I first picked up a copy of Black Dog/Red Dog when I was a teenager, and it blew my mind. Since that moment, Dobyns has been one of my favorite poets. Much of the poetry is raw and/or angry, but it is never self indulgent. The poems are written in his characteristic prose like style, and you can see the influence of his journalism background. These are some of the most powerful and honest poems I have ever come across. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves poetry.
I suppose that these poems aren't for everyone, nor is the poet. but then, what is? I personally love them (the poems and the poet), though I know poeple that don't.
Some claim that Dobyns's verse is too prosaic, that it is closer to prose, broken into lines, than it is to actual poetry. I would argue that the poems in this volume are closer to prose poetry, than to prose or poetry, per se. Dobyns's style does not consist of subtlety of language, but straight forward sentences with subtle rhythms. The sentences are often short and forceful, violent. Others are longer and equally vivid, and together they create that subtle rhythm of words and ideas. "This morning as dawn broke I was walking / at the outskirts of town. I saw the first light / strike the clapboard front of the general / store next to the woods, reflect from the silver / chrome of a chash register in the front window." (from "Caverns of Darkness," p. 5) The attentive reader will recognize that these poems are not simple-minded. One need not read each poem over and over to catch each line, but in order to make sense of each poem as a whole. The ideas are as subtle as the rhythms, but once they hit you.... you'll realize you can only read one at a time. These poems need a bit of time to soak in, to wallow in the misery, and to finally come 'round and think maybe things aren't so bad after all. In a dark world, or a dark night, Stephen Dobyns sees a faint light, stray and shimmering.
Stephen Dobyns has consistently been a boring poet, that is, he calls himself a poet and his editors have gone along with the subterfuge. He writes mostly prose broken into lines. When he reads, his prosiness becomes even more apparent and unbearable. Why is he considered one of the country's best poets? I have no idea. The only thing I can figure is that we have reached the sorry pass where our academic MFA professors and their students like anything that doesn't sound like poetry. No need to despair, though. There are still good poets out there. YOu likely won't find them being published in the pages of our most "respected" journals, like APR or Poetry, however.