Brother Can You Spare a Biff, Bam, Oof!!!
“What will you do . . .
Do with the culture found in a tabloid, what can be done with a Lydia Pinkham ad?”
—Kenneth Fearing, “As the Fuse Burns Down”
The tags that tend to cluster around his name signal caveat as well as homage—a “depression poet” (M.L. Rosenthal), a “poet for workers” (Edward Dahlberg), a poet who “thought . . . like a taxi driver reading a billboard while fighting traffic” (Kenneth Rexroth)—yet Kenneth Fearing’s poems carry no whiff of the curio or relic. If anything, his poems of the 1920s and ’30s impress through their canniness—particularly regarding the incipient culture industry of film, radio, television, newspapers, gossip—and prescience. Fearing insinuated an emerging media universe that poetry still only fitfully acknowledges. No one would claim that most contemporary poets exactly inhabit the same psychic or epistemological landscape as Tennyson; but how rarely does our poetry calculate the saturation of “the new and complex harmonies, it seems, of a strange and still more complex age,” as Fearing described the new media in his poem “Reception Good.” Many poets might be prompted to invoke romantic love via an advertising slogan, as Fearing does in “Aphrodite Metropolis,” but even now the culture industry is usually summoned to poems only for irony or decoration, often with an aim of securing emotional truths viewed as beyond (and more profound than) any mass-culture representations.
Born near the start of the Edison-Hearst-Disney century, Fearing posited no irreducible alternatives to his media-steeped snapshots of desire, profit, despair, violence, and death. Consider—speaking of Tennyson and, still more opportunely, Keats—the poem Fearing positioned at the head of his first book, Angel Arms (1929), “St. Agnes’ Eve,” with its bravura lead-in:
The dramatis personæ include a fly-specked Monday evening,
A cigar store with stagnant windows,
Two crooked streets,
Six policemen and Louie Glatz.
Bass drums mumble and mutter an ominous portent
As Louie Glatz holds up the cigar store and backs out with
Along with Stevens’s Harmonium (1923) and Moore’s Observations (1924), Angel Arms secured one of the iconic modernist debuts of the American 1920s, and “St. Agnes’ Eve” is his sly calling card for the new poetry. Instead of Keats’s drowsy Spenserian erotics, Fearing’s gritty free-verse modifiers—“fly-specked,” “stagnant,” and “crooked”—usher in a brutal city shootout, even as the opening (“The dramatis personæ include . . .”) lodges a droll theatricality and the screenplay ending (“Close-up . . . Picture . . . fade out slow”) intimates that the poem already is a film. Glatz’s antic exit—“‘I’m not shot,’ he screamed, / ‘it isn’t me they’ve shot in the head,’ he laughed, / ‘Oh / I don’t give a damn!’”—anticipates by more than 20 years James Cagney (as Cody Jarrett) in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat howling “on top of the world” from an exploding gas tank. But of course crime movies in 1926, the year “St. Agnes’s Eve” appeared in New Masses, were silent except for accompanying orchestral soundtracks (“Violins moan . . .”), so the repeated “Rat-a-tat-tat” and “Blam! Blam!-blam!” more likely derive from comic strips. Newspaper locutions (“it is supposed”) and pulpy strokes (“stammering syllables of instant death . . . big vacant galleries of night”) vie with surreal, Chaplinesque signatures—the dancing derby hat of Louie’s departing “soul”—and portentous totems, such as the stolen “$14.92,” also the date of Columbus’s original New World stick-up. Yet even scattered “poetic” flourishes—“Space curls its arm across the flat roofs”—ultimately fragment into words overheard from other poems: Robinson, or Sandburg, maybe, by way of Eliot. Every action, emotion, and the various “dramatis personæ” in the poem arrive embedded inside a diction, a medium, the offhand dash of “St. Agnes’ Eve” aligning a scramble of deadpan appropriations.
Angel Arms is conspicuously a book of collages, vitalized and sustained by Fearing’s vernacular mastery. The magnificent “Jack Knuckles Falters But Reads Own Statement at His Execution While Wardens Watch” mixes newspaper headlines and the last (or is it posthumous?) testament of a convicted murderer:
Has little to say.
