Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2102
Alan Dugan brought a completely developed style to his first remarkable volume, Poems. That style was colloquial, spare, and tough, fitting the bleak vision of much of his poetry. Dugan has been characterized as a poet lacking in charm, and truly, he made no attempt to be charming, only intense and truthful. His mocking, ironic style fit the narrowness of his outlook, and both the achievement and the weakness of his poetry rest on it. Whether Dugan wrote of war, love, or work (his key subjects), he confronted them with a similar ironic stance. His poetry is against sentimentality, even against transcendence, a kind of antipoetry.
Dugan’s language makes it evident that he belonged to the colloquial tradition of American poetry. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, Dugan reversed the expectations of the reader of love or nature poetry, turning sentiment into irony. Like Williams, and like contemporary poets such as James Wright and Philip Levine, Dugan set his poetry in the city and expressed sympathy for, and identification with, the urban working class. Although Dugan’s poems seldom rhyme, they often employ traditional meters and stanza as well as free verse. The emphasis on form—even, on a few occasions, the resort to pattern poems—often creates an interesting tension with his dominant plain style.
“How We Heard the Name”
“How We Heard the Name,” the poem that Dudley Fitts, the judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, selected for its “strangeness” despite “the greyness of diction and versification,” is typical of Dugan’s work. In part, this poem depends for its meaning on a classical allusion, a surprisingly common technique in this tough-talking urban poet. At the center of the poem is the battle of Granicus, one of Alexander the Great’s most famous victories, but Dugan has singled out a seemingly trivial historical oddity: Alexander wrote that he won the battle “with no help from the Lacedaemonians.”
In Dugan’s poem, the river brings down the debris and dead of the battle until it also brings down a soldier on a log. The speaker of the poem inquires about the source of this grim pollution, and the soldier sardonically tells him of the famous victory won by the Greeks “except/ the Lacedaemonians and/ myself.” He explains that this is merely a joke “between me and a man/ named Alexander, whom/ all of you ba-bas/ will hear of as a god.” The antiheroic stance, the directness of the language, the casualness of the mention of Alexander, and the comedy of “ba-bas” to characterize those who believe a mere man can be a god, make up a microcosm of Dugan’s tone and style. This is a voice that has come to joke about Caesar, not to praise him, yet reserves its greatest contempt for the sheeplike followers of great leaders. No apologies are made for running away from the battle, and the reader is left with the feeling that it was the action of an intelligent man who, like the Lacedaemonians, knew when not to fight.
Dugan often spoke sarcastically of war, whether it was one of Alexander’s, the American Civil War, the two World Wars, or the Vietnam War—all of which make appearances in his poetry. In a “Fabrication of Ancestors,” Dugan sums up his attitude toward all wars when he praises his ancestor, “shot in the ass,” who did not help to win the war for the North but wore on his body a constant “proof/ of the war’s obscenity.” In the curious “Adultery,” Dugan contrasts the insignificance of private immoralities with greater public evils—the world of “McNamara and his band” and “Johnson and his Napalm Boys,” who wipe out the lives of entire cities in Vietnam. Dugan does not plan to be among “the ba-bas.”
“Love Song: I and Thou”
Love is another dominant subject of Dugan’s work, and he approached it in much the same tone of fierceness and irony that informs his poems about war. In these poems he turns to the war between the sexes, its battles and betrayals. “Love Song: I and Thou” is one of Dugan’s most skillful poems and is deservedly one of his most frequently anthologized. In a complicated brew, it mixes the techniques of allegory and allusion with Dugan’s terse colloquial style. It illustrates the basic paradox of much of his verse: the dominant conversational, flat tone that all the reviewers have emphasized, merging with elaborate poetic devices—devices that only a few commentators have mentioned. The overriding figure is the comparison between a man’s life and a house, a badly built house, in this case. The opening line of the poem declares how badly it is built: “Nothing is plumb, level, or square.” It is a house with a corresponding life in considerable disarray, a house for which, on one level, the speaker insists on taking responsibility (“I planned it”), yet whose chaos, on some other level, must be blamed on a higher power (“God damned it”). The description of the house becomes a description of the ancient quarrel concerning the roles of free will and determinism in a person’s life.
Also running throughout “Love Song: I and Thou” is a comparison-contrast between the speaker and Christ: “By Christ/ I am no carpenter.” This reference concludes in the final lines about crucifixion in a passage that suddenly introduces the love song promised by the title. The title’s “I and Thou” is a reference to the modern Jewish philosopher Martin Buber; “I-Thou” is the language he used to describe a true and vital love relationship between equals, as opposed to “I-It.” The ending of Dugan’s poem, however, creates a highly ambiguous feeling. In what sounds like tender talk, “I need . . . a help, a love, a you, a wife,” the speaker is asking for someone to nail his right hand to the cross. He cannot finish his crucifixion by himself; he needs a helpmate, a nailer. One critic finds the language very touching, but there seems to be a bitter joke at the heart of this complex poem.
