The Poetry of Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn’s most recent books of poetry are Lines of Defense (forthcoming in 2014),  Here and Now (2011), What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009 (2010) and Everything Else in the World (2008).  He received the Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 collection Different Hours.

Donald  Justice (1925-2004)

You died many years ago in Miami
on a normal sunny day in the manner
of Vallejo – a death made of words.
The gravedigger spat, and turned away
abruptly, out of respect. As you preferred,
all the conditions were yours.

Now, you’re gone for real
in Iowa City, the weather irrelevant,
unimprovable. You’ve entered the realm
of those beautiful nostalgias you worked
so carefully to make your own.
Out of respect, I shed no tears for you,

who hated tears, you who once said
to a woman who came up to the podium
to say she was moved by your poems,
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Ma’am,
I was after other things.”
Oh you were a charming, difficult man.

After the news came, I took your Selected
from the shelf, and there you were
again, master of the stilled life
and its tones, and everywhere the tact
of those rich refusals – what you held back,
no doubt out of respect for us.



dear, for taking our granddaughter Samantha
to the carnival, and then to the park
with monkey bars and swings.
I haven’t been lemur-like for years,
and I no longer wish to push kids toward heaven,
even if they swing back to earth
fascinated and unchurchly –as I wish
them to be. Samantha believes in monsters
both good and bad, sweet things
with strange hungers. Keep this in mind
when at the carnival you introduce her
to the fun house meant to distort and please.
Try to smile at how grotesque you become,
and, for my sake, tell her her grandfather
is always looking for mirrors that give back
something other than himself. I’d tell her
myself, but I’m happily here, hiding out
in our house where today the fun for me
is not going to any carnival or park.
So smart of you to leave me behind.
I would have lagged with lack of interest,
perhaps declared one or two alienable rights.
Thank you for knowing my tendencies,
which are not to be admired, I realize,
though I love that you honor them
some of the time. If Samantha grows up,
doing for herself what she has learned
from me, let’s hope someone like you
understands monkey business trumps duty
most days of the week. Is that true? —
a voice cannot help but ask.
Thank you anyway for taking her
to these places where other children gather,
and enjoy themselves so fully it seems
they never wonder why their grandfathers
are elsewhere. But doesn’t every heart
have a ledger, that voice says,
isn’t every absence an event to be recorded?



It was a place so empty, rumor was
even ghosts stayed away from it.
Why would I want go there?
she said. And though she didn’t add,
What’s in it for me? it was clear
that’s what she meant and what he heard.
In fact, he was thinking only of himself,
just wanted her to take his arm,
seek his assurance about what lay ahead.
They were speaking of the shack
deep in the woods, which couldn’t
be seen from the road, and the long
winding, uphill path to it.
Trust me, he said, and she laughed.
As far as she knew, he was just one
of those guys who thought himself
a small-time philosopher of links
to the unknown, who went around
saying things like, Every moment is
at least two moments,
yet he could tell
something about him interested her,
maybe his fascination with danger,
or the little sanctum he’d made
for himself in his head.
When he said he’d heard the shack
has a fence around it, and plywood
windows with little peepholes,
he could see was intrigued.
Let’s go there, he said, let’s try to give
some precision to our ignorance.
This was how he spoke
when least sure of himself, as if bluster
could show the way. The truth was
by now he wasn’t sure if he were testing
himself or her, and wondered if he
should have said less about emptiness,
more about a friendly afternoon stroll
through the woods. So after they started out,
and she said, Let’s turn back,
he was happy to turn back. He was aware
she wasn’t disappointed with him yet.
He felt one step ahead of destiny, in some
fine in between, and she had taken his arm
voluntarily, as if it weren’t an object in need.


An Essay by David Jauss

David Jauss teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and in the Vermont College low-residency MFA program.  His books include the poetry collection You Are Not Here (2002) and Alone with All that Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction. (2008)

“Go in fear of abstractions”; “A poem must not mean / but be”; “No ideas / but in things”[1] and the ubiquitous “Show, don’t tell”—these are some of the shibboleths that govern both the teaching and practice of poetry in our time.  In his essay “Some Reflections on the Abstract and the Wise,” Stephen Dunn argues, in his characteristically contrarian way, against the narrow application of these principles and makes a compelling case for poems that “risk being abstract and unabashedly ‘wise’.”[2]  Risk is a key word here, for Dunn is fully aware that a poet who writes “wisdom lines” is risking Polonius-like pomposity, didacticism, oversimplification, and banality.  Furthermore, he says, “With wisdom lines, with any abstractions, we’re usually in the presence of a conscious truth, one that we can readily get elsewhere or dispense with hearing at all.  Its context doesn’t enrich or support it.  We feel toward it as we feel toward a preacher who doesn’t embody his sermon.  It lacks the blood and bone of experience.”[3]

