A Review of Practical Gods by Carl Dennis

Hilary GanHilary Gan is an Education Intern at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at The University of Arizona.

Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Dennis is noted for his use of the everyday and the everyman in his poetry. He is the author many collections of poetry, including House of My Own (1974). Carl Dennis has received many awards for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize for Practical Gods, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2000). He is currently an artist-in-residence at SUNY Buffalo in New York.

Carl Dennis will be reading at the University of Arizona Poetry Center on November 3, 2011 at 7 p.m. The reading is free and open to the public.

Carl Dennis' Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Practical Gods (2001) is a treatise on solace. He uses biblical symbolism and Roman mythology to illustrate the post-broken moment, when you have swept up the shattered glass and now your floor is slightly cleaner but you are short one tumbler in the set.  Dennis uses everyday imagery to cement the normalcy of convalescence, but the subject matter suggests a more spiritual crisis from which his poems are recovering.

In "Eurydice," Dennis speaks from the viewpoint of the lost soul herself, saying, "Your hope I would follow you into the light--/that was only a poet's faith in the power of music. /I followed as far as the law of Hell allowed me".  Dennis's Eurydice goes on to tell her lover that she would not have him any other way but the way he is--hopeful, even if that meant their eternal separation.

In most of the poems of Practical Gods, Dennis tries to get at the idea of post-tragedy: when Eurydice has been lost twice, once through accident and once through the tricks of the Lord of the Dead, where is solace?  Dennis offers real solace in moments of true life: in parking lots when trying to understand the point of view of the evangelists assaulting one, in backyards with a sander and a bookshelf, while reflecting on the Roman stoic philosophers.  Many of these everyday moments are shot through with his objective humor. In "Infidels," Dennis speaks of those who cause us small annoyances, without whose interference we would be able to get to our gardens and art and truly revel in living: "Let them go elsewhere, them and their hints/That our lives without them are doomed to be drab".

It is a small humor Dennis inserts, but a powerful one, one which calls attention to the limits of our knowledge of our own fates, or of how to bring about our own well-being.  This gentle backing away from the surface statements of his poems lends the idea of a larger life purpose that simply can't be seen, and an awareness that even those circumstances we find irritating are the moments that bring real beauty to our lives. He often uses the we, or speaks from the point of view of a culturally shared character, bringing the reader as a sidekick into his own attempts to fight an American poet's despondency with intellect and tiny moments of joy.

Listen to Carl Dennis read in voca, the Poetry Center's AVL collection!

Created on: 
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
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