Dobyns, Stephen

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DOBYNS, Stephen

Nationality: American. Born: Orange, New Jersey, 19 February 1941. Education: Shimer College, Mount Carroll, Illinois 1959–60; Wayne State University, Detroit, 1961–64, B.A. 1964; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1964–65, 1966–67, M.F.A. 1967. Family: Married; two children. Career: Instructor in English, State University of New York College, Brockport, 1968–69; reporter, Detroit News, 1969–71; visiting writer, University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1973–75, University of Iowa, 1977–78, Boston University, 1978–79, 1980–81, and Syracuse University, 1986; faculty member, department of creative writing, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, 1978–80; creative writing staff, Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, North Carolina, 1981–97; professor of English, 1987–95, and director of M.F.A. program in creative writing, 1989–94, Syracuse University, New York. Since 1995 guest writer, San Diego Weekly Reader, California. Awards: Lamont Poetry Selection award, 1971; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1972, 1976; Yaddo fellowship, 1972, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1982; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974, 1981; Guggenheim fellowship, 1983; National Poetry Series prize, 1984; Levinson prize, 1999, for Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides. Address: 136 Barnard Avenue, Watertown, Massachusetts 02172, U.S.A.



Concurring Beasts. New York, Atheneum, 1972.

Griffon. New York, Atheneum, 1976.

Heat Death. New York, Atheneum, 1980.

The Balthus Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1982.

Black Dog, Red Dog. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1984.

Cemetery Nights. New York, Viking, 1987; London, Bloodaxe, 1991.

Body Traffic. New York, Penguin, 1991.

Velocities: New and Selected Poems, 1966–1992. New York, Viking, 1994; London, Bloodaxe, 1995.

Common Carnage. New York, Viking, 1996; London, Bloodaxe, 1997.

Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides. New York, Penguin, and London, Bloodaxe, 1999.


A Man of Little Evils. New York, Atheneum, 1973; London, Davies, 1974.

Saratoga Longshot. New York, Atheneum, 1976; London, Hale, 1978.

Saratoga Swimmer. New York, Atheneum, 1981; London, Allison and Busby, 1986.

Dancer with One Leg. New York, Dutton, 1983.

Saratoga Headhunter. New York, Viking, 1985; London, Allison and Busby, 1986.

Cold Dog Soup. New York, Viking, 1985.

Saratoga Snapper. New York, Viking, 1986; London, Century Hutchinson, 1988.

A Boat Off the Coast. New York, Viking, 1987.

The Two Deaths of Señora Puccini. New York and London, Viking, 1988.

Saratoga Bestiary. New York, Viking, 1988; London, Mysterious Press, 1989.

The House of Alexandrine. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1989.

Saratoga Hexameter. New York, Viking, 1990.

After Shocks/Near Escapes. New York, Viking, 1991.

Saratoga Haunting. New York, Viking, 1993.

The Wrestler's Cruel Study. New York, Norton, 1993.

Saratoga Backtalk. New York, Norton, 1994.

Saratoga Fleshpot. New York, Norton, 1995.

Saratoga Trifecta. New York, Penguin, 1995.

The Church of Dead Girls. New York, Henry Holt, and London, Viking, 1997.

Saratoga Strongbox. New York, Viking, 1998.

Boy in the Water. New York, Henry Holt, and London, Viking, 1999.


Reading Raymond Carver, with Randolph Paul Runyon, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.


Critical Studies: "Can We Talk? The Welcome Poetries of Dunn and Dobyns" by Dave Smith, in New England Review, 17(2), Spring 1995; Uncertainty & Plentitude: Five Contemporary Poets by Peter Stitt, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1997; "Story Tellers" by Louise Gluck, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 26(4), 1997; "Poetic Positionings: Stephen Dobyns and Lyn Hejinian in Cultural Context" by Christopher Beach, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 38(1), Spring 1997.

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Stephen Dobyns's preoccupations as a poet are suggested by two quotations that appear at the front of his award-winning first collection, Concurring Beasts (1972). The first quotation, from Walter Pater, refers to "the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of the world." The second quotation is from Gérard de Nerval, in which the poet says that he asked God for "the power to create my own universe, to govern my dreams, instead of enduring them." Such sentiments characterize the aesthetic of many artists, but few poets use them to such valuable purpose as does Dobyns.