But Dunn isn’t really interested in conscious truths, whether they are embodied and supported or not.  A wisdom line that conveys a conscious truth is, at best, a “conventional wisdom” line, and sometimes, it’s a lie disguised as a truth.  For Dunn, a bona fide wisdom line “articulates for us some things that we’ve probably half known and felt.  It gives our inchoate knowledge shape and order.”[4]  Wisdom, he says, is something “arrived at out of the personal” and “discovered in process,” so it’s often the case that “the first wise lines occur in the middle of the poem.”[5]  (“What Men Want” is a good example of this tendency in Dunn’s poetry; the first wisdom lines of this 97-line poem appear after 38 lines of personal meditation on his father’s and brother’s lives.[6])  Since a genuine wisdom line is a discovery, not a premise, it should come as a surprise to the poet.  It’s no wonder, then, that Dunn has said, “My criterion for myself is that I’m not in my poem until the first moment I surprise myself.”[7]  Lesser poets might consider that moment of surprise and wisdom the place where the poem ends, not where it most truly begins, but for Dunn, the process of discovery is plural, not singular.  He is never content to rest with the first conclusion he reaches.

The process of discovery that Dunn employs in his work is a dialectic one.  As he has said, “I . . . have learned to argue with myself as I go, to assert then doubt a claim, to compose dialectically. . . . In short, I think I’ve learned how to ‘find’ the poem I’m writing by resisting where it wants to go and/or resisting my initial impulses for it.”  Now, he suggests, that method is habitual, involuntary: “When I say or assert something, I almost immediately hear and start to entertain its opposite.”[8]  In this, he resembles Simone Weil, who argued that “Contradiction is the lever of transcendence”[9]—i.e., contradicting a conscious truth is the way to transcend it and discover an as-yet-unknown truth.  Importantly, the purpose of investigating ideas dialectically is not to eradicate one or the other idea, for contradiction, Weil argues, is an essential element of both truth and beauty: “in all beauty we find contradiction,”[10] she says, and “all truth contains a contradiction.”[11]  Dunn agrees.  In his poem “Circular,” he says that those who fail to see the truth of contradictory beliefs are “one-eyed amid the beautiful contraries.”[12]  Ironically, it’s the one-eyed who see with the most clarity—albeit the misleading clarity of false certainty; what the “clear-eyed” see, he tells us in “The Observer,” is “the blur” of reality.[13]  Better a blurry truth, he suggests, than a clear falsehood.

Behind the dialectic method Dunn practices is the belief that something can be true on one level, its opposite can be true on another, and when they are synthesized, both of them can be simultaneously true on a higher level.  As Jean Cocteau has said, “All creation is the spirit of contradiction in its highest form.”[14]  And in its highest form, contradiction transcends the either-or mentality of simple negation—“This is true, that isn’t”—and achieves the complex affirmation of what Cleanth Brooks has called the both-and mode of thought.[15]  In his poem “Oklahoma City,” Dunn seconds Brooks, saying, “Some mysteries can be solved by ampersands. / Ands not ors”—but characteristically, he refuses to let those wisdom lines be his final word on the subject: his very next words are “that was my latest answer.”[16]  Clearly, the process of transcendence through dialectic contradiction is one that continues, never reaching a permanent conclusion.  And how could it be otherwise, since ultimate truth is unattainable?

H.L. Hix has described the unattainability of truth in a wonderfully memorable way.  “If truth is an extinct totem animal,” he has said, “argument is the map that specifies the place it would be found if it still existed, and aphorism is the description of what the animal would look like if you could get there.”[17]  Despite the impossibility of the task, Dunn tracks truth through his poetry’s dialectic arguments.  The aphoristic wisdom lines that result are laudatory not only for their chutzpah, their Napoleonic desire, despite their small stature, to be emperor of Truth, but for their refusal to pretend they’ve achieved that desire.  Always, they provoke thought rather than shut it down.  As Karl Kraus once said, “An aphorism never coincides with the truth: it is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths.”[18]  A wisdom line, too, is inherently incomplete; either it fails to capture a whole truth or it suggests the existence of a further truth that has not yet been captured.  In short, a wisdom line, be it a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths, requires the reader not merely to nod in agreement but to continue the exploration for that impossible-to-track animal, truth.

