To Play Noughts & Crosses with Weighty Matters

New and Selected Poems, 1974-2004 by Carl Dennis. Penguin Books, 2004. $18.

“Thinking poets,” if the prevailing folklore is to be believed, are not just thin on the ground, few and far between, and countable only on thumbs; they are rarer even than hens’ false teeth, and with the passing of such giants as A. R. Ammons in recent years, an endangered subspecies. In this connection it is almost impossible not to recall the now eighty-year-old bill of particulars proposed by T. S. Eliot praising the school of Donne for making emotion the homologue of thought rather than the other way round. Eliot warned grimly of hernias that would result if modern poets did any philosophical heavy lifting in their verse. Any attempt to go mano a mano with such as Aristotle or Aquinas could only end in humiliation and disaster, he cautioned, and it would not be the black belts in posterior analytics who would likely experience them. If a poet was unable to feel his thought as Donne did, which is to say, “as immediately as the odor of a rose,” he should refrain from airing his views in a humid solarium that could not help but be uncongenial to the need of the systematizing intellect for lumen siccum. When everything crisp and convivial in English poetry began to head south in the middle of the 17th Century, town and country found themselves equally reduced to a common realm of separate and unmajestied ratiocination in which thought without feeling brushed endlessly up against feeling without thought. A “dissociation of sensibility,” as Eliot put it, had clearly set in and laid siege to the once inviolate soulscape across which such horsemen of the Copernican apocalypse as the Donnes, the Crashaws, and the Marvells had gloriously roamed, making it impossible for English poets to any longer cerebrate and sense as one. “Tennyson and Browning,” he wrote, “are poets, and they think”; but what they thought never “modified their sensibility,” by which Eliot meant that a reading of Spinoza had never grabbed them up and dropped them, with senses all a-tingle, in a typing pool drenched in attar-of-tulips. With such lacunae in their hefting of the ecstatic, how could we in retrospect not conclude “so much the worse for them—and for us,” though for our part, the severity of the sentence was somewhat mitigated by our sensibilities having been modified by the gratitude unavoidably felt at not having to face, like Tennyson and Browning, the prospect that poetry might not be at all what they, in failing properly to think, thought it to be.[private]

Of course it need hardly be said that not all concurred with every pronunciamento beamed transcendently, as if by an oracle, from 1 Russell Square in London. A few dissenters, such as the decidedly non-ersatz Englishman, William Empson, strongly disavowed Eliot’s priggish and exclusionary waving aside of poets who, like himself, dared to versify with thinking caps on and in plain view. In a lecture titled “Rhythm and Imagery in English Verse” and delivered to the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961, Empson, without mentioning Eliot directly, laid into those critics who made a point of inveighing against poetry as a reasoning instrument.

. . . [Arguing] in verse has always seemed to me a wonderfully poetical thing to do,” he declared. “[So] I cannot understand the idea that it is prosy to speak up for the human reason. If the modern movement is the revolt against reason have never been in it at all, so I have not left it merely because I am an old duffer.

He then went on to demystify the “cult of the image” which modernists, committed to Symbolisme as a Baudelairean antidote to “Romantic slush” (Ezra Pound’s phrase), trotted out against bovine Georgians still triple-stomaching the indigestible in Hardy-like stanzas.

It is to Carl Dennis’s credit, and to that of his more perspicuous critics, that no such cognophobic residue clings to him. As “one of the rare and most masterly practitioners of ‘thinking poetry’ in the United States,” to quote but one such reviewer, John Taylor, he has conspicuously avoided all heady attempts in verse to backspace the mind. Dennis the reflective poet has been among us now for some thirty years, as an ingratiatingly thoughtful commentator on everything from “Heinrich Schliemann” to “Little League,” and “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle” to “Delaware Park, 1990.” He has also shown himself proficient in such “off-road” vehicles as Poetry as Persuasion (2001), designed to apply real traction to traditional wheel spinners like how verse actually gets written. And we are the better for all his two-sided activity in these areas since poetry in the Horatian vein, whether “thoughtful” in the style of the Epistles or musingly affective, as in the rather stricter manner of the Odes, is as infrequently met with in American writing as Lincoln-esque wit granting nothing to diluters and adulterationists. Not that there is all that much heavy lifting going on in what passes in modern circles for the typical “Horatian” poem. Those talky miniature-marathons-in-verse around whose drooping necks Horace placed the lei of “ode” revolved more often than not around either a point (duly anteriorized) of admonitory wisdom or a page torn from a tagbuch of joys amassed while summering in villas set like jewels in Rome’s private sea. Whatever “thinking” might have graced such verse was usually subordinated to the satisfactions—mostly visceral—of a country boy sufficiently sure of his gentrification not to raise hackles in either sounding the pleasures of rural life remote from urbs Romana or sounding off about threats posed to Magna Europa by an Africanized Hannibal or an incontinent Cleopatra.

