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On Fearing's Poetry

Walter Kalaidjian

Kenneth Fearing's Textual Recodings

Proletarian writers in the 1930s not only composed in democratic choral and vernacular verse modes but also delved into the linguistic resources of high modernism. Divisions thrown up within the depression era left by intellectual dissent from party-line positions were reflected in the Partisan Review circle of the mid-1930s. A literary organ of the New York John Reed Club in 1934, Partisan Review emerged three years later as an anti-Stalinist vehicle for showcasing sophisticated modernist aesthetics that surpassed the kind of "leftist" social realism featured in New Masses. Philip Rahv's and William Phillips' early editorial "Problems and Perspectives in Revolutionary Literature" (1934) looked ahead to their quarrel and contentious split with the Communist Party. Jettisoning any universal foundations of aesthetic form, they boldly declared that "The development of revolutionary literature is not unilinear ...[but] a process unfolding through a series of contradictions, through the struggle of opposed tendencies."

Renouncing the historical determinism of "mechanical Marxism," Rahv and Phillips cautioned writers "not to seek universals but usables." "The Measure of a revolutionary writer's success," they asserted, "lies not only in his sensitiveness to proletarian material, but also in his ability to create new landmarks in the perception of reality." For their part, Rahv and Phillips believed that the hegemonic task of revolutionary literature should forge pluralist alternatives to the status quo and not merely reflect the Second and Third Internationals' more simplified doctrine of class allegiance. This key recognition opened the way for sophisticated aesthetic critiques of late capitalism. In the work of what the Partisan Review critics would later describe as the "third generation" of progressive writers--those who synthesized the expatriate generation's experimental forms with "leftist" agit-prop--we find theoretically minded poetics that infiltrated and estranged the discursive reproduction of advanced consumer society.

Here the Language movement's postmodern critique of narrative commodification, grounded as it is in ostronenie, productively illuminates Kenneth Fearing's burlesque parodies of American advertising and other low brow discourses. Appearing as early as 1926 in such little magazines as The Menorah Journal, Fearing went on to publish widely in the poetry journals of his time and regularly penned film reviews, commentaries, and trenchant satirical pieces for New Masses and Partisan Review. Fearing's verse project in some ways anticipated Kenneth Burke's 1935 address to the American Writers' Congress, calling for revolutionary symbols which would ramify social realism's more parochial and classist representations. In "Revolutionary Symbolism in America," Burke argued that the depression-era writer should not mimic Soviet-style proletcult but "take an interest in as many imaginative, aesthetic, and speculative fields as he can handle--and into this breadth of his concerns ... interweave a general attitude of sympathy for the oppressed and antipathy towards our oppressive institutions."

As Burke pointed out in his New Republic comparison of Fearing's and E. E. Cummings' polemical verse modes, Fearing more than Cummings effected a powerful "fusion of ecclesiastic intonations (the lamentation) and contemporary cant (slang, business English, the imagery of pulp fiction, syndicated editorials, and advertising)." Yet it is precisely because this nuanced discursive strategy was so doubly contested both on the left and right that it has now lapsed from our cultural memory. On the one hand, Fearing's populist fusions provoked attacks from party ideologues who held to classist representations of the proletariat. On the other hand, American New Critics like Robert Penn Warren successfully squelched the influence of such textual pastiches, relegating them to "the level near that on which the poet found them, the level of newspaper headlines." Throughout the next decade, similar readings gave proletarian literature a bad name. But beyond New Criticism's crude reduction of such politicized poetics to mere journalism and propaganda--and from the hindsight of the Language poets' similar linguistic collages--we are now in a position to recover Fearing's sophisticated attention to the ideological work of advanced consumer capitalism.

Infiltrating the public discourse that serves to legitimate "oppressive institutions," Fearing anticipated poststructuralist analyses of how ideologies interpellate subjects by fostering imaginary investments in textual power. His verse parted company with the less cosmopolitan poetics of proletarian agit-prop, focusing instead on advanced capitalism's relentless promotion of goods, services, and new consumer satisfactions. Paralleling the Frankfurt theorists' contemporaneous analyses of capitalism's Kulturindustrie (but in more populist and less elitist aesthetic registers), his poetry inhabited the dominant representations of consumer society. His textual praxis was lodged at once within and against the advertising and media imagery of a burgeoning pop culture. Thus, Fearing was not so much a propagandist of Communist humanism, although there is some of that in his work, but, more radically, a debunker of the commodity form as it pervades modem society.

