Ellen McWhorter: On "Dirge"

Kenneth Fearing's "Dirge" tells a story of a male protagonist whose "boring rhythms and habits, not of factory work, but of white-collar drudgery" (Barnard) nonetheless fail to provide safety from the explicitly tangible and ideological effects of the (and "a") Depression. Unlike previous critics, I read the poem as rendering an extremely problematic representation of the protagonist's death: either he dies ordinarily (from old-age, or perhaps from ill health), as others suggest, or he dies by suicide. Acknowledgement of the latter as an interpretive possibility makes the poem significantly less playful than these critics would have it.

Stanza 4 begins: "And twelve o'clock arrived just once too often," suggesting frustration or exhaustion come to a moment of crisis. Yet, this gravity is, on the one hand, undercut by the comparison put forth in the next few lines, between this crisis moment and the exhaustion of routines like getting dressed in a "grey tweed suit." "[O]nce too often" and "just the same" are put in critical tension. Moreover, while the latter lines of stanza 4 chronicle a small (to the point of irrelevance) routine in the protagonist's life "walk[ing] one short step, [taking] one long look, [drawing] one deep breath," this routine is crucial, as it marks "just one too many." And given this final thrust in the direction of crisis, the previous chronicle might just as easily describe the final moments of the protagonist's life as his daily practices. In other words, like a scene from a movie, stanza 4 concludes by zooming in on a very particular moment, rendered here by Fearing in almost slow-motion. Again, he: "walked one short step, took one long look, drew one deep breath, just one too many" and then, moving on to stanza 5: "wow he died as wow he lived."

This first line of stanza 5 is, of course, equally ambiguous. The exclamation "wow" typically signals something shocking, or at least noteworthy, which in the context of the poem would gesture toward a death by suicide. "He died as he lived," however, suggests death in a more ordinary, boring, or even monotonous way. Discussing the use of onamotopoetics in general in Fearing's poem, Hunter claims that: "the language of comic books is imitated to describe in violent, exaggerated terms the routine of his life." I would suggest that instances such as the one presented above do indeed reveal a complex and problematic use of sound-words on Fearing's part. By acknowledging that the protagonist may have killed himself, we can focus not only on the truly violent possible effects of "the routine" on an individual psyche but also on trans-class depression underneath the Depression. Interpretations of this poem that overlook the possibility of reading his death as a suicide privilege a discussion of monotony in the Depression era over a discussion of death in the poem, despite the fact that an entire half of the poem is devoted to this death, whatever form Fearing means it to take.

Consider, for instance, the contradiction between Barnard's interpretation of the work done by Gropper's cartoon's for New Masses and the part this interpretation plays in her own discussion of Fearing's poem. She writes that Gropper: "combined strong modernist designs with a sharp demystificatory humor and an acute sense of the way in which the very form of the cartoon or comic strip, its stylizations and visual repetitions, might capture the more sinister rhythms of modern life." Yet, she does not provide further explication of what these sinister rhythms look or sound like, but rather offers regarding Fearing's poem, presumably in an attempt to be witty, "exercise machines" as a suitable metaphor for dangerous modern ideological institutions which (even further!) merely "train the worker for that powerless moment of (oof!) being fired," rather than starving the worker, and rather than forcing suicide on the worker as a palatable alternative to living under this ideology.


Copyright © 2001 by Ellen McWhorter


Criticism Overview
Title Ellen McWhorter: On "Dirge" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ellen McWhorter Criticism Target Kenneth Fearing
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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