The dialectic method is the principal way Dunn tracks the untrackable.  Implicit in this method, at least as Dunn practices it, is the notion of complementarity, a key concern in contemporary physics that is also at the heart of his poetry.[19]  In the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer,

One of the first things the student of atomic structure must come to understand is the rather deep and subtle principle which has turned out to be a clue to unraveling the whole domain of physical experience.  This is the principle of complementarity, which recognizes that various ways of talking about physical experience may each have validity and may each be necessary for adequate description of the physical world, and may yet stand in a mutually contradictory relationship to each other.[20]

The theory of complementarity that Oppenheimer describes was introduced in 1927 by the physicist Nils Bohr, who asserted that two mutually exclusive explanations of the nature of light (as a wave and as a particle) were both true and that we can achieve a complete understanding of light only by recognizing their “complementary” relations.  “There are the trivial truths and the great truths,” he said.  “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false.  The opposite of a great truth is also true.”[21]  And his theory of complementarity doesn’t apply only to light, or even only to quantum physics; in his opinion, it is an “all-pervasive principle,” one that applies to all of nature, both human and physical.[22]  That all of life is paradoxical and complementary is not a new theory, of course.  As revolutionary as Bohr’s theory was, and remains, its philosophical roots are ancient, a fact that Bohr acknowledged when he chose for his coat of arms the symbol for yin and yang.[23]  Bohr’s contribution was in revealing that this ancient concept of unity as the marriage of opposites was not just a mystical notion but a matter of literal physical, subatomic reality.  And in Dunn’s poetry, it is also a matter of literal physical reality—and of psychological and philosophical reality, too.

Dunn’s complementary vision of truth pervades his nineteen books of poetry and prose.  We see examples of it in “Between Angels,” where he says,

I do not mind living

like this.  I cannot bear
living like this.
Oh, everything’s true
at different times

in the capacious day . . .[24]

and in “The Past,” where he says, “Nothing in nature is a metaphor. / Everything is,”[25] and we also see it in his prose piece “Personal,” where he says, “I know that nobody’s problem was ever solved by feeling deeply about it.  I’ve said the opposite of this, and stand by what I said.”[26]  In all of these cases, and countless others throughout his work, the second statement doesn’t correct or cancel the previous one; rather, it completes it, for neither truth by itself approaches a whole truth.   As this suggests, Dunn’s most characteristic poems consist of—to borrow the title of one of his books—riffs and reciprocities, for each discovery reached through a riff, which the dictionary defines as an “a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring,”[27] is followed by its reciprocal—i.e., “inversely related,” “opposite,” and “complementary”[28]—discovery.

Sometimes Dunn even conveys the process of considering one truth and then its complement through his lineation, as in these lines from “The Soul’s Agents”: “Trust us, your secrets differentiate you / from no one.”[29]  Taken as a sentence, this statement is not paradoxical.  But Dunn’s strategic line break makes the reader pause and momentarily think the thought “our secrets do differentiate us,” a thought the next line contradicts.  Hence the reader must simultaneously hold within his or her mind, if only for an instant, two diametrically opposed thoughts.

As these examples should suggest, complementary contradiction is not only Dunn’s compositional method, it’s also one of his central themes.  “Halves” is one example of a poem that takes as its theme the complementary nature of existence.  Its title alludes to the ancient Greek belief that men and women were originally complementary halves of one androgynous being.  According to their creation myth, Zeus split these beings in half to prevent them from becoming too powerful and challenging the gods.  As Aristophanes says in Plato’s The Symposium, “the innate desire of human beings for each other started” when they were divided in half, and now desire “draws the two halves of our original nature back together and tries to make one out of two and to heal the wound in human nature.”[30]  The name for this “desire and pursuit of wholeness,” he says, is “love.”[31]  Much of Dunn’s poetry is about this pursuit, this attempt to marry opposites and achieve wholeness, both in human relationships and in his understanding of himself and the world.  In “Halves,” he suggests that we sense this original wholeness in that moment halfway between sleeping and waking when such seeming contraries as dream and reality and night and day coexist.  At this almost mystical moment, the dichotomy between male and female also disappears and we are whole, not halves.  After describing this moment between sleep and waking, Dunn writes,

Soon the equally mysterious world of women
and men, of momentary
common agreement and wild misunderstanding,

will impose itself naturally on the simplest event.
Anatomy will send
its differing messages to syntax and sense, . . .

