Stephen Dunn Poet Who Celebrated The Ordinary Dies At 82

Stephen Dunn Poet Who Celebrated The Ordinary Dies At 82

‘The difficult magic of the ordinary’ Pulitzer-winning poet Stephen Dunn has died at the age of 82.

He died on June 24 at his home in Frostburg, Md., after a brief illness. Stephen Dunn was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who wrote in plainspoken verse about the way everyday events can become mixed with universal longings and fears. On the day of his 82nd birthday, he passed away.

Barbara Hurd, his wife, said he had complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Despite the fact that he began writing poetry in the 1970s, Mr. Dunn found his true calling through a variety of other pursuits—basketball, advertising, an unpublished novel, and an MFA degree he did not receive until he was well into adulthood.

To quote him,  “Poetry was an unlikely choice for me” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1995).


A basketball scholarship allowed me to attend college even though my family did not own any books when I was growing up. Until I left school, I had no idea what poetry was all about.

He began his advertising career in the 1960s and recalls to the New York Times that he was “alarmingly successful”. We left our jobs because I was afraid of being promoted and went on vacation to Spain with our savings.”

For a year, I lived there and worked on fiction rather than poetry. I realized that I should have been writing poetry all along after reading a shoddy novel full of words.

With his debut collection, “Looking for Holes in the Ceiling,” Mr. Dunn established himself as a major new voice in poetry, drawing inspiration from the likes of Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Theodore Roethke (1974).

New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Paris Review have all published his work; he has also been frequently featured on NPR.

A “meditative” or “observational” poet, he departed from the “confessional” style of self-lacerating poetry and considered himself instead. When it comes to expressing the emotional complexity, sadness, and humor inherent in everyday life, his writing was often like prose that had had its reins loosened.

The Washington Post’s former poet laureate Rita Dove praised Mr. Dunn as “a poet who time and time again achieves that most difficult magic of the ordinary” in an article published in 2000.

Take his hand and walk with him along an ordinary street, and suddenly, at this new angle, the ordinary reveals all the splendor and terror of life.”

Mr. Dunn lamented that his desire to be “magnificent as if by magic” had been dashed by his physical limitations in the poem “Modern Dance Class.” As a gas station attendant would look at a tire with no tread, my instructor looks at me.

Different Hours” won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his thoughts on eating breakfast, phone repair, and his 60th birthday, which he feared he would not live to see.

Because in my family the heart goes first

and hardly anybody makes it out of his fifties,

I think I’ll stay up late with a few bandits

of my choice and resist good advice.

I’ll invent a secret scroll lost by Egyptians

and reveal its contents: the directions

to your house, recipes for forgiveness.

Happiness” is one of the most elusive qualities in life that Mr. Dunn explored in his 1990 collection “Between Angels.”

A state you must dare not enter

with hopes of staying,

quicksand in the marshes, and all

the roads leading to a castle

that doesn’t exist.

But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above

the crocodiles,

and its doors forever open.


He was born on June 24, 1939 in Queens, New York City. Refrigerator sales were his father’s business, and his mother was a housewife and mother.

Mr. Dunn was a standout point guard at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, where he earned a scholarship and played on a 23-1 team in 1959-60 as a starter.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1962 and went on to play one season of semi-pro basketball.

Before attending graduate school at Syracuse University in upstate New York, Mr. Dunn worked for a year in publishing after his time in advertising and his year in Spain.

A master’s degree in 1970 from Philip Booth, Donald Justice, and W.D. Snodgrass was the culmination of a long period of study in poetry.

“The major one is that you do not get good by wishing to be,” Mr. Dunn told the Times in 2001 when asked about similarities between poetry and basketball. If a kid wants to be a good person, he has to go to school every day and shoot. That is how you write your poetry, too.


When Stockton State College (now Stockton University) opened in 1974, he became a faculty member.

For the rest of his life, he remained connected to the university by teaching poetry and creative writing until 2004. He also taught at Princeton, Michigan, Syracuse, and Columbia as a visiting professor.

He published “Local Visitations” one year after moving to Western Maryland, a collection of fictitious observations by long-dead writers visiting southern New Jersey towns: “Jane Austen in Egg Harbor,” Chekhov in Port Republic, Twain in Atlantic City, and Dostoyevsky in Wildwood.”

In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he admitted that he thought it would be simpler to be a poet in Paris.

South Jersey seemed to be one of those places where the imagination had not yet been fully formed, which made it easier for me to write poems about it. Nobody had ever fully or even partially imagined it,” he said.

His divorce from Lois Kelly was finalized after a few years of marriage.

Friends and family members who survive him include his longtime partner and poet Barbara Hurd of Frostburg, his two daughters Andrea Dunn of St. Louis and Susanne Dunn of Boston from a previous marriage, as well as two stepchildren Tara Perry of Frederick and Adam Wilson of Buffalo. There are also six grandchildren.

In his poetry, Mr. Dunn frequently referred to love in various forms. Artworks have been created based on the ending of “Mon Semblable” from his 1990 collection “Between Angels,” as well as numerous online forums.

I’ll say I love you,

which will lead, of course,

to disappointment,

but those words unsaid

poison every next moment.

I will try to disappoint you

better than anyone ever has.