The Reverse Side

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The Reverse Side

Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn's poem "The Reverse Side" appears in his collection Different Hours (2000). Before Different Hours won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, Dunn was already an established poet with ten books of poetry to his credit and numerous publications in prestigious periodicals. The Pulitzer brought his work to the attention of the general public, however, broadening his readership. "Dunn doesn't belong to a particular school of poets," writes Kevin C. Shelly in the magazine Philadelphia, "but the influences of William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost are sometimes evident in his work."

"The Reverse Side" is a short philosophical meditation that explores the conflict between socalled fundamentalist and open-minded attitudes of living and is ultimately critical of those who choose moral certainty over tolerance of uncertainty. The poem suggests that a worthwhile way to live is to attempt to be as comfortable as possible with moral ambiguity. It is perhaps easiest to understand the poem when it is read in the context of the whole book, Different Hours, in which many other poems attempt to discern whether there are essential organizing principles in disorderly human lives.

Author Biography

Stephen Dunn was born June 24, 1939, in the Forest Hills section of New York City. As of 2004, he was the author of twelve books of poetry, including

Different Hours (2000), which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Other books include New & Selected Poems: 1974–1994 (1994), Loosestrife (1996), and Local Visitations (2003). He has also written two books of prose: Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry (1993) and Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs (1998). In addition to a Pulitzer, Dunn has been awarded many honors and prizes, including the Academy Award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, and three National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowships.

As a young man, Dunn seemed destined for a very different kind of life. He was a valued basketball player for Hofstra University (where he majored in history), played basketball professionally for the Williamsport Billies from 19962 to 1963, and did a stint in the army as a sports writer for a regimental newspaper. Soon after, he landed a job as an advertising copywriter for Nabisco, a decision he explores in the poem "The Last Hours" in Different Hours. From 1964 to 1966, Dunn studied creative writing at the New School of Social Research. In 1966, he took a savings of $2,200 and went to Spain with his then wife (Lois Ann Kelly, whom he married in 1964) to test whether he might become a serious writer. From 1967 to 1968, Dunn worked as an assistant editor at Ziff-Davis Publishing Company in New York City.

Dunn describes his first novel in a 1996 radio interview with Angela Elam for New Letters on the Air as "a poor novel … deficient in plot and character but lots of liveliness in the language, and by doing that it instructed me that I should be writing poetry." Encouraged to pursue poetry by his friend, novelist Sam Toperoff, in 1970 Dunn earned his master of arts in creative writing from Syracuse University, where he studied with Philip Booth, Donald Justice, George P. Elliott, and W. D. Snod-grass. Dunn went on to work as a writer, editor, and teacher, and his poetry has been published in such prestigious periodicals as the Nation, New Republic, New Yorker, and American Poetry Review. Dunn has been Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where he has taught since 1974.

Poem Summary


Dunn begins "The Reverse Side" with an epigraph, which is a short quotation used to introduce a literary piece. When a poem begins with an epigraph, the author typically intends the reader to read everything that follows in reference to that quotation. An epigraph usually provides a clue about a theme or situation in the poem or about the identity of the poem's speaker.

In the case of "The Reverse Side," the epigraph "The reverse side also has a reverse side" is an English translation of a Japanese proverb and serves as the source of the title of the poem. In the original Japanese, this proverb Monogoto niwa taitei ura no ura ga aru mono da literally means "in most things generally there is a reverse to the reverse." The Japanese word ura can mean "the reverse" as well as "a place which cannot be seen" or "a hidden implication," according to Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary. This proverb seems to encourage a curious and investigative attitude towards life, a willingness to look behind the obvious "front" that things present to the world, perhaps similar in meaning to the English proverb "there are wheels within wheels."

But the epigraph has a little mystery about it too. It invites readers to imagine an object with more than one side, and of course everything that has a front usually has a back. But is "the reverse of the reverse" the same as "the front?" Or is it an aspect slightly different from the front, which in turn has its own "reverse side?" If this is the meaning, the proverb seems to indicate that there are infinitely possible "reverse sides" of any object or subject, like what happens when a mirror reflects a mirror. By using this cryptic quotation which itself proves to have some mystery and many possible meanings, Dunn may have intended to send the reader into the poem already in a questioning or investigative mode.

Lines 1–5

The point of view of "The Reverse Side" is first person plural, which seems to indicate that the speaker feels confident enough, perhaps based on life experience, to speak for or about a group of people. It also focuses the poem on general statements rather than on specific things having only to do with the speaker as an individual. The first line of the poem provides one other strong signal that the speaker means to focus on generalizations: it speaks about an abstract concept, "a truth."

The reader will not find any definite clues in "The Reverse Side" about the speaker's sex, age, or the place from which he or she is speaking. But the reader who experiences "The Reverse Side" in the context of all the other poems in Different Hours, or who is acquainted with Dunn's other books, may have good reason to suspect that behind the "we" of this poem is some version of Dunn—that is, the version of Dunn that his writings present to the world. This would be a fair conclusion because Dunn has expressed thoughts and feelings similar to those in this poem in many other poems and prose essays.

The first line of the poem, which begins "It's why," shows that the person speaking is already referring the reader back to the epigraph. Beginning with "It's why" also gives the reader the experience of dropping into the middle of the thoughts of a person, a little like coming into a movie after it has already begun. The indefinite pronoun "it" may cause the reader to scramble a little to catch up, maybe asking "What's why?" before referring back to the epigraph.

The first five lines present the idea of a deck of cards shuffled "inside" a person as an analogy. That is, these lines find similarity between how shuffling a deck of cards will produce a different deal each time, with how human beings can have contradictory thoughts or feelings, seemingly almost at random. It is also important to notice that the speaker says "some of us" experience thoughts and feelings this way. The speaker uses the pronoun "we" but is not speaking for everybody in the world. With this qualification the speaker lays the groundwork for points that will be made later in the poem, about other people who may not like to admit that they have contradictory thoughts and feelings.

Poems often operate as much by what they do not say, as by what they do. The end of the first five lines of Dunn's poem provides a good example. The speaker begins by saying "when we speak a truth," then provides an image of how some people immediately sense inside themselves a contradiction of something they just said. But the speaker does not finish the fifth line of the poem by saying "then we speak the opposite of what we said." The speaker only says "there it is." Presumably "there" means "inside us," where the deck of contradictory feelings is shuffled. By demonstrating—by omission—that contradictory feelings sometimes or often go unspoken, the speaker adds more information about what it is like to experience feelings this way.

Lines 6–7

Though lines 6 and 7 follow the period at the end of the poem's first sentence and come after the white space following the first stanza, they are a continuation of the thought of the first sentence. "And perhaps why" in line 6 refers to the same "why" as the first two words of the poem. In lines 6 and 7 the speaker provides an example of contradictory feelings: "as we fall in love / we're already falling out of it." The example is still given in general terms—no individual people falling in and out of love are specified. But this example is more specific than the extremely generalized "truth" of the first stanza, which shows that the speaker is starting to support and refine the points that were made in the first stanza.

Lines 6 and 7 also add an important aspect to what the reader is learning about the speaker's view of the world. He or she regards love—the subject of so many passionate poems and other proclamations throughout history—as an impermanent state. Almost at the same moment we fall into it, the speaker says, we begin to fall out of it. The speaker qualifies this statement in a subtle way, using "perhaps," just as in the first stanza the statement about contradictory feelings is qualified by "some of us." The way the speaker shows humility about making these assertions may earn the reader's trust and agreement more than if the statements were absolute in their claims. By these small qualifications, the speaker, who seems to be working out these thoughts as the poem progresses, allows for the possibility of error or for another point of view—for "the reverse side."

Lines 8–10

The third stanza begins as the first stanza did with "It's why," signaling that the speaker is continuing to work through thoughts on the same subject. The statements of the first two stanzas are carefully qualified. But in the third stanza the speaker makes a more assertive statement, indicating there is a group of people who react to the complexity of life differently than the "some of us" of the first stanza. This statement manages to be both sympathetic and critical toward people who insist there is only one way of looking at things, no "reverse side." The speaker suggests these people act this way either because they are "terrified" (in which case it is easy to have sympathy for them) or because they are "simple."