“Letter to Donald Fall”
Although Dugan sometimes praised the world of sexuality (“the red world of love”), his enthusiasms were almost always tempered by irony. In a “Letter to Donald Fall,” he makes a list of “my other blessings after friendship/ unencumbered by communion.” They include
a money making job, time off it, a wife I still love sometimes unapproachably hammering on picture frames, my own city . . . and my new false teeth. . . .
The words “sometimes unapproachably,” which manage to go both forward and backward, suggest Dugan’s attitude toward love. Even more typical is the comic introduction of his false teeth, which become a parallel to the approaching spring. The teeth seem to him to be “like Grails” and they talk to him, saying, “We are the resurrection/ and the life.” Amidst some amusing images of spring coming to the city, Dugan comes as close as he can to satisfaction when he addresses his friend with the symbolic name in the final line of the poem: “Fall, it is not so bad at Dugan’s Edge.”
“Cooled Heels Lament Against Frivolity, the Mask of Despair”
The Muse, too, is tough in the poem with the amusing title, “Cooled Heels Lament Against Frivolity, the Mask of Despair”; she is a kind of distant boss, keeping the poet waiting in her office, as she swaps stories with the “star-salesmen of the soul.” He seems to speak to her with slim hope of any positive response:
Dugan’s deathward darling; you in your unseeable beauty, oh fictitious, legal person, need be only formally concerned. . . .
If the fanciful Muse seems cold and indifferent, it is because there is not much to look forward to in one’s encounters with the real world of bosses and work.
“On a Seven-Day Diary”
That world of work is often portrayed in Dugan’s poetry as a necessary but painful evil. “No man should work, but be” is the dream that cannot be fulfilled because “poverty is worse than work.” “On a Seven-Day Diary” comically sums up Dugan’s attitude with the insistent refrain, “Then I got up and went to work.” It is repeated five times for the five weekdays, but “Then it’s Saturday, Saturday, Saturday!” The speaker excitedly proclaims that “Love must be the reason for the week!” as he lists the pleasures of the weekend. However, he drinks so much on Saturday night that most of Sunday is lost, and—as one might expect from Dugan—the poem ends with “Then I got up and went to work.”
War, love, and work make a similarly dour pattern in Dugan’s poetry—the grayness of Monday always returns. This was a poet whose longest published poem is entitled “On Zero,” and whose attitude toward change might be summed up in the closing lines of “General Prothalamion in Populous Times”: “the fall/ from summer’s marching innocence/ to the last winter of general war.” Reading a collection of Dugan’s poems can be harrowing. His is a world where freedom is something to be feared, where to meet the morning is to confront “the daily accident,” and where “sometimes you can’t even lose”; yet Dugan often brings enough skill and humor to his work to overcome the darkness of the vision. What has been said of other writers who have been called cynical or misanthropic can be said of his work as well: The very energy of his language and the vitality of his wit belie his pessimism.
In a 1989 interview, Dugan himself complained about the slightness of the poems he wrote in the 1970’s. In the same year, he published Poems Six, which attempts to get back to the more ambitious mode of his earlier volumes. Even for those accustomed to the bitterness of Dugan’s work, however, the poems in this volume seem still bleaker in vision. The language of nausea and excrement often dominates Dugan’s responses to the world’s and his own difficulties.
In the opening poems of this volume, Dugan often confronted political subjects more directly than he had in the past. “Take on Armageddon” is addressed to Ronald Reagan. After talking about the final battle, the poem ends in a description of a world where there will be “no more insects, and no more you and your rotten God.” In “Love and Money,” Dugan describes a moment in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when a steelworkers’ strike and a convention of baton twirlers are taking place at the same time. The strikers “didn’t touch the girls or the mills/ because they weren’t theirs,” but the speaker declares the mills do belong to the strikers since they built them and ran them. Their inability to recognize this, however, leads to the conclusion that “There is no left-wing politics in America left/ There is the International Baton Twirlers Association.”
In Poems Six, Dugan continues to concentrate on his subjects of work, war, and love, and on occasions—as he did in his earlier volumes—to mix his tough-guy talk with allusions to classical literature and mythology. He tells his audience that as a child he used his statuette of Erato, Muse of lyric poetry, as an exercising dumbbell. He would “grab her by the neck and ankles when I got her alone/ and pump her up and down.” Now the statue remains behind in silent rooms in Brooklyn as the traffic outside is leaving “for New York and the Wild West.”
Possibly the most successful poem in Poems Six is the final one: “Night Scene Before Combat.” The trucks moving in convoy outside his window in the middle of the night become a complicated symbol for the speaker, containing poetry, war, and death: “Did you know/ that metaphor means Truck/ in modern Greek? Truck. Carryall.” He feels a battle within himself between staying with the woman he addresses and joining the convoy that rumbles by outside. The trucks, however, prevail, and the speaker turns to the woman “for one last time in sleep, love,/ before I put my uniform back on,/ check my piece, and say So long.”
The year 2001 saw publication of the collection Poems Seven, a grand compendium of four hundred pages and covering Dugan’s entire forty-year career. Along with early war poems, the collection includes three dozen new, previously uncollected, poems. Poems Seven earned the National Book Award in Poetry from the National Book Foundation.
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