Despite his productivity, Dobyns—who in Louise glück's words is a "cross between Jonathan Edwards and Quentin Tarantino"—has received little critical attention except from "other poets, among whom he has the status of a hero."
Born in West Orange, New Jersey, and raised in Detroit, Dobyns earned degrees at Wayne State University and the University of Iowa before pursuing brief careers as an English teacher and a reporter for the Detroit News. Overwhelmed by the violence on which he had to report, both in Detroit and coming out of the Vietnam War, he quit his newspaper job to produce his first book of poetry, Concurring Beasts, which was the Lamont Poetry selection for 1971. During his career he has received a number of honors, including the Poetry Society of Americas Melville Crane Award for Cemetery Nights (1987); his volume Black Dog, Red Dog was selected for the National Poetry Series in 1984.
The violence of many of Dobyns's poems is sharpened by his unflinching description of snapshot scenes, from one boy forcing another at gunpoint to expose himself ("The Gun" ), to the body of a man in a stream killed for the sport of Santiago police ("Pacos" ). But stunning moments of passion ameliorate Dobyns's disgust with the bleakness around him. In "Leaving Winter" (1984), he writes of the coming of spring in his Santiago back yard, where the blue of the sky leaves him "unable to catch my breath. I ask myself, What new / pain is this? Then I realize I am happy."
Throughout his work, Dobyns has unexpected gleams of hope that vie for supremacy with his dark imagination and self-deprecating sense of humor. In "I'm Muscle, I'm Brawn" (2000), the narrator Heart ironically contemplates "the human condition—how courtesy and compassion go right to the bottom." Dobyns is a somewhat reluctant poet of the human condition, in all of its quirky and unexpected glory.
Was this article helpful?