Practical Gods (Penguin, 2001), a poetry collection by Carl Dennis that was partially written at Yaddo, is the winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Critically acclaimed by The New York Times as a writer of "wise, original, and often deeply moving" poems and by Publishers Weekly as a poet with a "warm, accessible approach," Mr. Dennis has been a guest artist at Yaddo four times, most recently in 2000. He said news of the Pulitzer Prize astonished him and that he was honored to be in the company of other writers whose work he admires.
Practical Gods is a series of free-verse poems that use religious myths and metaphors as a lens through which to view the smaller, more ordinary experiences of daily life, demonstrating that practical experiences can also offer personal enrichment and spiritual rewards. Critics have praised the poems in Practical Gods as "clear, precise, and sensitive."
Mr. Dennis also is the author of a volume of essays, Poetry as Persuasion (University of Georgia Press, 2001), and seven other books of poetry, including, most recently, Ranking the Wishes (Penguin, 1997). His work has appeared in several periodicals and in a number of anthologies. He teaches in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2000, he was awarded the Ruth Lilly Prize from Poetry Magazine and the Modern Poetry Association in recognition of his contribution to American poetry.
At the time the Ruth Lilly Prize was presented to Mr. Dennis, Poetry Magazine editor Joseph Parisi said, "…Dennis constantly surprises with the turnings of his agile mind, catching readers slightly (and happily) off-balance with perceptions delivered with disarming humor, irony, and understatement."
If you would like to hear part of an interview with Mr. Dennis conducted shortly after it was announced he had received the Pulitzer Prize, use this link to a page on the PBS web site.
Below are two poems excerpted from Practical Gods, "A Priest of Hermes" and "A Chance for the Soul."
A PRIEST OF HERMES
The way up, from here to there, may be closed, But the way down, from there to here, still open Wide enough for a slender god like Hermes To slip from the clouds if you give your evenings To learning about the plants under his influence, The winged and wingless creatures, the rocks and metals, And practice his sacred flute or dulcimer. No prayers. Just the effort to make his stay So full of the comforts of home he won't forget it, To build him a shrine he finds congenial, Something as simple as roofed pillars Without the darkness of an interior. If you're lucky, he'll want to sit on the steps Under the stars for as long as you live And sniff the fragrance of wine and barley As it blows from the altar on a salty sea breeze. He'll want, when you die, to offer his services As a guide on the shadowy path to the underworld. Not till you reach the watery crossing Will he leave your side, and even then He'll shout instructions as you slip from your shoes And wade alone into that dark river.
A CHANCE FOR THE SOUL
Am I leading the life that my soul, Mortal or not, wants me to lead is a question That seems at least as meaningful as the question Am I leading the life I want to live, Given the vagueness of the pronoun "I," The number of things it wants at any moment. Fictive or not, the soul asks for a few things only, If not just one. So life would be clearer If it weren't so silent, inaudible Even here in the yard an hour past sundown When the pair of cardinals and crowd of starlings Have settled down for the night in the poplars. Have I planted the seed of my talent in fertile soil? Have I watered and trimmed the sapling? Do birds nest in my canopy? Do I throw a shade Others might find inviting? These are some handy metaphors The soul is free to use if it finds itself Unwilling to speak directly for reasons beyond me, Assuming it's eager to be of service. Now the moon, rising above the branches, Offers itself to my soul as a double, Its scarred face an image of the disappointment I'm ready to say I've caused if the soul Names the particulars and suggests amendments. So fine are the threads that the moon Uses to tug at the ocean that Galileo himself Couldn't imagine them. He tried to explain the tides By the earth's momentum as yesterday I tried to explain my early waking Three hours before dawn by street noise. Now I'm ready to posit a tug Or nudge from the soul. Some insight Too important to be put off till morning Might have been mine if I'd opened myself To the occasion as now I do. Here's a chance for the soul to fit its truth To a world of yards, moons, poplars, and starlings, To resist the fear that to talk my language Means to be shoehorned into my perspective Till it thinks as I do, narrowly. "Be brave, Soul," I want to say to encourage it. "Your student, however slow, is willing, The only student you'll ever have."