Gentleman, I feel there is little I
care to say at this moment, but the press has urged me
to express a few appropriate
Thanks Warden for kindness
am grateful to Warden E. J. Springer for the many
kindnesses he has shown me in the last six weeks and I
also wish to thank my friends who stuck by me
to the last. . . .
Veering from public bulletins to personal avowals of innocence, Fearing resists the obvious tactic of validating Knuckles’s confidentially voiced disclosures over tabloid distortions. As the condemned man intones his patriotism,
. . . As one who entered
his nation’s defense
Staggers when he sees electric chair
five days after war was declared I
was hoping for a pardon from the governor
but evidently the government has forgotten its veterans
in a moment of need. . . .
or as he elaborates his alibi,
What brought me to the chair
was keeping bad companions against the advice
heard three gun-shots and saw a man running
of my mother and companions. . . .
Jack Knuckles sounds at least as tainted and dubious as the press that is misrepresenting him.
Ordinary life rarely enters Fearing’s poems except through the slippery deflections of popular culture, and there is no snooty distance or criticism, as though for a poet and citizen of the 20th century the inescapable, omnipresent urban media assume roles that the natural world, say, performed for prior poetry. The third section of “Aphrodite Metropolis” recasts Andrew Marvell:
Harry loves Myrtle—He has strong arms
from the warehouse,
and on Sunday when they trolley 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 trolley to emerald meadows
they look at the Sunday paper
“Girls Slays Banker-Betrayer”
they spread it around on the grass
“Bath-tub Stirs Jersey Row”
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 moles, warts, red veins,
flabby throat, scalp and hair diseases,
not expensive, and fully guaranteed.”
No, Harry says nothing at all,
and they kiss in the emerald meadows on the Sunday paper.
For this pastiche of “The Garden” and “To His Coy Mistress,” Fearing transforms Marvell’s “lovely green” into “emerald meadows,” as if quoting an Irish-American travel brochure, and spins the famous caution against sexual coyness first into stilted prose (“What will your chastity amount to . . . ?”) and then into a huckster’s skin cream pitch (“Ziggin’s Ointment for withered flesh . . .”). As the picnicking lovers kiss, headlines from the scandal sheets that Harry and Myrtle sit on (“Girl Slays Banker-Betrayer”) focus the menace implicit in Marvell’s original metaphysical injunction and at the edges of their casual Sunday scene (“He has strong arms from the warehouse”). Harry may love Myrtle, as the poem says, but who is Harry? Who is Myrtle? For nearly all Fearing’s people, their identity, much like their “love,” emerges as a medley of voices, a flip-book of images, that twitch inside their brains and ours.
Fearing’s subjects are inseparable from the systems—cultural, technological, historical, corporate, stylistic—that have arisen to account for and represent them. His poems are attuned especially to systems of “desire and profit,” to quote a bland, almost throwaway line from a minor poem called “Now”: “Only desire and profit are real.” No other American poet writes so variously (and convincingly) about money, corporations, business, offices, and the transactions of yearning and need. Boardrooms routinely dissolve into bedrooms—“Dividends,” for instance, or “X Minus X”—much as in Fassbinder films. His Marxism shaped his second book, Poems (1935), most visibly in “American Rhapsody (2),” “No Credit,” “$2.50,” “1933,” and “Denouement,” but Fearing’s innovation is less his anti-capitalism than his alertness to the sounds of profit and desire. He evolved a sort of harried, manic prosody that mimics the haywire machinery of runaway capitalism—a nervous, abstract, and relentless music detached from any immediate human agency, any familiar lyric “I.”
