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May 11, 1940 - Image 3

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The Michigan Daily, 1940-05-11

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PERSPECTIVES

Page Thrne

IKENNETH FEflRJNG-SOCfaL POET
by James E. Green

I

ENNETH FEARING's poetry pre-
sents the problem of defining
certain kind of proletarian liter-
ature in its most acute form. Fearing
is unhesitatingly claimed by the pro-
letarian critics as one of their own,
but in his work are almost all of the
contradictions that these same critics
have isolated in the works of others
and, in most cases, condemned.
Some later day critic, viewing this
poet's work as a whole will probably
be able to, say, "Kenneth Fearing was
definitely this." but to his contempor-
ari@ each succeeding volume has pre-
sented a poet whose similarities to the
poet of the preceding volume have only
made the differences more apparent
In Angel Arms Fearing appeared as a
lean, Voltairean figure setting up his
ironic conceits. His method was that
of the French Symbolist poets, but he
found his materials in the cacaphonic
rhythms of modern urban life. His
speech was private speech about peo-
ple who, despite their apparent resem-
blances to the real shopgirls and clerks
of New York, were essentially private
people. He cut from the lives of these
people small bits and probed these
bits with his knife and said, "See! I
am laying bare these lives." His ironies
were private ironies. It was difficult
in these early poems to determine
whether he was indicting civilization
for forcing these small people to lead
small lives or whether he was indicting
all of life. It was clear that he laughed
ironically. The object of his laughter
was not so clear. There was no affir-
mation of hope, no pity for their pain.
By the time Poems, his second vol-
ume, was published in 1935 Fearing had
reached some decisions about the life
around him. The lives of the masses
of city dwellers were sordid, filled with
pain and insecurity because the society
in which they lived and the people that
ran that society made them so. The
poems of this volume are full of phrases
that indict the capitalist system; "the
profitable smile," "the Wall Street
plunger has gone to his hushed, exclu-
sive, paid-up tomb." "the paid-up vir-
ginity," "the touch of vomit gas in the
evening air." In these poems there is
no feeling that the poet is writing about
a situation that he has specially con-
ceived for his own poetic purposes. His
technique is still that of the Symbolist.
still elliptical in the extreme, but his
words and phrases fit into definite
categories. They make patterns in
which a kind of narrative can be dis-
cerned. His repetitions are less an
obvious rhythmical device, more a def-
inite part of the body of thought of
the poems. But he is still writing in a
private language despite the fact that
his content has become public matter.
Edward Dahlberg in his introduction
to Poems suggests that a special tech-
nique is necessary for reading the
poems of this volume. Fearing gets
away from his conceits in his content.
In his style they remain with him.
Poems contains what can best be
characterized as negative and positive
affirmation laid side by side. By that
I mean that he oes to the roots of
society to discover a diseased condition
that affects the whole society and is
responsible for the misery of its mem-
bers, an affirmation of hope. but in
negative terms. But the volume is most
important for its positive affirmation
of hope for his people. In some of the
later poems. and particularly the last
one, Denoument, he sees in the vision
of a new society not only hope, but the
only hope. It is not a completely new'
thought. He stems from the whole
body of his work when he says:
"Where everything lost, needed,
each forgottet thing, all that
never happens.
gathers at ':s=~ into a dynamite

Caricature . . . by Howard Whalen

triumph, a rainbow peace, a
thunderbolt kiss,
for your, the invincible, and I,
grown older, and he, the shipping
clerk, and she, an underweight
blond journeying home in the
last express."
Once Fearing was able to get aweor
from the cold, objective mood of Angel
Arms and began to pity, all of his po-
etic premises led him to this one poetic
conclusion, that:
. the paid-up rent become
South-Sea music;"
But perhaps when I said vision it
did not exactly explain for he saw the
solution for their suffering rising out
of the suffering itself. What had kept
the poet aloof from his people in Angel
Arms, the seeming stupidity and sense-
lessness of their dilemma, brought him
close to them when he discovered that
some of them suffered even more, but
to an end. He has discovered a real
hope for them and for himself when
he says:
"Look at them gathered, raised.
look at their faces, clothes, who
are these people, who are these
people,
what hand scrawled large in the
empty prison cell "I have just
received my sentence of death.
Red Front," whose voice scream-
ed out in the silence "Arise?"
As a commentator upon life Fearing
has done more than transfer a vision
from their hearts into his own verse
in this volume. He has travelled toe
whole way with them, has followed
their reasoning and reached the same
conclusion.
Perhaps I have dealt at too great
length with these early volumes in what
is essentially a consideration of the
latest volume, Dead Reckoning, but it

