A Book That Taught Dan Guenther to Write

Dan Guenther is the author of four novels, most recently Glossy Black Cockatoos, the 2010 Colorado Authors’ League award selection for genre fiction. His collection of selected poems, The Crooked Truth, is the 2011 Colorado Authors’ League poetry award winner. A recent review on the Veteran Magazine blog “Books in Brief,” declares, “There is no mawkish sentimentality anywhere in this little book because of Guenther’s plain-yet-elegant language. Dan Guenther remains one of the finest poets of the Vietnam War.”

The Book:  Contemporary American Poetry

The Author:  Donald Hall (editor)

The Lessons:  power, clarity, elegance, and how terse images can be used for dramatic effect, irony, and subtle emotional undercurrents

In the fall of 1966, when I first discovered Donald Hall’s anthology, Contemporary American Poetry, I was in my first semester of law school at the University of Iowa, one of those disaffected, emotionally cool, spoiled, and upper-middle class youth coming of age in the late 1960s.

My writer friend Dow Mossman gave me the anthology shortly before I was called to active duty in the Marine Corps, and in it I discovered Robert Bly, Donald Justice, and James Wright.  For the next three years I carried that anthology everywhere with me, from the wet and seething jungles of the Laotian border to that green checkerboard of bamboo and rice plains south of Da Nang we called Dodge City. Reading that book changed my life.

When Hall’s anthology came out, many of my friends were already caught up in the skepticism of the times, rejecting the traditional bourgeois values of their parents, and looking for answers in counter-culture art, music, and literature, including the work of poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I found most of the Beat Poets lacking in lyricism, and often governed by a pretentious rhetoric.

On the other hand, with their plain, imagistic styles, Robert Bly and James Wright offered the reader poetry of power and clarity. Donald Justice gave us honest and elegant lyric truth.

I learned a lot from reading these poets, later acquiring Bly’s Silence In The Snowy Fields (1962), Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Summer Anniversaries (1961) by Justice. I learned how terse images could be used for dramatic effect and to create deft ironies as well as capture subtle emotional undercurrents. Bly, Wright, and Justice became my models, lyric poets of the inscrutable, their subjects somewhat varied, but always writing poems that resonated with our troubled times, and producing poetry that dealt with our deepest spiritual wounds.


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3 responses to “A Book That Taught Dan Guenther to Write”

  1. Julie Musil

    This blog section is such a great idea!

    Dan, I can tell from just the language in this post that you are a gifted writer. And I had never heard of Contemporary American Poetry, but it sounds amazing. Thank you!

  2. Dan

    Thank you Julie,

    I should mention a couple of things. Call these after-thoughts
    to my discovery of Donald Hall’s anthology Contemporary American Poetry.

    First, I was blessed with good teachers at the Workshop who all had
    a deep respect for Hall’s anthology. I took Poetry Workshops from
    Norman Dubie, Louise Gluck, Marvin Bell, and Donald Justice; and at
    some point during the course of the semester all of them used Hall’s
    anthology in their classes, citing examples and drawing parallals with the
    work we had submitted.

    Secondly, in my Poetry Workshops I was blessed to be around brilliant fellow
    students who shared their insights and perspectives in ways that were both
    meaningful and not mean-spirited.

    At the Workshop Reunion, Stuart Dybek and I talked briefly about one
    of Marvin Bell’s classes that we shared with Denis Johnson, Michael Burkhardt, Leslie Ullman, Michael Ryan, Liz Libby, and I believe, Tom Lux. Marvin did a particularly great job facilitating that class.

    Although we were a diverse group, I recall that one of the things we had in common was an admiration for James Wright’s poem on page 168 of Hall’s anthology “Lying in a hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

    With its clarity and simple elegance, that poem touched all of our souls. With Marvin’s coaching, we discussed how that poem exemplified the way a series of images could be used for dramatic effect.

    All the subtle emotional undercurrents come together at the end of that poem
    as “evening darkens and comes on.” Wright presents us with the final image: “A
    chicken-hawk floats over, looking for home.” Then in a final, situational irony, he
    writes: “I have wasted my life.”

    Clearly some higher power had something special in mind for us with that class,
    providing us with a number of shared learning experiences to draw from, many of
    which have been of benefit as the years have passed.

    I have watched the evolution of my fellow students from that class
    as their writing moved forward in its various forms, and as they each carried the body of their work forward.

    To some degree, each has created his or her own enduring and unique vision.

    I believe that many things come together more by luck than design,
    like the make-up of Marvin Bell’s Poetry Workshop in the fall of 1972,
    a kind of divine accident, by my reckoning.

    One of the beauties of this blog is that we increase the likelihood
    of good ideas and kindred spirits coming together.

    For example, I now know your writing, and I can visualize you
    carrying your own body of work forward with your audience.
    Now that is something I would bet on . . ..

  3. Julie Musil

    Dan, even your response to a comment sounds lyrical. Thanks so much for your thoughtful words, and I’m so glad I stopped by to “meet” you.

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