The Unforgettable Poet Robert Dunn
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

 

dunn.jpgLITERARY LIONS

As Edward Stanton said on Lincoln’s demise" "Now he belongs to the angels." Or was that "ages"? That is exactly the kind of wordplay in which Robert Dunn reveled. His departure at age 65 has left Portsmouth sad, but his poetry will leave us forever amused. And wherever Robert is – he too, we know for sure – is as amused as ever.  

 

 

 

 

 

Portsmouth Poet Laureate Tackles Immortality

Robert Everett Dunn
(1942 – 2008)

Photo copyright Nancy Horton    

The very day poet Robert Dunn passed away we were moving some old bookcases when a fragile green pamphlet floated to the floor like a leaf. Turns out it was a tiny collection of Robert’s poems. The eight-page hand-sewn booklet is entitled AIRS. It includes eight brief poems, although one of them called "Untitled", is a blank page. Robert could be brilliant and funny even in silence.

We bought the booklet from Robert himself on the streets of Portsmouth in 1985 for a single cent. That’s how he got the nickname "The Penny Poet". If you tried to give Robert a dime, he gave you back nine cents change – or nine more booklets.

Look up the word "billionaire" in the dictionary, and the antonym is Robert Dunn. No man was less interested in money. The single room he occupied for 20 years on Whidden Street didn’t have an electric outlet. He lived to read, in seven languages we’re told, and to condense that knowledge into the sparest verse imaginable. The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Dunn, which his admirers must someday publish, won’t take a day to read. But the half-life of his words, strung together like beads of plutonium, is beyond calculation.

That’s because Robert Dunn was not a man enacting the role of a starving artist. He was the real deal, as lank and hungry as he was talented. And from the stories his friends tell, he was always that way. He was hungry for literature and, beginning in the 1960s, hungry for peace, Civil Rights, hungry for knowledge and politics. If there was a sandwich in the room, he might nibble. If there was a book, he devoured it. Good ideas were more precious to him than good health.

Mostly Robert Dunn was serious about poetry – about reading it, writing it and giving it away. Just days before he died at age 65, Robert asked that all his favorite books be distributed among his friends. Next week those friends will scatter his ashes among the Isles of Shoals, much as he scattered his poems among the people of Portsmouth.

In his absence, we struggle to describe him with the same energy that he wrestled with the inadequacy of words. Robert was unique, idiosyncratic, singular, gentle, peculiar. Robert was an outsider, a philosopher, an eccentric, a mensch. He was the love child, if such a thing were possible, of Ghandi, R. Crumb, William Blake, Ichabod Crane and Stephen Hawking. He was a shadow in a bookstore, a flicker of light in the library stacks. Even when Robert walked among us, he was a whisper.

"I doubt if any New England town," poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote in 1893, "ever turned out so many eccentric characters as Portsmouth." Sadly, that is no longer true. Today we look frighteningly alike. Few of us have the courage to be richly, unabashedly odd, and this city is the poorer for it.

In an age when you can’t always tell Democrats from Republicans, health food from junk food, or education from advertising, you could always see Robert Dunn coming. Nobody owned his brand -- the lank gait, his dreamy gaze, that low-talking voice, or his fully-engaged smile. Robert could not wait to hear what you had to say. And he couldn't have been more interesting in return.

Robert Dunn was not only a great character and a wonderful man, but he was a truly fine poet. Although he might not admit so, being named as a poet laureate of his beloved Portsmouth, was an honor he cherished. He conformed, if just for a moment, to reign as poetry czar. He might work for weeks on a poem, and it might come out like this:

     Almost a whole day without
     making a fool of yourself,
     almost a whole day wasted

If it’s any compensation to those who never knew him, Robert Dunn is still among us. His penny poems and his few gaunt volumes of verse are wedged, even now, between obese tomes on groaning bookshelves across the region. They may hide among your books for decades, then flutter out unexpectedly to amuse and delight the reader. Robert’s books, you see, like the hungry poet himself, have a tendency to disappear when turned sideways.

 

 Copyright (c) 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved.
This essay also appeared as a guest editorial in the Portsmouth Sunday Herald on September 7, 2008.