Jul 25, 2012

Stephen Dunn’s “Here and Now”: a Brainy Look at Love

Here and Now- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Stephen Dunn’s “Here and Now”:  a Brainy Look at Love

Stephen Dunn’s work sometimes makes a very good bridge between prosy, chatty, talk-y poem-ish words and the rich tightness or musicality of thought and language that were once required of poetry.

In “Here and Now” some short passages could easily and naturally be heard as prose, but there’s a satisfying weightiness in the content and sometimes a new twist on a familiar word, phrase, or idea. All that might be diminished if presented in cumbersome, pedestrian prose, without benefit of purposeful line breaks and white space that create additional emphasis and meaning.

Consider these lines cast as prose:  “Heaven did exist, I discovered, but was reciprocal and momentary . . . . ”  Sounds like a reflective essay, does it not?  Compare that to Dunn's versification:

                                    Heaven did exist,
            I discovered, but was reciprocal
            and momentary . . .

Now we see some hefty questions more clearly. What exactly does it mean for Heaven to be “reciprocal”?  How important is the fact that Heaven is a thing to be “discovered”—and not through Catholicism but through romantic, erotic love?  By the way, if it’s Heaven, how can it be “momentary”?  I can imagine those questions taking up a healthy hour of discussion and then keeping the participants awake that night.

It's breaking these ideas into lines that encourages us to look more carefully at each word and phrase. We pause at “reciprocal,” which makes us remember that it’s Heaven that Dunn is calling “reciprocal.”  If not presented as poetry, I suspect these big assertions would shrink, would be glossed over, cheated, buried in the endless coffin of a prose paragraph. In Dunn's fairly short lines, they dance.

Do you see other parts of the poem that might work as prose ideas but unveil themselves and breathe better as poetry? 

Here are a couple more examples from me. I'm tempted to balk at the gawky passive voice in “must be arrived at,” but as a fairly short line of poetry, it makes me wrestle with it. I have to see it and wonder about it. Maybe there's a reason for the klutzy structure.

And why the imperative in “must”?  Why must one arrive at it? Why even choose the verb “arrived at” when it requires that awkward, tacked-on preposition, “at”?  Is the meaning of "arrive" worth the clumsiness of adding "at"?  I think there are reasonable, mostly favorable responses to all these questions, and they reveal Dunn's skill in laying out his argument. 

And for sheer, perhaps dismissive playfulness in a serious poem, how about this:

                        let heaven
            go its mythy way,

Am I going too far if I say Dunn might be including, by sound-association, The Milky Way? Perhaps our galaxy is, like the old High Mass Heaven, one more thing that's secondary to love.

Well, that’s enough for now. It’s just that . . . I feel as if I’ve harped a lot here about poetry that’s too prosy, or so prosaic it’s not even poetry, and here’s an example of a memoir-y, philosophical, talk-y poem—in free verse, no less—that meets the standard of verse with room to spare.  IMHO.  At the end of the day, going forward, it’s all good. 




Jean Spitzer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hannah Stephenson said...

This is a fantastic poem. I love the faux-breeziness (you know what I mean?). Robert Creeley does this well, too....sounds all relaxed and chatty, yet is throwing around some big ideas.

I loved this:
"For you and me
it's here and now from here on in."

The line break is perfect, and the meter...it's contagious.

Creeley has this poem called "If I Had My Way"....the part I love goes like this:

"...Here is the place
we live in

day by day, to learn
love, having it,
to begin again


That "begin again/ again" gets me every time.

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, good. And I do know what you mean. I like that bit of Creeley too, though I haven't had much luck with him in general, over the years. Do you have titles to recommend?

Brenda's Arizona said...

I love the electricity comments:

"Electricity may start things, but if they're to last I've come to understand a steady, low-voltage hum of affection must be arrived at. How else to offset the occasional slide into neglect and ill temper?"

As prose, it is something I can get m husband to read. As poetry, he rolls his eyes and says "This is YOUR kind of stuff". You know, the occasional slide... heehee.

Thanks for leading this horse to Dunn's drinking hole!

Anonymous said...

It can do us no harm.
We'll put some music on,
open the curtains, let things darken
as they will

When passion fades and kindness begins. It's a wonderful poem.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

lowered expectations is the true path to salvation

Banjo52 said...

I'm glad the poem is taking with everyone. I thought it might be too plain, understated, but we're all liking pretty much the same things.

I've found Dunn an unusually consistent poet, esp. for one so prolific. I'm not sure I've ever seen a bad poem by him, tho' I like some better than others, of course. On the other hand, I can't offer a single title off the top of my head. Some of the poems are moving as I read them or hear him read (2 or 3 times), but I'm not called back to them the way I am with many poems. I'm not sure whether that's a comment on the poems or on me.

Brenda, try this--give E one line of poetry that's full of nuance, rich imagery, clever and surprising phrasing and ask him to offer an entire novel that has that much in it. You'll lose the debate, but you'll know you were right.


AH, passion VERSUS kindness is a fantastic concept! From the personal to the political. And of course, the theological. Holy cow.

PA, I've heard of a school where the motto is "Aim High." I always wanted to write all the kids and urge them not to take that too seriously. On the other hand, what would Einstein say? Or Yeats?

Hannah Stephenson said...

I always liked this weird book of Creeley's ("So There"): http://www.amazon.com/So-There-1976-83-Directions-Paperbook/dp/B000FUO07Y

Brenda's Arizona said...

Oh,poo. I hate to lose...

Banjo52 said...

HS, thanks.

BA, happens to the best of us. And remember, you have rectitude to walk with in the desert . . .

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