"Simple," unlike "terrified," is a word with multiple meanings, some of which imply sympathy on the speaker's part and some of which imply judgment or criticism. When the adjective "simple" is applied to people, it can have the positive meanings of unaffected, natural, or straightforward, but it can also have the negative connotations of ignorant, intellectually weak or silly. Because Dunn's speaker has expressed opinions to this point with some humility, the reader may feel that both positive and negative meanings are intended. That is, the speaker means to be both understanding and critical about an aspect of human nature. The speaker's complex attitude, as evidenced by his using the words "terrified" and "simple" together, is in itself an illustration of the point that the speaker is making: that every subject has multiple, sometimes contradictory, characteristics. Another meaning of "simple," not usually applied to people but also pertinent to Dunn's poem, is something that is not complex or intricate. By using the short but complicated word "simple" this way, Dunn's speaker expresses the opinion that nothing, if we allow ourselves to look closely enough, is free from complexity.

Each reader may have different ideas about "the great mystery" to which Dunn's speaker refers in line 10. The phrase brings to mind the language that philosophers and theologians have used for centuries to inquire into the nature of life and death, concepts of good and evil, the question of whether there is a God, and the purpose of the whole of existence itself. At this point in the poem, Dunn's speaker seems to feel that the reader has been carried along enough by the humble tone of the previous two stanzas that the statement about "the great mystery" may be made as though the existence of this mystery is a matter of mutual agreement and is self-evident.

Likewise, readers may come up with different answers for who the people are that "latch onto one story, / just one version." In attempting to answer this question, the reader steps into the very moral complexity about which the poem is speaking, because every word one might think of to characterize such people has a "charged" positive or negative connotation. Depending on who is doing the speaking, and who is being spoken about, one person's "fundamentalist" or "terrorist" may be another's "saint" or "freedom fighter," just as one person's "tolerance" may be another's "permissiveness."

Lines 11–14

The poem's fourth stanza begins to clarify who the people are who "latch onto one story." The speaker does this by contrasting these people with people who hold different attitudes, that is, the "some of us" of the first stanza. Whoever the "terrified and the simple" are, they are the opposite of who the speaker calls "the open-minded" in line 12, so we can assume that the speaker considers the "terrified and the simple" closed-minded.

But the fourth stanza does more than clarify who the speaker considers closed-minded. It also begins to express how difficult it is to keep an attitude of open-mindedness, even for people who believe it is the best way to live. "Image & afterimage," the speaker says, cause "even / the open-minded" to "yearn for a fiction / to rein things in." "Image & afterimage" refers back to the possible ways of looking at everything that the epigraph evokes. Without the responsibility to evaluate and understand these multiple aspects, the speaker acknowledges, life would be easier, implying a kind of sympathy for people who are not strong enough to meet the challenge. But the speaker clearly intends "a fiction," used the way it is in line 12, to mean "an untruth," to be a criticism of people who can persuade themselves to live with a lie. The examples the speaker gives in line 14 confirm this: "the snapshot, the lie of a frame." That is, a small photograph and a picture frame crop an enormous world to a manageable size. A picture frame is intended to focus the viewer on what is inside the frame, and to concentrate the attention by temporarily omitting other information. But the frame turns into a "lie" if the maker or viewer of the picture or the frame forgets, or denies, that the world extends in all its bewildering complexity beyond the frame.

There is another important "poetic event" in the fourth stanza, but it is small and easy to miss: the little word "oh" in line 11. "Oh" used in this way is a part of speech called an "interjection" or an "exclamation," and these are often found in what are called "lyric" poems. The lyric poem, rather than focusing primarily on telling a story, puts emphasis on expressing feeling through "musical language." That is, the lyric relies on the pure sounds that poetry can make to appeal to a reader's feelings, on a level different from literal, intellectual understanding. Until line 11 "The Reverse Side" uses fairly plain, conversational language characteristic of a "meditative" poem. But with the appearance of that little word "oh," the poem begins to shift into lyric territory. Human beings say "oh" or "ah" in this way when we want to emphasize how deeply we feel. It is a word without particular meaning in itself, one that resorts to pure sound to convey emotion. In using it here, Dunn's speaker makes a shift from merely thinking about how complex the world is to feeling how difficult that fact sometimes makes human life.

Lines 15–18

One characteristic of a poem that combines lyric and meditative elements is that once the leap is made from "thinking" into the lyric territory of "expressing feeling," the poem usually does not return to pure thinking about the subject. "The Reverse Side" conforms to this pattern: the final stanza asks a question that is at least partly unanswerable. The speaker's purpose, then, in asking such a question is to express emotion about the difficult predicament in which people find themselves when allowing themselves to investigate "the reverse side." By asking the question "how do we not go crazy," the speaker suggests that the very act of asking questions may support the sanity of people "compelled / to live with the circle, the ellipsis, the word / not yet written."

The images or ideas with which the speaker finishes the poem—"the circle, the ellipsis, the word / not yet written"—return the reader to the mysterious and ambiguous quality of the epigraph that begins the poem. Each of these images has multiple associations that apply to the speaker's thoughts and feelings about the morally complex nature of human life.

The circle has been used for centuries in human design to symbolize inclusiveness, unity, equality, emptiness, and eternity. The table at which King Arthur's knights sat was circular (round), as was the table at which the participants sat at the 1973 Paris peace talks that eventually concluded the U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The round table—Dunn's circle "we are compelled / to live with"—equalizes the status of all people who sit there and gives priority to no particular point of view. As such it is a symbol of an attempt at open-mindedness, a willingness to entertain opposing points of view.

An ellipsis is a punctuation mark used to indicate that letters or words have been omitted in written or printed language to focus the reader's attention on the words that remain. For Dunn's speaker, the ellipsis may represent thoughts or feelings that are difficult to formulate and, once formulated, are difficult to express or to live with.

The "word / not yet written" may be unwritten for a multitude of reasons. The word may be, as the previous image of the ellipsis hints, difficult to write because it might offend others or put the writer in danger. Writing the word may be beyond the writer's emotional, intellectual, or spiritual capacity. The word may not yet exist; it may need to be discovered or invented.

Taken together, "the circle, the ellipsis, the word / not yet written" represent the pressures of the real world on the sanity of people who want to remain open to the confusing complexity of that world. The speaker asks, on behalf of this group of people (the "some of us" of the first stanza), "how do we not go crazy." The question may be understood as a cry, a lament, a kind of groan that builds on the "oh" of line 11, and the question is in itself an attempt to relieve the pressure of the predicament the question describes.


Negative Capability

Dunn does not refer in "The Reverse Side" to the English poet John Keats (1795–1821) or Keats's concept of "Negative Capability," which Keats outlined in a famous 1817 letter to his brothers. But Dunn's poem is unquestionably concerned with the idea of Negative Capability, and Dunn proved he was well acquainted with the concept when, in a 1996 New Letters on the Air radio interview with Angela Elam, he said

[W]hen I was younger, as most people are when they're younger, I needed certainties, or I craved certainties, maybe because you just live a life that's full of ambivalences, which I still do. But now I'm much more happy in the "Negative Capability" sense. … Keats praised Shakespeare for his "Negative Capability," that he was at home with doubts and uncertainties, and I'm increasingly at home with doubts and uncertainties.

The passage in Keats's letter that Dunn refers to is

[A]t once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Keats's letter and Dunn's poem both suggest that a worthwhile way to live is to attempt to be as comfortable as possible with the moral complexity of the world, rather than to cling to any simplified "fiction" (as line 12 of "The Reverse Side" puts it) that misrepresents how ambiguous life can be. But though Dunn's poem presents as brave the choice to live with "Negative Capability," it does not say that it is an easy or comfortable choice. To the contrary, the poem's last sentence is a lament about how difficult a choice it is.