Augustan poets, given to passing recycled Mycenaean glories through a squeaky-clean Maecenean filter, favored the fulsome over the clinical, the hopscotching perspective over the direct line to the gods. Unlike his Latin forbear Horace, Dennis allows the concerns of his verse to be topicalized through him and not around him, as might a bevy of agenda items swarm about a corporate head. Rather than worrying aloud that were his ability to lay on the personal charm to desert him he could no longer bear his sublime discursivities aloft, this poet naturalizes his observations by making them seem less hieratic than nubsome, to coin a phrase. From the outset, Dennis’s poems have settled comfortably into lengths of four or five stanzas, with each tending not to exceed eight to ten lines of four stresses variably distributed. With no purchase on rhyme in his array of options, cadence answers to cadence in a dance of barely audible (because intricately calibrated) footfalls, until the designated thematic of the poem comes to rest in a dearth of hard breathing, the poet clearly savoring the sweet labor of explanation and reconciliation he has just brought amiably and forthrightly to closure. A limning of borders almost indeed like an outing in a grassy enclosure, which the poem “Delaware Park, 1990” actually memorializes:

These five students from China,
Cooking their dinner on the grill by the swings,
May be trying to resist the great temptation
Of feeling orphaned, reminding themselves instead
How they were lonely often back home too
And were happy to be neglected by the authorities.

This country, they could be saying,
May have felt just as alien
To the settlers who arrived early from Europe,
The odd ones who sold their old-country farms
For a passage to a land that for all they knew
Was merely hearsay. As for the Indians,
Who knows what homeland meant to them
When they awoke to a vista of hills
Unmarked by clearings, barns, and orchards?

This park could be the one
Their children will play in
As if the benches were made for them,
As if they owned the sun and the clouds,
As if a rain like the one beginning to fall now
Disappointed them only as a friend would,
For reasons they could accept without knowing. . . .

The plethora of this-es, their-ses, and as ifs almost succeeds in returning us to that vale of demonstratives traversed by Wallace Stevens on the way to his Supreme Fiction, the beguiling tropism of which remains unfathomable through a backflush of “notes” that seem not only flat-out trinitarian, but the best damn godhead given since Irenaeus and Origen found like-minded jobbers of blow as high on cock and bull as they themselves to commune and be patristic with. Which is not to suggest there’s much mulling over godhead to be unpacked in Dennis: he’s far too entrenched a “secular humanist” to be tempted by that kind of Word play. But his verse does quite often opt for the kind of multi-tasking which allows a poet to play noughts and crosses with weighty issues while feigning becoming cross for naught at the ultra-violet of human folly tanning the hide of sunbathers thronging Vanity Fair. A lot of this sort of thing may be found in mid-to-late 18th Century English poetry, which also had its eye glued to a firmament incurably Horatian and self-aggrandizingly moralistic. Think “cutting and drying” of sententiae such as goes on unabated in Cowper or Shenstone, but without the orotund optimism, and Fielding-like obsessing over plots that makes poetry for some seem out of season, irrespective of what its plants and animals are doing. The skill with which Dennis in his verse distinguishes accent from stress indicates that for him at least, walking and chewing gum simultaneously is not an insurmountable problem. The sheer vocalic authority he can muster even in “functional” passages such as the one initially cropping the poem “Prophet”—

You’ll never be much of a prophet if, when the call comes
To preach to Nineveh, you flee on the ship for Tarshish
That Jonah fled on, afraid like him of the people’s outrage
Were they to hear the edict that in thirty days
Their city in all its glory will be overthrown.

—assures us that the ear of this poet is unfailingly trained on small dovetailings as well as great. Or, when colliding minutiae speaking at once threaten to drown competing voices out, as in “Invitation”—

This is your invitation to the Ninth-Grade Play
At Jackson Park Middle School
8:00 P.M., November 17, 1947,
Macbeth, authored by Shakespeare
And directed by Mr. Grossman and Mrs. Silvio
With scenery from Miss Ferguson’s art class.

