Kenneth Fearing's Career
Robert M. Ryley
Not long after coming to New York from Oak Park, Newsweek reported in 1951, Fearing
was walking along Bank Street near the Ninth Avenue El, polishing in his mind the last two lines of a sonnet about Caesar's centurions, when an El train roared overhead, and this sudden intrusion of contemporary reality on his classical mood led him to determine to give up formal verse from that moment thenceforth, and to work on something closer to the life of the times.
This Pauline conversion sounds too pat to be credible, but the change it mythicizes was real enough, and as transformative in its way as the Christian saint's. Except for a few poems reprinted in Angel Arms and one reprinted in Collected Poems, Fearing never published formal verse after 1927 and didn't again publish a poem with an ancient setting until 1943. His career thus falls into two unequal periods, the pre-conversion and the post-conversion, and both of these fall into subdivisions of their own.
During the first period, Fearing was a promising but conservative young poet. As late as 1927, he was still publishing works redolent of the Genteel Tradition. Sometimes set in the past and often lacking identifiable settings, these poems treat conventionally "poetic" subjects (death, nature, war, imaginary creatures) in traditional forms (couplets, the villanelle, the elegiac stanza) and in conventionally "poetic," euphonious language ("dim, leaf-strewn retreat," "the perfumed couch of June," "And tell us of / His honey'd eyes"). Some of the poems, however ("Divan and Morris Chair," "Rain," "My Mermaid"), are skillful, charming, and, within the limits of the conventions they observe, wonderfully inventive. Others have a harder edge than the kind of verse they derive from, as if Fearing were trying to break out of the Genteel mode without quite knowing how to do so. In "Man Dead," for example--his first professionally published poem--he cheekily flouts decorum by reducing death and mourning to matters of "nerves," " tendons," and "neurons," but writes in an idiom (no doubt partly imposed by the stanza form) not even remotely close to that really spoken by anybody ("men come dead when stomachs break," "sits a dry-eyed sobbing / beside the muteness.")
At the same time, he was also publishing poems that escape the influence of the Genteel Tradition altogether. (And here it must be emphasized that, since with few exceptions the only dates we have are of publication, his advances and retreats may appear more erratic than they were in fact: Much of the formal verse published after 1925-26 was almost certainly written earlier.) Edwin Arlington Robinson is the model for some of these poems, especially "Scottwell" and "Blair and Blair's Friends," the former a free-verse variation on both "Miniver Cheevy " and "Richard Cory," the latter echoing the intonations, though not the dramatic situation, of "How Annandale Went Out." Fearing's "Ashes" glances both at Robinson and--the only such glance in Fearing's work--at Imagism. "Sonnet to a Prominent Figure on the Campus," a clever satire in which a conformist undergraduate condescends to Abraham Lincoln (whose statue is the "Prominent Figure"), goes directly back to the ironic dramatic monologues of Browning.
Still clinging to formal verse, Fearing made a tentative foray into Modernism in 1925-26 with the publication of "Medusa" and "The Night of a Jew." These poems are in the manner of what David Perkins calls (though not in connection with Fearing, whom he never mentions) "The Poetry of Critical Intelligence": "studied and rigorous in meters and stanzas," "texture of phrasing ... dense and active," metaphors "telescoped." Though neither poem is wholly free of old-fashioned poetic diction ("old portals," "From the deep twilight till the morrow"), both violate, flagrantly, Genteel standards of clarity and beauty. The symbolism of both poems is obscure, and some of the imagery is shocking and horrific. However, all experiments of this kind stopped after the conversion, which first manifested itself in print in 1926.
In part, the new Fearing derives from Whitman via Sandburg. He uses the flexible Sandburg line, which can range from lineated prose to a highly rhythmical chant, some of the purposes of meter being served by syntactical parallelism and lexical iteration. He also takes over much of Sandburg's subject matter: cityscapes, working-class and criminal characters, and upperclass fools and scoundrels. But Fearing is no Sandburg clone. He is wittier than Sandburg, with a gift for parody that Sandburg lacks, and more impersonal, more pessimistic, and more cynical. Moreover, he also writes under the influence of the High Modernists, especially Eliot, and is therefore more experimental than Sandburg and more daring in his violation of traditional standards of logic, coherence, and literary decorum. And to this strange amalgam of the Sandburgian and the Eliotic, he makes three contributions of his own: the frequent use, and not always ironically, of a defiantly trite "unpoetic" vocabulary; an occasional fracturing of normal grammar (though never in the manner of Cummings); and a frequently oblique, offbeat approach to otherwise unoriginal subject matter, dramatic situations, or themes. When to all of this is added Fearing's gift for precise but unexpected and quirky turns of phrase, the result is a body of work that escapes easy classification. If Fearing occasionally sounds like another poet, no other poet ever sounds like Fearing.