His poem "Aphrodite Metropolis (2)," for example, broadens proletcult verse by playfully subverting the conventional boundaries that divide the traditionally pastoral lyricism of carpe diem poetics from the textuality of the modern mass media:

Harry loves Myrtle--He has strong arms, from the warehouse,
And on Sunday when they take the bus to emerald meadows he doesn't say:
"What will your chastity amount to when your flesh withers in a little while?"
On Sunday, when they picnic in emerald meadows they look at the Sunday paper:
They spread it around on the grass
And then they sit down on it, nice.
Harry doesn't say "Ziggin's Ointment for withered flesh,
Cures thousands of men and women of motes, warts, red veins,
flabby throat, scalp and hair diseases,
Not expensive, and fully guaranteed."
Harry says nothing at all,
He smiles,
And they kiss in the emerald meadows on the Sunday paper.

The lovers' tryst depicted here is hardly ideal but thoroughly working class. Not only does Fearing's pastoral scene parody the kind of romantic passion that, say, Keats glorifies as "forever panting, and forever young," but its "emerald meadows" are ironically set in dialogue with the tawdry headlines and tacky ads of the Sunday paper. But more importantly, in lampooning the English tradition of carpe diem poetics, Fearing also points to the print media as a discursive field that shapes even the most intimate moments of social life.

The kind of tabloid discourse that appears distanced and benign in "Aphrodite Metropolis (2)" more aggressively usurps the order of things in "Jack Knuckles Falters." Reflecting on Knuckles' plea of innocence before his execution, Fearing interrupts the prisoner's last words with the sensationalist headlines that report his electrocution:

How I
Wish I could live my life over again. If I
Could only be given another chance I would show the world how to be a man, but I
Declare before God gentlemen that I am an innocent man,
As innocent as any of you now standing before me, and the final sworn word I
Publish to the world is that I was framed. I
Never saw the dead man in all my life, did not know about the killing until
My arrest, and I
Swear to you with my last breath that I
Was not on the comer of Lexington and Fifty-ninth Streets at eight o'clock.

These dialogic lines frame a life-and-death drama between Knuckles' desperate plea for life and the print media's impersonal captions. Fearing's verbal strategy effects an uncanny collapsing of the conventional difference between lived narrative and broadcast news. The poem's linguistic moment reverses the newsreport's normally belated reflection of events so that the word more assertively steps in to shape the world. Yet the tabloid's communicative power is itself susceptible to the poet's own manipulations of the full, linguistic staging of social existence. Thus in Fearing's writing, poetic discourse acts as a metacritique of the material powers of discursive form, dispersed as they are throughout the mass media, state and private institutions, folk customs, and social rituals generally.

High modernist precursors like Eliot and Joyce, of course, had perfected similar textual collage techniques, notably in The Waste Land and Ulysses. But when employed for politically progressive ends in Fearing's work, such formal devices, however valorized in the academic canon of modernist aesthetics, were dismissed as crude and banal by the New Critics and their ephebes. Yet even if we were to grant the vernacular character of much of Fearing's verse, the point in recovering his work in our moment would not be to judge it against Matthew Arnold's criterion of affirmative high culture ("the best that has been thought and said in the world"). Rather, our task would more properly situate his borrowings from the high modernist aesthetic within a broader analysis of the material institutions, discursive fields, and minute particulars of the depression era régime du savoir. From this perspective, we find in Fearing's vital exchange between poetry and the popular a pertinent anticipation and critique of the American culture industry that, while emergent in the interbellum period, would become a dominant force in the makeup of postmodern society.

Beyond New Criticism's reduction of such politicized poetics to mere journalism and propaganda--and from the hindsight of the Language poets' similar linguistic collages--we are now in a position to retrieve Fearing's sophisticated attention to the ideological work of advanced consumer capitalism. By focusing on print journalism as a technique of ideological domination, Fearing anticipates today's information society. While seemingly worldly and free, the discourse of the contemporary media mainly reproduce a more narrowly policed range of narratives that are culturally permitted by, in Edward Said's words, a global "disciplinary communications apparatus." Decades before the theoretical revolution of the post-Vietnam era, Fearing looked forward to what Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard would theorize as our postmodern society of the spectacle: "the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life."

