Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1786
Dugan, Alan 1923–
An American poet, Dugan received the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection, Poems, in 1962. Called "strictly contemporary, strictly American," his poetry continues to reveal intelligence, inventiveness, and a preoccupation with daily realities.
By cultivating what is by any standard a confining style, and by exercising his caustic intelligence on a relatively narrow range of subjects, Dugan has created a significant body of work that speaks with authority to a variety of modern readers. One does not get terribly excited about Alan Dugan's work, but one nevertheless returns to it with increasing regularity, for it successfully inhabits that middle ground of experience which our best poets today seem loathe to admit, as though to do so would somehow in itself constitute a denigration of their talents and a disavowal of intensity. (p. 43)
Dugan's spirit is best expressed in the conditional, which is to say that nothing he feels or thinks is very far removed from regret for what might have been, what the speaker might have thought, or done, or said. He asks nothing more of himself than he does of the hermit crab in "Life Comparison," that he do "… what is appropriate within his means, within a case," though even within these terms he is a failure. In short, Dugan's poetry succinctly conveys what most of us perennially feel—that even genuine commitment to a life of inconsequence fails to silence the persistent anxiety that we might be somehow less human than even we agreed to be. (pp. 43-4)
Dugan's is an intensely private, almost a claustrophobic vision, but the poetry is accessible to any kind of sensibility. In this sense, I suppose, most poetry is fundamentally communal if it enlists imaginative participation on the part of readers in whatever it is the poet describes. Dugan's poems do not threaten us as do the poems of writers like Plath and Lowell. At his best, Dugan communicates small perceptions appropriate to the lives of small people, and we listen not because of any glittering eye, but because we feel we should. The voice that apprehends us is as earnest as any we might hope to encounter, and the combination of brittle surfaces and an underlying warmth is relentlessly imposing. I am not sure that Dugan "is exactly what we need," as one observer claimed, but he shows us why we have little right to expect anything more. (p. 44)
His poems have variety, but they might all be drawn together as a single long poem. The same alert but static sensibility is operant in all of them, and the speaker rarely indulges the sort of emotional extremism which might distinguish his more inspired from his more characteristically quotidian utterances. Generally speaking, a Dugan poem begins by positing a problem, often representing a conflict between what the poet would like to think or imagine, and what he must in fact acknowledge as he looks about and within himself. Which is to say that Dugan's poems deal more or less with an extremely limited range of subjects, any combination of particulars in his work being easily reducible to an elementary abstraction in which polarities are anxiously opposed until, under the wry focus of Dugan's imagination, they somehow coalesce. Alternatives become merely matters of perspective, and the wise man gradually learns that as between one choice and another, we had best avoid choices altogether. If there is to be found in Dugan's verse a notion of what is good, one may be sure that it could be a lot better, and if Dugan occasionally permits himself the luxury of criticizing others, one may be certain that these others are only slightly worse than the poet can imagine himself. In Dugan, reticence is not just strategy, but a way of life. If you say too much about someone else, you will find his features growing disconcertingly familiar. (pp. 44-5)
Dugan's is a poetry of a man who almost tries, and who is acutely sensitive to the magnitude of his loss.
Dugan is very much an original poet, which is to say that he never sounds like any other poet so much as he sounds like himself. Still, there is a kind of ennui in this verse that makes me think of Baudelaire, of his compulsive fascination with the details of his own suffering, and of the relentless sincerity that led the great French poet to probe every aspect of what once seemed a morbid sensibility, though now strangely tame and moral…. Baudelaire's is obviously the more heroic struggle, and consequently produces a wider range of tensions. With Baudelaire it is possible to speak, as Eliot does, of good and evil, of salvation and damnation. Such terms sound faintly preposterous where Dugan is concerned. His structures are too fragile, his temperament too subdued to sustain convictions of that sort…. Dugan's, we must remember, is a world in which judgments are relative, in which all relations are at best tentative. It is a world in which one may occasionally refer to impending catastrophe, but in which the dominant reality is "the daily accident" Dugan evoked in his first memorable volume [Poems]. (pp. 48-9)
[His] predictable low-keyed humor, so often remarked upon by others, does little to mitigate the stinging venom of self-contempt that courses through so much of Dugan's work. His is a bitter eloquence. If the cadence is austere, it is rarely impoverished, and the muscular flow of his terse diction is rarely purchased at the expense of complexity. Dugan invites us to witness with him, without any redemptive qualification, the sordid spectacle of our common humiliation. It is a strangely unimpassioned witnessing, but then, as Dugan thoughtfully reminds us, "Americans are worse." (p. 52)
Robert Boyers, "Alan Dugan: The Poetry of Survival," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1968 by Asyla, Inc.), Spring-Summer, 1968, pp. 43-52.