Though many of the early post-conversion poems are in traditional modes--character portrait, dramatic monologue, narrative--and though some of the portraits may have been influenced by Horace Gregory, the distinctive Fearing manner and voice are already discernible. The portrait "Evening Song," for example, uses throughout what will become a favorite Fearing device, the imperative mood. McKade is commanded to fall asleep and to have a series of fantasies from which, presumably, the reader is to draw conclusions about his character--that he is sex-starved, that he is afraid of death, that he has social aspirations, and so on. However, the poem makes heavy Modernist demands on the reader's tolerance for uncertainty. Since the imperative mood makes it impossible to determine what information about McKade is literal, there is no way of telling how far his fantasies depart from reality. Where does he actually sleep--under a building, on a bed, or in the street? "Afternoon of Colonel Brady" and "Minnie and Mrs. Hoyne" use the novelistic device of imitating a character's style while maintaining a third-person point of view. Though in the former poem we are in the mind of Colonel Brady, the clipped military accents of his speech are suggested by sentence fragments, and in a kind of modified stream of consciousness we follow his obsessively repetitive recollections of a chambermaid he once seduced and of the sound of guns in the battle of the Argonne. In "Minnie and Mrs. Hoyne," a little masterpiece, it is Minnie's speech we hear, the poet in this instance retaining by means of the third person an ever-so-slight ironic perspective that permits us to see around her character. Minnie's expression "die laughing" or a variant is used five times in the poem until, by the end, the cliché has grown ominous.
The dramatic monologues are also unconventional. "The Drunken Fly," originally titled "Nathan Schaffrin," proceeds by means of what C. K. Stead calls "aggregation": "Pure images ... added to one another, without the imposition of a structure, without logical or narrative continuity. . . ." In "John Standish, Artist," Standish declares that in order to be an artist and even to survive, he must arbitrarily choose one of the common herd, follow him home, and murder him, the significance of this symbolic act being left entirely to the imagination of the reader. "Andy and Jerry and Joe," reflecting the boredom and unimaginativeness of its three speakers, is flat, rhythmless, and, except for occasional hyperbole, relentlessly literal.
The most daring and original of the early post-conversion poems are the narratives "Green Light" and "St. Agnes' Eve." "Green Light" tells a story, but of what it's impossible to say. The poems predicates lack subjects and repeatedly force readers to revise their inferences about what is being depicted. Here is the first strophe, with my interlinear comments in brackets:
Bought at the drug store, very cheap; and later pawned.
[The subject is a small object, perhaps a watch.]
After a while, heard on the street; seen in the park.
[The subject is noisy, large, perhaps animate.]
Familiar, but not quite recognized.
Followed and taken home and slept with.
[The subject is a person.]
Traded or sold. Or lost.
[The subject is an object.]
The effect of moving from fragment to fragment is like that of watching an animated cartoon in which dishes grow legs and run away, a persons flailing arms turn into propellers, and so on. The impression of haste created both by the fragment form itself and the rapidly transmogrifying unexpressed subjects suggests a world of frantic, purposeless bustle, of frenetic changeless change. The narrative of "St. Agnes' Eve" is conventionally coherent but is told in a startling range of tones, from plangent Eliotic solemnity ("Subways mumble and mutter an ominous portent") to comic-strip clowning ("rat-a-tat-tat," "Blam! / Blam-blam!") to journalistic pomposity ("Officer Dolan noticed something suspicious [it is supposed]") to the matter-of-fact ("and Dolan was buried as quickly as possible"). The rhythms are equally varied and unpredictable, sometimes prosy, sometimes almost regularly iambic ("Then Louie sagged and fell and ran") sometimes child-like ("While rat-a-tat-tat / Rat-a-tat-tat / Said Louie's Gat"). The conventions of narrative realism are violated by the intrusion of drama and film jargon, and by surrealistic, cartoon-like images ("Louie's soul arose through his mouth in the form of a derby hat. . . "). All of these devices make it nearly impossible to feel sympathy for the characters, and this is precisely the point. Not for nothing is the poem called "St. Agnes' Eve," and not for nothing did Fearing place the work at the beginning of every collection he ever published. Both the title and the work are an audacious manifesto, flaunting the contrast between Keats's lush medievalism and Fearing's own brassy, tumultuous modernity. The poem does not fail to achieve, rather it positively refuses to permit, the enjoyment of traditional literary pleasures.
