POETRY JANUARY 25, 2011
by Carl Dennis
Penguin Books, 96 pp., $12.50
Nobody, so far as I know, calls Carl Dennis a great innovator, and I would not trust anybody who did. Insofar as he has distinctive gifts—and he certainly does—they are gifts firmly opposed to great innovation, to major endeavors of any sort. It is in the minor efforts, the daily or weekly rewards and tasks that make up most of any life, that Dennis finds his métier. He was, and remains at the age of seventy-one, a poet of what we are pleased to call Middle America, of a circumscribed middle class in mid-sized towns, of self-control, long-range planning, and middle age. Those categories, and the defensive humility that fits them, stand among his obvious subjects, even to the point of self-mockery: “Do you want to put up shelving in the garage/So you'll be able to find the bag of charcoal/When it's time for a backyard barbecue?” In another poem, “The word ‘normal’ ”:
may sound like a blessing,
As soothing a word as it is to someone
Who wakes between cool sheets
After weeks of fever.
All he wants to do is sit in his yard.
A worse poet would go far in praising that yard; Dennis instead remarks that the yard, like the sunset, “Won't have to best the others/To be a good one.” He can take pleasure, as so many less intelligent poets take pleasure, in the obtrusively ordinary, the “gifts that sun and soil unite to offer,” a nothing-special bottle of wine on a nothing-special Saturday, cast—alas—in the language of New Yorker advertisements: you deserve it. But Dennis at his best does not say we deserve anything, and does not quite take pleasure at all: he defers it, and his lengthy sentences approximate forms of delayed gratification. His lines say what fortunate parents tell punk-rock teens: people gave their whole lives for the leisure you cherish, for the security of the town you say you hate. The punks have a point, though, as wise parents know—and Dennis is wise; he is one of the poets whose advice we could do well to take.
The coherence in Dennis’s very long sentences, the casual regularity in his pentameters, also stand for the social contract, for the coherence (we notice it fully only when it fails) of daily obligation: even the punk-rock students, most of them, expect the traffic lights to function, the teachers to show up for school, the school day to end on time, and those expectations (Dennis implies) deserve respect. Most of his best poems confer such respect on characters in whom he sees himself—on “a teacher of ecology at City Honors,” for example, who gave up trying to make “a career in music”:
Though few of her students may choose her field
It’s enough if they understand why others
Might find the work engrossing.
The options are more than ample,
And she doesn't divide them into high and low.
She agreed when I argued that maintaining a list
Of all the callings available might itself
Prove a useful calling, assigning a name
To many choices not named before.
Other people, other poets, may have less complicated, more passionate “callings.” Carl Dennis’s poetry (like John Stuart Mill’s liberal state) will defend and describe their right to follow theirs, without being able to enter into them. It therefore finds its particular province in the ostensibly prosaic, the zero degree, the civil discourse that other poets take as their violated norm.
Civility, abstractions, representative Americans, loose pentameters: Dennis can sound like Robert Pinsky (the lines above virtually imitate the young Pinsky), or John Koethe, or any number of less thoughtful nostalgia merchants, but at his best he is unlike all of them, because he can enter into a fictional life while complicating and dramatizing questions that other poets just present. His characters—who feel like partial (but only partial) self-portraits—hold middle-status, unglamorous jobs: “a blacksmith, a cashier, a dentist,/A forklift driver, a logo designer”; “A Realtor,” or “A Roofer”; the “Senior Secretary at Potomac School”; Lucy, a deputy obituary writer passed over for promotion “again,” and trying to like her current job.
“Instructions from Lucy in Elmira” is, so to speak, Dennis’s Las Meninas, a virtuosic nest of reflections on its own aims and techniques. Lucy writes, as Dennis writes, about the unadventurous and never famous: the deceased (and fictional) librarian Ellen Tucker, for example, who likes to say that “history books should be read as stories/Of lives the readers themselves have lived/In other places and other times.” Ellen could somehow give power to “words that had no effect/When spoken by others,” and Ellen concluded, as Lucy concludes, as Dennis concludes, as George Eliot liked to conclude, that no life is too provincial or too obscure to be worth depicting if you pay enough attention, though you may never know what counts as enough:
I’m trying to take my cue from Ellen Tucker
Who cast her mustard seeds where she could
And didn't presume to guess if the soil
Was soft or stony, deep or thin.
It is a Christian figure, but a secular purpose: a secular devotional poem.
Alongside all these less than prominent citizens Callings reserves one famous hero, Benjamin Franklin, notable because his early accomplishments remained prudent, prosaic, bourgeois:
at least he was willing
To acknowledge he wasn’t the man he hoped to be,
And while he charted his private progress,
He found time at meetings of the club he founded
To share with his fellow journeymen his notions
For improving the streets, the schools,
The fire departments, the hospitals.
