RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Stephen Dunn is one of the country's most beloved poets. His writing feels less like reading poetry than reading wise words from a trusted friend, the friend who is really good at turning a thoughtful phrase. Dunn won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and hasn't let up since. His newest book of poems is called "Lines of Defense," and it is his 17th. I spoke with Stephen Dunn recently about his book, and I asked him how he has used poetry in his own life.
STEPHEN DUNN: What good literature has always done is given me a language for the occasion. A lot of times not, of course. But I think the poems that matter to me are the ones that speak to that which cannot easily be said. We're on the verge of understanding but we finally get the words from the poem or the story or the novel or whatever.
MARTIN: That is made clear in a couple of poems that you've included in this collection about we navigate dying and loss. The narrator is talking about the pending death of his brother.
MARTIN: May I ask you - is this you? Are you narrating this poem?
MARTIN: This was a loss you had.
MARTIN: One called "The Little Details." I'll read a bit. It says: (Reading) My brother is talking about his icemaker because a man can't talk about his lymphoma and chemo every minute of the day. Can you describe what kind of relief, details, the minutiae of life can bring?
DUNN: Well, we live with the little things much more than the large things. For me, the latter part of that poem - middle to the latter part - is what's important.
MARTIN: Go ahead and read, if you...
DUNN: OK. (Reading) What's a life without its little details - trips to the market, a good parking spot. He has to hang up, has a bet on the Jets-Patriots game, which is about to start. He's sure the Jets will cover the spread. I make the opposite bet, our old fun. Later, I put on my Maria Callas CD, full of words I don't understand, but do. If your brother has cancer, how lucky to find someone to sing you beyond what you've permitted yourself to feel. Last time he visited he shrugged, smiled, threw up his hands, as if to say he was implicated in the big comedy now. Then we played a card game called Push and drank fine scotch and turned on the TV.
MARTIN: Such ordinary things.
DUNN: Absolutely ordinary things, and then the extraordinary things like Maria Callas singing mixed with that give us permission to feel something that we weren't allowed to feel, we didn't allow ourselves to feel.
MARTIN: And the other poem about your brother, it's called "A Cold Mist." It's a different tone, this poem, slightly angrier. Is that the right word?
DUNN: I think it was this poem that I resisted writing for a long while because I was thinking about what his wife would think, what his children would think.
MARTIN: It's about the memorial service.
DUNN: Yeah, and before that. It's, you know, there's no appropriate way to feel about death, but you find yourself feeling something that is antisocial a little bit, just inappropriate. I imagine that those are the things that if people confess to, they find out that that's telling the truth for others, as well. And people have spoken to me about this poem in that way; that it was a kind of solace for them, because they were feeling things that wouldn't hold up to scrutiny very well.
MARTIN: I'm afraid we're making this book sound a little heavy.
MARTIN: There are light moments that I want to talk about. Another poem, "Pedagogical."
MARTIN: You almost tell a joke. It's a short poem.
MARTIN: And that's kind of a biography of your work. You've written in a college paper about Stalin and you've described his acts as inhuman - is the word you use. And the kicker is that the response from your professor is a follows: Stephen, when it comes to think like that; human will do just fine. You describe it also as the beginning of your intellectual life, that moment.
DUNN: Yeah, I think...
MARTIN: How so?
DUNN: ...I think so. I knew what he had written was true right away, and it struck me as a great criticism of my calling it inhuman. And to think that things that are inhuman are profoundly human was the beginning of the thinking for me that I hadn't allowed myself before, didn't even know about.
MARTIN: While we're on the subject of your college experience, I have to note - and this feels like a bit of a departure from other poets - you had a very serious college basketball career...
DUNN: I did.
MARTIN: ...at Hofstra.
MARTIN: How did you go from basketball to poetry? Or did the two always coexist for you?
DUNN: No, no. The poetry followed much later, but I was always a serious reader. I was not particularly a good student, and I was a pretty good basketball player. I've written an essay called "Basketball Poetry," in which I try not to push the metaphor too far. But one of the points that I make in the essay is the similarity between poetry and basketball is a chance to be better than yourself, to transcend yourself, if you're hot that day. And that happens in writing in our best moments, where we find ourselves saying what we didn't know we knew or couldn't have said in any other circumstance. Those are the moments in poetry I live for now. I can't play basketball anymore.
MARTIN: But do those days come more readily to you now, days when you say, yeah, I'm on fire?
DUNN: Maybe a little more readily, in that I rarely start poems these days with a clear sense of what I'm doing. I think in the past few years, I've been writing hoping that every line is a line of discovery rather than something experiential that I'm just saying. I think one of the great dangers of people who write experiential poems - which I have written many - is that you might just say what happened to you as if it were important. You wouldn't be exercising any degrees of selection that you need to exercise if you're going to write a good poem.
MARTIN: Stephen Dunn. His new collection is called "Lines of Defense." Thank you so much for talking with us, Mr. Dunn.
DUNN: You're welcome.