(I would like a few more comments, just to know you are there, but I sense you are there, anyhoo, just like the people who appreciate the silver stairway in Stephen Dunn's poem, "The Stairway," from The Insistence of Beauty. So thank you.)
Today will be a hodgepodge, and perhaps an odd one (because I am a bit of an odd one!)
We have to read things at the right time, I think, and I am reading What Goes On, by Stephen Dunn, at the right time. It's the right time for me because it is time to "get serious," a little dream voice keeps telling me, which is something that can happen side by side with whimsy, thank goodness. At some wrong moment in the past, I might have read Dunn's poems in which great writers exist in local habitations as a bit clever or glib, but I don't use those words to judge or dismiss anyone anymore, because they hurt when they were used that way on me.
Now I read these poems as quiet and deep, "serious" with a whimsical sheen. Now I read them shortly after having read Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell, that last chapter that returns us to the Nile, to some in-between state. I read them after listening over and over to Patty Griffin singing "Living with Ghosts."
So now when I read poems titled "Chekhov in Port Republic," "Poe in Margate," "Henry James in Cape May," "Mary Shelley in Brigantine," and "Melville at Barnegat Light," I go and live there, not just with the famous dead authors, but also with Stephen Dunn, who, like the alienated dead ones remembered and thus still alive, must also feel alone and apart in the world, by virtue of being a poet in it. To quote Dunn:
"There goes Melville," the townspeople would say, proud
that a man whose books had been made into movies
walked among them.
And I remember Scott Turow reading to a large crowd at the Newberry Library a lovely, literary, humane short story, and then giving the audience the opportunity to ask questions, and all the questions were about who would play the main characters in the movie of Presumed Innocent, and how do you get an agent? What could he do but become a commodity?
I remember Jean Baudrillard speaking to students at the Art Institute in Chicago. "Stop saying you are making art," he insisted. "You are making commodities." They seemed, in their persistent theory-based and gallery-world questions not to get it. Finally, he told them how to make art. "Go down to the river with a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and somebody." He meant, live. Live first. Love. Get serious.
So I know what Stephen Dunn is/was reading, to grow deep and whimsical: Chekhov, Poe, James, Shelley, and Melville. I know what he was reading in an interview in 2000--that short story collection Women in Their Beds, by Gina Berriault. I know that he doesn't remember what he was reading in this interview, at How a Poem Happens, about his poem "And So," in the year he won his Pulitzer Prize.
I know my mother and I both read the poem "The Routine Things Around the House" in an anthology, and said, "Wow. " And wow again. So I'm glad he got to win a Pulitzer. It's nice when wise, whimsical people do.
But he's over 60. And I'm over 50. So if you are not yet over 30, it might not be the right time for you to read What Goes On. You might have other things going on.