Last night we lost a great poet and a great man. Stephen Dunn.
Unlike most poets, Stephen was well-known and widely admired by brilliant people, many of whom will write eloquent eulogies in his honor. I’ll not claim that eloquence for myself, but I will share here my eulogy for my friend.
Fifteen years ago, after retiring from a long career in international development, I moved to Western Maryland and opened an art gallery. Stephen Dunn and his wife Barbara Hurd were my first art patrons. In no time, we became friends for life. They introduced me to a world nothing like the one I knew. Thanks to them, I began to write . . . which changed my life. As part of my ‘writer’s education’, I accompanied the Dunn-Hurds to various writers’ conferences hither and yon. A favorite was Peter Murphy’s Winter Getaway for Poets and Writers in South Jersey. It was at the Getaway several years ago that I first became aware of what it meant to be Stephen Dunn.
One night, after Barbara retired early to her room, I invited Stephen to join me for a glass of wine at a table in the back of the large room in which four authors were giving a reading. Once the last person read, and Stephen and I had pushed back from the table to leave, I spied a large crowd of people heading towards our table. It was late and Stephen was tired. I looked at him, raised an eyebrow, he shook his head. I nodded. While he beat a hasty retreat through the back door, I ran interference for him with the crowd. Hurrah! I’d saved Stephen from his groupies!! No one had warned me that Stephen Dunn was the Mick Jagger of poets. But this was only one of many occasions when I found out how true this was.
A few years later, in Seattle at an AWP conference, Stephen read for a standing- room-only crowd. Just before he began, Barbara kindly brought me up to sit with her in the front row. As always, Stephen was a hit, and when he finished reading, and prolonged applause began to subside, a predictably long line formed, adoring fans waiting for him to sign their books. By then, Barbara had drifted quietly off somewhere toward the back of the room, leaving me in the front of the room with Stephen. To make myself useful, I shouted to the barman: “Another Scotch for the Poet!” A half hour later, I shouted “More Scotch! The Poet is Thirsty!” By then I was holding two glasses of scotch, one for me and one for Stephen, which I held up to his mouth to sip, so he could go on signing books uninterrupted.
Standing next to Stephen, holding his drink and giving instructions to the barman, I observed a string of young women in line, eager for his attention. “Mr. Dunn?” said one, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I met you once. and I want you to know that reading your poems changed my life.” As she disappeared, I whispered to Stephen, “Does this happen often? People telling you that you’ve changed their lives?” He looked up and smiled: “More often than you’d think” and went back to signing his books. He was wrong, of course. I knew perfectly well how he changed people’s lives.
Stephen always said he never expected to live past sixty. In 2000, he wrote a remarkable poem: “A Post Mortem Guide” in which he tells his eulogist:
I learned to live without hope as well as I could, almost happily, in the despoiled and radiant now. You who are one of them, say that I loved my companions most of all. In all sincerity, say that they provided a better way to be alone.
But as we know, Stephen Dunn – strong and stubborn – did not die at sixty. A year after he wrote this poem, he met Barbara Hurd, married her, and continued to write poems for another two decades. In 2018, Stephen wrote a second “Post Mortem Guide”. This time he instructs his eulogist to:
Tell them it was true. I did think I'd die at sixty, In my prime, in love with mystery and its words someone who tried to listen to his inner voice. What I wished for you to say was sincere. Then I met a woman who chose to marry me, a man unguaranteed, a selfish man who said he’d give her five years. Tell them it was she who bargained for ten, then fifteen, and is holding out for more. Tell them everyone needs a persuasive advocate to forestall the oncoming desolations of the heart
Stephen died last night on his 82nd birthday. Barbara Hurd bargained for more than twenty extra years for her husband –-and the friends and fans who love him. Thank you, Barbara.
Thank you, Stephen Dunn