Robert Miltner

Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry (New Expanded Edition)

Stephen Dunn
Rochester, NY: Boa, 2001
$15.00 (paperback) / ISBN 1-929918-00-3

When Stephen Dunn received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his collection of poems, Different Hours, his position as a major figure in contemporary American poetry was confirmed. And as is too often the case, some of his best work, such as Loosestrife, Between Angels, Local Time, and his remarkable Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs for example, are little known to the general reading public, though these works are respected and valued by poets and serious students of poetry. Little wonder, then, that Dunn's essays Walking Light, first published in 1993, should be unknown to readers; the new expanded Boa edition, however, which both republishes and adds to this rich collection, deserves attention for its intelligent, accessible, and practical considerations on poetry. I suspect that each reader will find at least one of the nineteen essays relevant and pertinent, considering the range of topics across which Dunn travels, essays in which he considers, for example, the ways in which poetry is similar to basketball, baseball, manners, or gambling.

"Because I teach creative writing," observes Stephen Dunn, "it's important for me to remember that I'm not a creative writer, I'm a poet." Given that only a rare few poets in this country actually earn a living through poetry (which is more often than not the result of lectures, grants, and readings rather than the result of royalty checks), Dunn addresses the craft of poetry as supported by a university teaching position, the dominant survival mode for most poets today. In his essay "The Poet as Teacher: Vices and Virtues," Dunn states that "In this country a poet must have another job," and having taught for years, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, he considers how so few of his students actually go on to be poets. Of course, as a teacher, Dunn trains students to be better readers, expands the audience for poetry, but more so, he is "helping them to move toward and identify the genuine," directly in poetry, though indirectly in their own lives as well. As Dunn notes, teaching poetry is an intimate teaching, an emotionally-draining experience awash in personal revelations, and he rightly calls this "a large responsibility" for wanting students "to find their hidden subject. . . to say things they didn't know they knew . . . to say those things precisely and surprisingly." Further, Dunn adds that "the best intimacy between teacher and student occurs when the student trusts that the teacher is some kind of partner in helping the poem in question to become a poem." What is suggested here is that teaching the craft of poetry is akin to a master and apprentice relationship, rather than a stereotypical teacher and student relationship.

On the topic of novice, or "incomplete" poets, Dunn, in "Experience, Imagination, and the Poet as Fictionist," begins by citing two kinds of poets he encounters in his workshops: "one who waits to be inspired by an event, the other for whom the act of writing is its own inspiration. The former tends to be most wedded to personal experience, the latter to language and its combinations," and it is the latter of the two which Dunn finds makes the better poet. The poet wedded to personal experience, first and foremost, runs two grave risks: first, of giving in to self-centered poetry in which the "heartfelt subject precludes the use of the imagination," and second, in assuming that others are interested in their "woes and joys." In either case, it would seem, the result tends toward self-indulgent, second rate poetry. Thus, Dunn argues for each poet to be a "fictionist," seeking to write a poem that is an "experience made of word—not the experience behind it," a manner of composing in which the poet must create a "chain of interconnections which links the poem's occurrences" and which hints at the poem's "purpose and design." Rather than be what Dunn calls "literalists of the imagination," a role not much above transcriptionists, journalists, or diarists, he argues not for the reconstitution of this world, but for the creation of new worlds to be discovered in exploring language and its combinations. This is not some recycled version of Stevens's idea that poetry is the supreme fiction, but rather Dunn's idea that poetry—or at least the process that generates poetry—is more akin to the crafting of fiction than poets generally consider. After all, Dunn reminds us, poems get to be poems in manifold ways, and poets should feel free to employ whatever is necessary to make a poem.

In "Bringing the Strange Home," Dunn, a poet who has been called a spokesman for the suburban middle class, one who gives dignity to the mundane, looks for ways to locate this quality in poetry. Reminding his readers that, as Czeslaw Milosz points out, poetry is not very important for the American people, largely due to capitalism's privileging of acquisition over culture, Dunn suggests that perhaps poetry is not important to the American people because they either just don't understand how to read it, or won't work hard enough to get at the "news" in poetry:

It's difficult sometimes to get the news from poetry because poetry is not just information. It's an arrangement if you will, of experience and the world; it speaks in metaphor, it has devices and schemes, which suggest that a poem's "news" is always more than its extractable meaning.

And because poetry speaks in metaphor, the average reader finds poetry
"strange," and therefore unimportant and foreign in his daily life. What Dunn ultimately argues for is an audience of informed readers who can "bring the strange home," an audience which will "find and champion the poems that are true to the ambiguity of experience" and which will, as a result of doing so, help us "give ourselves over as wholly as possible to all kinds of poems, to regularly prepare ourselves for those others which legitimately ask more of us."

Walking Light by Stephen Dunn is a book filled with wisdom, an oddity in an age obsessed only with information. What he reminds us of is that the poet's eye, turned both upon himself and upon the world, sees more intently than others' eyes can see. If seeing is believing, then Dunn offers much for us to believe in, for, as he states in "Bringing the Strange Home," "we need to believe that our poetry is for others . . . the poet asking the troubled guests and the aloof to dance, the troubled guests and the aloof preparing themselves to say yes." Lovers of poetry should say yes to this collection of wise essays.


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