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Life's Minutiae Gain New Magnitude In Dunn's 'Lines' Of Poetry

Life's Minutiae Gain New Magnitude In Dunn's 'Lines' Of Poetry

Poems dwell in an ambiguous space, shelved somewhere between fiction and fact, imagination and experience. Even when poems seem wholly authentic, we can't assume they're accurate — after all, "poetic license" is the catch-all excuse for blurry lines between truth and fabrication.

In the face of seemingly autobiographical poems, readers and reviewers — wise to the slippery ways of poets — often side-step the question of truth and talk about the "speaker." But in an interview with NPR's Rachel Martin, poet Stephen Dunn agrees to bypass that convention. His 17th collection, Lines of Defense, includes several poems about navigating dying and loss. Specifically, they feature a speaker addressing the pending death of his brother.

"Was this you?" Martin asks. "Are you narrating this poem?"

Dunn answers, simply, "Yes."

In the rest of their conversation, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet talks to Martin about what literature is good for, the danger of writing experiential poems and how basketball is a metaphor for poetry.

Interview Highlights

On what poetry — and literature in general — is for

What good literature has always done is give me the language for the occasion –- a lot of times not, of course –- but I think that the poems that matter to me are the ones that speak to that which cannot easily be said. We're on the verge of understanding, but we finally get the words from the poem or the story or the novel or whatever.

On his poem "The Little Details," and the kind of relief minutiae can bring:

We live with the little things much more than the large things. For me, the latter part of that poem — middle to the latter part — is what's important:

Absolutely ordinary things, and then the extraordinary things like Maria Callas singing mixed with that, give us permission to feel something that we weren't allowed to feel — we didn't allow ourselves to feel.

Stephen Dunn won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection <em>Different Hours.</em>
Kenny Braitman / Courtesy of W.W. Norton
Courtesy of W.W. Norton
Stephen Dunn won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Different Hours.

On "A Coldness," an angrier poem about his brother's death

I think it was this poem that I resisted writing for a long while, because I was thinking about what his wife would think, what his children would think.

... You know, there's no appropriate way to feel about death, but you find yourself feeling something that is antisocial a little bit. Just inappropriate. I imagine that those are the things that if people confess to, they find out that they're telling the truth for others as well. And people have spoken to me about this poem in that way — that it was a kind of solace for them, because they were feeling things that wouldn't hold up to scrutiny very well.

On how he went from a serious college basketball career to writing poetry

The poetry followed much later, but I was always a serious reader. I was not particularly a good student, and I was a pretty good basketball player. I've written an essay called "Basketball Poetry," in which I try not to push the metaphor too far. One of the points that I make in the essay is the similarity between poetry and basketball is a chance to be better than yourself. To transcend yourself, if you're hot that day. And that happens in writing in our best moments. Where we find ourselves saying what we didn't know we knew, or couldn't have said in any other circumstance.

So those are the moments in poetry I live for now. I can't play basketball anymore.

On whether he has those transcendent moments more readily now

Maybe a little more readily in that I rarely start poems these days with a clear sense of what I'm doing. I think in the past few years, I've been writing hoping that every line is a line of discovery, rather than something experiential that I'm just saying.

I think one of the great dangers of people who write experiential poems — which I have written many — is that you might just say what happened, as if it were important. You wouldn't be exercising any degrees of selection that you need to exercise if you're going to write a good poem.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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