Born in Queens, New York in 1939, Dunn was the first in his family to go to college, attending Hofstra University on Long Island in the 1950s on a basketball scholarship and later working as an adman in advertising in New York City, before becoming a poet. In an interview with Poets and Writers, Dunn discussed his dramatic move as a young man from adman to poet:
“My first job out of college was writing in–house brochures for Nabisco in New York, and I kept getting promoted. I was in danger, literally, of becoming the men who were around me. So I quit and went to Spain to write a novel, and wrote a bad one. But I was trying to write poetry too, and those efforts seemed more promising. The rest, as they say, is history, or my history.”
The Last Hours
There’s some innocence left,
and there are the last hours of an empty afternoon
at the office, and there’s the clock
on the wall, and my friend Frank
in the adjacent cubicle selling himself
on the phone.
I’m twenty-five, on the shaky
ladder up, my father’s son, corporate,
clean-shaven, and I know only what I don’t want,
which is almost everything I have.
A meeting ends.
Men in serious suits, intelligent men
who’ve been thinking hard about marketing snacks,
move back now to their window offices, worried
or proud. The big boss, Horace,
had called them in to approve this, reject that--
the big boss, a first-name, how’s-your-family
kind of assassin, who likes me.
The sixties haven’t begun yet. Cuba is a larger name
Than Vietnam. The Soviets are behind
everything that could be wrong. Where I sit
it’s exactly nineteen minutes to five. My phone rings.
Horace would like to me to stop in
before I leave. Stop in. Code words,
leisurely words, that mean now.
Would I be willing
to take on this? Would X’s office, who by the way
is no longer with us, be satisfactory?
About money, will this be enough?
I smile, I say yes and yes and yes,
But – I don’t know from what calm place
this comes – I’m translating
his beneficence into a lifetime, a life
of selling snacks, talking snack strategy,
thinking snack thoughts.
On the elevator down
it’s a small knot, I’d like to say, of joy.
That’s how I tell it now, here in the future,
the fear long gone.
By the time I reach the subway it’s grown,
it’s outsized, an attitude finally come round,
and I say it quietly to myself, I quit,
and keep saying it, knowing I will say it, sure
of nothing else but.
While Dunn’s wide body of work cannot (and should not) be reduced to a single overarching narrative, many of his poems focus on the social, cultural, psychological and philosophical territory of the American “baby boomer” middle class. In a 2009 review of Dunn’s most recently published poems, What Goes On: Selected and New Poems - 1995-2009, Joel Brouwer of The New York Times noted that the “speaker of Dunn’s recent poems is a regular guy cursed with an understanding of human nature more subtle than he’d prefer.”
In his newest book of poems, Lines of Defense, Dunn continues to speak in lovely and sardonic fashion about the Baby Boomer cohort, looking back at their earlier lives as hippies, yippies and other countercultural protestors. In “It Was A Time”, Dunn speaks elegiacally about his early adult years during the Sixties when the country’s sense of its own innocence was eroding by the day because of the Vietnam War, and because of heartbreaking events that were happening in places like Selma and Birmingham. It was a time when social movements were taken on by impassioned American youth who protested much and trusted no one over 30.
It Was A Time
Some of us just wanted to drop out, go far away
from integrity’s demands. Others sought strange
consultations with their almost vanished selves.
And the brave, they would need somewhere
in zero weather to subvert the drift of the land.
It was a time to link arms, or cross the border.
And who were you, and who was I?
Such questions seemed like a lifelong job.
We put the world on notice, and the world
hardly noticed, When we occupied the offices
of people who just wanted to do their jobs
and go home, we thought we’d done something
historical, bold. We desired to be as compelling
as Belmondo with a cigarette, Monica Vitti
looking just so. But always the familiar banalities
would return – an existential day followed
by comfortable night, the rhapsodies
of achievement, then a great smalling down.
No one could be sure what was true. In time
we became people we only occasionally knew.
Dunn’s poetry points to the truism that there is no escape from life’s everyday messes and demands, that no matter how comfortable we are, Baby Boomer or not, we cannot be protected from the manic, point-blank bombardment coming at us daily. While literature looks like it can be a pretty and promising refuge, it is only a defense; ultimately, we are all in the thrall of life, naked and without defense. Control is an illusion. This, is in fact, a place of great freedom: we are not in control!
As poet and novelist Mary Karr describes in her review of Dunn’s newest book, “Lines of Defense”, Dunn is “[o]ne of the greatest poets working in English.” Karr describes Dunn’s as being “lucid without being cold, philosophical without being hoity-toity, dark without being maudlin, funny without being glib. Read this collection.” Mary Karr is right. Read this book.