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...
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