But now, he continues,

. . . while the secret
intercoms in our dream rooms
are still open and each separate body knows

but does not reach for what it wants,
we all live in the same
country, share the same absurd flag.

We keep our eyes closed as long as we can,
hang on to the vestiges
of night as if we were balancing

two delicate and always vanishing halves.
Then the alarm, and the body rises
to yearn for what is here and gone.[32]

In this poem, the contradictory worlds of men and women are one world, not two, and in that world, which shares “the same absurd flag,” men and women are also one, their separate bodies and souls fused in the wholeness they desire.  Here, as in much of his work, the author of Work and Love—those seeming opposites—pursues the wholeness of love, trying to balance the two halves that are both here and not here.

Of all of Dunn’s poems, “The Reverse Side” is perhaps the one that most reveals the complementary nature of his vision.  It also reveals his instinctual tendency to go beyond the nod of agreement with a wisdom line—in this case, the Japanese proverb that provides the poem’s title—to an open-ended consideration of its implications.  Here’s the poem:

The Reverse Side

The reverse side also has a reverse side.
—a Japanese proverb

It’s why when we speak a truth
some of us instantly feel foolish
as if a deck inside us has been shuffled
and there it is—the opposite
of what we said.

And perhaps why as we fall in love
we’re already falling out of it.

It’s why the terrified and the simple
latch onto one story,
just one version of the great mystery.

Image & afterimage, oh even
the open-minded yearn for a fiction
to rein things in—
the snapshot, the lie of a frame.

How do we not go crazy,
we who have found ourselves compelled
to live with the circle, the ellipsis, the word
not yet written.[33]

Notice that Dunn says that speaking “a truth,” not a falsehood, is what makes him feel “foolish.”  The opposite—the reverse side—of a truth is not a falsehood, it’s another truth.  The “folly” of asserting the first truth isn’t that it’s false but that it’s incomplete, that it needs its complementary opposite to approach a whole truth.  And the process doesn’t stop after we’ve created a complementary truth out of two opposing truths; rather, the next step is to consider that new, complementary truth’s reverse side.  This process is never-ending; hence the poem concludes with Dunn recognizing the need “to live with the circle”—i.e., with what has no beginning or end—and with “the ellipsis, the word / not yet written”—i.e., with the need to continue searching for the truth and the words to express it.  The poem acknowledges our natural yearning “for a fiction / to rein things in,” for a belief that will give us the peace of certainty and closure, but admirably refuses to succumb to it.

The ending of this poem is a good example of how a wisdom line—and a poem derived, like this one, from a wisdom line—can and should lead the reader to further contemplation, and to a greater acknowledgment of the ambiguity and mystery of experience.  The words “How do we not go crazy” could mean two contradictory things: that those who hold opposite, complementary beliefs can’t help but go crazy and, conversely, that they remain sane.  The fact that this final sentence ends with a period, not a question mark, further suggests that it is simultaneously a question and an answer.  But if those who recognize the paradoxical nature of truth do go crazy, it is, Dunn believes, with that wise kind of insanity that Melville called “the sane madness of vital truth.”[34]  As Dunn says elsewhere, “paradox helps us / not to feel insane,”[35] and it does so because it “disturbs our conventional sense of things.  It’s the jolt that gives us permission to think what in fact we’ve thought.”[36]  As these passages suggest, it’s the “conventional sense of things” that is truly crazy, and therefore it is those who accept that conventional sense of things—those who “latch onto one story, / just one version of the great mystery”—who are insane.  Or, to put it another way, while the brave and complex risk “the sane madness of vital truth,” the “terrified and simple” succumb to “the insane madness of nonvital, conventional truth.”

Without question, Dunn is one of those who risk—and achieve—Melville’s sane brand of madness, and he does it, as Melville does, and as all of our greatest writers do, through a rigorously honest pursuit of the paradoxical nature of truth.  And more than perhaps anyone else in our literature he has explored the idea of complementarity in that pursuit.  Whitman may be large and contain multitudes, and he may willingly and cheerfully contradict himself, but he does so less out of a sense that truth is composed of complementary contradictions than out of an exuberant desire to embrace all of humanity in his “en masse” voice.  And Emily Dickinson certainly argued as dialectically with herself as Dunn has with himself (and she did this not only between poems but within them—witness, for example, Poem 501, which ends by doubting what its opening line states with such certainty[37]), but hers is ultimately a poetry of either/or, not both/and: it vacillates between affirming first one possible truth and then its opposite, and never seems to consider the possibility that both could be true.  Dunn’s complementary vision of truth makes his contribution to American literature distinctive, new, and important—and makes him worthy to be read alongside these masters.