Fearing's work envisions our own cultural moment where everything that once stood against the commodity form--nature, the body, traditional social rituals and customs--has been recycled and disseminated by advanced capitalism's culture industry as a totalizing scene of consumption as in "X Minus X":

Even when your friend, the radio, is still; even when
        her dream, the magazine, is finished; even when
        his life, the ticker, is silent; even when
        their destiny, the boulevard is bare;
And after that paradise, the dance-hall, is closed;
        after that theater, the clinic, is dark,

Still there will be your desire, and hers, and his
    hopes and theirs,
Your laughter, their laughter,
Your curse and his curse, her reward and their reward,
        their dismay and his dismay and her dismay and

Even when your enemy, the collector, is dead; even when
your counsellor, the salesman, is sleeping; even
when your sweetheart, the movie queen, has spoken;
even when your friend, the magnate, is gone.

Desire in Fearing's poetry circulates through a highly orchestrated and technical habitus of radios, magazines, tickers, boulevards, dance-halls, theaters, and clinics that all are wholly rigged for commodity exchange. In such a setting, one's full social being is constantly deferred and dispersed across a network of alienating subject positions of collectors, salesmen, movie queens, and magnates. Into this dehumanizing scene, Fearing deploys the verbal techniques of black humor, parody, and burlesque to unmask the ways in which advanced capitalism solicits subjects ideologically. Employing anaphora, the poet's relentless direct address to "you," the reader, seizes on the language of sales advertising so as to subvert its all too familiar categories of textual representation.

In this vein, the discursive strategy in "Ad"--Fearing's lampoon of advertising discourse--is to disrupt capital's narrative hailing of the people. Composed on the eve of U. S. entry into the Second World War, the poem mimics the speaking of state propaganda as it recruits a few "good" men:

Millions of men are WANTED AT ONCE in a big field;
If you've been a figure in the chamber of horrors,
If you've ever escaped from a psychiatric ward,
If you thrill at the thought of throwing poison into wells, have heavenly visions of people, by the thousands, dying in flames--
We mean business and our business is YOU
WANTED: A race of brand-new men.
Apply: Middle Europe;
No skill needed;
No ambition required; no brains wanted and no character allowed;
Wages: DEATH.

Resembling "X Minus X," Fearing's second person address here projects the reader into an even more radically ambiguous subject position--one that is at once seduced by untold opportunity and betrayed to unspeakable horror. The poet's political stance in "Ad" is akin to that of such communist ideologues as V. J. Jerome in, say, his 1940 manifesto Intellectuals and the War, but "Ad" maroon.jpg (137968 bytes)actually launches an ethicopolitical critique of war as such. Jerome revived Bourne's earlier critique in quarreling with Archibald Macleish's repudiation of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. For his part, Jerome argued that American entry into World War Two, instead of serving the "anti-fascist" cause, would only advance the long-term interests of finance capitalism that "under the banner of false patriotism conscript the people's lives, despoil labor of its rights, and paralyze its organizations."

Informed by this same historical subtext, "Ad" seems to follow the party position, but unlike Jerome's more dogmatic manifesto, Fearing's highly ironic poem preempts the rhetoric of capital, subversively reinscribing its call to arms. Writing in this way, the poet's verse parody recalls the black humor of American pacifism as you find it, say, in William Gropper's April 1927 cartoon for New Masses, "Join the Maroons." Like Fearing, Gropper also debunks the slogans and ad pitches that lure conscripts into war. Over against the army's age-old promises of health, wealth, and patriotic heroism--"Learn A Trade," "See the World," "Steady Employment," "Develop Physically"--Gropper presents the dark images of war's victims: a mutilated pencil seller and other variously indigent and dismembered veterans, Similarly splicing the codes of Madison Avenue advertising--"We mean business and our business is YOU"--with surrealist representations of war and genocide, Fearing offers a dialogic strategy of resistance to the communication industry's emergent techniques of mass cultural persuasion that would later culminate in what Baudrillard has described as today's increasingly simulacral, and global, telecommunity.

From American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

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