Carl Dennis published his poem “The God Who Loves You” in his eighth poetry collection, Practical Gods (2001), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Like many of his works, the poem examines philosophical concepts, in this case predetermination and free will—topics that Dennis explored in previous collections such as Ranking the Wishes (1997). In Dennis’s trademark style, “The God Who Loves You” also addresses the mundane details of everyday human experience. But in this poem, which is addressed directly to the reader, these details are initially viewed in a negative context, since Dennis poses the idea that the reader could have had a better life by making different choices. This idea sets up a corresponding concept that the reader’s faulty choices have made God sad because God loves the reader. And God, through the deity’s omnipotence, is forced to see this best possible path that the reader could have taken and thus God mourns the loss of this better life for His creation. Through the paradoxical struggle between predetermination and free will, as well as the discussion of an omnipotent God, the poem ultimately explores the consequences of human actions and addresses the idea of accepting what is in one’s life, not what could have been. A copy of the work can be found in Practical Gods, which was published by Penguin Books in 2001.
Dennis’s “The God Who Loves You” begins with a supposition: “It must be troubling for the god who loves you / To ponder how much happier you’d be today / Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.” With this introduction, Dennis sets up the idea of human choices and consequences. Dennis is trying to get inside the mind of an unnamed god, who could be the biblical God, but who is nevertheless not clearly identified throughout the poem. Looking at things from this unnamed deity’s perspective, Dennis imagines that the being is troubled by the choices that Dennis’s readers— addressed directly through the word “you”—have made, which presumably are not the best ones they could have made.
Dennis continues imagining this god being distraught, saying that “It must be painful for him” to watch as you get home after a typical week, in which you are “content” with the way the week has turned out. Here, although the poem is still addressed to the reader, Dennis imagines this reader specifically as a real estate agent, as indicated by the phrase “Three fine houses sold to deserving families.” By using mundane details from one person’s life experience, Dennis is attempting to examine human experience in general. He does not presume that all of his readers are real estate agents. Even readers who know nothing about real estate will understand the concept of “driving home from the office, content with your week.” Authors and poets often use this technique, employing a specific experience to comment about a shared one that the author believes is relevant to all, or at least most, readers.
In this section, Dennis begins to explore why the unnamed deity is in pain, by listing some of the ways that the reader’s life could have been better, “what would have happened,” for instance, if the reader had “gone to your second choice for college.” In this hypothetical scenario, Dennis, through the imagined perspective of the god, notes that the reader’s roommate at this second-choice school would have had an affect on the reader, by instilling the roommate’s “ardent opinions on painting and music” on the reader. This would have “kindled in you a lifelong passion.” Using this hypothetical choice as a starting point, Dennis begins to map out an alternate history of the reader’s life, which Dennis implies would have happened if the reader had gone to this secondary college. This alternate life would have been “A life thirty points above the life you’re living / On any scale of satisfaction. And every point / A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.” This implies a negative, saying that the reader has wasted what could have been a really good life by making one mistaken choice on where to go to college.
At this point, Dennis continues in the same vein, and the poem gets even more negative, as he imagines how the reader would feel if the reader was omnipotent like the unnamed god, and could see the mistaken choices. Here, Dennis notes that he envisions the reader as a male—“a large-souled man like you”—and imagines this male reader living an unfulfilled life. This reader “tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments,” so that the reader’s wife “can save her empathy for the children.” Again, Dennis is using specific examples from one imagined life, which will most likely resonate with many readers. Many people who have children can relate with this concept of keeping your own troubles hidden, so that the children receive the bulk of attention. The poem implies that it does not have to be like this, and says that the reader could have had a happier marriage. “And would you want this god to compare your wife / With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?” Dennis imagines this alternative wife as somebody who would have engaged the reader in conversation that is “higher in insight / Than the conversation you’re used to.” In this hypothetical scenario, it is not only the reader that suffers from not taking this other path in life. The reader’s wife also apparently would have been happier with “the man next in line,” who “Would have pleased her more than you ever will / Even on your best days, when you really try.” The poem is getting increasingly negative as Dennis outlines all of the good aspects of life that the reader could have had but does not.
In this next section, Dennis continues discussing the unnamed deity’s feelings but adds a new twist, imagining that this god “Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives” that the reader is “spared by ignorance.” Dennis explores this concept, saying that all of these possible lives for the reader will haunt the god, “Even after you cease existing.” The section describes the reader’s eventual death, “Running out in the snow for the morning paper, / Losing eleven years that the god who loves you / Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene.” In this discussion, the reader does not know that he will mistakenly bring about his early death by catching a chill, but the unnamed deity does, and it pains him, causing him to think about each of the moments that the reader could have had if he had not caught the chill and died before his time.
In this final section, Dennis abruptly switches gears. After discussing the pain of the unnamed deity throughout the poem, Dennis says that the reader can “come to the rescue by imagining him / No wiser than you are, no god at all.” Throughout the poem, Dennis has posed many hypothetical situations, revolving around an omnipotent god who must suffer as he watches his creations not live up to their full potential. Here, Dennis focuses on the idea of taking charge of one’s life and of appreciating what one has, not what one could have had. In the final example, Dennis suggests his reader contact “the actual friend you made at college,” a character that serves as a contrast to the idealistic one mentioned earlier in the poem. Dennis suggests that the reader “Sit down tonight / And write him about the life you can talk about / With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed.” By focusing on human choice and practical experience, as opposed to the divine, the poem ends on a high note by talking about the reader’s actual life: “Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.”