Increasing the range of his subject matter in the post-conversion poems, Fearing also increased the range of his themes but without discarding his earlier preoccupations. "Green Light" implies the nihilism expressed more explicitly in "Moral (OP. 1)," and in "Minnie and Mrs. Hoyne," Minnie--the only developed character in Fearing who explicitly rejects the fantasies of popular culture--is gently satirized, not for sharing this nihilism, as in fact she does, but for failing to recognize its tragic implications, especially for herself. A related theme, adumbrated in the early "Scottwell," is the emptiness of people's lives. Some, like Scottwell, though with more success than he, seek fulfillment in fantasy (Hilda in "Breakfast with Hilda," Feldman in "Angel Arms," McKade in "Evening Song"), some seek reassurance in philosophico-mystical systems (Dr. Barky and his followers in "The Cabinet of Simplicity"), some get drunk ("The Drinkers," William Lowell in "Portrait (1)"), some have too little imagination to be aware of their own dissatisfactions ("Andy and Jerry and Joe," Max and Charlotte in "Saturday Night," the speakers of "Now"). A new theme, one that will be increasingly important in later works, is the absurdity, the meretriciousness, the sheer chaos of American literary culture, high and low. In the comic "Cultural Notes," which originated as a spoof in prose published in the New Masses, the upper-class twits are fatuous middlebrows, the working-class boors are monomaniacal intellectuals. "Aphrodite Metropolis (3)" plays off the traditional eloquence of the carpe diem theme against the styles of newspaper headlines, of advertising, of the demotic ("And then they sit down on it, nice"). Jumbling newspaper headlines with passages from a stilted public statement by a condemned killer, "Jack Knuckles Falters" is a funny, slightly scary collage. "St. Agnes' Eve" is a little anthology of American styles, focusing attention not so much on crime and suffering and death as on their transformation into the language of film, newspaper, cartoon, poem, and ordinary speech. It is as if we are meant to see at work in the poem, and at a distance that protects us from its normally irresistible power, the mythmaking machinery of the whole culture.
The crash of 1929, the deepening depression, an atmosphere of crisis affecting the mood and expectations of readers, Fearing's own increasing maturity and closer alliance with the Communist Party--all helped to produce a darkening of tone and an elevation of style in many of the twenty-one poems he published between 1930 and 1935. This change is partly a matter of magnitude, his lines growing longer, sometimes as long as fifty words or more. His sentences are generally longer as well, in three instances a single sentence constituting an entire poem. One of these, "Lullaby," has an inverted word order so complicated that it entangles the poet himself. The "moon" (l. 8)is said to be "filled ... with the light of a moon" (l. 2). However, this sentence is more than a stylistic flourish, its seamlessness reflecting the seamlessness that must exist, the poem implies, among the personal, the political, and the economic. In addition to a new grammatical complexity, almost every poem employs, alone or in combination, such devices as insistent parallelism, repeated rhetorical questions, the second person with the future tense, and the imperative mood. The result is a style closer in some of the poems to that of political oratory or religious prophecy than to the slangy colloquialism of much of the earlier verse.
