We at The New Criterion were greatly saddened by the recent passing of the poet Dick Allen, a valued friend of the magazine and a recent winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize. We were proud to publish his winning collection, This Shadowy Place (2014), one of his very finest collections and one of the strongest collections in the series. Though I saw him far too infrequently, I always relished my exchanges with him. He was an exceedingly warm and thoughtful man. He had a no-nonsense, down-to-earth quality, and yet he also struck me as an ideal figure of the poet, with his wispy salt-and-pepper hair and beard (recently tending more to the saline) and hooded eyes that always looked simultaneously doleful and scintillated. This was not a pose; there was no calculation in his appearance other than, perhaps, some awareness that to some he must seem like an odd bird. And this he was, I think, blessedly so—a Christian and a Buddhist, a bohemian and a traditionalist, a public figure (as Connecticut’s Poet Laureate from 2010 to 2015) and a private lay contemplative.

Allen’s style was always fresh and generous; he was equally assured in both contemporary free verse and traditional meters. He ascribed to no particular school, though he is widely acknowledged as a founder of the Expansive Poetry movement, which he described as “a narrative, dramatic, and sometimes lyric poetry of the late twentieth century that conveys significant non-Confessional observations, thoughts and feelings about the world outside the Self and about the Self’s various relationships with this outer world.” His poems often incorporated rhyme and other formal prosodic elements, but never at the cost of “natural speech patterns.” Regardless of their technical expression—always musical, always skillfully in the service of affective communication— Allen’s poems played for keeps. That is to say, there’s a great deal at stake in his poems, not only questions of ethics and belief but also of life and death. He bore such weighty subjects lightly, humanely, and with wit and compassion, as in “Why Is Life So Hard?”:

Allen’s style was always fresh and generous

Because iron is hard, and steel, and granite and marble.

Because of hard sauce poured over plum pudding.

Because it’s hard to explain

Gibraltar, St. Peter, the anchor,

hard liquor, hard landing, hard pressed,

hard labor, hit hard, hard stop,

this shadowy place,

these difficult, arduous days.

The poem offers dozens of other phrases and songs with the word “hard.” It’s like a riff on the fanciful notion (wrongly attributed to Franz Boas) that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow: Allen wryly observes how much in our description of the world points to obduracy and struggle. His surprising litany undercuts sentimentality even as its repetitions drive home the poem’s theme—a familiar one of dejection made fresh by Allen’s playful, inventive approach.

Occasionally, he works a lively turn on an old saw, as in the dark conceit of “Beating a Dead Horse”:

We took delight in this, walking around the horse,

kicking its belly, bending down

to look directly into its dead eyes,

punching it, slugging it, cursing it—the great

beast lying on its side, its flanks

unheaving now. How we rejoiced!

How we called out to our friends, “Come join us!”

urging them to leave their democratic porches

and their sad little jokes. Our smallest ones

jumped on its flanks, for with a good running start

you could get up enough momentum

to crack its ribs.

When Allen sent this poem to The New Criterion for publication, he said he was pleased to be publishing this “political” poem. In truth, that specific characterization hadn’t crossed my mind; the figure of the horse was brutally specific yet flexible enough to suggest a range of tenors or metaphoric subjects. It occurred to me on further reading that democratic might provide an important key to the poem, the word placing the extended metaphor of the poem in a civic context. The poem seems to warn: here is what can happen—what has happened again and again—when people forsake their modest, democratic tenets for the bloodlust of the crowd.

Political, philosophical, amorous, social, societal—Allen’s poems move easily among these realms. Many excellent poems commemorate a moment in time or find unique expression for difficult feeling. For Allen, poetry abetted a fundamental search for meaning, particularly in light of life’s many calamities and outright horrors, such as those enumerated on the nightly news:

The world shrinks to a face within a face,

The kind you sometimes see on the evening news

Bearded with microphones, its outer outline

Almost the same as yours, but behind it

Eyes that have seen the death of children, villages

Rubbled in hours, a mouth too slack to scream,

The face of our time. You look away. After all,

Pain is a commonplace and you have felt it

Often enough in your life—if not at this

Blanked-out intensity, still you have watched

Presidents go down on the sidewalks, ambulances

Traveling dark roads, and heard in the night wind

Wings beating, and shrieking of something caught

Too small to matter.

(“After Reading Tichborne’s Elegy”)

There is something of the mature Auden in this rehearsal of modern ills. Allen’s public voice, which made him an ideal laureate, was clear-eyed but never despairing. His personal explorations of spirituality and belief—which frequently drew on Zen teachings—led him to a hard-won optimism, in poems such as “Don’t Tell Me There’s No Hope”:

Allen’s public voice was clear-eyed but never despairing.

So here’s to all the wrong paths I’m about to take,

the wrong people I’ll race or stumble off with,

all my wrong-headed visions.

Here’s to salt water taffy, power lines, cross- purposes,

that sign by the Colorado meadow: Wildflowers in Progress,

how, near the end of a perfect set, the lead-guitarist says,

Let’s take it on home

and everything falls into place, the audience may weep,

the houselights stay dim for minutes afterward,

then hands find each other, the way they always do.

Allen was able to hold in his mind such apparent contradictions—disorder existing alongside, and even in harmony with, order— without strain. His thoughts moved placidly over mysteries and conundrums, with characteristic humor:

“To be with a koan,”

said the Zen Master,

“has nothing to do with Hamlet,

those old jokes about small pigs

or tiny villages,

bees and bee keepers. No,

to be with a koan,

you must get inside it

without forcing your entry.

It’s like you’re lemonade powder

dissolving in water.

Something other than you

does the stirring,

but there’s nothing other than you,

and after awhile, nothing stirs.”

Allen and I once commiserated that so many “occasional poems” are “not very good at all,” a difficulty that hit home for him as Poet Laureate. It was shortly after this observation that he found himself (almost apologetically) writing an occasional poem, with the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in mind. “In many ways it both is and isn’t an occasional poem,” he wrote to me. In his capacity as state poet, he had recently read his poem at a benefit in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and the audience had responded with great emotion. On that occasion, he introduced the poem as follows:

I’d resisted writing an occasional poem responding to the Newtown tragedy, but late in December a phrase came to me that I couldn’t get out of my head. . . . This is a nursery rhyme–like litany chant poem. Because it mirrors my very firm belief in Life after Death, in an afterlife—which I take from both Buddhism and Christianity and Judaism as well as from contemporary Physics—it’s a short poem of hope.

The poem begins:

There are the fields we’ll walk across

In the snow lightly falling.

In the snow lightly falling,

There are the fields we’ll walk across.

There are the houses we’ll walk toward

In the snow lightly falling.

In the snow lightly falling,

There are the houses we’ll walk toward.

I remember feeling astonished on first reading the poem that any poet could approach this subject without diminishing it, but as I followed the refrains of Allen’s gently falling lines, I knew that he had managed something extraordinary. “Solace” became the concluding poem in This Shadowy Place. The poem ends:

Incredible how we’ll meet again

In the snow lightly falling.

In the snow lightly falling,

Incredible how we’ll meet again.

No small hand will go unheld

In the snow lightly falling.

In the snow lightly falling,

No small hand will go unheld.

No voice once heard is ever lost

In the snow lightly falling.

In the snow lightly falling,

No voice once heard is ever lost.

Reading Dick Allen’s poems, one feels this keenly to be true.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 75
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