Although Dobyns's competence as a poet is evident in the early poems, they hardly prepare one for the extraordinary vigor, assuredness, and penetrating wit of the later work, which is well and handsomely represented in Velocities: New and Selected Poems, 1966–1992 (1994). By the end of the 1990s he was the author of ten books of poetry and of twenty-one novels, and he has come to hold a special claim on the reader's attention as one of America's most accomplished poets.

The private agonies of the typical Dobyns character are rendered naturalistically and with merciless honesty. The philosophical position that informs many of his poems rests somewhere between the "inhumanism" of Thomas Hardy or Robinson Jeffers and the wacky surrealism of David Ignatow or Russell Edson. In Dobyns's "The Nihilist," for example, God appears as "that vacancy between the stars." To those who regard God's dwelling place as "an empty room," the speaker responds, "wrong, wrong again. Listen carefully, hear the laughter."

An early poem reminiscent of the surrealists, on the other hand, is "Seeing Off a Friend," in which the narrator talks with a man who has just jumped to his death from the twentieth floor of a building. When the speaker asks the man in midflight, at the tenth floor and again at the fifth, what he has learned in his travels,

   He smiles again, basically cheerful
   but shakes his head. These answers
   are slow in approaching, he says,
   perhaps it is too soon to tell.

In a random universe, a place where "it's so difficult / to find something to hold on to," our consolations are fleeting. They are "fragments," as Dobyns calls them in a beautiful, if uncharacteristic, lyric to a friend on the death of his daughter. Throughout Body Traffic he provides brilliant reflections on the psychic wounds and pleasures of the human body (noses, fingernails, bellies, tongues), along with a series of poems on Paul Cézanne, the master painter of the human form. The former are written in Dobyns's characteristic free verse of ten to fifteen syllables; the latter are sonnets in varied and occasionally intricate rhyme.

In Dobyns's world sex is a major consolation, its joys acknowledged and even extolled in various poems. In "Cemetery Nights VI," for example, after telling about a dead man who imagines his widow in bed with a new lover, the narrator compares a breeze at the lovers' window to a "vast legion of the dead … with their unbearable jumble of envy and regret," who watch "the man as he drops his head, presses his mouth to the erect nipple."

Such pleasures, however, are temporary. "The Body's Curse," for example, speaks of "sexual hunger" among men

   thirsting for ladies as a bowling ball thirsts for pins
   then casting them aside, the beauty forgotten
   while still clasped in a post-orgasmic embrace.

"Tenderly" describes a hapless, even desperate man in a restaurant who

   leaps onto his tabletop,
   whips out his prick and begins sawing at it
   with a butter knife. I can't stand it
   anymore! he shouts.

The thirty patrons in the café, with burdens of their own to shoulder, are now "linked / as a family is linked—through a single portrait." Compassionate, they hope that he might enjoy better times, perhaps

   on a topless foreign beach with a beauty
   clasped in his loving arms breathing heavily, Oh,
   darling, touch me there, tenderly, one more time!

"The Body's Joy" also is about people caught in "the tyranny of desire," wishing "for some relief from the self." Although lovers "cannot make our Sun / Stand still" or even "make him run," in Andrew Marvell's words, their bodies do offer momentary hopes and pleasures that defeat "the steady gallop of time," making it "dance like a ball / balancing on a spume of water in sunlight." One of the best poems, "Desire," after mentioning a man who at ninety swears that his sexual longing remains undiminished, recommends that men remain "bad and unrepentant," celebrating

   each difference, not to be cruel or gluttonous
   or over-bearing, but full of hope and self-forgiving.

The dominant attitude in a Dobyns poem is, nonetheless, the tension evident in the final lines of "Pastel Dresses," as the narrator remembers his excitement at age fourteen over a first dance party:

   How can we not love
   this world for what it gives us? How
   can we not hate it for what it takes away?

Dobyns is so good at what he does that one hesitates to suggest limitations. An admiring reader, however, looks forward to a somewhat broader perspective than the one he has mastered—not high seriousness necessarily but poems about injustices created or sustained by human beings, however hapless, even blameless they may be.

—Michael True