Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
Born in Brooklyn in 1923, Alan Dugan (DEW-guhn) grew up in Brooklyn and in Queens. He attended elementary and high school in these boroughs and then enrolled in Queens College in 1941. However, he was drafted into the army two years later and served during World War II. Upon his discharge, he enrolled in Olivet College in Michigan, but he completed his B.A. in 1949 at Mexico City College in Mexico. After brief postgraduate study at Mexico City College, he returned to New York, where he spent most of the next ten years writing poetry while he supported himself with various short-lived jobs. His persistence was rewarded when his first major collection, Poems, was accepted for publication by the Yale Series of Younger Poets. This book, which appeared in 1961, introduced the fully mature poet to a mostly receptive audience.
Dugan never volunteered extensive biographical detail, so it is hard to explain the source of the caustic irony, the relentless self-castigation, and the whirling nihilism of his work. However, these characteristics define a world in which a mindless determinism controls things without and within, as in Mark Twain’s later works such as Letters from the Earth (1962) and The Mysterious Stranger (1916). In Dugan’s world, however bleak things may look, there is nowhere to go but down. That the poems are clever, even funny—some to the point of provoking loud laughter—is Dugan’s gift. These poems often have a tensely precise surface which allows glimpses through it to underpinnings of moral and philosophical chaos. The brilliance of their meteorlike metaphors charms the reader into at least partial acceptance of Dugan’s terrifying premises.
Dugan’s favorite targets were the well-worn and comfortable clichés by which people live. Antireligious and antiromantic, the poems depict a world in which the only drive is the appetite and the only goal is its temporary satisfaction. Loyalty, altruism, and heroism are poses and fakes. Joy is an illusion. People are cruel and stupid. The family is a joke. It is not possible to find any kind of escape in nature—the natural world is just more appetite, other alien hungers. There is no comfort or beauty in it. Clever wordplay and mocking laughter are the only sources of revenge against the void.
Dugan’s poetry has a strong following among critics and readers of poetry, and he was a recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize as well as of two Guggenheims and other grants and awards. He taught at Sarah Lawrence College from 1967 to 1971, and he taught at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, New Jersey, for a number of years, but his primary occupation was the writing of poetry. He died in 2003.
Dugan was unusual in another way: There were major changes in the style and content of his poetry during his career. It is appropriate that he titled his books Poems, Poems Two, Poems Three, and so on, because he continued to base his work on the same premises and to use the same basic techniques. The poems do not become boring despite the obsessive repetitiousness of their themes, because each poem has its own often startling set of images or controlling metaphor. It is easy for anyone familiar with the poet’s work to recognize a poem from any phase of his career; the Dugan voice is that distinctive.
It speaks clearly and memorably from his first collection onward. “Love Song, I and Thou,” perhaps his most frequently anthologized piece, demonstrates the Dugan trademark clearly. It begins with a description of a do-it-yourself project gone hopelessly amiss:
. . . no piece fits any other piece without a gap or pinch, and bent nails dance all over the surfacing like maggots. By Christ I am no carpenter . . .
The speaker tells of his building project, his failed attempts to construct. The completed structure held true for an instant, Dugan writes, then skewed “as wrong the other way.” The disaster complete, the speaker can only claim, “I will live in it until it kills me.” His house is now his cross, and he needs some assistance:
I can nail my left palm to the left-hand cross-piece but I can’t do everything myself. I need a hand to nail the right, a help, a love, a you, a wife.
The notion of love as a self-crucifixion, the speaker’s frantic drive to crucify himself and his need to have the “wife” as helpmate in this project—this is vintage Dugan. If some critics find his level of self-absorption unacceptably high, they cannot evade his corrosive wit and the rueful grins it evokes.
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