—the seemingly fortuitous tumbling out of accidentals key the tonality of what would otherwise appear stumbling and random to an orderly tinkle. And Dennis makes the wait for things substantive to appear more than worth the leg-shifting that getting past the above six lines likely puts the reader through:

Doubtless you recall that Macbeth is about ambition.
This the play for you if you’ve been tempted
To claw your way to the top. If you haven’t been,
It should make you feel grateful.
Just allow time to get lost before arriving.
So many roads are ready to take you forward
Into the empty world to come, misty with promises.
So few will lead you back to what you’ve missed.

The extent to which Dennis avoids the pitfalls of the sententious, while similarly eschewing the bromides of that late-Frostian Never-Neverland where opportunities invariably slip away, but only to a degree, is in poem after understated poem, something to marvel at. As “uncertain” as he claims to be “about final things” (viz. “My Guardians”), he seldom allows an eschatological overtone to escape his ken, nor any temporizing sleight-of-hand by a blowhard of the magical his unstinting disdain. Here is Dennis blowing hard on the house-of-straw defenses fielded by “the Actor”:

He doesn’t deny that confessing his limitations
Might serve as a useful prologue to moving forward,
Just not so useful as pretending to be accomplished.
On his list of virtues, ambition outranks sincerity.
It doesn’t matter how unpracticed he is
So long as he plays the part he chooses
As he imagines a great actor might play it.
It doesn’t matter if the robe he borrows
Drags in the sawdust and his wooden sword
Jostles the table as he bends to outline,
On the fake map of a kingdom, his towns and forests. . . .

But perhaps the most glittering Horatian triumph of the New and Selected Poems of Carl Dennis is the admonitory poem “No Shame,” which quivers through a phalanx of shields upturned to all the vanities of light in order to brave the darkness of the axioms it feels duty bound to impart. As the arrière pensées pile up, Roman ways are increasingly brandished as remonstrative of our own contemporary shallowness of affect, of a gutted paidaeia in which approved mores prove less imitable than passing testinesses such as road rage, but more out of regret over our failings than out of a desire to mourn pagan rites of passage long since defunct.

No shame if you choose in the end
To be buried like an ancient Roman,
At the roadside,
The stone above you crowded with inscription,
Calling the passersby to pause
And read how you served the state,
How the scales of your butcher shop always read true,
How you cared for your small plot, a pious farmer. . . .

Horace upbraided even those he praised for not having sufficiently mastered the art of submitting gracefully to the economy of means. Correspondingly in “No Shame,” Dennis abrades the stoical exemplum endemic to Roman civic life with the true grit of modern death-by-example, a punctum whereby that which is surrendered to the living is seen as outweighing what is merely lowered into the grave to consort wormily with the dead and gone:

Having proved you could live alone,
You can reach out in death to others
As the Romans did, with a few true phrases,
Learned early or late.
You who pass by, don’t rely on doctors.
They’re the ones who brought me here.
Reader of stones, if you’re rich
Don’t live meanly, as I did,
And stint on feast days.
Travelers, if you’re poor, master one skill
So in one thing you can feel superior
And accept without shame,
When the time comes, the help of others. . . .

Though it doesn’t always work for him or adequately showcase his gift for gab talking itself into the sublimity of superior vantage, Dennis’s tendency to arrogate philosophical initiative to himself when it is clear that the envelope enclosing the thematic directive given in a particular poem is not self-addressed remains largely, if growlingly, restricted to kennel, where it belongs. Just how loud that growl can be may be sensed in the defense offered for this centralization of moral force in the poet’s plea for a saner rhetoric in American verse, Poetry as Persuasion (2002). “In poetry that is not narrative where the action takes the form of a sequence of thoughts, not a sequence of deeds,” he writes, “the assertion of freedom is found most basically in the poet’s ability to give his situation significance, to impose his own meaning on it rather than let others define it for him. . . .”

Dennis, somewhat like his mentor Frost, has difficulty turning off the faucet in him that at the hint of a hydraulic nudge looses tapfuls of sententiousness onto the page. In his shapelier years, Frost showed he could palm such run-off and have it reappear “magically” at the end of his cuff as an amulet, duly polished, of barbed surmise. Dennis, on the other hand, ever the discerner of suspect lore (if not so fleet a learner of its multiple disguises as Vermont’s Great Stone Face), is perhaps too quick to moralize about what in a subtler poet would be left dangling—a hanging chad ruled on later by the reader, off the page. So far as one can tell he has relatively strict notions as to how the sort of poem that straddles the not entirely comfortable zone between meditation and premeditation should behave, what to do with the how and how much that insist on being thought rather than merely put through the motions—paltry and onion-peeling at best—of deigning to think. Only on rare occasions does Dennis’s verse appear to not so much falter as ease up on its regimen, and succumb to jogging, like doggerel-in-training. One such lapse almost does in a poem with the very nearly appropriate title, “Mildew”:

. . .
Their cheerful, spirited talk will fill the kitchen.
He won’t interrupt to ask if they can explain
Why his is the only house on the block
With a mildew problem. Bad luck, maybe,
Though in an earlier era it would be a warning
To turn from a world he’s loved too much. . . .

