Kenneth Fearing Poetry: American Poets Analysis
In the rather unlikely but not inconceivable event that the detective-protagonists of Dashiell Hammett (notably Sam Spade) and Raymond Chandler (particularly Philip Marlowe) had been impelled to express their thoughts and reactions in poetic form, the result might well have resembled the work of Kenneth Fearing. Like them, he lived close to the dark underside of society—a loner who had been around, knew what unpleasant activities even well-meaning people were capable of, and instinctively sympathized with the bottom dogs who always seemed to draw a club when they needed a spade for a flush. He shared their instinctive desire to try to make sense of a world that seemed chaotic and dangerous, where decent people struggled hopelessly and ruthless, brutal ones often thrived, and he knew that his poetry—like their efforts to set some small thing right—was unlikely to accomplish much. Nevertheless, in spite of the semicynical tone of his work, he avoided a slide into nihilism by the continued effort of the work itself. Spade and Marlowe are fictional detectives who often think like poets. Fearing was a poet with the sensibility of the hard-boiled private eye, and his language—sometimes coarse, sometimes literary, usually sardonic, laconic, or even mordant—is a reflection of the film noir world he took as his subject: a world where sunlight was notably absent, dark shadows threatened to engulf everyone, claustrophobia was nearly constant, and the night seemed endless.
In the early stages of his career, Fearing resembled his midwestern compatriot Carl Sandburg, but while Sandburg’s affirmative The People, Yes (1936) expressed a belief that the common person would be triumphant, even in his first poems, Fearing was more cautious, suggesting that the best one could hope for would be “the people . . . maybe.” His first subjects were people from the working class—“nifties, yeggs, and thirsties,” as he put it in the street slang of the 1930’s—and his close identification with their situations enabled him to capture their conditions of existence without condescension. In Angel Arms, his first book, the initial poem, called “St. Agnes’ Eve,” is a reduction of John Keats that depicts a man, awakened by gunfire at night, who gets out of bed “to scratch his stomach and shiver on the cold floor.” Other poems depict a homeless woman, Minnie Spohr, rummaging “among the buckets at midnight”; a group of friends, “Andy and Jerry and Joe,” drifting through the city, directionless, who “didn’t know what we wanted and there was nothing to say”; a woman of the street seen in desperate dignity, “Hilda in white/ Hilda sad./ Hilda forgiving the lover who martyr’d her”; and Blake and his office coworkers, whose limited possibilities have not prevented them from feeling the excitement of life in the high-energy zone of the city:
They liked to feel the city, away below them, stretch out and breathe. They liked the Metropolitan’s red eye, and Broadway. They liked to hear liners on the river baying at the sky. They liked it all.
“The Drinkers” and “American Rhapsody (2)”
Fearing’s most effective poem in this series is “The Drinkers,” a precursor of William Carlos Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel (1962), in which men in “Gonzetti’s basement on MacDougal,” a Greenwich Village dive, are likened to figures in a painting by Franz Hals, Flemish Drinkers or Burghers of Antwerp. Fearing’s description is simple, straightforward, and direct, the details evoking the ethos of alienation that is one of his central subjects: “Four men drinking gin, three of them drunk. Outside is the street that sleeps and screams.”
Although he never really lost his sympathy for people down and out in an “unreal city,” Fearing’s focus shifted from his early portraits of what was then considered “the proletariat” to poems that were designed as satirical comments on the false promises of consumerist society—promises that were close to outright lies in the midst of the Depression. He made the logical assumption that if most people were fundamentally decent, then some outside agency must be responsible for the massive neurosis he detected—a conclusion that was consistent with the political position of many left-wing artists during the 1930’s. Fearing remained totally independent during his life and had as much scorn for Communist organizations as for any other, but his poems caught the contradictions in the American economic system with devastating effect. In “American Rhapsody (2)” from Poems, Fearing describes a man arranging a rendezvous in which the couple might “pretend, even alone, we believe the things we say,” and then turns a date into a social tableau, connecting the rot in the world around them to the couple’s relationship:You be the mother and go out and beg for food; I’ll be a merchant, the man you approach, a devoted husband, famous as a host;...
(The entire section is 2132 words.)