Topics For Further Study

  • Dunn's poem uses the circle as a symbol of open-mindedness, inclusiveness, and willingness to entertain opposite points of view. The table at which King Arthur's knights sat was circular (round), as was the table at which the participants sat at the 1973 Paris peace talks that eventually concluded the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Research the long process that led to the choice of the round table at the Paris peace talks. What shapes for the table were proposed first, and why did the parties involved reject them? Draw up diagrams depicting each proposed shape. Next to them, list the pros and cons that were put forth for each suggestion.
  • Search a major U.S. newspaper for a story about groups or individuals in conflict over religious or cultural issues. Examine your own thoughts or beliefs about the two sides of the issue. Then do enough research about the side of the conflict opposite from your own opinion to enable you to write a brief, persuasive summary of this point of view in unbiased language. How, if at all, did researching the opposing viewpoints affect your own?
  • The publications of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) brought him in conflict with Roman Catholic Church authorities. What theory about the way the solar system is organized did Galileo's publications dispute, and why did the church see Galileo's theories as threatening? How long did it take the church to admit that errors had been made by the theological advisors in Galileo's case? What is the meaning of the statement Eppur si muove ("Nevertheless it does move"), attributed to Galileo after his trial for heresy?
  • What two plays written by Pierre de Beaumarchais (1732–1799) showed sympathy for underprivileged people and the lower classes? Who regarded these plays as threatening, and why? Which violent political upheaval did the plays foreshadow? Which composers were inspired to turn these plays into operas, and how, in turn, were those operas regarded by the authorities in the countries where they were originally performed?
  • What novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) is thought to have been influential in ending slavery in the United States, and how was it received when it first appeared? How did pro-slavery advocates draw upon the Bible to support the practice of slavery? How, in contrast, did anti-slavery advocates use Christian beliefs to call for an end to slavery? What is Abraham Lincoln supposed to have said to Mrs. Stowe when they met?
  • What novel by Indian-born author Salman Rushdie (born 1947) caused Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa (death sentence) on Rushdie? What was it about the novel that upset many Muslims, and how did they show their anger? Which people connected with the publication of the novel were harmed?


"The Reverse Side" never speaks of "fundamentalism," a word loaded with the judgment of a particular point of view. People who hold points of view labeled as "fundamentalist" by others do not often use that label to refer to themselves. But Dunn's poem is critical of the "terrified and the simple" who "latch onto just one story." For some, this is an apt definition of "fundamentalist." Racial, religious, and cultural groups have for centuries engaged in sometimes violent conflict to define or enforce who is inside and who is outside their group. This struggle may involve an attempt to decide which beliefs are "orthodox," a word The New Oxford American Dictionary defines as "conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as true; established and approved" and also "not independent-minded; conventional and unoriginal." Ideas that do not conform to orthodox beliefs or standards might be labeled "heresy." Throughout history, in parts of the world where groups with conservative religious ideologies have come to power, people with beliefs outside the norm have been in danger of being severely punished or even killed. In the last decade of the twentieth century, various media have often applied the word "fundamentalist" to religious and cultural groups that cling to conservative values, such as strict and literal interpretation of religious scripture, inflexible ideas about the roles of men and women in society, and opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution. For their part, people labeled "fundamentalist" often insist they are merely trying to maintain ancient religious or human values against what they view as immoral developments in the modern world.


For the most part, "The Reverse Side" focuses on the personal difficulty of living in a morally ambiguous world, rather than on larger political considerations. But the point of view expressed in the poem does have implications that extend into the political arena. Following the poem's logic, it can be argued that dangerous political and cultural consequences result from not living with tolerance. When powerful people insist on conformity in ideas or beliefs, the result may be oppression and persecution of certain classes of people. Methods that have been used to enforce conformity have ranged from suppressing the ways ideas are shared (such as the Nazis burning books during World War II) to genocide (the deliberate killing of a racial, political, or cultural group, such as the massacre of the Tutsi minority by Hutu extremists in Rwanda). The individuals or groups who have used such tactics to enforce orthodoxy have often justified their actions as necessary to preserve important values or traditions. The modern era has been characterized by struggle between the idea that some values are important enough that almost any forceful action is justified in protecting them and the opposing notion that human disagreements can and should be worked out by peaceful negotiation in the political arena. Though "The Reverse Side" keeps its focus narrowed on the personal challenge of living with moral complexity, it participates in the same philosophical discussion as these larger considerations, and is influenced by them.


Free Verse

"The Reverse Side" is written in "free verse," which may be simply defined as poetry without a regular pattern of rhyme or meter. In many languages when words are arranged in sentences, some words or syllables (parts of words) are stressed more than others. For instance, in the English word "before," the second syllable is emphasized more than the first. "Meter" in poetry is the organization of stressed and unstressed syllables into regular patterns. In casual speech people do not make an effort to organize stressed and unstressed syllables into patterns, but for much of history, poetry was expected to have an arrangement of a certain number of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line of the poem. The rhyming of certain words in poetry—a regular arrangement of words that sound alike—is a poetic device completely separate from meter, but rhyme and meter went hand in hand for many centuries as the two main formal characteristics of poetry. Many poetic forms were developed, such as the sonnet and the villanelle, which prescribed both rhyme and metrical patterns.

During the long period after ancient Hebrew and Egyptian poetry and before the seventeenth century, some individual poems were written without using meter and rhyme. But these exceptions were few and far between. In the seventeenth century a few poets began to feel hemmed-in by the demands of meter and rhyme and started to experiment with freer forms. By the nineteenth century, this became a major trend. In the late twentieth century, free verse gradually became the dominant style in which poetry was written in English, and poetry with traditional formal characteristics had to struggle against a reputation of being old fashioned. In "The Reverse Side," Dunn demonstrates the freedom of free verse when he breaks the uneven lines of his text to emphasize certain points. Line 13, for instance, ends with a dash. This punctuation momentarily "reins in" the progress of the sentence and the poem, a gesture that enacts or mimics the emotional meaning of this passage.


American poet Robert Frost (1874–1963) famously criticized free verse as "playing tennis without a net." But free verse uses devices other than meter and rhyme to give shape and structure to a poem. Some of these techniques, especially repetition and parallelism, are the same devices that ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Sumerian poets used. In "The Reverse Side," Dunn uses both devices. "Anaphora" is the technical word for repetition of a word or words at the beginning of two or more successive sentences or parts of sentences. Dunn's speaker begins several stanzas of "The Reverse Side" with "It's why," or "And perhaps why," and this use of anaphora ties the separate thoughts and examples together.

Meditative and Lyric Modes

Poetry has several distinct modes, each with its own defining characteristics and uses. Three of these commonly used in the twenty-first century are the "lyric," "narrative," and "meditative" modes. Many poems written in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are a hybrid (mix) of one or more of these modes.

The narrative mode is the one that "The Reverse Side" uses least, as the poem does not focus primarily on telling a story. Instead, the poem is best read as a hybrid of the lyric and meditative modes. Ancient lyric poems were originally sung (with a "lyre," a kind of harp). The modern lyric poem can be characterized as a songlike outpouring of the speaker's thoughts and feelings, a poetic mode that usually excludes material that distracts such a focus. "The Reverse Side" sketches a moral predicament with a few economical strokes (compression and brevity being important characteristics of the lyric poem), then expresses how difficult that predicament is to live with.

The meditative mode is less focused on expressing feeling than it is on working out an idea or a philosophical argument. The lyric can sometimes be quite dramatic in expression or the way it makes emotional leaps. In contrast, the meditative poem usually explores its thoughts in a more plain-spoken, subdued manner, and this is the way "The Reverse Side" begins. Emotion is hinted at, but thought and analysis are predominant in lines like "And perhaps why as we fall in love / we're already falling out of it." The meditative mode has been used for centuries to explore religious, philosophical, or political questions that impact on everyday life, and Dunn's poetry may be said to fall primarily into the meditative category. "The Reverse Side" is a good example of a poem that begins by meditating on concerns with both personal and cultural implications, then makes a leap to stronger feeling, based on that exploration. As was discussed above, the poem makes a clear leap into lyric territory with the question "How do we not go crazy" in line 15. Fear—in this case the fear of going mad—is exactly the kind of strong emotion the lyric poem specializes in expressing. And true to lyric strategy, once this strong feeling has been articulated, the poem ends quickly rather than introducing new elements.