He’s at the peak of his own flavor when he’s content to let Horace be Horace and not fretting too perspiringly over the rumples and creases plaguing what must serve him, given his narrow range of emotion and self-possession, as wit:

I hope I never speak ill of you,
Dependable homely friend who prods me gently
To turn to the hour that’s now arriving,
Not to the hour I let slip by
Twenty years back. No way now, you say,
To welcome a friend I failed to welcome
When she returned to town in sorrow,
Fresh from her discovery that the man
Who seemed to outshine all the others
Could also cast the densest shade. . . .

It’s curious that the shaved plangencies of this sort of verse, with its stifled declamatory rigors and rhythms nearly in suspension should so nearly recall the declinative posturings of T. S. Eliot in The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman. For the most part, though, the poetic charges in Dennis’s care maintain orderly ranks and file through their channels of discourse with unexceptionable confidence, their display of discipline in repose a formidable trompe l’oeil of knife-crease trousers and shirts open at the collar.

In short, this New and Selected Poems, while doubtless an outing with papers on view, seems almost too concerned with the primping and manicuring of extremities, with prissily touching up a testamentary Leaves of Moss to stand beside a verse institution’s decidedly more dog-eared Leaves of Grass. Perhaps this impression is a mistaken one, but I’m not so sure it is. Perhaps Dennis was over-intent, in light of his never having made it into such classy anthologies as J. D. McClatchy’s Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, on wringing a “best in show” adjudication from the reviewers of his new collection. Years before the farewell gesture of a Collected Poems might be in the offing, it might seem to a poet like Dennis that courting gilded perfection (in the manner, say, of a once-around-the-park John Kerry romancing a parked and saddened Theresa Heinz) was something worth going for, even if it meant being rejected as just one more outclassed suitor. And one further possibility: Might not the prospect of giving a passel of overpreened Jack Russell terriers and Rhodesian Ridgebacks the finger bring an additional frisson to the proceedings?

Not that I or any other reader of this verse collection should be ungrateful for what Carl Dennis has here seen fit to affix his seal to. Almost all of these new, and newly selected, poems justify the effort clearly expended in bringing most of them to book not only once, but twice. But coming as it does in a season already graced—albeit sadly—by the appearance of the late Donald Justice’s Collected Poems makes it hard not to hear, amid the satisfied cluckings of the muse, strains of Horace’s eheu fagaces, Postume—

Alas, my Postumus, our years
Glide silently away. No tears,
No loving orisons repair
The wrinkled cheek, the whitening hair
That drop forgotten to the tomb.
Pluto’s inexorable doom
Mocks at thy daily sacrifice.
Around his dreary kingdom lies
That fatal stream whose arms infold
The giant race accurst of old:
All, all alike must cross its wave,
The king, the noble and the slave.

Even the best poets are sometimes upstaged by those whose work the qualifiers good, better and best seem unqualified to sum up adequately. This should not be taken so much as a sign of inferiority as a fall, unfortunately suffered, from a glancing pre-eminence to an incidental pied à terre. That there is a Higher Justice—no pun intended—in such falls of the sparrow (is it not, after all, the withdrawal of the lark from heaven’s gate that occasions them?) is doubtless of small consolation to those who’ve had to endure the blasting of hard-earned laurels by occasions informing against them. It’s the luck—normally bad, but in this case worse—of the draw of posterity.

Still, it’s not Dennis versus Justice that should be given headline space here, but Dennis judged on his own merits. It is his work and his alone that calls out for a fair reading, and such a reading would, I am sure, rank that work (hard as Dennis’s musical ear is from time to time on those better pitched) rather higher than only just fair. If not quite up to a besting of betters in a contest of graces horizoned by a future in which more fine verse by Dennis is in the offing but still excluding a Collected Poems saying there will be no more, then the poetry he has given us to date is, at the very least, good enough—and by a solid margin—to be placed beside any of a Horatian cast produced during either the 20th Century or the first tenuous glimmerings of the 21st. And there’s more than sufficient justice in that.[/private]

About James Rother

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.
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