History and Biography
Stephen Dunn was born in Forest Hills, New York, in 1939 (Stephen Dunn, poet). As a young man, he served in the army (The Cortland Review). Later, after graduating from Hofstra University with BAs in History and English in 1962, he spent a year playing professional basketball, coming off of a successful college career, before working as a copywriter for Nabisco (Every Writer’s Resource, The Cortland Review). However, he found himself advancing in what he considered a soulless corporate environment, which worried him, so he and his wife left for Spain (PBS Online NewsHour). There, he tried to write a novel, which was, he says, bad, but found he had a promising talent for poetry (Poets & Writers). Upon his return to America, he received his MA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. Since then, he has received numerous awards and honors, including an Academy Award in literature; three creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts; fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations; and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his eleventh book of poetry, Different Hours. He has taught at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey since 1974 and is currently the Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing there (Stephen Dunn, poet) He has an ex-wife and is currently married with children, although it is unclear to which wife these children were born (Guernica).
He says he wrote Different Hours, the principal source of poetry for this project, with “an acute sense of mortality,” as he approached his sixtieth birthday (Every Writer’s Resource). Now in his early seventies, he was the first male in his family to live to sixty. Philosophically, he says that his “-ism” of choice is existentialism, and that while he has “enormous respect for the spiritual,” he has “only some respect for the religious” (Nightsun Magazine). He believes that “there’s no meaning to our lives except for that which we create, and can live by” (The Commonline Journal).
Selected Poem: “A Postmortem Guide”
From Different Hours
Available online: http://steves2cents.blogspot.com/2004/10/postmortem-guide-by-stephen-dunn.html
General Overview of Stephen Dunn’s Work
Dunn’s first published book, a chapbook called 5 Impersonations, was published in 1971. His first full-length book of poetry, Looking for Holes in the Ceiling, was published in 1974. He has published thirteen full-length books of poetry to date as well as three chapbooks and two collections of new and selected poems. His fourteenth original book, Here and Now, is slated to be published in May of this year. His poems are frequently published in magazines such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. He has also written two books of prose essays, one of which focuses on poetry (Stephen Dunn, poet).
Dunn draws on his own life experience frequently and unapologetically. In “The Last Hours” (not to be confused with “The Hours” or “Different Hours”), the speaker addresses his fear of “a life/of selling snacks,” a prospect quite obviously drawn from Dunn’s own unwitting success at Nabisco (page 55, lines 34-35). “Luck” and “Losing Steps” use basketball to illustrate themes of luck and aging, respectively (page 57, page 63). “Sixty” is full of the angst and fear of approaching what was for Dunn a presumably doomed age (page 21), and in an interview he called “Optimism” an acknowledgement of the possibility that his “mother may have contributed to my ability to keep going in the face of uncertainty and neglect” (page 40, The Cortland Review). “Empathy” addresses memories of Dunn’s experience in the army (page 52).
At first glance, Dunn’s style is as eclectic and varied as his poems. Perhaps the one constant is free verse, but beyond this few if any patterns exist. He writes in the first person (“Dog Weather”), third person (“The Death of God”), or even second person tense (“Before the Sky Darkens”). Speakers are separate observers (“The Hours”), an unspecific “we,” (“What Goes On”), characters (“Androgyne”), or the poet himself (“The Overt”). If stanzas exist, they need not, and rarely do, adhere to any kind of pattern. Occasionally, as in “Another Man,” an internal rhyme surfaces: “With each move three mermaids // and a ball of snakes move too, his skin / an intricate, pulsing blue” (15-17).
Dunn’s imagery appeals as often to the mind as to the conventional five senses. He writes of “the tableaus / of melancholy” (page 19, lines 1-2) and “the neither-here-nor-thereness of dusk,” (page 44, line 5), evoking an almost impressionist mood. However, his more concrete images are skilled as well: “Men in the Sky” ride “a magic long-armed / machine… beautiful in their hard orange / plumage” (page 101, lines 3-4, 10-11).
The poet’s favorite device is almost certainly allusion. “Odysseus’s Secret,” for example, is an exploration of the famous Greek hero. “Old Dogs” makes an example of “Dinah Washington… [and] her eight husbands” (13, 15). He even goes so far as to base two poems entirely on works of art: “Irresistible” on the French film “Un Coeur en Hiver,” meaning “A Heart in Winter”; and “A Spiritual Woman” on the photograph “Body and Fabric” by Joyce Tenneson. Two poems, “So Far” and “Oklahoma City,” reference Timothy McVeigh, characteristic of the pre-9/11 publication date, when the Oklahoma City bombing was still the most devastating act of terrorism America had seen.
Stephen Dunn also uses epigraphs and dedications with relative frequency. In either case, these brief interjections always offer valuable insight into the poems they precede respectively. For example, “Our Parents” was written “for my brother,” legitimizing the deeply personal nature of the poem, which states that “Our parents died at least twice, / the second time when we forgot their stories” (1-2). “John & Mary” begins with a quote “from a freshman’s short story,” presumably one Dunn happened upon as a college professor. In this case as well as those of “The Reverse Side” and “His Town,” the epigraph is actually a vital introduction to the poem rather than merely a related quotation. The book itself begins with two epigraphs, which address the passing of moments and regret, respectively, covering the book’s predominant themes.