Historical Context

"The Reverse Side" was written in the mid-1990s and published in 2000. In the poem the speaker's attitude toward "the terrified and the simple" who "latch onto one story, / just one version of the great mystery" is a mixture of sympathy and criticism. But in his essay "The Hand Reaching into the Crowd" from his prose collection Walking Light, Dunn (speaking on his own behalf) expresses an opinion that is more openly critical of those he regards as closed-minded. Echoing "The Reverse Side" almost exactly, he writes "We are our stories, which is why it is useful to know many. The scariest people I know are the ones who avidly subscribe to one story, one version of the world." In the essay he does not say explicitly what reason he has to fear such people. But one may suppose that what frightens Dunn is the kind of violent conflict that has often erupted in human history when one group has tried to enforce belief in their "story" at the expense of other people's stories, or even other people. The mid-1990s saw many examples of such conflict, including "ethnic cleansing" (persecution and murder for racial or cultural reasons) in Bosnia and Rwanda that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people; the bombing by Timothy McVeigh of a U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured more than 500; and the burning of more than 100 predominately black churches in the southern United States. Each of these events was apparently motivated by conflict between individuals or groups seeking dominance over another individual or group with opposing racial, religious, or political views. In the political arenas of many nations, the same kind of conflict played out in a less violent way, between rival groups who wished to limit the actions or privileges of groups with whom they disagreed. One example from the mid-1990s is the continuing conflict in the United States between those who want prayer and other religious expression to be allowed in the public schools and those who oppose that development based on the belief that prayer in public schools violates the principle of the separation of church and state.

There is another historical context for the writing of "The Reverse Side," a context personal to Dunn. While it is risky to draw literal associations between a work of literature and events of an author's own life, Dunn himself has connected (in an online interview with Philip Dacey for the Cortland Review) the tolerance for moral ambiguity to events from his childhood associated with the relationship between his father and mother. In this interview, Dunn said about his father that "he lived a noble lie…, a lie that I alone was privy to. He was my introduction to ambivalence and moral complexity." In his essay "A History of My Silence" from Walking Light, Dunn explains that his father gave all the family's financial savings to Dunn's grandfather to help pay hospital bills for the grandfather's mistress. When Dunn's mother confronted his father about the missing money, Dunn's father said he lost it at the racetrack, and he stuck to that story (except with Dunn, who later found out the truth). Carlin Romano, commenting in the Philadelphia Inquirer on how Dunn's childhood may have influenced Dunn's view of the world, writes "There were 'no orthodoxies possible' in that house, Dunn recalls."

Poetry, in general, is meant to be read without reference to the biography of the poet, and "The Reverse Side" can certainly be understood and enjoyed without knowing anything about Dunn. But poetry is not read in a vacuum, either, so a reader may be justified in finding clues in Dunn's own other writings and recorded statements that point to a particular interpretation of "The Reverse Side."

Critical Overview

Very few books of poetry caused much of a stir in the general culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the period when "The Reverse Side" appeared in Dunn's book Different Hours. But Different Hours did earn praise for Dunn from a small set of critics, and the book was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, one of the highest honors given for poetry.

A review of Different Hours by Bill Christophersen in Poetry refers to "The Reverse Side" specifically, commenting that the poem, among others in the book, conveys "the sense that truth is a chameleon." Several other critics comment on the tolerance or appetite for moral complexity strongly evident in "The Reverse Side," which is a feature of Dunn's poetry in general. Andrea Hollander Budy writes in her Arkansas Democrat-Gazette review of Different Hours:

Dunn's speaker is a man who occupies the territory of the 'in-between,' staking claim to a place without definite answers to the philosophical questions posed throughout the book—and throughout Dunn's oeuvre.… He is one who defies labels and who is unafraid of admitting this.

Emily Nussbaum, in a review of Different Hours for the New York Times Book Review, remarks, "Dunn's poetry is strangely easy to like: philosophical but not arid, lyrical but rarely glib, his storytelling balanced effortlessly between the casual and the vivid." Several reviewers comment on the clear, simple diction (style of speech) of the poems in Different Hours. James Lawless, writing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, notes, "These poems reinforce [Dunn's] reputation as a plainspoken man, whose sentences are easy but not simplistic." Joyce S. Brown, reviewing Different Hours for the Baltimore City Paper, similarly states

These poems, although thoughtful, require no hard work to grasp. Even their form is uncomplicated: free verse, short lines, often with stanzas lasting only two or three lines. The tone is above all honest, unadorned, in some cases as harshly critical of human turpitude as the prophet Jeremiah.

Most reviews of Different Hours were positive, but Kevin C. Shelly in an article in the magazine Philadelphia quotes an unnamed fellow poet as saying of Dunn: "His poems now are too intellectualized and removed.… He's trapped by be coming successful. He's full of himself. His poetry now is very introspective. … The more intellectu alized poetry becomes, the less successful it is."


Patrick Donnelly

Donnelly is a poet, editor, and teacher. His first book of poems titled The Charge was publishedby the Ausable Press in 2003. In this essay, Donnelly demonstrates that Dunn's poem is a mix of two distinct modes of poetry.

In a March 2000 interview with Philip Dacey for the online journal the Cortland Review, Dunn said: "I've been refining how to write the poem of mind. I've tried for a poem of clear surfaces in service, I hope, of the elusive, the difficult to say." The poem "The Reverse Side" seems to be the perfect illustration of the goals Dunn describes in this statement. That is, it can be demonstrated that "The Reverse Side" is (primarily) a "poem of mind" with "clear surfaces" which takes up as one of its main subjects the "difficult to say." It is helpful to examine each of these three qualities in turn, to try to decide if Dunn has been successful in meeting the goals he set for himself and if meeting those goals is enough to produce a completely satisfying poem.

It may be assumed that Dunn meant by "poem of mind" a poem in the meditative mode, in contrast with a lyric or narrative poem. The main focus of a meditative poem (the mode toward which Dunn moved increasingly in the late 1990s) is the working out of an idea, or a philosophical argument, whereas the lyric puts emphasis on expressing feeling (usually strong feeling) and the narrative on telling a story. It can be argued that most poems of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century are a hybrid (mix) of two or more of these modes. Poets combine the modes because each mode provides a kind of poetic communication for which the others are not as well suited.

A poem of mind is one written from the "mind part" of the poet to the "mind part" of the reader; that is, from and to the intellectual aspect of human beings, the part that thinks, evaluates, deliberates, argues, etc. What other kinds of poems may there be? To continue the logic of Dunn's phrase, if there is a poem of mind, there are also poems of heart, gut, or sex organs, those parts of human beings that represent deep feelings, unconscious instincts, and uncontrollable passions. And there are poems of soul or spirit, which attempt to address whether there is any part of the human being that is eternal rather than mortal, and if so what that part is like and with what it is concerned. Of course human beings' thinking, feeling, instinctual, and spiritual capacities are not easily separated from one another, in art or in life—though at different periods of human history some people have tried, for aesthetic, religious, or philosophical reasons. In resistance to this attempt to divide human nature, it may be asserted that one definition of poetic success or greatness is the poem that speaks equally well to mind, heart, and spirit.

American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) famously praised the kind of poems that "take the top of your head off" when you read them. It is instructive to interpret this comment almost literally; that is, she appreciated poems that put the "head" to one side, at least temporarily, to speak directly to heart, gut, and spirit. Even Dunn might concede that "The Reverse Side" is not such a poem. This poem seemingly wants to leave the head firmly on, because that is the part it is primarily speaking from and to. The poem's ambition is modest; it does not want to shake the earth. It is satisfied to delve a little into a difficult philosophical problem without solving that problem—or even completely stating every aspect of it—then to shift to the lyric mode to give the poem a satisfying close.

