by Kenneth Fearing

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The Poem

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A dirge usually is a poem marked by the heavy melody of death—a poem serving to remind the reader of his or her own mortality as it commemorates the passing of another. Kenneth Fearing’s “Dirge” has this characteristic, but it is carefully calculated to shock the reader by its clash in tone, substituting the harsh clang of slang for the usual and expected solemnity of the traditional dirge.

The poem begins with the description of a bad day at the height of the Depression. The numbers are backward, the stocks are falling, and the conditions at the racetrack belie the bettor’s expectations. The next stanza, or verse paragraph, introduces the stereotyped sense of values of the “executive type”: Success is marked by the latest advertised virtues of the most up-to-date automobile, by marriage to a celebrity, by low golf scores and luck at the gambling table. All this success, however, is clouded in an ominous warning in terms of superstition, astrology, and commerce: “beware of liquidated rails.”

The next verse paragraph announces the ephemeral nature of a man’s certainty, even that built up over a lifetime of established habits. No matter how many times bills have been paid promptly, no amount of past financial virtue can keep the gas from being shut off, the bank from foreclosing, the landlord from evicting, or the radio from breaking when there is no money to pay the bills. The hour comes when the thin-spun life is slit, or, in Fearing’s terms, when “twelve o’clock arrived just once too often.”

The eulogy that follows is like none ever heard at a funeral.

And wow he died as wow he lived,Going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff gotmarried and bam had children and oof got fired,Zowie did he live and zowie did he die.

The names of the pallbearers taking the casket to the grave are if anything even more effective in emphasizing the depersonalization of a life that had disintegrated from commercialism into nothing at all: One is called “who the hell are you,” another “where the hell’re we going,” and the third “who the hell cares.” All are plodding next to the wreath caringly contributed by a gentleman named “why the hell not.” Who will miss this wayward minion of Wall Street, one may wonder? The circulation department of his favorite newspaper and the New York City subway system—fitting mourners for the person whose total value system was composed of the latest in automotive pizzazz and the glitz associated with financial success.

Forms and Devices

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“Dirge” is written in free verse with stanzas of varying length, containing varying line lengths within those stanzas. Much of the power of the poetry comes from Fearing’s use of balance, antithesis, and especially repetition within the lines of the poem. It is also a poem of marked rhythm and calculated sounds; it demands to be read aloud.

The opening stanza makes careful use of parallel construction to emphasize three instances of failure piling up, pressing on the victim: The numbers come up backward, the stocks drop, and the track is unfavorable. The second stanza continues the pattern of repetition with three effective uses of apostrophe, which evoke a sense of urgency: “O executive type, . . ./ O fellow with a will, . . ./ O democratic voter.” In the third stanza, the repetition moves to words (“Denouement to denouement,the certain, certain way”) and the forceful use of anaphora (each phrase ringing in with a powerful “nevertheless”).

The repetition in the fifth stanza introduces a...

(This entire section contains 587 words.)

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sudden and dramatic shift in diction to emphasize the shallowness and the “hype” that characterized the life of the deceased. The choice of words comes right out of the comic-strip dictionary of the Dynamic Duo. The events of the subject’s life are punctuated rhythmically with “wow,” “whop,” “blooie,” “biff,” “bam,” “oof,” and “zowie.” The poem’s final line moves into the final repetitious tolling of the funeral knell, which sounds, perhaps, a bit more like a gong than the mournful tolling of the steeple bell: “Bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.”

“Dirge” is not without its calculated use of alliteration, probably the smallest form of repetition. The repeated words give automatic alliteration, but in addition to this the poet gains rhythmic emphasis in the second stanza by referring to the “fellow with a will who won’t take no” and must “watch out for three cigarettes on the same single match.” Fearing risks redundancy to achieve the alliterated sibilants in the last phrase, but gains an onomatopoeic reverberance of the match striking and hissing into flame. In the succeeding stanza, the alliterated plosives in “a personal pride in . . ./ his own, private life” suggest something of the bluster with which the deceased developed even his interpersonal relationships.

Although not rich in metaphor, the poem certainly contains metaphorical overtones in the names of the pallbearers, in the use of “denouement” to describe the series of closures in the daily life, and in the “finis” marking the final cadence of the late lamented. It is an ironic comparison: There certainly was little to suggest artistic composition in the closure of this failed businessman. The means of his death remains a mystery, although the number of suicides brought on by bank failures in the early Depression certainly leaves the reader with some suspicion. There is also metaphoric ambiguity in the doubly ominous term “liquidated rails,” which, in addition to its literal meaning of a failed stock, suggests the train that no longer has any destination, any sense of direction.

The ambiguity of the final line surely is calculated by the poet. The series of “bongs” trivialize the tolling of the death knell so poignantly personalized by John Donne, but why does Fearing here sandwich a “Mr.” between each nonresonant stroke? Is it a vocative, “Bong, Mr.”? Is it an appellation, “Mr. Bong”? The deceased is unnamed throughout the poem, and it certainly could be intended that Mr. “who the hell cares” is bearing the casket of Mr. Bong, full of sound, if not fury, and signifying nothing.