If any doubt remains about Alan Wald's argument that for left-wing poets of the thirties there was no necessary conflict between Marxist thought and the techniques of literary Modernism, the example of Fearing should put it to rest. He now almost wholly abandoned conventional logic and continuity for Modernist methods perhaps even more radical than those in his poems of the late twenties. It is impossible to tell if "Dividends," for example, is a dramatic monologue with interruptions or a series of several different voices. It is equally impossible to know if the "she" of the opening lines of the second strophe is "the woman" of the fourth line, or "Mildred" of the fifth strophe, or both, or neither. The unexpressed grammatical subjects of the earlier "Green Light" metamorphose no more surrealistically than the "you" addressed throughout "1933" ("you" listen to a political speech, forage in an alley, are honored by the king of Italy, and so on), or than the never-defined "it" of "American Rhapsody (2)" ("did you get it," "did you take it, was it safe, did you buy it...." ). In "Sunday to Sunday," a summary of a wildly improbable movie plot slides unpredictably back and forth between the fictional world and the real one. In "What If Mr. Jesse James Should Some Day Die?" the tone of the speaker shifts abruptly and inexplicably from fear to oratorical authority ("O, dauntless khaki soldier") to uncertainty to certainty. At the beginning of Part 2 of "Denouement," we see the body of a hanged man, men taking possession of a bed, and cigar coupons in a vase, but whether these make up one scene or three we cannot know. In the same poem, as in many other poems, signals marking a change in speaker are not used, nor is it possible to distinguish a change in speaker from a simple change in tone. Unpredictably, the voice that begins "Denouement" modulates to or abruptly becomes the voice of a judge, the voice of a prosecutor, the voice of a defense attorney (perhaps), the voice of the oppressed, the voice of someone (patient? nurse? doctor? poet?) calling for painkillers, the voice of a naif puzzled by social protest, the voice of a union member, the voice of a political moderate, the voice of a Communist orator.
By such means Fearing manages to be both panoramic and particular, to suggest the chaos of a society thought to be on the brink of ruin, and to control the moral and political implications of his images. But what are these implications? In his introduction to Poems, Dahlberg declares that "as the poems in their chronological progression become more incisive and attain Marxian lucidity the ironic comments rise and expand into an affirmative Communist statement." Dahlberg is right about the "affirmative Communist statement," for "Denouement," which concludes the volume, is explicitly Marxist. And though the order of the poems is not precisely chronological, the earliest are grouped at the beginning of the volume. Pace Dahlberg, however, Fearing wanders rather than marches to his Communist destination. For one thing, nobody had to consult Marx to be appalled by the inequities of American capitalism in the Great Depression, and unless a poem specifically alludes to Marxism, there is no reason to think its protest motivated by anything other than undoctrinaire American leftism. For another thing, some of the poems imply themes or contain passages apparently inconsistent with or even skeptical of Communism. "Conclusion," for example, the first poem in the volume, glorifies dissent by damning conformity and scorns a yes-man for, among other things, being "found with the many resolved against the few"--a scorn more consistent with American individualism than with that dictatorship of the proletariat foreseen in "Denouement," in which "millions of voices become one voice,... millions of hands ... move as one." "Winner Take All" is about the psychology of guilt (no wonder Fearing was immediately skeptical of the servile confessions at the Moscow trials) and has more in common thematically with "Jack Knuckles Falters" and "Portrait (1)" than with the later poems. "Resurrection" reflects satirically on a certain kind of Communist ("You will remember the triumph easily defined by the rebel messiah"), as does "American Rhapsody (1)," in which "That proprietor of the revolution, oracle Steve" is implicitly accorded the same moral status as a movie star, a corrupt judge, a thug, and so on. "American Rhapsody (1)" also ends with a god-like longshot view of American life and finds it "strange and significant, and not without peace." "X Minus X" suggests that, for better or for worse, in every individual an irreducible nucleus of feeling remains unaffected by external circumstances of any kind.
And yet these poems may be as effectively anti-capitalist as any in the volume because their images of capitalist degradation have, or pretend to have, an apolitical purpose. The second strophe of "Resurrection," for example, is a tour de force in which a few strategically placed words, most not even pejorative--"friendly," "inhumanly," "triumphant," "glittered," "bought," "clerk," "radiant"--ironically imply a society riddled with violence, guile, hypocrisy, and corruption. The ostensible purpose of the poem, however, is to list the memories that an American might preserve over a lifetime. That some of these memories are favorable ("the cities, the plains, the mountains, and the sea") and that one includes a simple-minded Communist ("the rebel messiah") only enhances the satire by contributing to its aura of objectivity. If "X Minus X" implies that something in human nature is inevitably resistant to its environment, what the poem causes us to remember most vividly is a shoddy American culture--"your friend, the radio," "her dream, the magazine," "his life, the ticker." Fearing is always at his best in the oblique attack of poems like these and of "Obituary," "Dear Beatrice Fairfax," "Dirge," "$2.50,"and "Lullaby." In this kind of poem, iniquitous capitalism is made to seem almost incidental, the medium in which Americans of the Great Depression lived, and moved, and had their being.