About that shift to the lyric, the poetic mode that emphasizes an outpouring of feeling: when Dunn said that he had "been refining how to write the poem of mind," he implicitly acknowledged that this is not such an easy task. The pure poem of mind may not be completely satisfying because human beings are not pure minded. So Dunn borrows from the lyric mode, beginning with the exclamation "oh" in line 11—that little word without particular meaning in itself which resorts to pure sound to convey emotion. Then the poem expands in the lyric-emotional direction with its question "How do we not go crazy" in line 15. The fear at the root of this question is the poem's primary emotional gesture, the moment with the potential to create the most disorder, and it provides depth of feeling to a poem that otherwise has a fairly clear, unruffled surface.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry (2001) is a collection of Dunn's prose about his life and his thoughts on poetry. In several of the essays, including "The Hand Reaching into the Crowd" and "A History of My Silence," Dunn connects his views on moral complexity to events in his own life.
  • New and Selected Poems, 1974–1994 (1994) is Dunn's selection of poems that he considered his best from his first eight collections as well as poems that were new in 1994.
  • Dunn has said in an interview with Philip Dacey for the online journal the Cortland Review that Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of the novel The Brothers Karamazov (1879), was the "first writer to wholly take over my consciousness." The Brothers Karamazov demonstrates—in its examination of mid-nineteenth century Russian religion, politics, and ethics—the kind of tolerance for moral complexity that Dunn admired and brought to his own poems.
  • The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith (2003) is a critique of fundamentalist Islam by Irshad Manji and a call for a return to the spirit of openness and independent reasoning that she asserts was a feature of the religion in its early years.
  • Religious Movements maintains a web site at that explores the concept and history of fundamentalism in the Christian churches. The site includes external links and a bibliography.
  • Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993), edited by Carolyn Forché, is an anthology of poetry that collects the work of poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Federíco Garcia Lorca, and Nazim Hikmet, who lived in violent times or who struggled against regimes with repressive ideologies.
  • Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) is a novel with the political mission to educate readers about the culture and religious pressures that force some young women in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to undergo genital circumcision.
  • Religious Tolerance maintains a web site at with information about the history of conflict between groups that want more religious expression allowed in the public sphere (schools, municipal buildings, etc.) and groups that want to keep religion strictly separate from the state.

It can be argued that the poem makes a retreat from the lyric mode with the examples the speaker gives (in lines 17 and 18) that symbolize the difficulty of living with an open mind: "the circle, the ellipsis, the word / not yet spoken." On the one (lyric) hand, these examples are mysterious; they do not spell out everything they may mean. They are content to gesture in the direction of meaning, and brevity and economy are quintessentially lyric characteristics. On the other (meditative) hand, these examples speak from and to the mind, rather than heart or gut. They are abstract, literary images, not easy to visualize, because they are mental rather than physical. "The Reverse Side" ends rather quickly after it reaches the outpouring of feeling in line 15—another characteristic of the lyric mode, which considers its goal accomplished when it has expressed strong emotion. But by illustrating its final point with mental images, the poem seems to retreat somewhat from the emotion that surfaced in line 15, back to the calmer meditative mode with which the poem began. Except—and here is an example of how small details in a short poem can have a large impact—the shortness of the poem's last line (with its implication of insufficiency), in combination with the line break that separates and disturbs the poem's final clause ("the word / not yet written"), may convey to the reader exactly the feeling of emptiness, unsupportedness, and insecurity the speaker is talking about in line 15. By these small devices, the poet infuses those abstract last images with a subtle undercurrent of anxiety.

One of the strongest clues that Dunn intended "The Reverse Side" to be read primarily as a poem of mind is the poem's plainspoken, conversational diction (way of speaking). The poem's modesty of ambition, and the qualified nature of the claims it makes, are reflected in its mild tone of voice. There is nothing fancy or distracting going on with the words in this poem that points to an overwhelming torrent of emotion, and no line of the poem would seem terribly out of place in a normal conversation. There are no "sound effects," like rhyme or meter, that call attention to themselves or try to appeal to a faculty other than the mind. The few examples of alliteration (repetition of consonants) such as "feel foolish," or of assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), such as "truth/foolish," "circle/word," receive so little emphasis as to seem accidental, as in conversational speech. This pared-down approach puts the focus squarely on the poem's philosophical debate and on the one emotional gesture. The relatively mild language of the poem is a signal that nothing specific seems to be hugely at risk during the moment the poem is spoken. Though the speaker's predicament is difficult, there is time to work it out in this philosophical way—or there is not, and the speaker accepts that. The poem does not solve the problem it describes, and it does not make any enormous, unexpected discovery. Even when Dunn makes his shift to the lyric mode, it is not accompanied by a shift in diction; there is no verbal earthquake to mimic the speaker's distress.

"The Reverse Side" employs one poetic tactic that tilts it, in spite of the meditative subject matter and tone, in the direction of a lyric poem: it does not spell out everything. Beginning with the epigraph (the Japanese proverb that is quoted at the beginning of the poem), the poem is open to multiple interpretations. The last words of the poem—"the word / not yet written"—summarize the speaker's belief that not everything can or should be written or spoken, because it is impossible to do justice to the world's complexity with mere words. The unspoken, the hinted at, is the territory of the lyric, in contrast to the pure poem of mind which usually wants to set out its ideas with much less room for conjecture. The pure poem of mind makes its case clearly—maybe too clearly to be satisfying as a poem—because it values scoring points and winning its argument over doing justice to any gray areas and ambiguities. But "The Reverse Side" is not a pure poem of mind: by including mystery as well as clarity, it frustrates any attempt at a single interpretation and instead encourages speculation. In poetic terms, this strategy is always risky, because a reader can go astray and the poem can fail. But in this case the risk was worth taking, because the poem's gestures toward what cannot be spoken give it a depth it might not otherwise have had.

"The Reverse Side" has mystery, but it does not have drama—it retreated from the emotional language that might have taken it in a dramatic direction. So, for most readers, it will not be a "take the top of the head off" poem. It is more likely to be a "nod of the head" poem, in which the reader acknowledges that the world is morally complex and that this can be frightening. It is interesting to speculate what a person belonging to the category the speaker characterizes as "the terrified and the simple"—a closed-minded person, in other words—might think or feel as a result of reading this poem. A truly closed-minded person probably would not read the poem at all, or any poem, because such people avoid challenges to their "one version of the great mystery." They avoid them for good reason—because most good poems do resist one story about the world, and every great poem does. But in a sense all readers are closed-minded to some extent, because every person has some subject about which they feel extremely vulnerable, some topic under which it feels dangerous to dig lest a fact difficult to face be uncovered. "The Reverse Side" has succeeded if it causes the reader to wonder if there is in fact any cultural or personal story in his or her own life that is off-limits to examination or questioning.

A reader who hungers for greater drama, more musical or complex language, or who longs to have the top of the head taken off, may not be fully satisfied by "The Reverse Side." But the poem has its place in Different Hours, where it works as an intriguing gateway to the third section of the book and provides a moment of satisfying speculation and mystery among other poems that are more straightforward. The "house" of poetry is big: there is room for this relatively quiet, restrained poem that combines aspects of the meditative and lyric modes. In other corners of the house of poetry is the gorgeous musical language of William Shakespeare and John Keats; the long, extravagant, "disorderly" odes of Walt Whitman, Federíco Garcia Lorca, and Alan Ginsberg; and the dark, intense, strange lyrics of Martha Rhodes and Louise Glück, to name just a few poets who might be contrasted with Dunn. The house of poetry as a whole, and even the work of these poets with far different temperaments, benefit from the presence of Dunn's modest voice, which attempts to speak in a way that is clear but never simplistic.

Source: Patrick Donnelly, Critical Essay on "The Reverse Side," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

C. E. Murray

In the following review excerpt, Murray praises Dunn's conversational style and delightfully taut lyricism in Different Hours.

The sampling of voices and poetic values in the five collections gathered here may serve to illustrate the scope, depth, and dimension of current American poetry, which seems to me based on a kind of collective unconscious. That is, the amazing expansive range of poetic styles and aesthetics that we label American has developed over three-quarters of a century of argument and innovation and counter-argument and counterinnovation, and the traces of that ferment show themselves in rich and varied ways: While Stephen Dunn offers a profound and unadorned vision of American middle-class life during middle age, Laurence Lieberman's latest immersion into Carribean island myths and misty realities provides revelations about survival on the edges of existence. David Bottoms's renderings of the South are deeply entangled with personal histories and mysteries, and Lynn Emanuel lyrically explores themes of self-consciousness, curious relationships, and literary obsessions. Lynne McMahon's jump-cut observations of self and her fresh guidance on intellectual resurrections are an altogether different treat.

Stephen Dunn's eleventh collection speaks volumes about the prominent place he has earned in American poetry. First, there is the consistent quality of his production at the far edge of mid-career. Then there are his graceful, fearless insights into the riches and ravages of middle age—whether basic conflicts of memory and desire, or related conditions of heightening mind and declining body, or the dailiness of life slowly draining of time. Last, and perhaps most remarkably, there is Dunn's conversational style, no doubt hard-earned but in its effect so casual, apropos, and compelling that it quietly surrounds the reader with recognitions that both inform and surprise.

