The Books: Practical Gods, by Carl Dennis

Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry

The next book on my poetry shelf is winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, Practical Gods, by poet Carl Dennis.

“I don’t see myself as belonging to any particular school of poetry. Yeats was the most important early influence, but I hope that his presence is now very difficult to detect. Like him I’m interested in making my poems sound like actual speech, something that one might actually say out loud to a single listener. In Yeats’s 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 and not with an actual subject outside himself) or too public (not concerned with the particular context of speaker and listener in a dramatic situation).” – Carl Dennis

Plain-speaking without being simplistic, emotional without being maudlin, philosophical and profound without being didactic – how does he do it? His poem from this collection “The God Who Loves You” (I posted it here) is one of those poems that has actually helped me get through some tough times. There aren’t too many of those, at least for me, and “The God Who Loves You” resonates such a deep powerful chord in me that I actually feel I have to stay away from it in better times. Because it might summon up the bad time. Mary Oliver has a couple of those poems too (“In Blackwater Woods” being the main one) – poets who stir the deep. Carl Dennis is unafraid of making pronouncements or giving advice (Oliver is the same way), but it never comes off as preachy or superior. It’s all wrapped up in the observations Dennis makes as a poet, many times very everyday observations, and so he feels confident in his point of view. It’s like Auden. His emotions were so fine-tuned that he had no problem in reaching out directly to a reader and saying, “Here. Here is how I think you should live” – which could be so obnoxious but manages to be welcome and cathartic. We need poets for this. They say what we struggle to even think. They (the good ones) can clear away the ballast and show you a clear vision.

Dennis has been publishing since the 70s, eight volumes in all (or maybe more by now). I haven’t read as much of his work as I want to, and he is someone I pick up from time to time, usually in dark lonely moments. There’s always something for me there. He’s strangely comforting, without being too pat and simplistic. Dude is DEEP.

Poet Sherry Robbins said of Practical Gods, and I think this is just right:

“[Practical Gods] 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. That’s why we can be so surprised, in mid-conversation, to find ourselves in deep water.”

It’s a collection filled with deities, as the title suggests. They stroll the planet, and we intersect with them without even knowing it. But they are there. It’s an amazing collection.

He teaches at the University of Buffalo and has done so for years.

Here’s a poem from the collection.

Not the Idle

It’s not the idle who move us but the few
Often confused with the idle, those who define
Their project in life in terms so ample
That nothing they ever do is a digression,
Each chapter contributing its own rare gift
As a chapter in Moby Dick on squid or hard tack
Is just as important to Ishmael as a fight with a whale.
The happy few who refuse to live for the plot’s sake.
Major or minor, but for texture and tone and hue.
For them weeding a garden all afternoon
Can’t be construed as a detour from the road of life.
The road narrows to a garden path that turns
And circles to show that traveling goes only so far
As a metaphor. The day rests on the grass.
And at night the books of these few,
Lined up on their desks, don’t look like drinks
Lined up on a bar to help them evade their troubles.
They look like an escort of mountain guides
Come to conduct the climber to a lofty outlook
Rising serene above the fog. For them the view
Is no digression though it won’t last long
And they won’t remember even the vivid details.
The supper with friends back in the village
In a dining room brightened with flowers and paintings
No digression for them, though the talk leads
To no breakthrough. The topic they happen to hit on
Isn’t a ferry to carry them over the interval
Between soup and salad. It’s a raft drifting downstream
Where the banks widen to embrace a lake
And birds rise from the reeds in many colors.
Everyone tries to name them and fails
For an hour no one considers idle.

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