centuries of great writings. Dennis first attended Oberlin College, then the University of Chicago, before completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota in 1961. In 1966, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, and immediately accepted a teaching position in nineteenth century American literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He would remain in Buffalo for his entire career, enjoying a variety of academic promotions until he retired in 2001 to become the university’s artist-in-residence.
Early in his career, Dennis pursued academic writing, publishing numerous articles on, among other subjects, Yeats, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jones Very, and William Shakespeare. By his late twenties, however, he found literary criticism growing less engaging. He turned to poetry, as he would later explain, not to publish his verse but rather because writing verse gave him joy. The initial response to his poetry was encouraging. At a time when academic poetry was given to erudite obscurities and self-indulgent ornamentation, editors and critics were attracted by Dennis’s understated lyrical voice, which offered insights drawn from everyday experiences. Dennis’s early work was often compared to the subtle minimalism of short-story writer Raymond Carver. Dennis’s reputation continued to grow as he worked steadily, publishing numerous volumes of verse. As his verse evolved, Dennis began to investigate the spiritual dimension of life, drawing on a variety of religious systems and myth structures to forge a particularly contemporary spiritual sensibility that invested the material universe with the potent influence of gods, angels, demons, and saints without insisting on any single theology. Even as his reputation grew, Dennis remained grounded in the classroom, where he loved engaging his students in the lively art of explicating texts, of listening to the voice of the poet, and of testing readings of classic texts. After his receipt of the Pulitzer and the publication of his collected poetry in 2004 and a new volume of verse in 2007, Dennis enjoyed increased recognition.