Dick Allen
July 2003

 

Born at the very end of the 1930s, just five months before the war decade of the 1940s, Dick Allen is a leading figure in the "transitional generation" of American poetry—a generation college-educated in New Criticism and Academic formal poetry but one that came of age and began to publish in the late 1960s, under the influence of the Beats and William Carlos Williams.

His newest collection is The Day Before: New Poems, published by Sarabande Books in April, 2003.

The title of Allen’s New and Selected volume, Ode to the Cold War (Sarabande Books, 1997) reflects one of Allen’s primary concerns: to explore and illuminate the changing consciousness at the end of the second millennium and the start of the third. To do this, Dick Allen primarily writes a loosened formal poetry which sometimes becomes stricter formal verse and sometimes free verse. His is a religious and culturally-obsessed poetry, but his religion is that of a western mystic deeply influenced by his early Zen Buddhist studies and his studies of modern science (primarily physics) and technology.

Allen is also one of the primary founders of Expansive Poetry, a American poetic movement, often narrative and dramatic or lyric-narrative, which has been devoted to bringing to contemporary poetry large arrays of subjects other than the "Self" and styles other than confessional or journalistic free verse.

He is one of the fifteen noted American writers chosen to participate in the National Millennium Survey project—a collaboration of writers and photographers, sponsored by the Harold and Esther Edgerton Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, who constructed a record of American culture at the end of the Twentieth Century.

He has received poetry-writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, as well as the Robert Frost Prize for Poetry, the Hart Crane Poetry Prize, Poetry’s Union Arts and Civic League Poetry Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Mary Caroline Davis Poetry Prize, and the San Jose Bicentennial Poetry Prize. His Ode was the first runner-up for PSA’s William Carlos Williams Award (for the year’s best poetry volume) and a previous collection was a National Book Critics Award Finalist.

Allen’s other books include Flight and Pursuit (L.S.U. Press), Overnight in the Guest House of the Mystic (L.S.U. Press), Regions With No Proper Names (St. Martin’s), and Anon and Various Time Machine Poems (Delacorte and Dell/Delta), as well as the popular text-anthologies he co-edited for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: Science Fiction: The Future, Looking Ahead: The Vision of Science Fiction, and Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise. For over 30 years he has been constructing a book-length sequence of 207 sonnets, The Space Sonnets, which have appeared in publications such as The Kenyon Review, Image, and The Best Spiritual Writing: 1998.

His poems have been selected for The Best American Poetry volumes of 1991, 1994, 1998 and 1999 as well as numerous other national and international anthologies. They appear in many of America’s leading journals, including Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, The Massachusetts Review, The American Poetry Review, The Yale Review, The Kenyon Review, Boulevard, The Gettysburg Review, among many others. A noted speaker (John Ciardi once called him "the best reader of poetry in America" next to himself), he has presented over two hundred lectures, panel talks, and poetry readings at colleges and universities throughout the United States, including a "Poets in Person" series for the Hartford Library and Center for the Book, funded by Poetry and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and tours on the Ohio and Connecticut Poetry Circuits. His reading in the famous Hill-Stead Sunken Garden Series drew over three thousand listeners.

Until his early retirement in September, 2001, Dick Allen was Director of Creative Writing and Charles A. Dana Endowed Chair Professor at the University of Bridgeport, where he started teaching in 1968, after teaching at Wright State University and at Brown, where he was briefly John Berryman’s teaching assistant. He was elected President of the Faculty at U.B. and won the university’s first annual Teacher of the Year Award, as voted by students, as well as many other teaching awards. Scores of his creative writing students have published in hundreds of magazines, as well as published noted books of poetry and fiction.

Dick Allen grew up in the Adirondacks foothills village of Round Lake, New York. He received his A.B. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University and his M.A. in English and American Literature from Brown University. He is married to poet and fiction writer L. N. Allen. They have two children, Rev. Richard Negridge Allen (b. 1963) and Tanya Angell Allen (b. 1971). Dick and Lori Allen live in a small cottage in Trumbull, Connecticut, a stone’s throw from Thrushwood Lake.

Notes from an Abandoned Interview:

1. About time:

I have two conceptions of time. The first is a "mystic’s" conception, linked with a Buddhist view. Or, to be American, Kurt Vonnegut’s chrono-synclasitic-infundibulum: all time is one, all that ever was is present now and all that ever will be is now, etc. We just seem to occupy a place in time. This is also in keeping with theories of time used in modern physics.

My second conception of time is akin to an existentialist’s. Even given the mystic and contemporary physics theory of time, we act "as if." I once heard the Zen Buddhist Alan Watts explain that when the Buddhist reaches a state of Nirvana or Satori, he or she can choose to operate in what we conceive of as normal time. So I put aside the mystical understanding and operate on the plain of here and now, "as if" here and now are real and not illusions.

Some of the lines of my poetry relate to the above conceptions. In a poem called "Time to Hear Ourselves Think," I’m writing of how, being caught up in worldly affairs (i.e. unreal matters) we forget that the unworldly, the true, the mystical and the miraculous (i.e. the real) is going on around us constantly. The effort in much of my poetry is to break through into the world of the mystical while still being able to return to the worldly world. Wordsworth: "The world is too much with us. . . . "

I feel we are here "inside a spell." That the "remote and near are one." That our guides are "maps and prayer sheets." I think that one can enter the same river twice. That life is a "wonderful impossibility." That "this is the day you might have died." We live "so briefly in time." We come out into Time and vanish back into it. Our own time, our 20th Century, turns "helplessly between huge shadows and drifting stars." Yet we’re "caught in Time and loving it." And "What we fashion [our mundane lives], though we cannot keep, we need."


