Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Letter from a Senior Secretary at
Potomac School

I'd like to admit at the outset that the job we advertised
In American history might have been yours
If your application hadn't been misfiled,
As sometimes happened under our old procedures.
Under the new, I wouldn't have had to type
The letter sent you last month by the principal
To explain that our opening was already filled.
Then you wouldn't have made your angry phone call,
Which I hope you'll be relieved to know
I didn't mention to him. His cool tone
Wasn't meant to suggest indifference.
It's a tone our lawyers advise, to help us avoid
Conceding so much it leads to litigation,
A problem I'm not concerned with,
Being only three months away from retirement.
Here in this unofficial letter from me,
Which I'm asking you to keep confidential,
I want to point out that wherever you end up teaching
You'll have to learn how to deal with disappointment.
What will you do, say, when the textbook
Chosen by a committee in your new department
Turns out to be shallow as well as slipshod?
Will you look for another job, or will you
Use the occasion to show your students
How to spot the issues the book's neglected
And go looking elsewhere for enlightenment?
If I did my job by the book, I wouldn't have stayed
Late at the office this afternoon to write you this.
I'd have written you off as one of the self-absorbed
Caught up in avenging slights to his dignity.
Keep in mind I could be at home now,
Enjoying a taste for serious fiction and poetry
Passed on to me by my English teacher in high school,
Harriet Henderson. But here I am, extending myself
Beyond the call of duty. Now it's up to you
To ignore or appreciate my extra effort,
Just as the extra effort I hope you make
May or may not impress your students.
Even the best of them, remember,
May not be aware how much they're learning.
So you may not be aware how much these words,
Which now may seem addressed to someone
Dreamed up by me out of nothing,
May later seem to be meant for you.

-- Carl Dennis
from CALLINGS (New York : Penguin, 2010)

Dennis told Contemporary Authors: "I don't see myself as belonging to any particular school of poetry. Yeats was the most important early influence, but I hope that his presence is now very difficult to detect. Like him I'm interested in making my poems sound like actual speech, something that one might actually say out loud to a single listener. In Yeats's day this meant avoiding poetical ornament and mechanical rhythms. Today it also means avoiding poetry that is either too private (concerned with the play of the writer's own mind and not with an actual subject outside himself) or too public (not concerned with the particular context of speaker and listener in a dramatic situation)."