Stephen Dunn: A Poet Confronts the Problem of Self-Awareness

Stephen Dunn’s poetry focuses on problems confronting us as social animals who evolved to pursue fitness in the context of community. Individual survival and reproduction depend upon maintaining a secure position within a group. Since favorable community reputation ensures access to resources and mating opportunities, we must persuade others that we are loyal to collective needs and norms. To make the desired impression, typically, we pretend to be more cooperative, more altruistic, than we actually are or intend to be. We try hard to believe that our compliance with local power structures, local moral strictures, and local service expectations reflects genuine inclination rather than self-serving necessity. Such belief fosters psychological comfort and, conveniently, increases the effectiveness of our social performance. We remain aware, nonetheless—if only intermittently and imperfectly—that we are to some extent playing a part, crafting an identity calculated to win maximum approval. The disjunction between different versions of self is a source of existential as well as social unease. Not only do we worry about being unmasked, we wonder whether identity itself is in any meaningful sense stable and authentic.

These are topics Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn addresses unflinchingly and, always, wryly. He explores the psychological distress we endure because we cannot help but notice the disguises we assume and discard, the changing roles we play, in order to “blend in” with the larger community whose protection and resources we require for survival. He acknowledges the “secret life” each of us leads, a life replete with “unpopular” aims and opinions. Hypocrisy, he declares in one prose poem, is a “social virtue.” The personae in his poems are aware that they “manufacture / authenticity,” that they are constantly attempting to read conspecifics’ minds: inferring designs, assessing reactions, and calibrating behavior (the “act”) accordingly. Much of an individual’s public identity is “arranged for effect,” and necessitates “saying other people’s truths.” Awareness of one’s “very own masquerade” moves in and out of the forefront of consciousness, creating interior confusion.

Illustrating the self-interested deceit pervading human social interactions, Dunn focuses in many poems on a particularly conspicuous example: men’s dishonesty in their sexual relationships with women. He points out that reproductive strategies of the two sexes differ, for biological reasons. “Because of our bodies,” one male speaker tells his partner, “your story can never be mine, / mine never yours.” In poem after poem, Dunn depicts men who recognize and exploit women’s evolved preference for reliable commitment (a preference that comes into obvious conflict with men’s predilection for numerous and varied partners). He describes, often in painful detail, the morass of deceit and self-deception in which men flounder during courtship and during extra-pair dalliance. The poet’s sardonic wit renders the evolutionary stalemate between men’s and women’s sexual tactics entertaining, despite the frustration and self-blame he so effectively dramatizes. Recognizing their own duplicities (“smoke screens of style”), men both regret and excuse them—self-contradictory mental operations that earn the full force of the poet’s ironic energy. The dissembling seducers and cheating husbands portrayed in the poems tend to “admit to just enough sleaziness so [they’ll] be thought of as . . . attractively perverse.”

Targeting the male mating-mind for satiric mockery, Dunn indicates that he will not valorize the patterns of thinking and behaviors his characters manifest; indeed, the characters themselves cannot condone the self-interested tactics they employ or the equally self-serving justifications they devise. These prurient, self-aware poetic personae provide particularly apt illustration of a universal human predicament: to realize our goals, we engage regularly in pretense and “eventually, over a lifetime, we’re found out, if not by others then harshly by ourselves.” The men in Dunn’s poems notice and deride their own deceptiveness, recognizing disparities between professed and actual intentions. Their introspective acuteness highlights the poet’s conviction that the human psyche is packed with uncomfortable self-knowledge. “To hide myself from myself / I have used various veils,” one speaker admits. Feeling like “an imposter / of an imposter,” the self seeks futilely for a stable core of identity. We construct personal narratives to provide recognizable shape and historical continuity to the selves we present to the community and to which we claim interior allegiance, but we cannot completely resist our recognition that such narratives are invented: they represent “what we choose to say” but can only half believe. We are tormented, Dunn avers, by unavoidable self-monitoring: “you’re your own secret agent, / gathering evidence, / never quite sure / if by mistake you’ll turn yourself in.”

His poetry speaks to readers because it probes what Steven Pinker has dubbed “the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge.” Dunn’s exploration of the human mind is grounded, moreover, in contemporary understanding of fitness and adaptation: his writings, both poetry and prose, offer evidence of his familiarity with contemporary Darwinian thinking. He points out that “biology reigns,” that the instinctive drives and strategic options shaping behavior in humans and other animals support survival and reproduction rather than philosophical or moral ideals. Studying the organic life around us, we confront “evidence that evolution doesn’t care / about fairness.” Dunn’s poetry consistently portrays the human species as a product of evolutionary process and thus subject, like all forms of life, to “the acceptable cruelty / of nature.” Portraying selfhood as a welter of expedience-driven disguises, particularly in his satiric exposés of the sexually strategizing male mind, Dunn creates poignant literary representations of universally human, psychosocial predicaments. Indicating that the search for coherence of personal identity is bound to fail, he renders an existentially tragic realization bearable by investing it with caustically comedic energy.