National Poetry Month – Poets on Poetry # 2 – A Poem by Stephen Dunn

American Poet Stephen Dunn

American Poet Stephen Dunn














Poet and priest were one in the beginning – only later times have separated them. The true poet is however always a priest, just as the true priest has always remained a poet. Ought not the future to bring back this ancient condition of things?

Friedrich von Hardenberg-Novalis quoted by Chris Bamford, Temenos Journal #9, 1988.

I don’t deny” he said that there should be priests to remind men that they one day will die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have other kinds of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.

G.K. Chesterton from Manalive, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1912

This idea: the kinship of priest and poet has rattled around the bone-bars of my heart for countless trips around the sun. Maybe it’s because of my conviction about how poems as we write them seem to come from some otherness that in moments of vulnerable clarity I call the divine.

Some poets aren’t shy about the link between the divine and poetry which makes a link between poet and priest more obvious:

Robert Cording (American poet): a poem is a form of prayer, an act in which the poet attends to both God and to what is before him.

Li-Young Lee (American-Asian poet): …when we’re working on a poem, we’re connecting or linking or yoking ourselves to our most complete nature which is God.

Christian Wiman (Poet, former Editor of Poetry Magazine and now professor at Yale Divinity School): ….I have at times experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am, and it seems reductive, even somehow a deep betrayal, to attribute that power merely to the unconscious or to the dynamism of language itself.

Stephen Dunn (1939 – ) is an enduring treasure of American poetry whose curiosity won’t let him be shy about  anything as far as I can tell. Especially about embracing certainties like the poets I have cited above!

Dunn has written sixteen poetry books (including his latest collection Lines of Defense published in 2014)  and he won the Pulitzer prize in 2000. His poems which appear effortlessly conversational (almost chatty) and casual, are the product of a mind obviously curious and quick and not married to certainty. His intelligence seems so understated in his poems that I  realize just how hot it burns when I see the scorch marks on my hands after I put down the book of his I am reading at the time.

In his essay Poets, Poetry and Spirituality he says:

[Wallace] Stevens defines the imagination as “the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.” The faithful and the innocent will call such power God. Others of us feel that, whatever it is, it has occurred because we’ve put ourselves in a place (say, the quiet room where we write) where we can be visited by ourselves and maybe make a few loose ends cohere. He goes on to say the secret name for God will never be found, and shouldn’t be…… By choosing to confound the One Name we preserve the mystery it stands for and open ourselves to a many-ness.

The closest Dunn seems to get to the sentiments expressed by the other poets above is when he says: the pursuit of the ineffable may lead us into a radiant dailiness. Similarly, the naming of what’s around us may lead us toward consideration of the ineffable.

So why do I bring up Dunn in a blog post concerned with the comparison of poet and priest? I do so because of my surprising discovery of a poem of his in Lines of Defense which does just that: compares the roles of poet and priest! Here is that poem. It’s longish but please try and bear with it. It’s vintage Dunn and for me the ending delights as much as it surprises. It ends on the cliff edge of mystery where, again, for me,  poetry and spirituality, poet and priest, stand together! Amen!


If the poet doesn’t yield to the priest,
as Stevens says he shouldn’t,
and if both reside in the same village,
and call on their powers to rectify
or explain the latest disaster,

does the priest become less persuasive
because his ideas are likely not his own,
and is the poet suspect for the same reason?
Would a good priest find the right words,
as the good poet would, in among the many words

passed down for centuries
on what to think, what to believe? Or would reverence
always get in the way of the true,
thus possibly giving the poet the edge?

That is, if the poet mistrusts words, as he should,
makes them pass hard tests, knows that they must
be arranged and shaped in order to convey
even a smidgen of truth, wouldn’t he,
although self-ordained, be more reliable?

But what if the villagers believed
they were saved by a prayer the priest said
on Sunday among the ruins? And all the poet
could do was elegize the ruins?
Would the real and the imagined fuse,
become something entirely new?

And what if the poet and priest were one,
each invoking the other as the crops grew
and rain was steady in rainy season, or,
just as confusing, things got worse
and prayers proved useless, and poems
merely decorated the debris where a house

once was? Would it be time for the priest
to admit he’d known but one book? For the poet
to say he’s read many, and look, it hasn’t helped?
Or has the issue from the start been a great need
that can’t be fully met, only made bearable
and sometimes served by those who try?

Stephen Dunn from Lines of Defense, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

What an astonishing back and forth by Dunn as his poems makes visible his mind’s wrestling. He is always questioning. He won’t slip into certainty. Yet what a wonderful and surprising ending. No declared winner. Just this need to bring meaning to the world, its uncertainties, and there at the edge of the mystery stand both poet and priest, serving that need. Are they one and the same? I still think so. But does it matter?

Or has the issue from the start been a great need
that can’t be fully met, only made bearable
and sometimes served by those who try?



  1. Posted September 4, 2016 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Stephen Dunn is my all-time favorite poet. Truly universal. Thank you for sharing this new poem of his! I shared it on my blog, too:

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for your comment! The idea of priests as poets and visa verse rings so true for me. Doesn’t mean all priests are poets or visa versa but a poet sure can fill a priestly function! I think of Rumi and also Li-Young Lee. There poetry takes me to a place of the sacred, for sure!

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