Stephen Dunn is an award winning, modern poet. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2001 and his faculty biography (Richardson Stockton College of New Jersey, 2004) lists an astonishing number of awards and accomplishments. The theme of Dunn’s poetry is always associated with looking at the unexamined components of the everyday human experience, from a personal, historical, and philosophical perspective. Dunn’s success is no surprise to anyone who reads his work and looks at the human experience, even for a moment, through his eyes. Therefore, there is significant value to the activity of reviewing Dunn’s perspective on the ordinarily unexamined events in life.
Dunn’s poetry is not difficult to read. In fact, one of Dunn’s stated purposes is to ensure that his poetry is accessible, even to those who do not have the time to read poetry. In “Poem for people that are understandably too busy to read poetry,” Dunn encourages readers to pick up the poem and read it any way they like. If they get tired, or bored, he encourages them to put the poem down and take a nap, or watch television. Just for fun, he encourages readers to start, if they like, in the middle of the poem, or at any other place that might strike their fancy at the time. The main thing this poet wants the potential readers of poetry to know is that, once a poem leaves the pen of the poet, it belongs to the reader; and every poem has something to offer the reader, if only he or she is willing to pick it up and really hear even a few lines at a time.
Dunn’s poetry is a window into the mind of an adult, who has realized that adulthood may not really mean all that one has been led to believe it would be. There are places, in adulthood, where one questions even the simplest of things. There are also places, in adulthood, where one attempts to convince oneself that he or she may have a less than stellar life, but that does not mean that he or she does not have stellar qualities. For example, in “Biography in the first person,” the narrator is a teacher, and seems to feel as if he has not lived up to his potential. He feels as if no one can actually see the real person that he is. This is why he thinks, to himself, of announcing that he is really taller, older, and bolder than he looks. No one has told him that they are disappointed in him. Yet, he seems to see teaching as a profession in which he only attempts to sell himself to students. For adults who read this poem, the profession of the narrator could very easily be their profession, the feeling of invisibility could very easily mirror their feelings, and the longing to announce themselves as being more than what is seen on the surface is almost a universal longing in those who, by virtue of age alone, have been declared to be adults.
Dunn grapples with one of the responsibilities of parenthood in “The Smithville Methodist Church.” Adults make decisions to either follow the religion of their childhoods, or to develop their own notion of what exactly is religion and what part it will play in their lives. Having become quite smug in their mature view of religion, adults become parents and actually believe that their children will believe as they believe. Somehow, these individuals never expect to come face to face with children who believe differently than they believe, nor do they ever expect to come face to face with the religion of their own childhood resurfacing in their own children.
In “Smithville Methodist Church,” Dunn’s development of the theme begins with the parents allowing their children to go to church with friends because they think it will be good for the children. These adults do not even realize that just the fact that they think going to church will be good for their children is, in and of itself, a testament to their own suppressed faith. When the children come home, singing Christian children’s songs, the parents are uncomfortable. The sophistication they have acquired, along with their perception of their own maturity, tells them that they should correct their children, but they cannot seem to bring themselves to do it. Ultimately, they allow the children to sing the songs in the car while, in a telling ending, they sing along with their children in silence. For all of the rebellion of young adults against organized religion, there are places throughout life where perfectly rational adults return to it.
In his poetry, Dunn often uses his daughters as part of the focus for the narrator. In “Walking the Marshland,” the narrator, whom the reader easily recognizes as Dunn himself, is acutely aware of what might be described as his place in the universe. He and his daughters are walking through nature. Yet, the feeling the reader gets is that Dunn is standing outside of the setting, almost as if he were looking in on himself, his daughters, and the marshland. He knows his daughters are beautiful and are part of a world that is just like the marsh, a beautiful place that hides beasts that can hurt them. However, even as he sees his responsibility to care for his daughters, he cannot help but wish he could be in the adult playland of the nearby casinos. In the end, of course, his love of his daughters wins out, but in an odd sort of way. He is their father. They are beautiful. The world covets beauty. These beautiful girls belong to him. Perhaps, he is not quite as mature as he believes himself to be.
Overall, the theme of Dunn’s poetry is bound up in the adult search for maturity and self. In “Biography in the first person,” there are a number of clues that sum up the perspective of this award winning author. In the first line of the poem, he states “This is not the way I am.” Skipping to line 15, he inserts “I am none of my clothes.” Then, in the 26th line, he states “I would like to make you believe in me.” Dunn knows the inner insecurity of all adults, and the questions they ask themselves. How am I doing? Have I made the right decisions? Could I have done better? What do others think of me? The best part of Dunn’s work is, however, that he is easy to read, and is sympathetic to the feelings of readers because, after all, Dunn himself is an adult. In an interview with Phillip Dacey (2000), Dunn himself summarizes his life and work with:
I think everyone should have the freedom to ruin his own life, that it’s not my job
to close off the possibilities. Let anyone who wishes keep at it until the work and
the world instruct him one way or another. (Paragraph 16)
Darcy, Philip. (2000, March). Interview with Stephen Dunn. The Courtland Review. Retrieved: October 17, 2004, from: http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/00/03/index.html
Dunn, Stephen. “At the Smithville Methodist Church.” Retrieved: October 17, 2004, from: http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=9955&poem=97913
Dunn, Stephen. “Biography in the First Person.” Retrieved: October 17, 2004, from: http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=9955&poem=97936
Dunn, Stephen. “Poem For People That Are Understandably Too Busy To Read Poetry.” Retrieved: October 17, 2004, from: http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=9955&poem=121925
Dunn, Stephen. “Walking The Marshland.” Retrieved: October 17, 2004, from: http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=9955&poem=98028
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. (2004). Stephen Dunn. Retrieved: October 17, 2004, from: http://www2.stockton.edu/sdunn/