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.)