A Poet's Poet
A conversation with Carl Dennis
Five decades later, Dennis's poems continue to attract noticebut these days he doesn't need to rely on the graciousness of a teacher bearing pushpins. His poetryeight volumes to datehas been given glowing reviews in prestigious literary magazines. His résumé is replete with fellowships from, among other sources, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. For his contribution to the genre, the longtime UB professor was recognized two years ago with the Ruth Lilly Prize, a great honor attached to a check for $100,000.
In April of this year, Dennis received the call that most writers only dream about: He had been awarded one of literature's highest honors, the Pulitzer.
His first reaction to the news: "Is this a joke?"
"I knew that the Pulitzers were going to be announced soon, but I just assumed that all the finalists already had found out, long before, that they were finalists," Dennis recalls from his Buffalo home. "Since I had put it aside as a possibility for this year, when the Associated Press reporter called I thought she wanted to interview me about someone I knew who had won."
Since that day, "Pulitzer Prize winner" has become a standard prefix to Dennis's name. Naturally, the title affords him certain privilegeslike a respite from having to browbeat his publisher. After all, those eye-catching silver seals that now adorn his book jacketsthe ones announcing his inclusion in an elite circle of writerscan only be good news for the bottom line. Still, Dennis is careful to keep all this prestige in perspective.
"I must sayand this isn't modesty, this is factwinning is a matter of luck," he observes. "A different panel of judges would have picked three different finalists. I have to appreciate that. And if you look at the Pulitzer Prize winners over the years, there are a lot of names you know, and then there are a few names nobody's heard of in the past 40 years. So, of course, there's always the question: ‘Are you going to be one of those who drops like a stone into the swamp?'"
Dennis received poetry's 2002 Pulitzer for Practical Gods, the most recent collection he has penned since joining UB's faculty in 1966. As the title indicates, deities dwell in the versespagan and biblical, minor and major, helpful and not.
In "The God Who Loves You," for example, the narrator imagines the title character's quiet anguish knowing that one of his charges missed out on a more fulfilling life.
The poem begins: "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."
Saints and strangers also make their way onto the pages of Practical Gods. The ice cream vendor of "Gelati" materializes in the August heat to provide sweet relief to the parched narrator: "For a minute it seemed the Bureau of Joy was calling/About a windfall blowing my way to guarantee/An eight or nine on the joy chart even if many wishes/Down on my list wouldn't be granted."
In "Guardian Angel," divine intervention takes the form of a style-conscious seraph who takes a bachelor under her wing, warning him that his plaid jacket will turn off the woman he's destined to meet at the theater, "when everything depends on a first impression."
Poet Sherry Robbins, a friend and former student, notes that Practical Gods, like so much of Dennis's poetry, "invites the reader to pull up a chair and enjoy an intimate conversation on matters great and small.
"The landscape is often our own familiar city, our own familiar lives," she observes. "That's why we can be so surprised, in mid-conversation, to find ourselves in deep water."
Another of his longtime readers delights in Dennis's ability to elevate everyday speech with his superior imagination, precision and wit.
"Carl speaks the same language we do," says UB English professor Martin Pops. "The only difference is, he speaks it better."
Pops ought to knowhe has been critiquing Dennis's poems since the 1970s. Over the decades, the two friends have settled into a comfortable work routine, usually during one of their weekly dinners.
"Most people don't want criticism; they just want to be praised. But Carl seriously wants criticism, andat least in that area of his lifehe's got an astonishingly solid ego," Pops says. "He's not injured by criticism at all.
"If you're dealing with a mediocre talent, you have to be careful because you think it's the best a person can do. But with Carl, you don't have to worry because he can produce so many beautiful things."
Fifth-grade ditties notwithstanding, Dennis didn't start writing poetry in earnest until his mid-20s. As a child, his favorite literary genre was the fairy tale, which provided an escape from what he considered his humdrum existence as the youngest of three sons growing up in St. Louis during the 1940s and '50s.
Although his parents weren't literary typeshis mother had been a registered nurse; his father founded a chemical companyMrs. Dennis did take a keen interest in the arts. Among the house rules: All three boys would learn to play an instrument. In the case of the eldest, Robert, the weekly lessons more than paid off: He's now a successful composer of choral and dance music.
"She made you feel that life was a desperately important thing to do right, and it was very easy to mess up," says Dennis, echoing a theme that often surfaces in his poetry.
"She told us that the best way to understand about life is from the people who have thought longest and hardest about the problems you're going to facewriters: poets, novelists and playwrights. They had a very practical use for you if you were going to live your life right."
Upon graduating from high school in 1957, Dennis embarked on an undergraduate odyssey of sorts, seeking out a liberal arts haven where students sat around discussing great books"the ideal Platonic academy," as he puts it. He began his quest at Oberlin College in Ohio, which proved a dead end. A year later, he transferred to the University of Chicago. Finally, he settled in at the University of Minnesota, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1961.
"I kept looking for the Holy Grail," Dennis remembers. "I did take some excellent courses along the way, but finally you realize that you're going to have to compromise with the world, and so you lower your standards a littleor at least your expectations of meeting those standards."
