Friday, March 2, 2012

A New Favorite Poet

It's always such fun to discover a new poet, and particularly to discover one who works the kind of poetic alchemy I like best: one who dazzles with the ideas behind the words, not so much with the words themselves.

I sometimes grow mildly irritated by poets who reach too ardently for the showy, scintillating phrase that shouts, "Look at me! Watch this!" I suspect a lack of authenticity whenever I see that kind of display. Give me an intellectual backflip, please, and you can keep your sleight-of-hand vocabulary.

Carl Dennis is one such authentic poet. He's a careful observer and a conscientious thinker who sifts layer upon layer of meaning from a seemingly ordinary event and moves back and forth through time, getting the most from every vignette. Conversationally, with references to art and mythology and the occasional striking, meticulously selected phrase -- as if you were musing about life with a wry, erudite friend over a few glasses of wine -- Dennis opens up the commonplace to best display its inner light.

And so a poem that begins in a Chinese restaurant ends up being about love and memory, and a poem that begins with a map ends up being about the magic of education that transforms immigrant children into Americans while the parents are left behind by language. And a poem that begins with shopping for a sweater ends up being about the difficult mystery of family unhappiness.

All of which leave me not so much wishing I'd said that as wishing I'd thought of that, when -- thanks to this poet -- now I have.


from In the Short Term

There's no denying insight to Epictetus
When he argues the story of Troy is about illusion,
That Paris was crazy to endanger his town for the sheen
Of a woman's body, Helen crazy to love a playboy,
Menelaus to think that a wife as light as his
Worth regaining. As for Achilles, whatever possessed him
To squabble with Agamemnon over a war prize?

All dust now, Troy as much as the flesh of Helen
Though Homer never assumes they're immortal,
Just that you won't be likely to forget them quickly
Once their story is told in the leisurely way
It should be told, over many evenings.

Time enough to make clear that fault-ridden Paris
Is loved by a goddess, that Helen's a gift
Only a goddess could have provided.
And who is he to deny a goddess
Even if her gift only lasts a day?


  1. Admittedly I have a bias in favor of poets who talk about classical antiquity, but that is a really lovely poem.

  2. Me, too, Jenny! Most of the poems in this book have some kind of reference point (myths or say, Vermeer) and it was very cool how he acknowledged the past in the present.


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