Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
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 are commonplace enough to be anyone’s, and the verse line is unadorned, direct, as if someone is talking. This sense of conversation is underscored by Dennis’s frequent use of the word “you” and his use of rhetorical questions, both strategies that pull the reader into the dynamic of the poem. However, Dennis’s voice is that of someone sensitive to the implications of experience. Several poems make pointed reference to Whitman, whose passionate, soulful call to intimacy with the reader is strongly reflected in Dennis’s collection. The perceptions verge on cliché—difficult moments are best endured with dignity; vanity distracts the spirit; the slenderest moments of grace and beauty should be embraced; time passes with puzzling logic leaving only the bittersweet burden of memory; and friendship is life’s splendid reward. They are not difficult truths and are not burdened by elaborate philosophical reasoning but rather are expressed with quietly underplayed humor and ironic understatement. Dennis’s signature informality and accessibility help these poems convey insights into loneliness, pain, and longing.
Practical Gods, Dennis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, published when Dennis was sixty-three, reflects the profoundly spiritual direction Dennis’s verse began to take in the mid-1980’s. That spirituality, which draws from Dennis’s longtime interest in American Transcendentalism, is not driven by any theology nor is its argument drawn from any institutional religion. Dennis’s earlier work has a decidedly secular feel and reflects his fascination with the subtleties of the horizontal plane of experience; therefore, these poems speak without apology or irony of the soul, how the material world cannot stand for a moment to be simply what it is. The traumatic experiences of loss, regret, and longing are far deeper here than in his earlier work, as the poet passes into late middle age. In the heartbreaking “St. Francis and the Nun,” one of Dennis’s most frequently anthologized poems, the message of the Catholic saint, known for his easy communication with birds and animals, extolling them to relish the joy of life, is juxtaposed with a young nun dying too soon, craving only some kind of explanation as to why her brief life contains such terrible suffering. In the collection’s closing poem, the poignant “The God Who Loves You,” the poet ponders how gods—not specifically the Christian God but any deity—can bear to watch individuals who, had they made other choices, would have led much different lives. The gods must endure the pain of unmet expectations and frustrations of which mortals remain completely unaware. The poem expresses a most wrenching twist on the conventional notion of prayer.
In the poems of Practical Gods, the poet’s vocabulary freely draws on religious notions: Dennis investigates the implications of eternity, the tension between damnation and salvation, the logic of suffering, the practical worth of the concept of sin, and the dimensions of agape. Using allusions from religious literature—largely the Bible and classical mythology—the verse demands confidence in transcendence, that experience, emotions, and reality participate in something higher, something radiant beyond the measure of the senses. Dennis never resorts to simplistic New Age bromides (his gods, after all, are practical); rather he offers, poem to poem, a cool kind of stoicism that accepts the complications of existence and dares nevertheless to affirm its cosmic implications against the stubborn evidence of humanity’s inconsequentiality in a harrowing post-Enlightenment universe.