has been done to establish one point
about this earlier work, i.e. that ideo-
logically and technically Fearing moved
forward to a certain point and that
logically we might expect him to con-
tinue that forward movement.
I have already mentioned the simi-
larity of his technique to that of the
Symbolists and the constant use of el-
lipsis. He progresses by means of a
mounting series of flashing images
which often have only the loosest con-
nections with the ones preceding. Super-
ficially, the result is a kind of stepped
up. Whitmanesque verse, but where
Whitman's verbosity and looseness of
structure was accompanied by a slow
but nevertheless steady progression to-
wards some broad conclusion, Fearing
is content to chop off an idea, pin it
loosely to the social scene and then
almcst blindly, it seems, drape it with
images. It is not so much that the
images are too personal for the broad-
nessand public aspect of his matter,
although that is certainly true, but
rather that the connections between
them are so tenuous that the poems
never hold together for more than a
few lines at a time. It is an effort, I
suppose, to reproduce the cacophonic
effect of the city life about which he
writes, but the result is a competition
with these rhythms rather than a re-
production of them. No art work can
reproduce the whole of life. The artist
selects his materials and in his recrea-
tion of those materials in the art work
gives them a form which makes them
significant. Restraint is not a thing
superimposed by the artist, but a neces-
sary condition to reproduction, growing
out of the materials selected. Modern
life may be formless and to a large ex-
tent, meaningless, but the artist wish-
ing to reproduce that must give to his
work form and meaning directed towards

his desired effect. The flaws in Fear-
ing's work are a result of this confu-
sion between form and content. As
Seldon Rodman in his introduction to
A New Anthology of Modern Verse point-
ed out, the modern poet must recreate
in terms of essentially personal emo-
tions as all poets have done, but more
than that the recreation must mirror
the significance of the scene that has
inspired those emotions. The artist is
a kind of intermediary between his
materials and his audience. He must
be personal but not too personal. Fear-
ing's idiom is too personal, his matter
too public.
All these things being true, neverthe-
less the first two books promised much.
Fearing dealt with significant matter
and once he was able to control it, to
give it form and.poetic significance, it
seemed that he would be able to deal
with the modern scene as no other poet
has succeeded in doing. Unfortunately
Dead Reckoning traces the same pat-
terns in the same loose fashion that
Poems did. With but few exceptions
(and those not outstanding) the poems
are the same series of sensational im-
ages, unresolved and unrestrained. At
most points he is willing to sacrifice
unity to sensation. There are some
signs, however, that point forward, if
only falteringly. He has made one
significant shift in the direction of
resolution and unity. In some few poems
it is clear that the thoughts and emo-
tions of a single person provide a coe
to which the images of the poem ad-
here. The earlier poems were largely
studies in generalized (and usually
social) feelings. When Fearing pre-
sented a series of ironic pictures he was
content to assume the emotion as E. E
Cummings did earlier in his satires on
urban life. Here, however, there is a
definite trend towards a greater suo-
jectivism, a greater dependence upon
individual emotion and intellect, a n-
dium through which the poet can pro-
ject his own feelings. There has always
been a highly dramatic quality to Fear-
ing's verse, but it is as though he has
come to realize that unity is not a super-
imposed thing, but a thing that must
necessarily come into being with every
work of art. As yet, though, this is still
but partially realized, for the greater
number of the poems are still emotional
explosions rather than aesthetic experi-
ences. Without attempting to draw
any conclusions it is also noticeable in
these last poems that Fearing has
achieved a more regular rhythm, large-
ly through the disciplining of his prose
stress pattern. In a poem such as
Requiem there Fearing ends on a note of
quiet and restraint that is a surprise
and a too infrequent pleasure.
"And that will be all
on a day like this with motors
streaming through the fresh parks,
the streets alive with casual people
and everywhere, on all of it the
brightness of the sun."
But these well modulated tones too
often give way to the better known Fear-
ing who jars and excites.
"You are born but once
you have your chance to live but
once
you go mad and put a bullet
through your head but once
The Twentieth Century comes but
once."
The "proletarian" critics who received
rather summary treatment earlier, he ce
hailed Fearing as a promising p
largely on the basis of his political a
social views. They have failed, as Fe -
ing has failed. to face squarely tsn
(Continued on Page Nine)

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