Poem of the Week, by Stephen Dunn

Original artwork by Peter H. Reynolds

A long time ago, I was showing someone around the 150 acres of woods and fields where I grew up. We were closing in on what my sisters and I always called the pine tree house, a small outdoor room-like space enclosed by sheltering pines where I kept a tiny table and stool and paper and pens. I loved and trusted this person and wanted to show them the pine tree house as a kind of beautiful surprise –it was an important place to me–but at the last minute I veered away and didn’t mention it, either then or later.

When I first read this poem, by the wondrous Stephen Dunn, I ducked my head and shrank in my chair even though no one else was home. That long ago day came shimmering back into my mind, how something in me needed to keep the place and what it revealed about me secret, only for myself.

A Secret Life, by Stephen Dunn

Why you need to have one
is not much more mysterious than
why you don’t say what you think
at the birth of an ugly baby.
Or, you’ve just made love
and feel you’d rather have been
in a dark booth where your partner
was nodding, whispering yes, yes,
you’re brilliant. The secret life
begins early, is kept alive
by all that’s unpopular
in you, all that you know
a Baptist, say, or some other
accountant would object to.
It becomes what you’d most protect
if the government said you can protect
one thing, all else is ours.
When you write late at night
it’s like a small fire
in a clearing, it’s what
radiates and what can hurt
if you get too close to it.
It’s why your silence is a kind of truth.
Even when you speak to your best friend,­­­
the one who’ll never betray you,
you always leave out one thing;
a secret life is that important.

Click here for more information about Stephen Dunn.

Words by Winter: my podcast


  1. William Boden · December 18, 2021

    Alison, This is truly a great poem. I met Stephen in 2001 at Woodstock NY for their inaugural poetry festival, an event that never happened again, unfortunately, and have loved reading his work since. Which collection is this poem from? It must be in one of his newer books. I’m participating in a conference called “Writers In Paradise” next month here in Florida at Eckerd College. Perhaps you’d consider leading a workshop there in the future. Thank you. Merry Christmas. Bill Boden


  2. Jinx · December 19, 2021

    I love this poem, a favorite.

    Thank you


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