Interview with Carl Dennis
via email on July 17, 2017
KS: Marlon Brando famously posed a question many of us have pondered: I “could have been a contender instead of a bum?” Is that a theme we find in Carl Dennis’s poetry? The life that might have been, but there’s this one instead? “The God Who Loves You” is an obvious choice as a poem with this theme, but I can think of others.
CD: I do muse about alternative lives, but not out of any feeling that I missed my big chance. It’s more that we live only one of the possible lives that are open to us after we have been given our place and time, our parents, and our teachers. I think it’s useful to give these ghostly alternatives some kind of acknowledgment in order, first of all, to consider the role of accident, of luck, in our lives. If we think we are living the only life that it was ever possible for us to live, we are less capable of seeing others as ourselves in other circumstances, less able to realize that we could be them and they could be us. And it can lead to regarding all our blunders as unavoidable, which is a tempting but dangerous fiction, the temptation of determinism, which cripples serious retrospection and serious reflection on the kind of future we want for ourselves.
KS: Your poem “New Year’s Eve” is such a great illustration of Thomas Nagel’s essay “Moral Luck” and the role of chance in our lives? Was the poem inspired by that essay? Do you know if he’s read the poem?
CD: This poem raises the question about alternative lives with reference to someone whose life is like our own but whose fate is very different. We skid into a snow bank, while someone else, going no faster on the same turn, kills a pedestrian. The difference between being harmless and being harmful may be a matter of accident. Thomas Nagel’s term “Moral Luck” is one way to describe this situation, and I do know his essay of that name, but what he is describing has an ancient pedigree, a variant of the thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
KS: Would it be wrong to ascribe a Whitmanesque quality to many of your poems? I’m thinking of “Boys at Play” about the three black boys who play with you and your brother one afternoon in St. Louis, the poems about a roofer, soup kitchen workers, a librarian, the prisoner John Hemmers whom you wrote about first in “Twenty Years” from The Outskirts of Troy and again in “Words From John” in Another Reason.
CD: I’m very glad you find a Whitmanesque quality to my work. Whitman is one of my heroes, a hero that I address directly in a poem included in my new book of poems. I can’t claim that my poems contain the multitudes that Whitman provides us in Leaves of Grass, but I do believe that one important function of the imagination is to put enough doors and windows in a poem to allow the poet to enter the lives of people beyond his or her own experience, at the far edge of the circle of one’s acquaintance.
KS: I remember it as an expression of great respect to call someone a “poet and philosopher.” I believe that would be a good description of you given how the “examined life” is a central concern in your work and the number of philosophers about whom you’ve written. Socrates, Nietzsche, Hegel — no surprises there — but Bishop Berkeley?
CD: I would like to think that my poetry handles some of the big questions philosophy deals with — what can we know, how shall we live, what gives a life meaning. But philosophy strives for an impersonal perspective, whereas the poet’s perspective is personal, that of a particular person speaking on a particular occasion in a particular mood. Like the philosopher, the poet has to turn away from the world of action into a realm removed enough from the noise and bustle of the day to think without interruption. But the place of retreat for the poet is usually not so far from the flow of life as the philosopher’s. Instead of retreating to a tower, poets tend to camp by the roadside for the night, and then take to the road again in the morning. “Shoulder your duds, dear son,” says Whitman’s bard, “and I will mine. . . . . / Wonderful cities and free nations we will fetch as we go.”
This middle perspective is also evident in Wordsworth’s more sober formulation of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” The poet needs to get some distance on raw experience, but what he or she works with are the feelings stirred up by direct contact with the world. The distance provided by the “tranquility” helps to lead him to find in the local and passing something universal and lasting. This process is what Aristotle means when he remarks that poetry is more philosophical than history, when he says it is not interested so much in what has happened but in what might happen or should happen.
KS: Some American poets, as they age, produce rather gloomy poems. Stephen Dunn and Charles Wright are two examples.
Is it that they see the end coming — annihilation, the end of consciousness. I’m not sure I see the same thing in your later poems. In fact, your most recent volume has what could be seen as an optimistic title, Another Reason. Am I missing something?
