The Outskirts of Troy

Robert Frost, a poet with conservative views, once said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” In a famous review of Walt Whitman’s newly published Leaves of Grass (1855), Henry James wrote,He [Whitman] pursues these objects through a hundred pages of matter which remind us irresistibly of the story of the college professor who, on a venturesome youth bringing him a theme done in blank verse, reminded him that it was not customary in writing prose to begin each line with a capital.

Chances are that neither Robert Frost nor Henry James, if they were still around, would think much of Carl Dennis’ poetry, but there are many people who do. He has been called “one of the strongest poets of his generation,” and a reviewer for the reputation-making The New York Times wrote of The Near World, a collection of Dennis’ poems published in 1985, that it was “fearless and artful,” with a “distinctive force” that “only a superior talent can deliver.”

Dennis’ only deference to traditional poetic form is that he begins each line with a capital; otherwise he seems to be playing not only with the net down but also with baselines and sidelines erased. Like many of his contemporaries, he has done away with rhyme, meter, and most of the other traditional appurtenances of poetry. Of the work he has written,I am interested in making my poems sound like actual speech, something that one might actually say out loud to a single listener. In Yeats’ day this meant avoiding poetical ornament and mechanical rhythms. Today it also means avoiding poetry that is either too private (concerned with the play of the writer’s own mind) or too public (not concerned with the particular context of speaker and listener in a dramatic situation).

Here is a fairly representative example of his work, from a poem titled “Distance”:

If the woman at the door this eveningWho asked for my signatureHad knocked over there,She wouldn’t have looked as she did,Harried merely, and graying, and fat,With a son and a daughter behind herSquabbling over a toy.

In many of his poems, Dennis seems not only to be avoiding poetic diction but even the expression of strong emotion at all. Whitman may have broken some of the traditional rules of poetizing, but at least his poems were carried along by waves of emotion and bursts of hyperbole that seem to make up for the absence of rhyme and meter. With Dennis, even these features are missing, and the question becomes, “Is this poetry at all, and if so, what is left that makes it poetry?”

There is no absolute definition of poetry. The more poets have argued about it, the further from agreement they have gotten. There is one thing, however, that all poetry has in common: that is a deliberate exercise, if not excitation, of the imagination. The poet tries to fit verbal images to feelings. Without imagination and the imagery that imagination provides, it would seem that there would be no poem—although some new school might accept this specification as a challenge and come up with a poetry based exclusively on the rational expression of abstract ideas. No doubt computers will be writing poetry someday, but by that time there will be computers to read it.

In examining Dennis’ poems in The Outskirts of Troy, it can quickly be seen that he has not thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In fact, the poetic elements that remain stand out all the sharper because of the baggage he has eliminated. In many of his poems he seems to be doing what John Keats did in such poems as “Ode to a Nightingale.” In that ode, Keats expresses his...

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Booklist. LXXXIV, March 1, 1988, p. 1092.

Choice. XXV, May, 1988, p. 1399.

Library Journal. CXII, December, 1987, p. 116.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, September 18, 1988, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, December 18, 1987, p. 62.