The opening poem of Different Hours, "Before the Sky Darkens," establishes Dunn's tone and temperament as he acknowledges advancing meanings of time past and time left:

More and more you learn to live
with the unacceptable.
You sense the ever-hidden God
retreating even farther,
terrified or embarrassed.
You might as well be a clown,
big silly clothes, no evidence of desire.
That's how you feel, say, on a Tuesday.
Then out of the daily wreckage
comes an invitation
with your name on it. Or more likely,
that best girl of yours offers you,
once again, a small local kindness.

These are splendid stanzas. In the first few lines, Dunn lets us know that by his estimation things aren't great—even your hard-to-find God figure is having second thoughts as you play the emasculated fool. Yet there's hope—the possibility of getting lucky with the current love of your life. All this may leave readers wondering whether existence at this juncture is merely dreary or really dreadful. Are we talking the price of salvation, or just another good time before it's finally over?

Dunn's apparent resignation to dwindling expectations is, in effect, his way of focusing on mortality. He says, "I like the intelligibility of old songs, / I prefer yesterday." This sense of diminishment seems only half-hearted, though, and it's certainly ironic. Dunn is well-known for turning the mildly uncomfortable or even absurd situation to poetic advantage—and bravo for him. In "At the Restaurant," he again strives for two pounds of meaning in a one-pound bag, allowing how protocol and manners are fine but far from enough for any life that is passionately experienced:

Certainly you believe a part of decency
is to overlook, to let pass?
Praise the Caesar salad. Praise Susan's
black dress, Paul's promotion and raise.
Inexcusable, the slaughter in this world.
Insufficient, the merely decent man.

Whatever happened to courage and outspokenness? Who can still connect brains with guts in a world given to easy compromise, indulgence, and caveat?

The methodical, IV-dripping sense of demise extends to one of Dunn's favorite pastimes—pickup basketball. Indeed, Dunn—who played for Hofstra University—may be America's numberone poet when it comes to draining a twenty-foot jump shot. Here he stares down a full-court press with his ego exposed like a blown-out shoe, in "Losing Steps":

Suddenly you're fifty;
if you know anything about steps
you're playing chess
with an old, complicated friend.
But you're walking to a schoolyard
where kids are playing full-court,
telling yourself
the value of experience, a worn down
basketball under your arm,
your legs hanging from your waist
like misplaced sloths in a country
known for its cheetahs and its sunsets.

Despite his protests, Dunn the poet remains quick, funny, and fit, ever seeking that "wild incipience in the air," or better and "Simpler Times":

I wanted to be a regular guy,
she a popular girl.
That night she baby-sat, oh
a breast never again would be
that sufficient or that bare.
I stopped right there.

This isn't merely a clichéd longing for when the baby-boom generation "ran in from the clean, safe streets / to laugh at Milton Berle." The memory is downloaded with its accuracy and feeling complete, a resonating moral certainty. For all that appears to be complaint and disappointment, the net effect of Dunn's writing is one of fundamental encounter with what is best about being alive: love, art, interesting work, self-discovery.

It should be noted that Dunn uses as an epigraph the famous line of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa that "Life would be unbearable / if we made ourselves conscious of it." He also quotes Reynolds Price: "I regret only my economies." These thoughts anchor the continuing tensions that make Dunn's insights so viable. When he complains about "chronic emptiness" or suggests that "It's time to give up the search for the invisible," he also argues on behalf of "the fundamental business / of making do with what's been left us." To be sure, he reveals a joy in despair, high hopes in the face of defeat. This is a poet who exudes the demeanor to handle crisis with unusual grace.

Dunn also is firmly grounded in good sense, wisdom, and honest-to-God fears. The title poem opens with the poet surviving the kind of small-plane turbulence that leaves one prepared to kiss the good earth and thankful to have a future. Forget the diet; I'm alive and still able to enjoy that "dreamy life of uncommitted crimes." But as the dust of this life-or-death brush settles, existence returns to its limitations, intuitions, reciprocities, poor timing, occasional luck, and temporary respite from what inevitably ails you—as in the title poem:

No doubt, too, at this very moment
a snake is sunning itself in Calcutta.
And somewhere a philosopher is erasing
"time's empty passing" because he's seen
a woman in a ravishing dress.
In a different hour he'll put it back.

"Make it simple and sad" serves as mantra and motto here. Balancing a wry and altogether individual sensibility with and against an unobtrusive technical control, his latest collection is full of cautious smiles, acquaintance with disappointment, and, as always, a delightfully taut lyricism. Dunn is a force to be embraced.

Source: C. E. Murray, "The Collective Unconscious," in Southern Review, Winter 2001, pp. 404–08.

Judith Kitchen

In the following review, Kitchen praises Dunn's poetry for being the surprise that keeps on surprising and identifies Different Hours as being less about the self and more about the realm of ideas.

The difference between the elegant and the satisfying may be relevant to poetry. If a mathematical proof can be recognized for what it accomplishes, then some poems might be termed satisfying for their significance, their orchestration of meaning.

In Stephen Dunn's latest book, several poems fit that description. That is, they manage to become more of an already good thing. Different Hours has a lot of what we've come to expect from Dunn: wit and wisdom in equal measure, playful banter between epigraph and poem, serious dialogue between epigraph and poem, serious encounter with idea and concept, love of life. But there's a newfound sense of mortality that governs its message. On the back cover, Dunn states, "I am interested in exploring the 'different' hours, not only of one's life, but also of the larger historical and philosophical life beyond the personal."

Yet Dunn has made his trademark the idiosyncrasies of the personal. A few years ago, in a review of one of his books (see The Georgia Review, Winter 1996), I said, "My suspicion is that Dunn's inner landscape is even darker and more honest than his guileless speaker is willing to reveal—an idealess, imageless, almost wordless space in which he knows that the fragile body prays to an absent God and goes unheard." As if in answer, Different Hours admits some of that terrain—one poem is entitled "The Death of God"—and then explores it.

Dunn's poems never call attention to their craft, but he combines an ease of grace and wit, a simplicity of diction, and a rhythmical flow so that, neither image-ridden nor highly metaphorical, still his poems manage to mean more than they say. They reverberate with a kind of "aftershock," the surprise that keeps surprising. This is true for this collection as well, so the difference here is one of degree: the poems have become a fraction more serious, a smidgen more contemplative, a speck more solemn. And there is a slight shift in emphasis—Different Hours is not quite as interested in self, or others, as it is in the realm of ideas. He alerts us to this with certain gestures, as at the end of "Irresistible," where the simple description of the events in a movie gives way to his own interpretation:

That would have been understandable
and simply moral, and I wouldn't
have walked out into the welter
of the night, into the fraught air,
so happily implicated and encumbered.

Diction dictates stance, and the elevated language alerts the reader to the fact that something is at stake (although how many times can a word like fraught appear in one book?). The speaker is encumbered—happily so—by the complex, even perverse, ways of the heart. Never willing to settle for the "simply moral," for what Dunn later calls the "virtue" of the seldom-tempted, he is happy in his implication.

So this time I select a poem that ostensibly conforms to Dunn's own directive. Certainly its title announces something beyond the personal. In fact, its title raises—before the fact—all the red flags: of exploitation, of the possibilities for expected response or false insight, and of the poet's appropriation of the subject matter.

Oklahoma City
The accused chose to plead innocent
because he was guilty. We allowed such a thing;
it was one of our greatnesses, nutty, protective.
On the car radio a survivor's ordeal, her leg
amputated without anesthesia while trapped
under a steel girder. Simply, no big words—
that's how people tell their horror stories.
I was elsewhere, on my way to a party.
On arrival, everyone was sure to be carrying
a piece of the awful world with him.
Not one of us wouldn't be smiling.
There'd be drinks, irony, hidden animosities.
Something large would be missing.
But most of us would understand
something large always would be missing.
Oklahoma City was America reduced
to McVeigh's half-thought-out thoughts.
Did he know anything about suffering?
It's the naïve among us who are guilty
of wondering if we're moral agents or madmen
or merely, as one scientist said,
a fortuitous collocation of atoms.
Some mysteries can be solved by ampersands.
Ands not ors; that was my latest answer.
At the party two women were talking
about how strange it is that they still like men.
They were young and unavailable, and their lovely faces
evoked a world not wholly incongruent
with the world I know. I had no illusions, not even hopes,
that their beauty had anything to do with goodness.

