Friday, February 25, 2011

Review: Practical Gods by Carl Dennis

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2001

This is the first time I've reviewed a book of poetry on this blog. Poetry is difficult because sometimes it really is hard to tell what is "good" poetry and what is "bad" poetry. The fact that Practical Gods won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 is a clue that this poetry is pretty good. But how else can you tell? As you ponder this question, watch this extremely entertaining trailer for the movie "Bad Writing":

Here's what stuck out to me in this video: "You're not writing for yourself, you are writing for everybody else in the world." Good poetry can be personal, but it's always relatable. Practical Gods is full of beautiful, relatable poetry that is easy to get - his writing is not abstract or overly wordy. He addresses religious themes and ideas and applies them in a "practical" way. For example, in the poem "Department Store" he writes,
"Thou shall not covet,' hardest of the Commandments, 
Is listed last so the others won't be neglected. 
An hour a day of practice is all that anyone 
Can expect you to spare, and in ten years' time 
You may find you've outgrown your earlier hankering 
For your neighbor's house, though his is brick 
And yours is clapboard, though his contains a family.
 The poem goes on to describe the moment the narrator sees a father and son  in the sweater section of the department store.
All will go well if you hold you focus steady 
On what's before you and cast no covetous eye 
On the middle-aged man across the aisle 
In women's accessories as he converses quietly 
With his teenaged son
 ... as they discuss a gift to get for his mother. The final line says,
Think how angry 
You'll be at yourself tomorrow if you let their purchase 
Make you unhappy with yours, ashamed 
Of a sweater on sale that fits you well, 
Gray-blue, your favorite color.
Why is "thou shalt not covet" the hardest of the Commandments? Is it really a sin to covet a home and a family, to be lonely? Each poem touches on similar themes that make you think about and sometimes question religious ideals that many people take for granted.

 In in interview on PBS, Dennis said that he wanted his writing to sound like an individual talking to an individual. I believe that this is what makes his poetry unique and truly great. I loved this book and would highly recommend it for those who loved poetry, as well as those who aren't so sure about poetry and want to start with something that's pretty accessible.

Verdict: Stick this one on the shelf. 

Warnings: None.

What I'm reading next: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.