The Source of Inner Strength: An Examination of the Poetry of Stephen Dunn

Paper written for a college class, Fall Quarter 2004

The options for belief systems are limitless. Regardless of the faith we subscribe to, our faith goes through many tests over time. These tests demand that we count upon our beliefs to get us through them. The outcomes of these tests are mixed. Many of us lose faith as a result of the obstacles in our paths. Others find new ways to believe. Still, faith is something that is a part of human culture. It’s history is old and mysterious and reaches as far back into our past as we can record. Faith is also a common feature in modern literature. Science fiction writers often discuss faith in strange, and unfamiliar settings to give their readers a more objective perspective. Romance novelists discuss the question of faith and how it impacts personal relationships. From the dime store novel, to the greatest literary works of our century, faith continues to be a theme in contemporary writing. A contemporary poet, Stephen Dunn, often uses religious belief as a controlling idea in his works. In his poetry, we find that faith is not something that can be bottled or sold; it is something that we must find within ourselves.

We often put off what we know to be true, and turn to our religious faith for answers. In his poem, “Knowledge,” Dunn discusses the search for truth in a hazy world. The speaker of the poem starts off by telling us, “Some things like stones yield / only their opacity, / remain inscrutably themselves” (lines 1-3). When the stones fail to yield the answers we are searching for, the speaker tells us in lines nine and ten, “God knows is how we begin a sentence / when we refuse to acknowledge what we know.” This failure to acknowledge the truth hinders our ability to discover the beliefs we hold deep within ourselves. Poetry critic, Robert F. Wilson Jr., finds this idea in much of Dunn’s poetry as well. He comments that, “Dunn has no ready-made answers to feed his readers; and in this sense…[his poetry] is not suitable for those who are seeking survival in comfortable images of womb-like rest” (as qtd in “Dunn”151). Rather than allowing himself comfort in the arms of religion, Wilson tells us that Dunn rejects it. Instead he embraces belief in our own powers of reason and its importance in our search for discovery. “Knowledge” gives us many examples of discovery that are not arrived at through religious faith. In the context of the poem, we see many scientific discoveries such as Isaac Newton’s epiphany about gravity, sleight of hand, and the sound of the ocean trapped within a snail’s shell. These scientific discoveries have all contributed to a greater understanding of the world we live in. The fact that these conclusions were not derived from a religious belief, shows us that our own self-reliance can contribute to the betterment of society and remain independent of our faith. The narrator in “Knowledge,” leaves us with an idea that might seem foreign to most Christians or Jews: “God knows nothing we don’t know. / We gave him every word he ever said.”(lines 25-26). Men wrote the words in the Bible, not God. If we take the words of the Bible at face value, as opposed to tempering them with our judgment, we miss an important idea about the men that wrote the gospels. Their genuine desire to make things better for everyone tells us about the inherent good that lives within all people. This belief in the goodness in human nature is something that we must search for within ourselves.

In times when life throws us a hard ball, we can step back and take a look inside ourselves to renew our faith in our own abilities. In Dunn’s poem, “The Guardian Angel”, we meet an angel who has grown weary of protecting souls when he realizes that they all die sooner or later. The narrator stands on the outside and watches the angel fall into a state of hopelessness: “The signs are clear: // the drooping wings, the shameless thinking / about utility / and self. It’s time to stop.” (lines 6-9). This feeling of having no power continues even as the angel returns to Heaven to take a break from his seemingly unworthy task. The angel returns to heaven to recharge his batteries. He loses himself in the arms of the Angel of Love, and begins to feel his soul restored, but his return to his assigned task takes on a sour note: “Yet how hard it is to descend into sadness once more.” (lines 17-18). He tries to stand between the bad things that he sees humans facing every day, bank foreclosure, the strong overpowering the weak, and yet nothing seems to change. But somehow, the angel manages to move on: “Even his lamentations are unheard, / though now, / in for the long haul, trying to live / beyond despair, he believes, he needs / to believe / everything he does takes root, hums // beneath the surfaces of the world.” (lines 28-34). Even though no one else can share his pain, he finds a way to keep going. He finds the strength he was searching for in his own willpower, not in heaven. Even though it’s a hard task, he finds the a way to believe that there is purpose and meaning in it by searching within himself for personal faith within the scope of his deeds.

The inability to find faith within ourselves, can lead to the destruction of religious belief. In “The Death of God”, the speaker tells us of a dark day, when a rumor has been spread to the angels in heaven that God has died. Lost and confused, the angels wander around in a daze, “New to questioning, dashed by the dry light / of reason, some fell into despair. Many disappeared. / A few wandered naturally toward power,” (lines 7-9). Those who wandered toward power lost sight of what they believed. They did the work of dictators who needed their powers to represent them. They lowered themselves and, “murdered sweetly and extolled the greater good.” (line 13). As they continue to try to find their way through this dark time, Satan simply watches to see what’s going to happen next. Meanwhile, the hole in the hearts of people who have noticed God’s absence begins to be filled by shopping malls and material goods. Antique shops begin to carry the icons of Christianity to make a fast buck. Old churches fall into disrepair. Belief in God and in our own ability to help ourselves is fleeting, “The old churches were homes for the poor.” (line 21.) The homeless use the churches for shelter. The speaker sees this, but the passing reference, with no further details about their situation shows us that no one cares about their situation. But there is hope for those who continue to have faith: “And yet before meals and at bedtime / and in the iconographies of dreams, / God took his invisible place in the kingdom of need.” (lines 22-24). In homes where people continue to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, God is there. His presence is a result of the faithful holding on to what they know in their own hearts to be true.

Faith in religion is not the only thing that we can trust in at the end of the day. It is a guide that leads us into our own levels of introspection, which will help us find our personal truth. Without seeking out our own truth, we can never come to understand the true power of our faith. The power that it has to heal our souls when we are hurting and to give us strength when we need support can be found within ourselves. Faith can have numerous positive impacts on our lives, but without the ability to believe in ourselves it is empty and holds little meaning.

Works Cited

“Dunn, Stephen.” Contemporary Literary Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the

Works of Today’s Novelists, Poets, Playwrights, Short Story Writers,

Scriptwriters, and Other Creative Writers. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski.

Vol. 36. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 151-56.

Dunn, Stephen. “The Death of God.” Different Hours

New York: W.W. Norton & Company 2000. 26.

Dunn, Stephen. “Knowledge.” Van Cleave 93-94.

Dunn, Stephen. “The Guardian Angel.” Van Cleave 90-91.

Van Cleave, Ryan G., ed. Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes.

New York: Longman, 2003.