Most of Dunn’s poems are subdued and pensive in tone. Thus, when any particularly pungent emotion presents itself, it is especially pronounced. In “Their Divorce,” the speaker’s devastated indignation when he says that his “friends were perfect, perfect” is almost tangible (page 36, line 22). “John & Mary,” the epigraph of which makes it the most markedly humorous poem in the book, is actually made all the more heartbreaking by the contrast of a rare light-hearted opening (page 77). For the most part, though, the poems offer quietly profound observations and reflections, whether they are inspired by life’s more trivial occurrences or its most daunting philosophical quandaries. “The Death of God” examines the sweeping decay of faith (page 26). “Burying the Cat,” by contrast, details the speaker burying his cat (111).
Selected Poem: “John & Mary”
From Different Hours
Available online: http://central.wmrhsd.org/faculty_site/facultyPage.asp?facultyID=332&pageID=912
Discussion of Common Themes
Different Hours, Dunn’s tenth anthology of original poems, consists of 51 poems divided into four untitled sections. The poems in the first section loosely deal with the dissatisfaction of an unfulfilled, average life and center, for the most part, around middle age. In “Before the Sky Darkens,” the opening poem, the speaker notes that “more and more you learn to live / with the unacceptable” (page 19, lines 10-11). This notion recurs throughout the book and especially the first section as speakers and poems address feelings of aloneness and mediocrity.
The second section, while dealing more with young adulthood, furthers the themes of the first. “The Last Hours” is a simple narrative that details Dunn’s thought process as he prepared to quit his corporate job (page 55).
Poems in the third section move out of the personal and focus instead on love and art in relation to the broader human condition. The speaker in “Returning from an Artist’s Studio,” “though… not one / to stop [his] car for beauty / … stop[s], get[s] out, begin[s] to understand” (page 87, lines 5-7). This idea sets the tone for the last section.
The theme of the fourth and final section is summarized well by the section’s first poem, “The Metaphysicians of South Jersey”: the focus is the effort, struggle, and perhaps even inability to find meaning and beauty in life despite everything (page 95). Fittingly, the poems in this section are those which focus on the most universal ideas: poems include “Afterlife,” “Nature,” “Burying the Cat,” and “Oklahoma City,” the latter responding to the terrorist attack and its implications for “the awful world” (page 106, page 109, page 111, page 113, line 10).
The last poem of the book, “A Postmortem Guide,” most obviously reflects Dunn’s unique existentialist beliefs. It asserts that we are all actually alone in the world and that all one can do is learn to live “without hope / … almost happily” (page 119, lines 41-42). It brings the book full circle, as the “death sentence … / you’ve been appealing” mentioned in the book’s first poem is realized (page 19, lines 24-25). Imminent mortality, then, is the overarching theme of the book and all of the subthemes—love, art, self-actualization—are the ways by which Dunn suggests we try to make sense of the different hours of the interim.
Selected Poem: “Before the Sky Darkens”
From Different Hours
Available Online: http://stillgreen.tumblr.com/post/92602522/before-the-sky-darkens-stephen-dunn
Discussion of Literary Merit
If the purpose of literature is to provide unique insight into the human experience, Stephen Dunn is a poet of as much literary merit as any I have ever read. While I do not necessarily agree with all of his views, I appreciate the complexities of emotion he conveys. “John & Mary,” my favorite poem in the book, presents the question of what happens if we never meet the love of our life. It is a heartbreaking and yet supremely beautiful poem that puts a pit in my stomach each time I read it. Some poems do not speak to me at all—“Phantom,” for example, the penultimate poem, is honestly lost on me (page 117). But I do not doubt that it and others like it speak to people in the various stages of life. Dunn is a brutally honest poet who apologizes for nothing—not for the atheism of “Afterlife” and “A Postmortem Guide” or for the mistakes of “Luck” (page 106, page 119, page 57). For this reason, I trust him as a poet to give fully honest insight into his idea of life.
Dunn, Stephen. "An Interview With Poet Stephen Dunn." Interview by Elissa Wald. Poets & Writers. 19 Aug. 2004. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://www.pw.org/content/interview_poet_stephen_dunn>.
Dunn, Stephen. "At The Smithville Methodist Church." American Poems. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/Stephen-Dunn/4287>.
Dunn, Stephen. Different Hours. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002.
Dunn, Stephen. "Interview with Stephen Dunn." Interview by Philip Dacey. The Cortland Review. Mar. 2000. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/00/03/index.html>.
Dunn, Stephen. "Interview with Stephen Dunn." Interview by Richard Edwards. Every Writer's Resource. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://www.everywritersresource.com/dunn.html>.
Dunn, Stephen. "Pulitzer Prize: Poetry." Interview by Elizabeth Farnsworth. PBS.org. 26 Apr. 2001. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/jan-june01/dunn_04-26.html#>.
Dunn, Stephen. "The Hard-to-Say." Interview by Joel Whitney. Guernica Oct. 2004. <http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/11/stephen_dunn_on_why_he_writes/>.
"Existentialism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/>.
Osel, J. "A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Stephen Dunn." The Commonline Journal. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://common-line.com/2009/09/commonline-interview-pulitzer-prize.html>.
"Poet of Restraint and Extravagance: A Conversation with Stephen Dunn." Interview by Nightsun Magazine. Nightsun Magazine, Frostburg State University. 2 Mar. 2000. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/SDunn.htm>.
"Stephen Dunn." Poetry Foundation. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/stephen-dunn>.
"Stephen Dunn." Poets.org. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/386>.
"Stephen Dunn, published books." Stephen Dunn, poet. 21 Apr. 2011 <http://stephendunnpoet.com/books.htm>.