Dunn manages to avoid the pitfalls precisely because this poem is personal. The speaker is on his way to a party. Life goes on and, in this case, its banality accentuates the import of the larger issues. So the difference here is in the way Dunn is personal. He has always wryly pointed the finger at himself, but now he seems a bit more willing to implicate others as well. The poem circles and circles, moving from the inconceivable event to the all-too-conceivable self and back, as though trying to find the "something large" that it admits outright will always be missing. And still the poem itself probes for an answer.

At work here is what I would call a deliberate deflation. The event in all its horror is undercut by the fact that it is being reported, then re-reported at the party, reduced to small talk even as it occupies the center of attention. The speaker, rather than imagining the victims, the devastation, the aftermath, simply recounts the words of the one who experienced its reality. "Simply, no big words—" a prescription for poetry, for how to make it real. Poetry, then, might be able to do justice to the rippling implications of Oklahoma City. The echo of Auden in stanza four at least suggests that the masters know more about suffering than does McVeigh; poetry is, after all, thought-out thoughts. But that would be far too obvious for a poem by Stephen Dunn, and so we are forced to turn to the last stanza, to the way "the world I know" occupies the same line as the lack of illusions or hopes. Although the poet describes his own lack of hope, the "I" becomes generic as we face our own dark honesties. Under Dunn's subtle direction, we implicate ourselves.

How has he accomplished this? With orchestral legerdemain, the poem alternates between the world of the party (which ironically contains the world of ideas) and the world of half-thought thoughts (which overlaps with the physical world of pain). We are never in one place for long. Instead, we are forced to see the event in a context—and it happens to be the context in which most of us find ourselves most of the time: we participate peripherally, as observers, and we try to make sense of it. We want to know why. Rights and wrongs eddy in these stanzas. They mix with each other until they solidify: an alloy of competing loyalties and conflicting ideas. The hole at the center of rationality is set against the very rationalism of the Constitution. Science, religion, politics—nothing will serve up an answer. Nothing is transformed.

We're happy enough to watch someone implicate himself, but less willing to walk out of a poem fully encumbered. Yet, under the right circumstances, we appreciate the weight of obligation—and that is precisely what gives Dunn's poems their satisfying quality. The significance here is the mesh in which we see our lives and their often-unacted-upon insights so deftly reproduced.

I think I am still holding in my mind some sense of the form of elegance. The poetry of poetry. On the radio, the sportscaster calls the plays. In my mind's eye, I see the game unfold. Players I have come to know move on an imaginary plane. The ball laces the field. The team has found its form, the announcer says. For a moment, the game is beautiful.

Source: Judith Kitchen, "In Pursuit of Elegance," in Georgia Review, Vol. 54, No. 4, Winter 2000, pp. 763–80.

SuAnne Doak

In the following essay, Doak discusses Dunn's education, career, and major works.

On the back of the book jacket of Stephen Dunn's 1989 collection of poems, Between Angels, Philip Booth states, "To read Stephen Dunn … is to see the complexities of one's own dailiness brought to light … One starts to see the flower on the kitchen table." It is this ability to bring to light both the ordinary, expected, nonthreatening aspects of life and the inexplicable, startling, even subversive elements of human existence that has made Dunn one of the best poetic voices of the late twentieth century.

Stephen Dunn was born on 24 June 1939 in Forest Hills, New York, to a salesman, Charles F. Dunn, and his wife, Ellen Fleishman Dunn. He received a degree in history from Hofstra University (B.A., 1962), played pro basketball for the Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Billies from 1962 to 1963, and afterward worked a few years as an advertising copywriter in New York City. In 1966 Dunn went to Spain, as he says, "to try to change my life and see if I could write poetry, which I had started to write after a failed attempt at a novel." He was encouraged by friend and novelist Sam Toperoff, and two years later he enrolled in the creative-writing program at Syracuse University, studying with Philip Booth, Donald Justice, George P. Elliott, and W. D. Snodgrass.

After graduating from Syracuse (M.A., 1970), Dunn taught fiction at Southwest Minnesota State (1970–1973) and was a visiting lecturer in poetry at Syracuse (1973–1974). Since 1974 he has been a professor of creative writing at Stockton State College in Pomona, New Jersey, while residing in Port Republic with his wife Lois Kelly—a chef he married on 26 September 1964—and their two daughters, Andrea and Susanne.

He has also been adjunct professor of poetry at Columbia University (1983–1987), visiting poet at the University of Washington (1980), and has conducted poetry workshops at Bennington Writers Workshop (1983–1987) and Aspen Writers Conference (1977, 1987), among other places. He has served as director of the Associated Writing Programs' Poetry Series (1980–1982) and has given poetry readings at Yale University, the University of Texas, and the University of Utah, to name a few.

A partial list of Dunn's awards includes the Academy of American Poets Award (Syracuse University, 1970), the Theodore Roethke Prize (Poetry Northwest, 1977), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984–1985), Writing Fellowships to Yaddo (1979–1989), National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships (1973, 1983, 1989), the Helen Bullis Prize (Poetry Northwest, 1983), and the Levinson Prize (Poetry, 1987). In addition to nine poetry collections (including one chapbook), Dunn has published reviews, essays, and interviews, and his work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies.

Looking for Holes in the Ceiling (1974), his first full-length book, which he considers "poetry that arose from my imagist education," is a strong collection, exhibiting a deft, spare style and evocative imagery. In "The Loss" he writes, "Even the tips of their fingers seem to be retreating," and in "Day and Night Handball" the ball is "hitting and dying like a butterfly / on a windshield."

The speaker in some of the poems is more distant than in Dunn's later work. "An Ambulance is Coming" describes how "a glove is lying on the curb. / There is a hand in it." But other poems have the ability to involve readers more; in them appears his distinctive, conversational voice, his ease of expression that contains depth of meaning. "The Rider" confides, "It is with me, that falling star," asking:

Who will believe me
if I insist
that a large man was riding it,
and the shell of a body
drove my car home into the vacancies
of garage and self,
without mishap, or a single regret?

Present in many of the poems is an implied violation of benign-appearing situations that Dunn uses with great effect here and in subsequent books. The title character in "Fat Man, Floating" "would like to follow [the fish] / to the bottom … and live without the kind of breath / people shape into knives." Moving from the imagined into the real world, Dunn presages another cachet in his mature work: the ability to offer insights without didacticism.

Full of Lust and Good Usage (1976) manifests his further turn to the personal and the direct, containing sharply drawn imagery and free verse that balances musicality with plain speech. In "In the Room," for example, Dunn writes, "He lets the laugh / bubble up from the webs / of his chest …. / He could have lava on his shoulders, / he is that weighted down."

Familial relationships, which Dunn examines with compassion and sensitivity, comprise one motif. Uncloying affection is shown in "Grandfather," in which the title character's "fingers were a cage / and I the bird / he wanted to burst / unharmed into the world." In "Waiting with Two Members of a Motorcycle Gang for My Child to be Born," the gang members shake the speaker's hand, but "it might / have been my head," and he concludes with a wish that his daughter "make men better than they are."

"One Side of the Story" describes a woman who "had the black dress on." The narrator is "thinking of ways to keep the light going." As in succeeding books, Dunn explores in this poem the theme of a relationship's difficult mutuality with eloquent articulation, ending: "The lights go out when we blow them out / or turn them off. It would be lovely, / wouldn't it? to think only what's been felt / remains: that black dress on the floor, / your skin and the drift of my hands."

At times in Full of Lust Dunn inserts extraneous images, such as that of "Sophia Loren … plac[ing] her / finger on a knot you are tying" ("Small Town: Cracks & Departures"), but most of the metaphors are relevant and incisive without histrionics. "Truck Stop: Minnesota" begins, "The waitress looks at my face / as if it were a small tip," and "For the Sleepless" focuses on "the dead, frozen bird / I stuffed in the garbage / [that] appears before my eyes."