Fearing’s demotic lines and serpentine strophes may mark him as a link between William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, while his furtive collages suggest Lorine Niedecker, and his twilight media dramatic monologues foreshadow Ai. Yet the rhythms of “Dear Beatrice Fairfax” (“Is it true that Father Coughlin and Miss Aimee Semple McPherson and General Hugh Johnson and Mrs. Barbara Mdivani and Mr. Samuel Insull and Miss Greta Garbo and Mr. Prince Mike Romanoff?”)—first printed in New Masses in 1934—are nothing short of rock ’n’ roll, Bob Dylan, or Elvis Costello:
Foolproof baby with that memorized smile,
burglarproof baby, fireproof baby with that rehearsed appeal,
reconditioned, standardized, synchronized, amplified,
best-by-test baby with those push-the-button tears. . . .
Oblique strategies drive and stagger Fearing’s work. Amid the constant motion, the constant baffles and refractions, there are no secure vistas, no still points. His poems imply narratives, but without plots, development, even characters. Many, such as “Devil’s Dream,” “Longshot Blues,” and “A Pattern,” consist chiefly of questions, slanting and unresolvable. Others, like “Minnie and Mrs. Hoyne,” “They Liked It,” “Q & A,” and “How Do I Feel,” spur cryptic, often sinister and circular dialogues. Some are entirely imperatives—“Conclusion,” “Winner Take All,” “Resurrection”—that monitor or badger an intangible “you.” Fearing’s speakers float and shift strophe by strophe, sliding through analogous or contrasting circumstances, as though his poems were equations with fractions and variables. “Green Light” contrives a wondrous maze of inferences, modifications, and reversals:
Bought at the drug store, very cheap; and
After a while, heard on the street; seen in the park.
Familiar but not quite recognized.
Followed and taken home and slept with.
Traded or sold. Or lost.
Bought again at the corner drug store. . . .
A void transmits from the core of Fearing’s enterprise—“the nothingness that waits and waits,” as he wrote in “American Rhapsody (4).” The poems literalize Eliot’s remarks on the impersonality of the poet, and traces of someone named “Kenneth Fearing” are nearly impossible to localize. Multifocused and decentered, all his writing frames an elaborate disappearing act. Fearing wrote seven novels, most notably Dagger of the Mind (1941), Clark Gifford’s Body (1942), and The Big Clock (1946). Each novel features multiple narrators, and just as in the poems, any suspicion of a single controlling intelligence atomizes into a profusion of viewpoints. “HOW DO WE KNOW YOU’RE THE PERSON THAT YOU SAY,” he asked in “Hold the Wire.” But for both his poetry and fiction, Fearing never did say. The scary “Escape” encodes his—well—his escape:
Acid for the whorls of the fingertips; for the face, a
surgeon’s knife; oblivion to the name;
eyes, hands, color of hair, condition of teeth, habits,
haunts, the subject’s health;
wanted or not, guilty or not guilty, dead or alive, did
you see this man
This inventive cataloguer of the new American media was himself among the most mediated American poets. During the 1920s and ’30s, versions of Fearing appeared as protagonists in at least three novels: the sick, dreamy schoolboy of W.L. River’s Death of a Young Man (1927), the sardonic idealist of Margery Latimer’s This Is My Body (1930), and the drunken “ex-poet” turned pulp hack of Albert Halper’s Union Square (1933). Joseph Mitchell chronicled a further Fearing variant in 1935 for the New York World Telegraph: formerly “one of the most fabulous of the city’s ‘three-bottle men,’” he is now “one of the most respected proletarian poets in the United States.” Three years later Anita Tilkin profiled still another Fearing for the Daily Worker as a onetime “poet of irony” who recently abandoned “the vein of irony and satire.” Beyond a recurrent restlessness and elusiveness, the portraits all are contradictory. As Fearing wondered at the conclusion of “Radio Blues”: “[W]ould you like to tune in upon your very own life, gone somewhere far away.” Or, as he asked in “A Pattern: “Or are you, in fact, a privileged ghost returned, as usual, to haunt yourself?”
This article is adapted from the introduction to Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems, part of the American Poets Project from the Library of America. You can purchase the book here.
Poet and scholar Robert Polito was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his PhD from Harvard and has served as director of Creative Writing at The New School for two decades. Polito served as president of the Poetry Foundation from July 2013 through June 2015. Polito’s collections of poetry include Hollywood...