Only one work had never been published before its appearance in Poems, "Twentieth-Century Blues," a poem of considerable obscurity and apparently lacking in political significance. However, that Fearing placed it immediately before "Denouement" in each of its three incarnations suggests that there was, in his mind, an intimate connection between the two works. What that connection might be is a question worth asking for the light it can shed on the meaning of "Denouement" and, by implication, on Fearing's thinking about Communism in 1935.
"Twentieth-Century Blues" is obscure because the questions it asks are unclear in themselves and in their relation to each other. Are they, for example, different questions or the same question asked in a variety of different ways? To spare everybody a long and almost certainly inconclusive explication, let me declare arbitrarily that the poem asks essentially the same question: Is anything that most people want worth having? The answer is no. Nothing satisfies, nothing lasts--riches, personal achievement, sexual fulfillment, none of the tawdry dreams that "fantasy Frank, and dreamworld Dora, and hallucination Harold, and delusion Dick, and nightmare Ned" insist on conjuring up. "Twentieth-Century Blues" is Fearing's "Vanity of Human Wishes."
But "Denouement" provides the solution to the problem that "Twentieth-Century Blues" defines. For "Denouement" suggests that Communism offers the only certainty, the only immortality in a world otherwise given over to death--not the immortality of the Christian afterlife, in which nobody any longer believes (hence those twentieth-century blues) but the immortality of an idea, identification with which insures the believer's symbolic resurrection, both at those moments when, inevitably, the idea overcomes its temporary defeats, and at that final moment when it triumphs once and for all:
Never again these faces, arms, eyes lips--
Not unless we live, and live again,
Return, everywhere alive in the issue that returns, clear as light
that still descends from a star long cold, again alive and
everywhere visible through and through the scene that
comes again, as light on moving water breaks and returns,
heard only in the words, as millions of voices become one
voice, seen only in millions of hands that move as one--
"Denouement" is as close as Fearing ever came to writing a religious poem. Whether he really believed what he wrote is open to question. Typically, however (and prophetically), he ended the poem not on the note of triumph that sounds in the passage I have quoted above but in tones of hopelessness and despair: "no life, no breath, no sound, no touch, no warmth, no light but the lamp that shines on a trooper's drawn and ready bayonet."
Auguring another change in artistic direction, Fearing's first poem after Poems was "Pantomime"--apolitical, non-satirical, conventional in technique. Of the twenty-nine additional poems he published over the next three years and collected in Dead Reckoning, many return to the shorter line of Angel Arms, some are unashamedly light verse, none seems Marxist in its implications, and only eight are indisputably political ("En Route," "Lunch with the Sole Survivor," "Devil's Dream," "Hold the Wire," "C Stands for Civilization," "The Program," and "Ad"). Moreover, these political poems are less concerned with specific evils in American society than with the general atmosphere of crisis produced by the seeming inevitability of war. Perhaps for this reason, there is also a change in Fearing's management of Modernist techniques, a new, unsettling vagueness. Gone, for the most part, are the vivid "close-ups"--the metaphor is his in "American Rhapsody (1)"--of specific scenes from American life, to be replaced by the kind of generalized allusiveness first adumbrated in "Dividends," whose ambiguous pronouns were mentioned above. But whereas in "Dividends" it is clear that, however opaque the meaning of particular passages, a capitalist is feathering his own nest, in "En Route," for example, the nature of the two undercover operatives and their symbolic significance are maddeningly uncertain. M. L. Rosenthal calls them Nazis or proto-Nazis, presumably on the strength of the reference to "our beloved leader," but it is hard to believe that in 1938 Fearing would have expected readers to associate these characters' uncertainty, ineptness, and fear of the police with a political movement backed by the most powerful and dangerous military machine in the world.
The new Modernist poems are also infected by what seems casual whimsy. The conditions required for the next rendezvous in "En Route" (barometer reading "28.28" with "rain and hail and fog and snow"); "an invisible man" for sale in "Hold the Wire"; the "HUMAN GIRAFFE" (a blizzard of uppercase letters is also new) in "Take a Letter"--these lack the pointed clarity of, say, the repeated restorations of virginity in "1933," the huge specter of "Allen Devoe" haunting all of America in "American Rhapsody (I)," and similar satirical fantasticalities throughout the earlier poems.
