by Kenneth Fearing

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Themes and Meanings

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“Dirge” is a satire exposing the emptiness of the value system of the upwardly mobile executive of the early years of the Great Depression. It begins with the lack of any meaning in the concept of work, which turns out to be nothing more than a huge gambling game. Whether one is betting on the numbers, on the fifth race, or on the stock market, it is all the same: There is no value beyond the bet—the winning or losing.

It is winning, however, that pays off, and what are the stakes? One finds them in the adman’s contributions to the daily newspaper or the magazine section. One gets to drive a car with floating power (making the latest in engine mounts sound like a miracle from another world) and with knee action (making the latest technology in wheel suspension sound almost personal); a body can slide into the vehicle on the smoothness of silk, and beneath the foot is the super power of an advanced six-cylinder engine. Success at the altar is not to wed a compatible real-life woman, but to latch onto a movie star. Success at the gaming table is to companion with lady luck.

The values of daily living that give the “hero” of this poem his personal pride in his private life are the values of routine living. Paying bills on time gives the ultimate in satisfaction. There is pleasure in the security of knowing one is acceptable, choosing a gray tweed suit from the tailor, a fashionable straw hat from the milliner, and straight Scotch from the bartender. The dimensions of life are full with a short step, a long look, and a deep breath.

If there is little meaning in this, at least one can endow it with a little excitement by injecting some Dreiser-like slang. “Wow he died as wow he lived” endows life with all the swinging, zesty virtues of a cheerleader at his or her invigorating best. The content of the days between birth and death can be charged equally with excitement: “whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff got/ married and bam had children and oof got fired.” Lest the reader forget how splendid all this is, the final line of the fifth stanza gets back into the great, empty swing of things: “Zowie did he live and zowie did he die.” Along with politics (“Wham, Mr. Roosevelt”) and consumerism (“Pow, Sears Roebuck”), there is a slight nod to nature (“awk, big dipper;/ bop summer rain”), but it is too little too late and irreparably flawed with an awk and a bop. Something, suggests Fearing, is missing in the values evoked by this man.

The satirical tone of “Dirge” leaves readers with a dehumanized person. The poem may depict a funeral, but there are no tears shed over the values that have died.

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