2. About history:

Because we choose to live in our times (I’m enough of an existentialist to believe, with Camus, that we choose to live), history becomes important. And once we choose to live, we automatically take on responsibility. An awareness of history (this is an old saw) helps us to avoid the mistakes of the past, and to have perspective and understanding. Our own time is of enormous historical importance: the Great Depression, World War II, the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, computers, landing on the moon, the great technological revolution, future shock, new understandings of cosmology and physics and socio-biology, 9/11, and on and on and on. A fair amount of my poetry concerns future shock, tries to deal with the consciousness of the times. As Bob Dylan sang,

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

In my first two books, particularly, I tried to explore what that something that was happening is: death of Podunk, the photo-copy machine, the loss of small towns and small town consciousness, the growth of world-awareness in America. Even recently, I’ve been recalling the 1950s: the cities you could wander through, even at night, unarmed and unharmed. When I was 19, I hitchhiked around America (in emulation of the Beats), and wandered many of America’s cities—Black sections and white sections—into the small hours of the morning. It’s important, I think, to understand how much great enormous change there’s been in such a tiny period of time. Korea. Vietnam. End of the Cold War and now we miss it. The advent of such selfishness that now pervades a capitalist world (although I’m a capitalist). The pre-TV world, the pre-refrigerator world, the pre-antibiotics world—all in my lifetime. The pre-airplane world in my father’s lifetime. I grew up with an icebox and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. No radio, no phonograph. A car with running boards. Books and the woods and dreams. How we forget what so recently was.


3. What’s most vital to me about poetry in general:

I’ve always liked the very simple definition of poetry as "language measured and super-charged," for it seems to combine poetry’s two basic elements: some kind of rhythm and poetry’s great intensity. For me, it’s the sound of poetry that most often initiates a poem: the phrase or the line that flies into the head and wants a poem to be written following the lead of the sound. I love how lines and phrases from poetry can be held in the memory (some of the below are a little misquoted; this is just quick recollection): "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood". . . "Earth’s the right place for love". . . "Death is the mother of beauty". . . "Oh, starry, starry night". . . "The woodspurge has but cups of three". . . "I was angry with my friend./ I told my wrath, my wrath did end". . . "My object in life is to unite / My avocation with my vocation". . . "Sweet birds singing in the wilderness". . . "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born." "Traveling through the dark I found a deer / Dead on the edge of Wilson River Road". . . "There’s a certain slant of light". . . . I like how poetry can "leap" so suddenly from here to there—like the mind’s sudden leaps. I like how the unexpected can fly into a poem and out, the real and the mystical, the personal and the universal can merge. I love the simile, the analogy, the allusions, the secret codes, and how narrative and meditative poetry can move so rapidly and beautifully from aspect to aspect, time to time, person to person. I love poetry’s passion. And I love the craft of poetry, the perfect working out of a sonnet, a sestina, a villanelle, how lines and images talk to each other, whisper to each other, the webbing patterns that form. And how some poems can come so close to perfection—Wilbur’s "Beautiful Changes" and the tonal changes of such as Plath’s "Daddy." And the great intensity of Owen’s"Dulce et Decorum Est." The music of poetry, the imagery, the content, all in a construct that creates "a still point in the turning world."


4. What writers have most influenced me, and in what ways:

In non-poetry: Emerson primarily. And Thoreau’s Walden. But also William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, Sartre’s long essay on Existentialism and Humanism, Camus’ "The Myth of Sisyphus," Zen Buddhism of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, studies of mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. C.S. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West. Many books on contemporary science, especially by Timothy Ferris. The Leopard. Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. All of Dostoevsky. Hundreds more. We have a home library of around 15,000 books.

In poetry: All the usuals: Housman (I fell in love with poetry after memorizing some of Housman’s poetry when I was in high school: "Now of my threescore years and ten . . . About the woodlands I will go / To see the cherry hung with snow." It was Housman’s sounds and pure images), Donne (an early influence), Ben Jonson (I did my Master’s thesis at Brown on "The Transformed Worlds of Ben Jonson"),Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Elliot, Rosetti, Blake, Dante, Keats, Wordsworth, Milton, Shakespeare goes without saying. Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach" is a touchstone for me. As is Yeats’ "The Second Coming." More to the present are W.C. Williams "Tract" and "The Yachts," Eliot’s "Four Quartets," poems from Anthony Hecht’s first two books. Major importance are Sylvia Plath (for the intensity, if not the Confessionalism), Robert Lowell (mixture of personal and historical and political), Richard Wilbur (America’s finest living poet), Phillip Larkin (even though he was such a male chauvinist), major influence of Vosnesensky’s Antiworlds. Frost, of course, although no one can really "imitate" Frost. I like how Frost is universal and I love "Directive." My favorite line in all modern poetry is "Back out of all this now too much for us." With others, I consider Wallace Stevens’ "Sunday Morning" as the greatest American poem of the 20th century, and I’ve spent much of my life in poetry trying to "counter" it. I’m enthralled by the poems of Wislawa Szymborska. Poems I like most are those which are "lyric-narrative" and "Expansive."

I’ve loved Chinese poetry forever.

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