Dobyns flexes poetic boundaries in reading

Acclaimed poet Stephen Dobyns visited Williams on Oct. 21 to give a reading of his work at Griffin Hall. The reading was followed by a reception in Stetson Hall sponsored by the English Department. An author of impressive range, Dobyns has published 20 novels in addition to 11 books of poetry and a collection of essays on poetry. His most recent book, The Porcupine’s Kisses, explores new territory with its intriguing grouping of prose poems, aphorisms and definitions. The reading’s selections drew predominantly from Velocities as well as new work and selected poems published in 1992; Kisses was also represented.

Over the years, he has taught writing extensively at both undergraduate and graduate levels. During the 1970s, Dobyns taught at Goddard College with Louise Glück, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and current Williams professor of English. Prof. Glück introduced her colleague to the crowd of roughly 100 listeners on Monday.

Dobyns opened with the jarring force of “The Gun,” first published in 1984. Listeners were forced into the horror of the poem’s events by the hypnotic and omniscient voice of the speaker, who addresses the young victim with the intimate “you.” Dobyns’ philosophy encompasses making the audience uncomfortable and examining that discomfort as an artistic interest.

Dobyns has consistently demonstrated that he has fear of neither violence nor the grotesque. “Santiago: Five Men in the Street: Number Two” describes five garbage collectors using their dirty hands to eat chocolate cake amid the filth at the back of their truck, as the “frosting dribbles sweetness like a cut wrist drips blood” – not an easy image to swallow.

In the hands of a lesser poet, such strong subject matter would seem unnecessary or excessive. Flannery O’Connor, one of the most influential modern writers of the short story, was criticized for her use of violence. Her justification, given at one of her own readings, applies to Dobyns’ work as well: “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work. . .reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost.” While Dobyns often ends with a rejection of grace rather than its acceptance, the rationale for violence remains the same. Only the extremes, either horrible or ludicrous, can galvanize the audience enough to achieve greater perspicacity.

To this end, Dobyns also employs a shrewd sense of humor that he has honed through imaginative wanderings such as “Spiritual Chickens.” In the poem, a man is so haunted by ghosts of the chickens he eats for lunch everyday that he is institutionalized for insanity. The twist is that according to the poem, the spiritual chickens are in fact real: “Hundreds and hundreds of spiritual/chickens, sitting on chairs, tables, covering/the floor, jammed shoulder to shoulder.” Yet rather than accept this reality, the man decides that it is “better to have a broken head – why surrender/his corner on truth? – better just to go crazy.” Speaking of the ridiculous in rational terms is one of Dobyns’s greatest strengths.

Dobyns finds inspiration in the everyday as well as the dramatic. Here the full range of his gifts as a writer becomes clear; how many contemporary poets have the ability to treat shaving in the morning with the same depth as being face to face with the barrel of a gun? Using the familiar as a catalyst, he begins with scenes already witnessed and stories already told. Whether putting a new spin on walking the dog in crowd favorite “How to Like It” or transforming the story of Eden in “The Gardener,” Dobyns’s control of language is remarkable.

This control is even more evident in his latest work. Prose poems rely solely on syntax without the aid of line breaks, so the exactness of the language is vital. The rhythm of the words alone determines how they should be read. Many of the prose poems began as aphorisms and were later expanded into fuller thoughts. Before reading several selections, Dobyns explained that for years he had been compiling and refining the material for The Porcupine’s Kisses. Because they are short and concise, aphorisms have to pack a big punch into a little sentence. The 90th anniversary October-November issue of Poetry offered a sampling of his work: “One was born with an intonation and went searching for a language,” “By not believing in evil, he became its accomplice,” “Pocket full of keys, owns nothing.”

The definitions are in a similar style, but with a different format. For example, “elsewhere” is defined as “where the good things happen.” Dobyns enjoys reading his work aloud; poetry is meant to be heard, especially when its intention is to provoke a chuckle as well as break down barriers between artist and audience.

Good poetry comes in many shapes and sizes. Though Dobyns’ new formats are considerably different from his customary style of long, single-stanza poems, the central idea behind the work is the same. In his book of essays on poetry, Best Words, Best Order, Dobyns writes that “a poem is a window that hangs between two or more human beings who otherwise live in darkened rooms.” With this observation as his inspiration, Dobyns has created a long and multifarious career, perpetuated by his proclivity to reach out to listeners through window after window.