University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Poetry of Life

Pulitzer Prize-winning alumnus found contentment and his connection to the arts in poetry.

Photo courtesy of Carl Dennis

Twenty years ago, alumnus Carl Dennis (B.A. ’61) accomplished something few can claim—winning the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Dennis says the accolade took him by surprise.

“I wasn’t prepared for it,” he says of the award for his eighth collection of poems. “It hit me sort of sidelong and it took a while to fully take it in. You think about other people who deserve it, and you know you’re fortunate to have your chance. I felt good about the book and felt humility that it was recognized that way.”

The book for which Dennis received the honor in 2002, Practical Gods, recognizes that there can be an overlap between spiritual concerns and what poetry can do. It also contains maybe his most celebrated poem, “The God Who Loves You.” (You can read it at

“[It’s the last poem and] one that has been written about and rewritten about,” says Dennis, who was a professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1966 to 2001. “I think people grab on to it because it goes into the lives we didn’t live.”

Dennis recalls chatting with a child around middle-school age in a grocery store when the genesis of the poem came to him. “I was maybe 28 and learned that he was teased for his looks, and it just bothered me,” he says. “It made me feel very fatherly and protective and the poem came out of it.”

Dennis, who has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts during his career, says his lifelong connection to poetry lies in how it makes him feel, as much as in how he’s reached others with his work.

“Poetry gave me so much pleasure and a sense of fulfillment,” he says. “I wanted to see if I could make it my central concern, and it’s become my calling and what gives my life meaning. It’s the most intimate of all the verbal arts because you’re so present in reading it and, when it works, it has the kind of intimacy that’s rare.”

Dennis, who lives in Buffalo, New York, feels a strong connection to his time at the U of M. “The teachers just cared so deeply and wanted to be helpful when it came to your future,” says Dennis, who earned his bachelor’s in English from the University. “They [introduced us to] very interesting people to help you grow. Samuel Monk, for example, was an 18th-century scholar. He wasn’t a writer himself but an important critic and he made you feel poetry was to be taken seriously.

“It was also fellow students. Burton Weber (Ph.D. ’65) was a graduate student in English. He became a Miltonist, a student of Milton, and shared my sense of the importance of poetry.”

Dennis also remembers the writings of William Butler Yeats being a major influence on him during his college years. “It wasn’t one poem, but the way he took writing and made writing his own vocation,” Dennis says. “The way he was present—there was a human being behind every word, and I felt I’d like to see if I could also do that.”

Dennis says he has seen poetry change over the years, but it retains what he feels is important consistency, as well.

“You still look for the same theme of an original voice that is speaking to us directly,” he says. “It’s still so much about intelligence and passion, feeling the poet is taking what they are saying seriously. You still find poetry that is one subject connected to other subjects. I think all of this has been true and is still true.”

He also loves how poetry moves people through so many times in history. “I always remember that Emerson said that he wrote for the unknown friend,” Dennis relates. “It’s one to one…. And I’m so glad to say it still reaches people.”

His latest book of poetry, Earthborn (Penguin Random House), came out in March and focuses on the fragility of the natural world.

“We live in a time where our relationship to the biological community brings up many questions,” he says. “Our feeling about nature has changed quite a bit since I was born in 1939. I felt it was challenging to focus on this theme and think about connections.”

Eric Butterman is a freelance writer based in McKinney, Texas.

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