Some of the new poems, however, eschew Modernist techniques entirely. "Portrait (2)," for example, returns to the kind of character study absent from Poems and brilliantly demolishes a complaisant businessman--the speaker, as it were, of "Sonnet to a Prominent Figure on the Campus," now settling into late middle age. "SOS," the only poem Fearing ever published in praise of the beauty of a woman, wittily modernizes Petrarchan hyperbole, upping the stakes of flattery by substituting for the old conceit of the mistress's power to command the lover that of her power to command the imagination of an entire culture, including its engines of publicity. In "Debris," the traditional meditation on a landscape becomes a meditation on an urban apartment the morning after a drunk, and in "How Do I Feel?" the traditional poetic dialogue becomes a comic study in misunderstanding made totally new and totally convincing by Fearing's flawless control of the vernacular.
Many of the poems also return to themes Fearing had subordinated to politics throughout the early thirties. "Q&A" might be said to speak for the emphasis of the whole book when it declares that answers to certain kinds of questions, some of them the most immediately personal and important,
Will not be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John,
Nor Blackstone, nor Gray's, nor Dun & Bradstreet, nor Freud,
Nor the sage of the evening news, nor the corner astrologist,
nor in any poet....
To three such questions Fearing returns repeatedly: Is nothing permanent? Is nothing certain? Is nothing meaningful? Sometimes ("Memo," "Requiem") the questions are asked plaintively and negative answers gently implied; sometimes ("A Dollar's Worth of Blood Please," "Longshot Blues," "A Pattern," "Bulletin," "Tomorrow," "Radio Blues") the questions are asked sardonically and negative answers implied or answered in tones of grim satisfaction, as if with contempt for the folly of those who would think otherwise. Other poems ("Happy New Year," "American Rhapsody (3)," "Flophouse," "Take a Letter," "If Money") treat--some with pity, some with scorn--the futility of people's attempts to cope, whatever the means: denial, foolish optimism, hopeless determination, hope.
The twenty poems that Fearing published between 1938 and 1940 were collected under the title "The Agency" in Collected Poems. He wrote for the dust jacket of this volume, later authorizing its use on the dust jacket of New and Selected Poems as well, a statement that concludes as follows: "I think that poetry must be understandable. Everything in this volume has been written with the intention that its meaning should disclose itself at ordinary reading tempo." Unless he is anticipating C. K. Stead's argument that the High Modernist poem should not have its discontinuities disguised by the laboriously concocted transitions of critics (and should thus presumably be read at normal speed), Fearing is misrepresenting much of his earlier work. His friends, at least, knew he was often obscure. Reviewing Poems, Philip Rahv declared that "the transition from detail to detail, from image to image, is one of free association, at times fluid to the point of loss of recognition," and Edward Dahlberg originally wrote in his introduction to the same volume, "Kenneth Fearing's poems are often difficult"; revised this to read, "Kenneth Fearing's poems may at first glance seem difficult"; and then, evidently in despair of reconciling this with his claim that Fearing was "a poet for workers," gave up and omitted the idea of difficulty altogether. Actually, Fearing's statement was a bit of revisionist history, apparently an attempt to make his past practice seem, perhaps even to himself, consonant with the more accessible kind of poem he was now beginning to write. Why he should have wanted to change, however, is a mystery. He may have been reacting against the New Criticism (not yet known by that name) and to the recondite allusions in the kind of poetry that best lent itself to that criticism's methods. In spite of their other difficulties, Fearing's poems had never required more literary and historical knowledge than a high school graduate of his generation might have been expected to command, and his hostility to the New Criticism and to learned obscurity in both poetry and criticism would later be evident in his 1949 parody "A Note on a Note in Poetry." Whatever his motives in 1940, however, the fact remains that from now on he attempted only rarely and hesitantly the kind of discontinuity, fragmentation, and collage-like organization characteristic of so many of the earlier works. The pattern is thus the reverse of what the myth of "proletarian" literature would predict. The use of Modernist techniques in Fearing's poetry waned with the waning of his commitment to the political left and, except for its brief efflorescence in a single poem of the "Family Album" series of 1956, never returned in its most radical form.
