Gods that witness, but don't intervene

The Pulitzer Prize for poetry honors the many common deities of Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis doesn't have just one god. He has many, and they fill his poems like multiple miniature suns. There is one for each ordinary day, each unresolved human struggle.

"Practical Gods," which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, tracks these minor deities as they blaze or limp through the book's pages. Dennis's gods and prophets are by turn Greek and Christian; sometimes they are historical figures or artists whom the poet has elevated to a new plane. At times, these gods inhabit vast realms, yet often they stand mute and aloof while the speaker struggles to absorb both large and small revelations.

These poems are not, after all, about finding answers, and Dennis's gods are not focused on answering anyone's pleas. If anything, the book shows readers that they must intervene in their own lives. Take, for example, the closing lines from "View of Delft":

Don't be surprised if the painting lingers awhile in memory

And the trees set back on a lawn you're passing

Seem to say that to master their language of gestures

Is to learn all you need to know to enter your life

And embrace it tightly, with a species of joy

You've yet to imagine. But this joy, disguised,

The painting declares, is yours already.

You've been longing again for what you have.

Not every poem makes such a strong, affirmative statement. Often the work is bleaker, more wearying. And in some cases, the reader is left feeling a bit unbalanced by the strange juxtaposition of mythic traditions.

Dennis doesn't draw on just one set of stories, one way of seeing. He nonchalantly mixes and redefines. In some cases, Greek references inhabit the same stanzas as Biblical ones in a kind of rueful echo of Milton. Consider these opening lines from "The Serpent to Adam":

Just as Prometheus, the compassionate god,

Stole to deliver man from darkness,

So for your welfare I named the forbidden tree

The tree of knowledge. And just as he understood

The punishment that was bound to follow,

The rules of Olympus being clearly posted,

So I was ready to drag my trunk through the dust

Toward the glow of your first campfire. The poems are most successful when the speaker fully embodies the myth that Dennis has adapted or created. There is a universality in those moments, a hint of truth, as if a longing centuries old has expressed itself through a modern outlet.

But not every poem is equally successful or memorable. At times, the speaker is too distant, too trapped inside his own head, and the work jumps unconvincingly from one thread to another. The language, which is always understated, sometimes feels a bit too pedestrian, too obvious as the poems progress quietly, uneventfully, until the last segment of the poem.

The endings, however, are often a delight. In poem after poem, the speaker becomes more evocative, more urgent in the last few lines. He shares insight and energy that he seems to have suddenly discovered or reclaimed. Another miniature sun rises.

The irony in this collection is that Dennis's gods are both practical and impractical. They are practical because they are as unextraordinary as the needs of a speaker who grapples with basic human questions: What is the purpose of this life? Does any of this really matter?

These gods stand by to witness everyday struggles. But they cannot provide answers to such queries, and ultimately they have no real power. For this reason, they are impractical. Who can find solace from wading alone through an entire lifetime? Yet that is what the work suggests.

Even the book's closing poem is marked by a sense of stifled anguish, although this time it is that of a god, not a human. "The God Who Loves You" begins with these wry lines:

It must be troubling for the god who loves you

To ponder how much happier you'd be today

Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.

While people may think they're living a good life, Dennis suggests they might actually be getting something far less wonderful than what they could have had – if only this god had said something.

Some readers will not agree with the implications that run through this collection. But the value of these poems lies not in what the speaker has concluded, but in what the poems force readers to ask of themselves: Are the gods in these pages my gods? Are there many small, cold suns? "Impractical Gods" is not about living in feet or in miles. It is about living in inches with open eyes.

Previously published stories about other 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winners:


"Empire Falls," by Richard Russo


"The Metaphysical Club," by Louis Menand


"John Adams," by David McCullough


"Topdog/Underdog," by Suzan-Lori Parks

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