Carl Dennis was born in St. Louis, Missouri on September 17, 1939. Neither of his parents were literary; his father founded a chemical company and his mother had been a registered nurse, although she had a strong interest in the arts. However, Carl Dennis had an inspirational and influential high school English teacher, Augusta Gottlieb. After high school he searched for a college that would resemble "the ideal Platonic Academy," attending Oberlin College and the University of Chicago before graduating from the University of Minnesota. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley and subsequently to teach at the University of Buffalo (1966-2001), where he now holds the title of Artist-in-Residence. Dennis has published twelve volumes of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize winning Practical Gods (Penguin, 2001), a New and Selected Poems 1974-2004 (Penguin, 2004) and, most recently, Another Reason (Penguin, 2014). Additionally he has written a book of literary criticism, Poetry as Persuasion: an Essay for Writers (University of Georgia Press, 2001). He has received many honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2000, the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, awarded to a living author for outstanding achievement in poetry.
Carl Dennis is a strong proponent of poetry that is clear and comprehensible. He has said, "I believe poetry should sound like natural speech. When you hear a poem, you should feel that someone is standing behind the lines, talking to an individual, offering a script that something might want to enter." In a similar vein, on the usefulness of poetry, he said, "Poetry is useful in that it allows readers to feel that they are not alone, that others have thought and felt as they have. It can do this more powerfully than any other kind of writing, or at least more directly, because in a good poem we are made to feel that we are in the presence of a whole human being speaking to us directly, or providing a script for us to enter as we see fit."
This week's featured poem, "Not the Idle" from Practical Gods (Penguin, 2001), is a meditation on what might appear to be idleness and a reminder that things are not always as they seem.
NOT THE IDLE
It's not the idle who move us but the few
Often confused with the idle, those who define
Their project in life in terms so ample
Nothing they ever do is a digression.
Each episode contributes its own rare gift
As a chapter in Moby Dick on squid or hardtack
Is just as important to Ishmael as a fight with a whale.
The few who refuse to live for the plot's sake,
Major or minor, but for texture and tone and hue.
For them weeding a garden all afternoon
Can't be construed as a detour from the road of life.
The road narrows to a garden path that turns
And circles to show that traveling goes only so far
As a metaphor. The day rests on the grass.
And at night the books of these few,
Lined up on their desks, don't look like drinks
Lined up on a bar to help them evade their troubles.
They look like an escort of mountain guides
Come to conduct the climber to a lofty outlook
Rising serene above the fog. For them the view
Is no digression though it won't last long
And they won't remember even the vivid details.
The supper with friends back in the village
In a dining room brightened with flowers and paintings
No digression for them, though the talk leads
To no breakthrough. The topic they happen to hit on
Isn't a ferry to carry them over the interval
Between soup and salad. It's a raft drifting downstream
Where the banks widen to embrace a lake
And birds rise from the reeds in many colors.
Everyone tries to name them and fails
For an hour no one considers idle.