Alan Dugan's titles (beginning with "Poems" and following through to the most recent "Poems 4") are bits of significant form. On one level they function as strict reportage about content: however, by avoiding the naming game they refer to it, play against it, and by extension locate the poems within the tradition and genre. This kind of consciousness and wit inform Dugan's poetry as a whole. Moreover, the seriality of these titles reflects a consistency that characterizes the body of work: Dugan continues to make more poems, rather than "developing" or changing style with each new book.
He doesn't need to. Never a "promising young poet," Dugan showed what he could do, which was considerable, in his first book … and he has simply kept on writing strong, skillful, interesting poems.
Once you hear this voice you know it anywhere; there's no mistaking its profound and pervasive intelligence. It talks tough and elegant, right-on and with irony, and it knows what it's talking about—work, money, the army, "sex, in which release whole moments pass," other realities of what the speaker refers to as "this life is pain phenomenon." The rhythms seem casual, the tone close to ordinary speech, but on fact the language is highly crafted—and often funny: "Isn't there something else/that I should do or die?"
These poems are not easy: knowing something about history, economics, politics, etc., matters, because they are material here, and the absence of over-simplification and sentimentality requires the reader to do some work. The poems are often discourses on the actual, they present and consider experience which can be considered in terms of their intellectual emotional meaning. Thus the poems tend to be self-contained, to end when and where they stop. Some, however, are truly resonant. (p. 31)
Helen Chasin, "'Poems 4'," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), August 22, 1974, p. 31.
Alan Dugan's poems [in Poems 4] talk to or at or about himself. There is seldom a we or a you, seldom an address to another person, though he does end a poem on The Statue of Liberty by apostrophizing Liberty's poet: "They don't take her, Emma Lazarus, they don't/take Liberty, although you said she says she gives." (As for Miss Liberty, this poem should be compared with May Swenson's "To the Statue." Both are brilliant. Dugan's is the more moral, but while his "green/pistachio ice cream cone" for the torch is very good, I like May Swenson's "asparagus tip" even better.) Dugan's insistent first-person is without self-importance or self-pity. He is not complaining so much as chewing out himself and his world; any griefs he's got are not outpoured at length, never at length, but ground out in well-phrased lines. His terrors are real and natural:
don't I go outside and sleep
on the ground. It is because
I'm scared of the open night
and stars looking down at me
as God's eyes, full of questions.
That, at least, is not nightmare, which mainly we are spared, though there may be memory of much confusion….
A confirmed angel-wrestler, Dugan is beset by the facts of life, such as the need to make money and the unpleasant nature of the job that makes it, or the simple problem of how much to drink, or not to drink…. Though sometimes too carefully tough, Dugan is never flat, nor dull. (pp. 465-66)
Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1974.
Anyone who knows [Dugan's] work will recognize its more familiar characteristics [in Collected Poems]: the brevity, concision, and bluntness, alternating rude idioms with a parodic high style. The voice is the same, only it has become hectoring, the edge of satire has turned to polemic. Politics for him is a way of expressing his own separation from social life; like everyone, he wants "whisky, women, ultimate weapons, and class"—a refrain too often repeated in these poems, until it is tiresome to hear. And yet, he wants also the privilege of interpreting his condition and finding it unique, still hoping for "the death of first self-love".
He has a poignant sense of life's commonplace oppressions, the worn fabric of the quotidian: looking for jobs, needing money, commenting on stories in the newspaper; and he possesses a gift for clinical, dispassionate observation….
Dugan's poems are notations on the margin of existence, the journal entries of a disillusioned man whose own quick intelligence won't leave him alone. Some of the unevenness of his style and his tendency to find in the ordinary excuses for self-drama are liabilities implicit in such a seemingly informal mode of writing; in his best poems, though, Dugan turns even these flaws to advantage, taking pleasure in his own verbal ease. (pp. 300-01)
James Atlas, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1975.
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