Archives for posts with tag: Stephen Dunn

Over the past months, well since its inception really, I have received some informal feedback on this blog. The criticisms mainly focus on the title, ‘suffering’, and the content (which hopefully reflects the title…).

For some, I guess the word ‘suffering’ has a penitential connotation. For others, the blog content has a seriousness that weighs heavily on them.

I make no apologies for the blog title or content.

For me, life is wondrously rich and various and unpredictable and complex and enigmatic and contrary.

It is what it is, a heady mix of challenging stuff.

For me also, suffering does not have the negative connotations that it appears to have for others. Suffering is part of the complicated mix of what it means to be alive and living and experiencing.

Today, I thought I would throw a smidge of happiness into this rich mix, given the current climate of ‘Happy New Year’, which has followed swiftly on from ‘Happy Christmas’…

I have chosen two poems.

Firstly, from Raymond Carver’s Happiness:

‘Happiness. It comes on

unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,

any early morning talk about it.’

Secondly, Stephen Dunn’s similarly titled poem, Happiness:

A state you must dare not enter

with hopes of staying,

quicksand in the marshes, and all

the roads leading to a castle

that doesn’t exist.

But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above

the crocodiles,

and its doors forever open.’


…and lastly, at least for now (I have asked Father Christmas for the Collected Poems, so…), I will end these limited musings on the works of Stephen Dunn on a positive note.

What I like most about the poem Happiness (in: Staying Alive. Neil Astley (ed). Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005, p.81), is the poet’s acknowledgement that happiness, like most emotions, is fleeting and transient:

‘A state you must dare not enter

with hopes of staying…’

But, in the the space of a very short poem, he also recognises that happiness, although transient, always remains a possibility:

‘But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above

the crocodiles,

and its doors forever open.’

I thought of Julia Darling’s poem, Chemotherapy (in: Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine. Lavinia Greenlaw (ed). London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2007, p.62) in which, although Darling openly acknowledges that her life with cancer has changed dramatically – ‘I never thought that life could get this small…’, she also observes that hers is a life that is not without a joy of sorts:

‘I am not unhappy. I have learnt to drift

and sip. The smallest things are gifts.’


The more I read of Stephen Dunn’s poetry, the more I love, and gain.

I think I most love his pragmatism, his way of saying things as they are, unembellished, direct and authentic.

From his poem Sadness (Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, Neil Astley (ed), Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005, p.120):

‘I told my friend who courted it

not to suffer

on purpose, not to fall in love

with sadness

because it would be naturally theirs

without assistance’


Honest, and true, and encapsulates it all, with the merest of words…


I have only just really properly discovered the American poet Stephen Dunn. Born in 1939, he has written 15 collections, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

From what I have read so far, I love the acuteness of his poems, and their emotional immediacy. Fearless in terms of tackling ‘big’ emotions, he tackles the most painful, and real, of life events:

From Sweetness (Staying Alive, Neil Astley (ed), Bloodaxe 2002, p.121):

‘Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear

one more friend

waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason…’

‘…Tonight a friend called to say his lover

was killed in a car

he was driving.’

Yet this is not a downcast or maudlin poem, more an acknowledgement of how life is, the cliches but truisms of ups and downs, positives and negatives, all of which reflect the fact of being alive, and of living:

‘I acknowledge there is no sweetness

that doesn’t leave a stain,

no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet…’

I love Dunn’s ending note, a promise of sorts that it may have been worth it, after all:

‘Often a sweetness comes

as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive…’

‘…As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road

it’s travelled

to come so far, to taste so good.’