One indication of his new commitment to more accessible modes is increasing straightforwardness in the ordering of the poem. The new Fearing is either cautiously imitative of earlier experiments--as in "Public Life," which has some of the discontinuity of "Green Light" without the latter's sentence fragments--or conventionally coherent. For example, though the idea of a "Reception Good"--the interference of one radio signal with another--seems to beg for the kind of collage used in "Jack Knuckles Falters," the mingling of messages in the later poem is described rather than enacted. There is also an increase in the number of dramatic monologues, from two in the thirties, to sixteen in the forties. But this is not to say that the dramatic monologues are rigidly traditional. "Engagements for Tomorrow," for example, has to be called a dramatic monologue only because there is no other name for what it is--a series of memoranda jotted to himself by a not quite honest and not very bright businessman. That this melange of cliché and inarticulate vagueness ("and so forth," "stuff, stuff," "and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on") is transmuted into something funny, scathingly satirical, and heartrending is one of the wonders of Fearing's art.
Further evidence of a change in Fearing is his willingness to flirt with the supernatural. In the earlier "Radio Blues," a radio capable of bringing in messages from beyond the grave is, of course, only a metaphor, its function in the poem being in part to evoke and intensify to the level of terror the mood of despair one might feel if, alone and longing for escape, one were to run a radio dial through station after unsatisfying station. But now Fearing sometimes uses the supernatural playfully, without apparent metaphorical or allegorical significance. The literal ghosts of "Thirteen O'Clock" exist only for the droll conceit that the living might haunt the dead, and Gabriel, Satan, and the other mythical figures of "Afternoon of a Pawnbroker" exist only to make possible the troubling experience of the dreamy and bemused pawnbroker. Teasingly, ambiguously, in two other poems Fearing seems to take the supernatural seriously. "Payday in the Morgue" is largely comic until, at the end, one of the card-playing morgue workers, in language more powerful and more formal than any other in the poem, says of apparently awakening corpses that they are "Either millions of men with feet like lizards and the heads of rats, or gods made of music bathed in blinding tight." This extraordinarily vivid image and sudden elevation of tone force an abrupt reconsideration of the easy assumption that one has been reading a joke. "Readings, Forecasts, Personal Guidance," placed at the end of Collected Poems as if to impress the reader with its importance, is spoken by a fortune teller, an admitted fraud who nonetheless has come to "feel another hand, not mine, has drawn and turned the card to find some incredible ace. . . ." One possibility among the many a reader must consider in interpreting this poem is that the breach in the speaker's skepticism reflects a breach in the poet's own. Whether playful or seriously mystical, however, such poems are almost unthinkable in the work of the stern political moralist of the early thirties.
And the political moralist had almost stopped writing about politics. Between 1939 and 1948 he published only five political poems--"Pact," an indirect comment on the Hitler-Stalin pact; "A Tribute and a Nightmare," a satire on Martin Dies; "A la Carte" and "Five A.M.," oblique allusions to the contemporary international crisis; and "Decision," a Kafkaesque evocation of a menacing bureaucracy. Gone is anything comparable to the flood of specific names in the great political poems of the Depression--"Mr. Hoover," "Will Hays," "Al Capone," "Father Coughlin," "Aimee Semple McPherson," "Adolph Hitler," "Laval," "Pius XI," "D.A.R.," "Ku Klux Klan," "Wall Street," "Moabit," "the Tombs." This decline in specificity is evident in other ways. As an admirer unknown to Fearing told him sadly in a fan letter of 1943, Afternoon of a Pawnbroker contained no sense at all of wartime New York. In fact, only a month earlier, The New Yorker had published his "Monograph on International Peace," a witty slice of homefront life and full of wartime vocabulary and allusions. But, almost as if he had determined to sit out the war, he never reprinted the poem, and never published another like it. Except for quotations from typical but presumably fictional radio war-news in "Reception Good" and a sardonic untitled poem on war bonds (here titled "Somebody's War Bonds") printed only on the dust cover of Afternoon of a Pawnbroker, World War II has no place in Fearing 's verse. The Holocaust is never mentioned, and nuclear weapons appear only in "Family Album (3)" of 1956.
