Alice Neel’s 1935 portrait of Kenneth Fearing, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, shows the poet-novelist seated at a table reading under a bare light bulb, cigarette jutting from his mouth, a night train on its elevated track just behind his head in ambiguous urban space, tiny figures (suffering, working, grim, smug, grieving) painted around him like the symbolic fetishes in a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Fearing looks intense, unhealthy, and congenial. Most strikingly, his shirt front is opened up; a skeleton pours blood out of his chest where his heart would be, “to show,” Neel said, “that even though he wrote such deadpan verse ... his heart bled for the grief of the world.”
At the time that Neel painted her socialist-surrealist portrait, Fearing was one of the most promising poets of his generation. He was also writing pulp fiction under a pseudonym, and would soon write thrillers under his own name, the most famous of which, The Big Clock, was twice turned into a movie. He was a heavy drinker, left wing (testifying under oath in 1950, asked whether he was a member of the Communist Party, Fearing replied “not yet”) and frequently in difficult financial straits. He married twice, perhaps passionately, but neither marriage survived. He died of lung cancer in 1961, at the age of fifty-eight. Volumes of his Selected and Complete Poems published in the past two decades attempted a revival. The Complete, which I own, appears to be out of print. Poets I mention Fearing to mostly shake their heads and shrug, except for August Kleinzahler, who e-mailed that “I know and quite enjoy Kenneth Fearing, if in small bits.” Which seems about right. David Orr, writing briefly for Poetry about the Selected volume a few years ago, said, “what makes this poet worth reading is his unnerving command of atmosphere.” I think that’s accurate too — though it understates the case. In his introduction to the Selected, the editor, Robert Polito, writes, “A void transmits from the core of Fearing’s enterprise.” To me, it’s a very interesting, very American void — a little noir, a little Edward Hopperish 3 am urban lone-ness, only with more witty, doomy churn than elegant dreaming stasis. There’s very little blowhard potshot-taking in a Fearing poem, but there’s certainly propaganda, for the right kinds of things, and from the ground up. Fearing’s very much of his time — the time of the Works Progress Administration and proletarian art.
“Dirge,” which ought to be in modern poetry anthologies but usually isn’t, is one of Fearing’s best, a dark semi-narrative poem of long lines frequently broken up into shorter phrases, full of comic-book lingo and a series of shifting repetitions that turn an anti-capitalist chant-fable into something heart-wrenching. In “Dirge,” a quasi- impersonality is put in the service of collective perception and a vision of communal fate. Despite Fearing’s habitual refusal of the romantic “I” this poem feels highly individual. “Dirge” sings — I think “sings” is the right word, even if it’s a herky-jerky changeable song — of a man who always almost makes it — plays the right numbers in the wrong order, buys stocks just before they drop in value. It’s about capitalism as high-risk gambling, the American dream gone wrong, Mr. Nobody who wakes from the dream into the slow nightmare of the Depression, and loses the game. If you think you’ve read that poem before, well, you haven’t — not done this way:
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
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.
Like Auden in “Spain 1937,” another propaganda poem that transcends its genre, Fearing combines idiosyncrasy of voice with collective sensibility. Fearing hasn’t Auden’s light touch and extreme virtuosity, but there’s a scary hilarity to Fearing’s grim, hyperactive march to the grave. Sarcasm has seldom performed better in a poem:
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.
Very much missed by the circulation staff of the New York
Evening Post; deeply, deeply mourned by the B.M.T.
Still, the poem really only becomes completely memorable with its register-shifting final couplet:
Wham, Mr. Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big dipper; bop,
bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.
There’s a bit of Cummings-style attitude there (“and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death”). Maybe a bit of Vachel Lindsay-style boomalacka. Fearing also seems to point forward — consider Ginsberg’s long lines and public pronouncements, without his ego — or Frank O’Hara’s careening, laughing, almost joyful desperation.
Fearing, with his limited range, isn’t a major poet. Major poets tend to have much more highly-defined egos. Fearing’s poems’ primary mission is to tell you about economic injustice. But it’s not mere propaganda — there’s something quite convincing about Fearing’s conviction, his honest and un-self-aggrandizing belief. It’s hard to be enthusiastic, exactly, about Fearing — he himself is not enthusiastic about much. But it’s easy to take him seriously, because he’s seriously interested. Neel’s word “deadpan” is perfect — just deadpan and conviction, mocking the whole idea of conviction. There are times I’d rather read “awk, big dipper; bop, summer rain; / bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong” than most any other words.
Anyhow, you can’t only stick to greats — it’s not good for the health. Fearing is an antidote, in small doses. He’s a reminder of the diversity of the art, as a writer of very good poems of a kind you forgot, or never knew, were possible, because here we are in 2013, not 1935. In 1935, lots and lots of people were desperate, war loomed, unemployment was high, jobs were scarce, the rich were savagely rich, and — wait a minute. Are things really that different now? Sometimes — bong, Mr., bong — Kenneth Fearing might be just what you need. He doesn’t deserve to be forgotten — not yet.