In one of her late poems, Dickinson offers a short course in becoming a great poet, and though the course is short, the lesson is anything but simple.  To learn it requires nothing less than a lifetime of intensive examination of one’s self, others, and the world.  She says, simply,

. . . faithful be
To Thyself,
And Mystery—
All the rest is Perjury—[38]

If Stephen Dunn’s poems were testimony in a court of law, he might be accused of perjury for his contradictory attempts to track that extinct animal, truth.  But in the court of poetry, where truth is so complex and elusive that one cannot ever speak “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” he has been the most honest and honorable of witnesses.  He has consistently been faithful both to himself and to mystery.  As a result, he has overcome the risks associated with abstraction and written poetry that is genuinely and “unabashedly wise.”  And for that reason, and many others, he is one of our most indispensable poets.



[1] Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1968), 5; Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica,” The Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish (New York: Mariner Books, 1985), 107 ; William Carlos Williams, “A Sort of Song,” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II, edited by Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1991), 55.
Stephen Dunn, “Some Reflections on the Abstract and the Wise,” Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs (New York: Norton, 1993), 54.
Ibid., 55.
Ibid., 58.
Ibid., 64.
Dunn, “What Men Want,” What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009 (New York: Norton, 2009), 192-195.
Dunn, “Interview with Stephen Dunn,” conducted by Philip Dacey, The Cortland Review (, March 2000.
[8] Ibid.
Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks, translated by Richard Rees (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 134.
Weil, The Simone Weil Reader, edited by George A. Panichas (New York: David McKay Co., 1977), 379.
­­­Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Arthur Wills (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952), 151.
Dunn, “Circular,” What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009 (New York: Norton, 2009), 95.
Dunn, “The Observer,” New and Selected Poems 1974-1994 (New York: Norton, 1995), 12.
Jean Cocteau, Cocteau on the Film: Conversations with Jean Cocteau Recorded by André Fraigneau (New York: Dover, 1972), 63.
Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), 81.
Dunn, “Oklahoma City,” Different Hours (New York: Norton, 2000), 113-114.
H. L. Hix, “Warning Signals,” The Iowa Review, Vol. 21, No. 2 (1991), 84.
Karl Kraus, Half-Truths & One-And-A-Half Truths, edited and translated by Harry Zohn (Montreal: Engendra Press, 1976), 67.
For a more in-depth discussion of complementarity in literature and the creative process, see my essay “Lever of Transcendence: Contradiction and the Physics of Creativity” in Alone with All That Could Happen (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008), 184-210.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, from a September 1955 talk on BBC radio, quoted as an epigraph in James Schevill, The Arena of Ants (Providence: Copper Beech Press, 1977).
[21] Nils Bohr, cited in Bill Becker, “Pioneers of the Atom,” The New York Times Magazine (October 20, 1957), 52.  Blake makes a similar distinction when he says that “Negations” cannot “mutually Exist” whereas “Contraries” can because they “are equally true.”  See “Jerusalem,” The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, edited by David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 162, 196.
  Bohr, cited in Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 150.
Ibid, 121.
Dunn, “Between Angels,” New and Selected Poems, 221-222.
Dunn, “The Past,” The Insistence of Beauty (New York: Norton, 2004), 39.
[26] Dunn, “Personal,” Riffs and Reciprocities (New York: Norton, 1998), 73.
[27] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (
[28] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1996).[29] Dunn, “The Soul’s Agents,” What Goes On, 144-145.
[30] Plato, The Symposium, edited and translated by Christopher Gill (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 24.
Ibid., 26.
Dunn, “Halves,” New and Selected Poems, 170-171.
Dunn, “The Reverse Side,” What Goes On, 82.
Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Shorter Works of Hawthorne and Melville, edited by Hershel Parker (Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1972), 225-226.
­­ Dunn, “Loves,” New and Selected Poems, 278.
Dunn, “Paradox,” Riffs and Reciprocities, 19.
[37] Emily Dickinson, Poem 501, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1976), 243.
[38] Dickinson, Poem 1768, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 714.

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.