Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Poem: Kenneth Fearing

Two summers ago, I came across a contemporary poet writing a praisesong to Kenneth Fearing's (1902-1961) poetry, and I was intrigued. I knew Fearing as the author of the 1946 novel The Big Clock and had heard of his poetry, but had never read it. I also didn't know that he was the founding editor of The Partisan Review, As a result of that essay, and because I was carrelling at the New York Public Library, I went and found his New and Selected Poems (Indiana, 1956), and read through them, stopping on ones that particularly caught my eye.

Many did, in no small part because Fearing is a forgotten experimentalist of a very American sort, a predecessor in the best way to numerous writers of today in his interests in popular culture, different social languages and discourses, the political and critical as poetry, and a certain urbanity that finds in city life what the mass media regularly obscures. I found myself picking up the language of comic books (see below), advertising jingles, newspaper headlines, and popular songs, bringing into light with complexity, humor, sadness, and irony the rich river of life and culture from the Depression era up to the moment of his death in the Kennedy years.  "Dirge," printed below, first appeared in book form in Fearing's 1935 volume Poems, and was excerpted in the Library of America's Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems, edited by poet Robert Polito. As I read it I felt like it was appropriate to today; it could easily have been written in and about 2008 or 2009, or 2011.  I wish someone would volunteer to read it aloud on the floor of Congress, or to the President in the Oval Office; it's the kind of truth they need to hear, because people are dying every day from "lack of what is found there." Truly.


1-2-3 was the number he played but today the number came 3-2-1;
bought his Carbide at 30 and it went to 29; had the favorite at Bowie but the track was slow—

O, executive type, would you like to drive a floating power, knee-action, silk-upholstered six? Wed a Hollywood star? Shoot the course in 58? Draw to the ace, king, jack?
O, fellow with a will who won't take no, watch out for three cigarettes on the same, single match; O democratic voter born in August under Mars, beware of liquidated rails—

Denouement to denouement, he took a personal pride in the certain, certain way he lived his own, private life,

but nevertheless, they shut off his gas; nevertheless, the bank foreclosed; nevertheless, the landlord called; nevertheless, the radio broke,

And twelve o'clock arrived just once too often,
just the same he wore one gray tweed suit, bought one straw hat, drank one straight Scotch, walked one short step, took one long look, drew one deep breath,
just one too many,

And wow he died as wow he lived,
going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff got married and bam had children and oof got fired,
zowie did he live and zowie did he die,

With who the hell are you at the corner of his casket, and where the hell we going on the right-hand silver knob, and who
the hell cares walking second from the end with an American Beauty wreath from why the hell not,

Very much missed by the circulation staff of the New York Evening Post; deeply, deeply mourned by the B.M.T.,

Wham, Mr. Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big dipper; bop, summer rain;
Bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.

Kenneth Fearing, "Dirge" from Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems. Published by The Library of America, 2004. Reprinted by the permission of Russell and Volkening, Inc., as agents for the author. Copyright © 1994 by Jubal Fearing and Phoebe Fearing.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, I'm a Fearing fan from way back. Well, not THAT far back.