A Circus of Needs (1978) completes what Dunn calls his "preparation for writing poetry." The strength of the collection lies in his increased ability to offer introspections about everyday life without succumbing to banality. "Essay on Sanity" cogently rejects veneration of the psychotic in poetry, arguing that even if those who are suicidal do "get to the reddest heart of things / it's because they can't see / the world of appearances." Insanity is an intrusion upon "the calm small ordinary / exchanges between people / who know knives / every once in a while are not / the silvercoated castrati of their worst dreams."

He injects wry humor into poems such as "Modern Dance Class," where an instructor considers the speaker a "toad among butterflies / he can't bear to look." Dunn returns to erotic discourse with "Scenario," which describes a romantic assignation at "Cafe del Amor," where the speaker says, "when sex intrudes / let no more than a gesture / end the tension." In "Belly Dancer at the Hotel Jerome," Dunn observes that "Fatima" is "blonde, midwestern," but her skill "danced the mockery out / of [her] wrong name."

By the time of his 1981 collection, Work and Love, Dunn was writing what he terms "poems in his own voice," initiating "a continuum on man/ woman relationships," but touching upon other concerns as well. "Late Summer"—with its powerful contrast of "the magnificance, the variety, of animals … / "which is a sensible man's proof / that God exists," to Dachau, "a sensible man's proof of the opposite"—is only one instance where he broadens his scope from an inward-looking cosmology.

On occasion he risks glibness, but unlike lesser poets, he is able to pivot from levity to profoundness, first startling, then pleasing readers with his virtuosity. "Poems for People Who Are Understandably too Busy to Read Poetry" opens with this line: "Relax. This won't last long," but ends with "what poetry can do. / Imagine yourself a caterpillar. / There's an awful shrug and, suddenly, / you're beautiful for as long as you live."

At other times Dunn evokes a more poignant mood. In "At the Film Society" a man/woman interlude occurs after a couple has watched a film in which "Liv Ullman touches … with a lust so deepened by grief / the rest of us feel our miseries / are amateurish," and "the best sex rises / like a trapped beast from our vacancies," compelling language that does not need embellishment.

The poem "Essay on the Personal" sets the tone of Not Dancing (1984): "finally the personal / is all that matters." In this book, Dunn hones both his subject matter and style, exploring new avenues to familiar topics and, from this point on, relying less on concrete imagery. In "Sick Days" he writes, "To stay at home is to believe too much / in the cycle of the water pump, / the ritual of cleanliness and food," and the abstractions "cycle" and "ritual" form a congruence with his lack of belief in the safety such terms promulgate.

Just when his analysis of everyday life strikes one as restrictive, he turns to universalities, grounding them in experience. Death, in "Wavelengths," is "a music … both popular and private," and fear is known by those "who've had experience with the dark / and know how it speaks." Loneliness is contemplated in "Atlantic City" while the narrator watches "the ocean in winter," which is "repetition's secret / link with solace."

"The Routine Things Around the House" describes a twelve-year-old boy's awakening sexuality:

I had asked my mother (I was trembling)
if I could see her breasts
and she took me into her room
without embarrassment or coyness
and I started at them,
afraid to ask for more.

Jonathan Holden commends Dunn's ability to achieve "aesthetic distance" and find "where the violence within meets, on equal terms, the violence without …." Dunn considers the poem less about an event than "a legacy of limits." Because the boy's mother did not refuse his request or step beyond that disclosure, he is later able "to love women easily." And because Dunn does not cross the line between revelation and exposure, he is able to share that discovery with readers.

Local Time (1986), chosen for the National Poetry Series, exemplifies Dunn's definition of poetry as "an act of coherence amidst the fragmentation of modern life." In "Round Trip," after the speaker is mugged and has "closed the door and [given] whatever in [him] wanted to be alone and pitied / its hard uncomfortable chair," the speaker is once again a sane man grappling with the world's madness, yet still able to hope.

The long, meditative title poem, "Local Time," also ponders outside menaces to a safe domestic world: "The house had double locks / but in the dark a wrong person / would understand: the windows / were made of glass …." Jennifer Krauss comments that it is "between the well-lit front porch and what's 'out there' in the dark that … Dunn's poetry dwells."

An element of this apprehension is evident in "Letter Home," in which the narrator admits his inherent, but often inadmissible, fear and need to the woman he addresses: "Last night during a thunderstorm, / awakened and half-awake, / I wanted to climb into bed / on my mother's side, be told / everything's all right—."

In "Parable of the Fictionist" the speaker confesses that he "sometimes longed / for what he'd dare not alter … something immutable or so lovely he might be changed by it." Dunn defines the term fictionist as "essentially someone who makes things up so that they will be true." This definition is important when applied to his work, because he states: "Though my poems apparently and often do draw from experience, I insist for myself that my poems go beyond their original intent. I feel that I'm in a poem with the first moment I startle myself. That moment usually creates an imaginative imperative that I try to extend and be equal to."

Between Angels continues Dunn's evolution into a poet whose concerns, according to Gregory Djanikian, represent a balance "between personal event and a broader historical perspective, between specific emotional upheavals and general categories of feeling and being" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 July 1989). The title of the poem "Sweetness" is an abstraction Dunn makes tangible by his inclusion of a discussion of the death of a friend's lover: the speaker offers "the one or two words we have for such grief / until we were speaking only in tones."

Tonal shading is what Dunn explores in "Tenderness": "Oh abstractions are just abstract / until they have an ache in them." He displays both subtlety and explicitness, as in "Clarities," dealing with a Chilean girl tortured to death:

Sometimes there's a pity
only the self can give, amniotic,
a total curling in.
I wish
they had killed him, the father,
allowed some end to what he saw.

"Forgiveness" offers initial tolerance for the "terrorist [who] pulls a pin: / Forgive the desperate, the homeless, / the crazed," but the speaker gives way to blunt anger: "No, no more good reasons." Poems such as "To A Terrorist" attempt to reach some understanding of people who perpetrate violence, "knowing there's nothing, / not even revenge, which alleviates / a life like yours," but to whom the narrator finally must say: "I hate the hatefulness that makes you fall / in love with death, your own included."

The title poem, "Between Angels," returns to the complex frustrations of "the bluesy middle ground / of desire and withdrawal … among the bittersweet / efforts of people to connect," asking, "The angels out there, / what are they?" The ambiguous boundaries of contemporary life cause Dunn to muse, "Oh, everything's true / at different times / in the capacious day," ruefully admitting the triviality of middle-class vicissitudes compared to those of "half the people in the world / [who] are dispossessed."

It is this duality of internal and exterior considerations that makes Dunn an extraordinary poet. Not only is he capable of investigating the personal without becoming confessional or mundane, he augments his range with external issues. In an age of prosaic diction, he imbues discursive language with lyric intensity, yet does not bombard readers with hyperbole. He maintains an impeccable balance between clarity and concealment, and he remains one of the best practitioners of a realistic and compassionate approach to relationships between men and women. Dunn's latest collection is Landscape at the End of the Century (1991).

Source: SuAnne Doak, "Stephen Dunn," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 105, American Poets Since World War II, Second Series, edited by R. S. Gwynn, Gale Research, 1991, pp. 80–86.


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Further Reading

Hirsch, Edward, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Harcourt, 1999.

This book is a collection of essays about poems from all over the world and from many different eras and includes a glossary of poetic terms and a bibliography.

Morris, John Graves, "Imaginative Imperatives and Intimate Ruminations: An Interview with Stephen Dunn," in Hayden's Ferry Review, Issue 28, Spring–Summer 2001.

In this interview, which took place in 2000, Dunn discusses the writers and life events that influenced his own writing.

Nims, John Frederick, and David Mason, eds., Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, 4th ed., McGraw Hill, 2000.

This book provides a guide to the different forms of poetry, including free verse, and an anthology of poetry in English.

Young, Dean, Skid, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

To understand the wide variety of tone of early twenty-first-century American poetry, it is instructive to read Dean Young's poems in contrast with Dunn's. Dunn and Young share an obsession with mortality and have the same appetite for moral complexity. Wit is characteristic of both poets. But while Dunn's poems are plainspoken, Young's are wildly surreal; while Dunn is relatively well-behaved and restrained, Young is extravagant and mischievous.

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