CD: I think I would distrust an older poet whose work isn’t gloomy now and then. It’s not simply that if we love life we must be sorry to leave it, but also that living a long time means that many beautiful things have been taken from us, many projects that we thought lasting, many people who by rights should have been allowed to live longer than the short time they were allotted. I can’t do better here than to quote Yeats’s lines: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?” And yet there is more to say, beginning with the observation that the desire for what is vanishing not to vanish seems to be eternal, as is borne out by the history of poetry through the ages. As for the title of my last book, “Another Reason,” I intended it to face two ways. On the one hand it can be read ironically, with reason offering just one more justification to do what we usually do, one more excuse to give us cover. On the other hand, it can be read to announce another way of getting at the truth, to enlarge reason with the imagination in a way that frees us from the purely private point of view, that lets us get at something we all share.
KS: Time is a topic that keeps popping up in your poems. You’ve called it “too weak a god to worship” and in “A Sect,” from Callings, you say that those hopeful about the arrival of a new year are about to learn “It will swallow them up with all they cherish.” Anything new you have to say on the topic?
CD: This question is another way to talk about the double movement of poetry I just mentioned. Time is the medium that all living things dwell in, and it keeps giving and taking away. When we’re young we notice what it brings us — all the things we talk about through the analogy with the vegetable world: growth, budding, flowering, flourishing. When we’re older we tend to notice more what it takes away, how it replaces health with frailty and replaces an open, spacious, mysterious future with a small, confined, and predictable one. The challenge as we grow older is to be comforted by the thought that the world will go on without us. Consider Whitman’s pleasure in addressing his readers far in the future. It stems from his hope that he can understand us and encourage us.
We too can work for the values that he has worked for in his best moments. The political implications of this hope are obvious. However gloomy we may be about the present moment in America, however thoughtless and ignorant we seem to have become, we need to believe we still have enough time to come to our senses.
KS: The philosopher Julian Baggini said that immortality would be boring? That sounds like it could be the subject of a Carl Dennis poem. Any thoughts?
CD: To wish to be immortal is to wish not to be a human being whose only medium is the medium of time, who can only live a life with a beginning and an end. It wouldn’t be you who lived forever; it would be someone else. The only way to talk about immortality that makes sense for us mortals is by adopting the notion of an eternal return, an eternal reincarnation into the particulars of the life we have already lived. Nietzsche views the ability to wish to live one’s life again and again as the test of the complete human being, of the hero who can cast out all remorse and embrace all that has happened. He calls this wish an expression of amor fati, love of fate. Speaking for myself, I can’t see this wish as a possibility. I would want to make some changes. I deal with this issue directly in my poem “Eternal Life,” in Practical Gods.
KS: An old friend once told me the title of a book he was writing: When the Lights Inside Us Turn On. I think I often have that experience when reading a Carl Dennis poem, such as “Adventure,” the poem about a Chekhov character, or “Bill of Rights,” both from the book Meeting with Time. Am I failing to credit you with what one American philosopher called “fashionable nihilism?”
CD: I am very glad to hear that some of my poems have made you feel that they turned a light on. I don’t think that this is the same thing as providing an affirmative view of life. The two poems you mention, “Adventure” and the “The Bill of Rights” are not particularly cheerful. When I’m moved by a poem, I feel that an intractable human problem has been treated fully and sympathetically. When poetry works, it offers evidence that the reader is not alone, that someone else has felt and thought what the reader has felt. When this happens poetry proves itself the most intimate kind of writing, in which one person speaks to another directly, without the mediation of a narrative.
KS: In Poetry and Persuasion you assert that for a poem to be “convincing,” the poet has to “construct a speaker whose company is worth keeping.” How can we describe a prototype Carl Dennis speaker? What makes for “convincing voices?” How do your speakers exhibit “certain virtues that win the reader’s sympathetic attention?”
CD: I don’t want to give away any secrets here. Rather than talk about my work in particular, let me end here by focusing on poetry in general. The premise of my book on poetic rhetoric is that the character of the speaker is the central fact in explaining how poems move us, that poems succeed to the extent that they make us feel that a particular person is standing behind every line, a person who cares about what he or she is saying, who has thought long and hard about it, and who can connect the subject at hand to subjects that at first seem far afield. To find that a poet speaks to us is to enter into a creative dialogue.