Five years later, in 1966, Dennis received his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley. That same year, he was hired as an assistant professor at UB.
"When I came to Buffalo, I discovered a lot of bright people here. I hadn't been around such a heady group. It was an encouraging place for a young writer, and it was inspiring."
In those early years in Buffalo, the English department was temporarily housed in a handful of trailers on the South Campus. It was there that Sherry Robbins first met Dennis, as an undergraduate enrolled in his course on modern poets.
"He had a very quiet, calm manner, but his class was a very intense learning experiencevery intense," she says. "I feel like I'll never forget what I learned in that class. I have never seen a class so motivated."
Dennis taught a variety of courses during that period, 19th-century American literature and criticism among them. He produced numerous scholarly articles, gradually discovering his true calling. "I remember thinking when I was about 28 that poetry gave me more pleasure than any other kind of writing. Based on the pleasure principle, I was hoping I could give it most of my attention.
"Things go by inches," he adds. "There was no grand moment; it's just where I found myself giving most of my writing time."
Dennis's first poetry collection was published when he was 35. Like his latest volume, the poems in A House of My Own are written in language as approachable and inviting as the poet himself.
"It's not as if I had been tempted by all other kinds of writing and resisted them," Dennis says of his plainspoken style. "This comes very naturally to me. I believe that poetry should sound like natural speech. When you hear a poem you should feel that someone is standing behind the lines, talking to an individual, offering a script that something might want to enter."
Dennis taught his last UB class in the fall of 2001 and now holds the title of Artist-in-Residence. At 62, after more than 36 years in the classroom, he can luxuriate in devoting himself more freely to his writing.
Despite the teaching schedule change (he still serves as advisor to the occasional independent study student), Dennis's writing schedule remains the same. Friends describe a devoted and disciplined artist, one who serves an early-bird muse and will brook no interruptions into his morning work regimencall him anytime before 11 a.m. and you're sure to be greeted by the answering machine. As for the distraction of the television, Dennis doesn't own one; never has. According to one story, a friend years ago offered Dennis her old 12-inch black-and-white set, thinking it might prove tempting for special events, like presidential debates or earth-shattering news. Dennis accepted the TV, only to haul it down to the basement and, ultimately, return it to its original owner.
"His priority is that he is true to his writing," says high school English teacher Mary Richert, a former independent study student of Dennis's who knows him as a mentor, a friend and her son's godfather.
"He doesn't take vacations from his poetry. He is always working on poems and thinking about his poems. After that, his priorities are his friends and his community."
Dennis's generosity extends to both. Whether it's a relatively small favorlike volunteering his time to speak to one of Richert's classesor considerably moremany years ago, he agreed to escort a professor's toddler on a cross-country plane triphe's unlikely to refuse.
Although he's modest enough to keep mum on the subject, Dennis's munificence takes many different forms when it comes to his adopted home of Buffalo: civic activism, local-business support, arts patronage, beautification advocacy. Asked to read at a fund-raiser for a Western New York literary organization earlier this year, the poet offered to donate his speaking fee to the groupand then pledged to pay the speaking fee of the other poet on the program, as well. Some years back a local bakery was struggling to get off the ground, and Dennis came forward with start-up cash. When a vacant lot in his neighborhood had succumbed to weeds, he helped convert it into an award-winning urban garden.
And then there is the Pulitzer. True, Joseph Pulitzer never intended these literary prizes as community gifts. But if the locals want to claim a share of the glory, Dennis figures it's their right. While he may rely on the perspectives of Zeus and Prometheus in his poetry, he always manages to ferret out inspiration right where he lives.
"Buffalo is a great city for this prize to be received in because its small size makes it a big occasion," Dennis says of winning the Pulitzer. "People feel happy for you, and proud for you. In New York City, it wouldn't mean anything; it's just ho-hum. But in a city like Buffalo, it means a lot more, beleaguered as we are by all kinds of problems."
Will the Pulitzer have any effect on his poetry? Make him feel more pressure to perform? More self-conscious?
"I hope not," he answers, to all three questions.
"For me, poetry will always be the activity that makes me feel I'm using most of my powers and making sense of my life at the same time. I'm exploring issues that I feel I want to get to the bottom of. And, of course, when you write poetry you're giving a kind of lasting shape to temporary states of mind."
Dennis's approach to his art has earned him a legion of appreciative readers. From newspaper critics to university colleagues, a portrait emerges of a writer with valuable things to say about the personal and the universal, about the things that matter most in life.
UB president William Greiner would agree with that description. In May, at the UB Law School commencement ceremony, Greiner told his audience that he had prepared the traditional inspirational speech to read to the assembled graduates, as is customary under such circumstances.
Then he discovered that one of Dennis's poems said everything he wanted to sayonly better.
So Greiner dispensed with the three-page address in favor of the eight-stanza poem "A Chance for the Soul."
With 1,750 people in attendance, this was hardly the cozy turnout one sees at the typical coffeehouse poetry reading.
With Dennis's increasing recognition, who knows what future events may be colored by his words of hope and redemption.
A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer and editor living in Amherst, New York.