U poetry prof adds Pulitzer nomination to his acclaim

The Minnesota Orchestra nominated Michael Dennis Browne’s words to an oratorio for a Pulitzer Prize in music.

by Vadim Lavrusik

When Michael Dennis Browne reads his poetry, people listen. His powerful yet soft voice echoes words that he hopes will resonate throughout people’s everyday lives.

Browne, a University professor, poet and librettist, wants to contribute to poetry, but along the way has written poetic words for music pieces as well.

“To be Certain of the Dawn,” an oratorio composed by Stephen Paulus with words written by Browne, has been nominated by the Minnesota Orchestra for the Pulitzer Prize in music for 2006.

Although the nomination of the piece has not yet been announced by the Minnesota Orchestra or the Pulitzer committee, it recently was announced informally at one of Browne’s poetry readings.

The Pulitzer committee will formally release the nominated finalists and winners April 17.

Browne said he came to the United States in 1965 from England after falling in love with American poetry, especially that of James Wright, a former Minnesota poet.

“I’m a pilgrim to poetry,” Browne said, describing the strong love for poetry which made him leave what he once called home.

Since he discovered his passion for poetry in high school he has established himself among today’s great poets, being published in many magazines and anthologies as well as five of his own poetry collections. He has won numerous awards, such as The Minnesota Book Award in 1993 and 1998.

Despite his success, Browne said he “will go to the grave with a million things unsaid.”

“I want to contribute to poetry by writing work that stays with the hearer, that resonates,” he said. “It is like a tune that you hear and remember Ö poems are a part of how I see the world.”

“To be Certain of the Dawn” is a commemoration of children in the Holocaust, and was premiered Nov. 17 by the Minnesota Orchestra.

Browne said he began working on the piece with Paulus five years ago, after the work was commissioned by Michael O’Connell of the Basilica of Saint Mary. He said the priest “wanted to give the children a message of hope.”

The piece was inspired through photos of Jewish children from the Holocaust, he said.

Bob Neu, vice president and general manager at the Minnesota Orchestra, said he and music director Osmo Vänskä decided to nominate the piece immediately after hearing it.

“We just really believe in the piece,” Neu said.

The piece is very symbolic and emotional, yet not sentimental, he said.

Knowing whether the piece will win the Pulitzer is impossible, Neu said, but he is hoping for the best.

Neu said Browne is very good at using text to create suggestion and drive the emotion in the piece.

“Anybody that writes a text like that, you have to make certain assumptions about their character. Ö He’s obviously compassionate, kind and caring,” Neu said. “It is almost as if anything he says is in some way poetic.”

Browne, who has been teaching at the University since 1971 and has received many teaching awards, is teaching his last full-time semester this spring but plans to come back to teach a few courses.

Emily Bright, a poetry graduate student who has taken two courses taught by Browne, said he is a wonderful teacher and really encourages his students in their writing.

“Even after all these years of teaching, he still has this enthusiasm,” Bright said.

Browne is deserving of the nomination because of the contributions of his work in music and poetry, she said.

Bright described Browne’s poetry as something to be “read out loud.”

“When you hear him read, it really comes alive,” she said.

Rachel Moritz, a creative writing and poetry graduate student, took a course Browne taught last semester and described him as an encouraging and warm presence in the classroom.

“One of the things he’s good at is working with sound and drama in poetry and this is one of the things that transfers really well with his work in music,” she said.