A tone of self-diminishment, even defeat (is there anything better than improving the streets and the schools? Isn’t there? Or is there?), follows this litany of good deeds, as cars in a funeral procession follow the hearse. That tone is Dennis’s accomplishment, a reason to read his verse, and it goes with a deep pessimism about the nature and the worth of art. Franklin admitted in his Autobiography that he wrote poetry in his youth, but thereafter “approv’d the amusing one’s self with poetry now and then, so far as to improve one’s language, but no farther.” The saddest thing about Dennis’s poems might just be the very limited role they project for poetry as such: what can poems, what can art, do that a book of advice, a long trip, or a chat with a friend, cannot? That is not a rhetorical question but a real one: let me know if you find a good answer.
Dennis’s middle style stands out the more because of his longtime location at SUNY-Buffalo, better known as a home base, in the 1980s and 1990s, for such experimentalists as Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein. Those poets won praise for their efforts to undercut linguistic norms, to explode and subvert them, but Dennis does not seem to want to subvert anything. Instead, his ironies and his sadnesses reflect persistent attempts to keep things going. His poems comprise an almost heroic effort to make a poetry fit for the antiheroic virtues of husbandry, diligence, thrift and compromise, for the incremental, pride-destroying work by which next year might just be a bit better than last. He pursues, and praises, and demonstrates, those virtues so attentively that he must also dramatize doubts, in the fine “Warning Signs”:
As for the virtue of thrift, it too
Is commendable. But if your daughter
Is saving half her dollar-a-day allowance
So as not to be penniless in old age,
You may want to ask what part you’ve played
In making the future appear less promising
Than the past.
Yet the future might really be less promising than the past, thanks (for example) to catastrophic climate change, which this poem goes on to describe. In the long run we are all dead, quipped Keynes—but for some of us it may not be a long run; and that awareness seems to destroy by mere contact the commitment to delayed gratification, the collective virtue, that Dennis wants so badly to reflect. His effort to reconcile lyric with argument, discursive calm with emotional weight, becomes an effort to reconcile carpe diem with the sublimation, with the work today for jam tomorrow, on which civilization depends. He therefore casts himself (in the poem of that name) as a “Silent Prophet,” unwilling to say what he knows: “It’s the last day, but I'm keeping the news to myself.” The people he celebrates are neither hedonists nor grinding self-deniers, but people whose incremental labors manage to become their own forms of pleasure—for example, in “Silent Prophet,”
the woman across the hall
From the friend’s apartment, who’s learning
To play the viola from scratch. Good for her
If she finds an hour today for practice despite
The extra hours required at the insurance firm.
“At the insurance firm,” “for practice”: how much of life gets used, or used up, that way.
Callings is Dennis’s second book since his ample Selected Poems in 2004, and I like this one more than I liked that one: because Dennis has not changed much over time, he comes off better in smaller packages, especially when the packages have something (in this instance, last things, and the end of the world, and the presence of death) that ties them together and sets them apart. Something like fatalism, or something near it, accompanies his level style; the poems show not how we, or they, might improve, how we might at least imagine things differently, but why life (alas) must be as it is.
To Rilke’s “You must change your life” Dennis replies “How could I?” (He does not even add, though someone should, “That’s easy to say for a headless bronze.”) For the visionary changes promised by other sorts of poetry Dennis has no use. For the moral growth promised by those who write his sort of poetry, but less well, less thoughtfully, Dennis reserves discouraging words:
As for the famous injunction you hint at,
‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’
If it made any sense, would its big promoters
Be obliged to have it repeated each week
From millions of pulpits?
Dennis’s command of his one style, his reticulated and abstraction-laden blank verse, deserves more praise than it usually gets: he could make directions to Costco mildly interesting (and indeed his poetry might include them). That he could also make Gotterdammerung mildly interesting—that everything, put into his way of writing, turns mild—is a feature, not a bug: his mildness can even look like a form of aggression, a push back against the temper of the times.
Like the householders and clerks in his set pieces, Dennis has boxed himself in so thoroughly that the boxing, the confinement, are part of himself, and he has resolved to try to like them (though the emphasis may fall on “try”). Dennis does conduct experiments, though you have to get used to his narrow parameters, in order to notice them: the final poem in Callings, for example, consists entirely of questions. The questions lack answers, because they are all about dying: the poem bears the title “Last Interview.” His level discursiveness, his ongoing syntax, can become almost scary: if you keep talking intelligibly (the style implies), so that other people understand you, you will have some way to know that you are still alive.
Dennis’s poetry is never bounding, never ebullient; has little even of the appearance of spontaneity: the well is never so full that it overflows. There is an air of calm deliberateness about all he writes. He never seems possessed by any feeling: no emotion seems ever so strong as to have entire sway, for the time being, over the current of his thoughts. He never, even for the space of a few stanzas, appears entirely given up to exultation, or grief, or pity, or love, or admiration, or devotion. He has feeling enough to form a decent, graceful, even beautiful, decoration to a thought which is in itself interesting and moving; but not so much as suffices to stir up the soul by mere sympathy with itself in its simplest manifestation. All the sentences in this paragraph describe Dennis well, but most of them were not written about him. I have taken all but these last three from Mill’s evaluation, in 1833, of William Wordsworth, for whose name I substituted Dennis’s own. Such quiet gifts as Dennis’s cannot stand out, but they should not be dismissed; we may never know when we might want to call them to mind.