Stephen Dunn: “A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who wrote in simple, plain-spoken verse”

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Stephen Dunn, Pulitzer-winning poet of ‘the difficult magic of the ordinary,’ dies at 82”:

Stephen Dunn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who wrote in simple, plain-spoken verse about how the ordinary events of life can become intermingled with universal longings and fears, died June 24 at his home in Frostburg, Md. He died on his 82nd birthday.

Mr. Dunn published the first of more than 20 volumes of poetry in the 1970s, but he found his literary calling in a roundabout way, by means of basketball, advertising, an unpublished novel and a master’s degree he didn’t earn until he was past 30.

“Poetry was an unlikely choice for me,” he said in 1995. “I grew up in a house without books and went to college on a basketball scholarship. I really didn’t discover poetry until I was out of school.”

He began his career in advertising in the 1960s and was “alarmingly successful,” he recalled to the New York Times. “I got promoted, and it scared me, so I quit, and my wife and I went to Spain with our savings. I lived for a year there, writing fiction not poetry. It was a poor novel full of language, and I saw that I should have been writing poetry all along.”

Inspired by the works of Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and Theodore Roethke, Mr. Dunn was seen as a major new voice in poetry with his first major collection, “Looking for Holes in the Ceiling” (1974). His poems appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and Paris Review, and he was often featured on NPR.

He departed from the “confessional” style of self-lacerating poetry and considered himself instead a “meditative” or observational poet. Writing in a plain, unfussy style that often sounded like prose with the reins loosened, he addressed the ways ordinary experience can be fraught with emotional complexity, sadness and humor.

Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove wrote in The Washington Post in 2000 that Mr. Dunn was “a poet who time and again achieves that most difficult magic of the ordinary. He can take you by the hand and lead you along a street you may have passed through every day without much notice, and suddenly, at this new angle, the ordinary reveals in itself all the splendor and terror of existence.”

In the poem “Modern Dance Class,” Mr. Dunn wrote that his hope “to be magnificent as if by magic” had foundered on his sheer physical limitations: “The instructor looks at me the way gas station attendants look at tires whose treads are gone.”

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his book “Different Hours,” which treated such subjects as his musings on eating breakfast; telephone workers repairing a line; and his 60th birthday, which he expected never to see:

Because in my family the heart goes first

and hardly anybody makes it out of his fifties,

I think I’ll stay up late with a few bandits

of my choice and resist good advice.

I’ll invent a secret scroll lost by Egyptians

and reveal its contents: the directions

to your house, recipes for forgiveness.

Stephen Elliot Dunn was born June 24, 1939, in Queens….

He was an outstanding point guard in basketball and won a scholarship to Hofstra University, where he was a starter on a 1959-60 team that went 23-1. He graduated in 1962 and played semiprofessional basketball for a year.

After his stint in advertising and his year in Spain, Mr. Dunn worked in publishing before entering graduate school at Syracuse University. He studied with poets Philip Booth, Donald Justice and W.D. Snodgrass and received a master’s degree in 1970.

Asked about similarities between poetry and basketball, Mr. Dunn told the Times in 2001, “The major one is that you don’t get good by wishing to be. A kid goes to the schoolyard every day and shoots if he wants to be good. You do your poetry that way, too.”

He joined the faculty of the recently launched Stockton State College in 1974. He taught poetry and creative writing until 2004 and maintained an association with the university until 2016. He was also a visiting professor at other universities, including Princeton, Michigan, Syracuse and Columbia.

In 2003, one year after he moved to Western Maryland, Mr. Dunn published “Local Visitations,” a collection that included fancifully imagined observations by long-dead writers visiting towns in southern New Jersey: “Jane Austen in Egg Harbor,” “Chekhov in Port Republic,” “Twain in Atlantic City,” “Dostoyevsky in Wildwood.”

“One would think it would be easier to be a poet in Paris,” he said. “But I think it’s easier to be a poet in a place that has vacancies in the imagination. . . . South Jersey seemed to be one of those places that was really not yet invented. Nobody had fully imagined it, or even partially imagined it.”…

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.

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