Dan ChiassonProfile by Jennifer Acker ’00
A year after The New Yorker named him a “Debut Poet” in 2001, Dan Chiasson published his first book, The Afterlife of Objects. A second collection, Natural History, followed in 2005; One Kind of Everything, a critical work on American poetry and autobiography (an expansion of his Harvard dissertation), was published in 2007; and last fall he succeeded Charles Simic as a poetry editor at The Paris Review. Already an English professor at Wellesley and a critic for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, Chiasson is now fully immersed in all things poetry—writing, reviewing and editing. He even lives in a poetic house, a spacious 18th-century home once owned by Anne Longfellow Thorp, granddaughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
As an editor, Chiasson is looking to be surprised—and to fall in love. “We like risky poems, we like challenging poems, but we want them ultimately to give a little something up if someone pays close attention to them,” he says of his work at The Paris Review, before quoting from Wallace Stevens’ 1949 “Man Carrying Thing”: “The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully.”
The fugue-like tension of resisting and yielding is deeply embedded in Chiasson’s own poetry. Reviewing Natural History for The New York Times, poet laureate Kay Ryan wrote, “An ambition to write larger than any one self stirs the book to life,” and noted, “So much in Chiasson is uncomfortable and misproportioned. So much suffers. At the same time, his poetry is mischievous and meant to be understood playfully.”
Chiasson’s collection The Afterlife of Objects, a high-wire act of revealing emotions and autobiography, draws attention to the act of confession. In “Stealing from Your Mother,” the narrator takes his mother’s heirloom jewelry, carefully hidden in a closet: “Reward. Now it never wasn’t yours.” But then a guilty conscience steps in: “…you will spend forever/sentencing yourself. You know//what you did. You know you know/what you did. No one is hearing your ornate confession.” Chiasson writes in free verse, and rhyming is not a concern. He provokes imagistic and verbal associations through the use of dreams, mythology and literary figures such as Horace, Ovid and Randall Jarrell. His long poem “Cicada” takes its inspiration and musicality from the Greek myth of Eunomos and his chitarra, a stringed musical instrument: “from an olive tree he dripped and/ landed where the slack string hung// sang Eunomos’s instrument/ ‘whole again and wholly beautiful.’” The poem moves on from this harmony to the shattering, echoing grief surrounding the death of a young child, Chiasson’s uncle.
At Amherst, Chiasson double majored in English and classics. He and his friends read and talked about poems the way kids in bands talk about songs. Henry Clay Folger Professor of English William H. Pritchard ’53 oversaw Chiasson’s senior thesis on the later poems of Robert Lowell and calls the thesis “a superb performance, done without jargon or pomposity.”
Reading Greek poets, Chiasson says, “you just feel that you’re listening in on this weird culture working itself out.” Historia Naturalis (77 C.E.), by Roman writer and naturalist Pliny the Elder, inspired Chiasson’s second collection. Pliny was “outer-limits strange,” he says. “He’s writing what I understand to be an encyclopedia, but it’s got all this stuff that’s not factual. It’s got boasts, it’s got legends, it’s got wild conjecture.” In “Pliny (II)” Chiasson takes on a similarly all-encompassing worldview: “I became a tiny eye to see into the eye of a sparrow,/a cricket’s eye, a baby’s eye; when I looked//at the night sky, I made my eye as big as history, for/the night sky is a kaleidoscope of past times.” Permeating Natural History is the human-like voice of an elephant who is by turns a circus trick, the poet Wallace Stevens and an academic drunk at a department party. Chiasson easefully hits notes both high and low.
Several of his poems are titled by type: “Aubade,” “Nocturne,” “Love Song (Sycamores).” These titles tell the reader to think about the poem as “a recent adaptation,” Chiasson says. “It’s like a chess game played across time. You just want to best the last poet who did it. And after all, these things come up again and again because they are amazingly magical.”
In his forthcoming book, Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon, the likes of Pliny have receded. The opening long poem is instead inspired by the children’s book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. As Chiasson raises two young boys, his creative attention has shifted, in part, to things of interest to them, such as the “magical” rising of the moon. “I think my new book is happier and more open to joy,” he says—a chess game played more with castles and knights than bishops and kings.
Acker is a writer based in Amherst and an M.F.A. student in the Bennington Writing Seminars.
Photo property of Wellesley College Public Affairs