The very private life of Portsmouth’s Penny Poet
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – He looked like a stiff breeze might carry him away. Hunched, gaunt, dressed in shabby clothes, tramping the same loop each day in this old coastal city, he could have been in his 40s, or his 70s. Surely he was homeless, Katherine Towler assumed.
But as she would soon learn, Robert Dunn was in fact living one of the richest, if most unconventional, lives in Towler’s new hometown. He was a poet, a true individualist, working part time at the city’s exclusive, members-only library, and writing brief, deceptively profound poems when the mood struck. By then as much a town fixture as Strawbery Banke or the Navy Yard, the eccentric Dunn would go on to become the city’s beloved poet laureate.
Two decades after she became, much to her surprise, one of Dunn’s closest friends and advocates, Towler has written a lovely, careful meditation on their unlikely alliance, and the streets they shared. Her new book, “The Penny Poet of Portsmouth,” is more than an ode to a singular character, though it is that. It’s also an evocation of place — a walkable city with stubborn, old-New England charm, built around a vintage market square, as it comes to terms with its own modern, upscaling impulses.
“I’m trying to capture the spirit of who Robert was,” says Towler, author of three novels, sipping tea from a paper cup on a recent afternoon. “He carved out a truly unique life off the grid.” Her essential question, she says, was a simple one: “How’d he do that?”
It had a lot to do with the place he chose as his home. As Towler soon came to know, Dunn was not homeless. (In fact, he rented a room in an old house on her block.) He just had little use for worldly possessions besides a few sticks of furniture, a small shelf of books, and the vast literary knowledge he kept between his ears.
He worked as a custodian at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, a membership library founded in 1817, mostly to be around the books. He showed up at most of the community’s reading events, and he sold miniature bound copies of his pithy poems for a penny. “I hear America singing,” began one of his poems, echoing Whitman. (The rest of the concise poem: “sometimes it troubles me.”)
Though Dunn had “no interest in a resume of any sort,” as Towler says, he’d earned a measure of recognition for his poetry. In the early 1980s, a local bookstore owner funded the publication of Dunn’s first book of poems. Years later, Oyster River Press in Durham kicked off a series of chapbooks by New Hampshire poets with one by Dunn, naming the series after a line of his, “Walking to Windward.”
If Dunn became a “known person” around his adopted hometown — he’d grown up in Meredith, on Lake Winnipesaukee, and attended the University of New Hampshire in the early 1960s — little was known about his life, or how he’d arrived on the coast.
“Every time I saw him, I was worried about him,” says Tom Holbrook, an owner of Portsmouth’s RiverRun Bookstore. “He was so frail.”
Dunn had a wry sense of humor, Holbrook recalls. But he could also seem prickly, making few concessions to social etiquette. Like Thoreau, Towler writes, Dunn believed that the hunger for success is “a hollow hunger, seldom satisfied.”
“He just wasn’t going to shift his frame of reference to match yours,” says Holbrook.
Almost eight years since Dunn’s death at age 65, Towler still doesn’t know many of the details of his life, and she grew closer to him than most.
There were fuzzy stories about Robert’s obstinate refusal to participate in mandatory physical education and ROTC classes in school and at UNH. In college, he’d joined the voter-registration drive of the budding civil rights era, but quit in dismay after the murder of Jonathan Daniels, a fellow activist from New Hampshire, in Alabama.
To Towler, Dunn’s reluctance to talk about his activism was characteristic. “Most people will tell you all about their volunteering. They wear it as a badge of honor.”
But Dunn was far more private than most people. Consequently, when he began to confide in Towler, she was as confused and conflicted as she was honored. As his health flagged and he shuttled in and out of assisted-living facilities, he began to rely on her for rides and errands — the sorts of favors he never would have asked of anyone.
“I went through an intimate situation with a very private person,” says Towler. “And it raised questions for me. Who am I?” Why did he choose her? Was she cut out to be a caretaker?
Raised in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, she grew up relishing her own privacy. On the streets of New York, no one knew who you were. But unlike the other places she’d lived along the East Coast, Portsmouth eventually coaxed her to become “a known person” to her neighbors, much as it had for Dunn.
In small-town New Hampshire, she’d become civically active. She began teaching in an MFA program nearby, and she served on the board of the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program, which named Dunn the city’s second poet laureate. He held the position from 1999 to 2001.
In that time, he engaged with the city in new ways, establishing the Poetry Hoot reading series (which continues to this day) and successfully campaigning to post poems in public places. As Towler writes, the colonial city was changing as its real estate market heated up; when the old five-and-dime called J.J. Newberry’s closed, a Gap store moved into the building.
But 20 years later, there’s a sense of community that remains in Portsmouth, and Dunn, despite himself, is partly responsible. Today, one of his most memorable short poems appears on a plaque on a pier in Prescott Park, overlooking the Piscataqua River.
From here you can see the tide
Turn like a door on its hinges:
We’re just going out. Do you want
Anything from the ocean?
Towler says she never considered writing a book about her friendship with Portsmouth’s “Penny Poet” while he was still alive. It was only in recent years, as she realized she hadn’t stopped thinking about him, that she began to work on the manuscript.
“He was not, like the rest of us, constantly looking over his shoulder to reevaluate the past or trying to make the future bend to his will,” Towler writes. He was fundamentally content, believing “the search for something better was a false search.”
The life Dunn fashioned for himself, both of and apart from the small city he chose, was much like the one she wanted. Friends from the local literary community encouraged her: “You’re the one to do this,” they said.
The writing made her think more deeply than ever about the town both she and Robert had adopted.
“I thought about how it was a place that could make a life like Robert’s possible,” she recalls. It was “a sort of marriage” between him and Portsmouth, she explains, and now she understands.
Katherine Towler reads from “The Penny Poet of Portsmouth” at a book launch party at 7 p.m. March 22, at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth, N.H. $8 for the reading, $28 with book. www.3sarts.org.