But if Fearing's poetry is now less experimental, less political, less topical than in the past, it is not less accomplished. The wonderful comic sense is still there in "Art Review," in "Beware," in "The Joys of Being a Businessman," in "Sherlock Spends a Day in the Country," in "Irene Has a Mind of Her Own." And the gift for evoking despair is still exceeded only by Eliot's. I am thinking here not of the poems explicitly about death, such as "Finale " and "Elegy," admirable as they are, but of poems in which the images suggest, with a power out of all proportion to their constituent parts, a heartbreaking desolation--the "familiar rooftops wrapped first in summer sunlight and then in falling snow" in "Piano Tuner"; "the bartender, and the elk's head, and the picture of some forgotten champion" in the Hopperesque "4 A.M."; the "rainy corner where the bus line does not run at all" in "Certified Life." Reviewing Stranger at Coney Island, Selden Rodman asked with some exasperation if Fearing was "never simply happy to be alive, or in love, or just enjoying something." The same question might be asked with equal justice of Eliot. As for "enjoying something," in the satirical poems, including those in the somber Stranger at Coney Island, fascination and even delight with the victims are never far below the surface of the mockery and the ridicule. And to dwell on evanescence is to insist on the value of what is lost.
It is fitting that after sixteen years of near-total political silence, Fearing should have reemerged in "Family Album" as the scourge of McCarthyism. Each of the first three poems in the series continues, effectively, the relatively conventional discursive mode of the later verse and, what is rare in Fearing's satirical poems, maintains the same ironic perspective throughout. "Family Album (1)," spoken as if by a future historian, and "Family Album (2)," spoken as if by somebody browsing through an album of ancient photographs, use the satirical device of undeserved praise to ridicule "the investigators" of the fifties, ironic sparks flying every which way in the scrape and rasp of conflicting connotations: "the diaries they commissioned"; "the first crude registry of licensed Truth"; "Armed and equipped to perfection with the weapon she gave the sorcery of her special art, / The recorder snuggled in its holster. . . ." "Family Album (3)" is spoken as if by a future popularizer of archaeological scholarship who summarizes two theories about the origins of a boat uncovered in a desert. Only in the last line is it revealed that the desert is in Idaho and that the boat is part of a nuclear weapons test. And only then does the mistaken theory of the earlier strophes, that the boat is a pagan "funeral vessel," reveal its own delicious irony.
"Family Album (4)" returns to the discontinuities of Fearing's earlier work in the modernist mode, but it is not a successful poem. Most effective are the jumbled questions that grow increasingly incantatory as they repeatedly interrupt the collective voice of the primary speakers, presumably "investigators" of a time contemporaneous with, or later than, that of the archaeological discovery in "Family Album (3)." But the details of the laboratory they stumble on are (unlike those of the bizarre appliance in "Suburban Sunset, Pre-War, or What Are We Missing?") surrealistic without being either interesting or evocative. Presumably the "investigators" are about to blow themselves up: "Open the valve, who's got a match?--" However, this no doubt satisfying denouement seems less significant than the implied prophecy--happily, it now seems, mistaken--that the cycle of investigation and destruction will persist into an unimaginably distant future. One could wish that the "Family Album" series, and Fearing's poetic career, had ended one poem earlier. But, as he never tired of telling us, it is always unwise to expect a happy ending.
Let us hope, therefore, that this edition of all of his poems is not an end but a beginning. Let us hope that it will stimulate a reconsideration of the map of American poetry, from which--on the road that leads from Mt. Whitman across Sandburg Ridge through the terra incognita of the Depression to the Foothills of the Beats--a certain strange but fascinating geological formation has for too long been omitted. Let us hope that it will stimulate a reconsideration of the ranking of the poems in the Fearing canon, without regard for the opinions of anthologists, of the editor of this book, or even of the poet himself, who by his selections may have undervalued some of his own best work. Let us hope that it will stimulate the application to Fearing of Eliot's test for recognizing a major poet, one whose individual works give the greater pleasure as knowledge of the total oeuvre increases. Whether he will pass this test, as I think he should, and all the other tests that canon-makers will devise, may not be known for generations. Meanwhile, as Hayden Carruth has observed (and Carruth, to his credit, called for a revival of Fearing as early as 1963), there can be no shame attached to survival as a minor poet. "What else is there--" he rightly asks, "except oblivion on one hand and the fluke of greatness on the other?"
From Kenneth Fearing: Complete Poems. Ed. and with an Introduction by Robert M. Ryley. The National Poetry Foundation, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Robert M. Ryley. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Note: Ryley provides a large number of informative and substantative notes for these essays in the volume from which they are taken. (pp. xlix-lxi). Readers are encouraged to consult the original text for complete citations and documentation.
Return to Kenneth Fearing