• Deborah Yaffe

A poet of the ordinary

A poet whose work I didn’t know died the other day. Stephen Dunn was a Pulitzer Prize winner who “specialized in poems about surviving, coping with and looking for meaning in the ordinary passages of life,” according to his New York Times obituary.


I don’t read much poetry, so ordinarily I would have passed over this news with little interest. Except that in his 2003 collection Local Visitations, Dunn included a series of poems in which he imagined famous nineteenth-century writers visiting towns in southern New Jersey, where he lived and taught for years.


The series covers nineteen writers – nineteen writers, nineteenth century: get it? – but we need not concern ourselves here with Dunn’s poems about Melville, Chekhov, Flaubert, or Charlotte Brontë. Instead, we will focus on the sixth poem in the series, “Jane Austen in Egg Harbor.”


Dunn’s poem imagines Austen stepping off the local train with only a single suitcase and beginning to take the measure of a new neighborhood filled with potential targets for her sharp, observing eye:


She'd learn the nuances soon, maybe start a book club, everyone reading out loud before getting down to the gossip only fools don't love. She thought she might be happy here.


The poem is both a (mostly) fond evocation of a small town at twilight and an incisive commentary on Austen’s art. (Not to mention a Janeite fantasy come to life: A local book club led by Jane Austen? I. Am. In.) I’m sorry I missed Dunn’s work while he was alive, but as his poems prove, great writers live forever, no matter the neighborhood.

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