The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 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...

(The entire section is 587 words.)