The Man He Should Be: Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret”

Maimonides wrote that we should avoid extremes and aspire to the middle way. He was referring to virtues and vices, not poetry. But in encountering a poem that does not adopt any of the classical forms, one good way to grasp its structure is sometimes simply to count the lines, figure out which one falls precisely in the middle, and begin working out from there.

One poem that can be puzzled out this way is one of my favorite contemporary pieces of verse, Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret, from his 2002 collection Different Hours (read the poem here ). I used two of its lines as the epigraph to my memoir Company C . The name of my new monthly column in The Jerusalem Report, “Necessary Stories,” comes from those lines, and is the name I originally wanted for my book.

The poem is in free verse, with no rhyme structure or stanzas to clue us in to how the poet built it. But it has an odd number of lines, 37, which means that one line stands in the middle-line 19: “he was a man. Lightning, high winds” The caesura in the middle of the line-the full stop, with four syllables on either side, is further evidence that this middle line is indeed the axis around which the poem is built.

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