What strikes a first-time reader of Carl Dennis’s verse is the accessibility of his free-verse poetic line, the familiarity of the everyday images and experiences he selects for treatment, and the comforting wisdom such images and experiences afford the reader. Inspired by Whitman’s notion of the reader of poetry as a friend of the poet and the poem itself as an occasion for intimacy between writer and reader, who are otherwise strangers, Dennis created a sense of intimacy in his poetry. This feeling of intimacy—in an era when much academic poetry delighted in formal experimentation, obscure topics, pretentious allusions, and elaborate linguistic ornamentation—gives Dennis’s poetry its warmth, even when the insights are troubling. The poetry reads as if it is being spoken, not written, and conveys a feeling of reassurance, even camaraderie. Often compared to Billy Collins in his choice of subject matter and poetic line, Dennis, like Collins, provokes harsher assessments from more academic readers who find in such light poetry the threat of bathos and regard its wisdom as little more than clichés. However, Dennis’s verse, as indicated by his receipt of a Pulitzer, continues to speak to a wide audience attracted to his wry insights, his careful eye for observation and detail, and his colloquial verse line (itself actually carefully measured and sculpted with a subtle play of vowels and consonants, rhythms and pauses).
Signs and Wonders
Signs and Wonders, Dennis’s third collection, published as part of the Contemporary Poets series of Princeton University Press, earned widespread national attention for Dennis. It reflects the sense and sensibility of his early work, before it would become more specifically spiritual. These are poems of precise and careful observation, describing the oppressive feel of muggy nights, the weighty business of sorting through a collection of old photographs, a gathering of birdwatchers, and the poet digging through a heavy snow in Buffalo, New York. These meditations on such everyday occasions, like the fairy tales young Dennis so loved, contain clear and straightforward insights into the foibles and quiet heroics of being alive and testify how the world speaks to the alert and the sensitive. The insights...
(The entire section is 933 words.)