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Carl Dennis, Buffalo's Pulitzer-winning poet, gives a reading at the Center for Inquiry

Poet Carl Dennis did not grow up in Buffalo, but he has made it his home. Dennis was born in St. Louis in 1939. He attended both Oberlin College and the University of Chicago before graduating from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in English.

Dennis came to the University at Buffalo in 1966 after receiving a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, and remained a professor at UB until 2002, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection Practical Gods. Dennis has published 10 books in total, including his most recent poetry collection Unknown Friends (Penguin, 2007).

Dennis didn’t start writing poetry until the age of 28, when he was already teaching at UB. In an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth of PBS’s Online News Hour, Dennis spoke of his love for the craft. “I found that writing poetry—which I didn’t have a lot of time for then, because I was a new teacher—was the thing that gave me the most pleasure, the thing I felt most alive when I was doing. So I wanted to do as much of it as I could.” Regarding Dennis’s Pulitzer-winning work, Mike Schneider, a poet and critic writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said, “The voice is calm, mature, stoic—a voice of reason searching for balance…It’s a voice that wears wide knowledge lightly, with surface simplicity that’s often deceptive.”

Dennis’s work is often unnerving in its constant questioning of one’s decisions and how they have affected the present. In his poem “The God that Loves You” from Practical Gods, Dennis creates a situation in which a deity is utterly concerned with the course of an unnamed realtor’s life:

It must be troubling for the god who loves you

To ponder how much happier you’d be today

Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.

It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings

Driving home from the office, content with your week—

Three fine houses sold to deserving families—

Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened

Had you gone to your second choice for college,

Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted

Whose ardent opinions on painting and music

Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.

A life thirty points above the life you’re living

On any scale of satisfaction. And every point

A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.

You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you

Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments

So she can save her empathy for the children.

And would you want this god to compare your wife

With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?

It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation

You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight

Than the conversation you’re used to.

And think how this loving god would feel

Knowing that the man next in line for your wife

Would have pleased her more than you ever will

Even on your best days, when you really try.

Can you sleep at night believing a god like that

Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives

You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is

And what could have been will remain alive for him

Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill

Running out in the snow for the morning paper,

Losing eleven years that the god who loves you

Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene

Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him

No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend

No closer than the actual friend you made at college,

The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight

And write him about the life you can talk about

With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,

Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.

Dennis’s work is filled with the idea of multiple destinies, most often the destiny that has been realized juxtaposed with the destiny that could have been. This second-guessing creates a nervousness and uncertainty that is demonstrated in other poems. His poem “At the Border,” from his collection New and Selected Poems, 1974-2004, aims this problem of uncertainty at the future: “Are you sure you’re ready to leave,/To cross the bridge that begins/Under a clear Sky and ends in fog?” Buffalo’s influence on Dennis is clear in this poem, as the Niagara River becomes a reminder the barrier between what is familiar and what is foreign.

While his Pulitzer Prize is certainly Dennis’ most prestigious award, he has earned many other accolades. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he won the Ruth Lilly Prize awarded by Poetry Magazine in 2000.

Dennis gives a reading on Wednesday, March 4, at the Center for Inquiry (1310 Sweet Home Road, Amherst). The event is sponsored by Just Buffalo Literary Center and begins at 7:30pm.

justin sondel

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