J. Paul Hunter: On "Dirge"

As the title implies, this poem is a kind of musical lament, in this case for a certain sort of businessman who took a lot of chances and saw his investments and life go down the drain in the depression of the early thirties. Reading this poem aloud is a big help partly because it contains expressive words which echo the action, words like "oof" and "blooie" (which primarily carry their meaning in their sounds, for they have no literal or referential meaning). Reading aloud also helps us notice that the poem employs rhythms much as a song would and that it frequently shifts its pace and mood. Notice how carefully the first two lines are balanced, and then how quickly the rhythm shifts as the "executive type" begins to be addressed directly in line 3. ( Line 2 is long and dribbles over in the narrow pages of a book like this; a lot of the lines here are especially long, and the irregularity of the line lengths is one aspect of the special sound effects the poem creates.) In the direct address, the poem first picks up a series of advertising features which it recites in rapid-fire order rather like the advertising phrases in Needs in Chapter 3. In stanza 3 here, the rhythm shifts again, but the poem gives us helpful clues about how to read. Line 5 sounds like prose and is long, drawn out, and rather dull (rather like its subject), but line 6 sets up a regular (and monotonous) rhythm with its repeated "nevertheless" which punctuates the rhythm like a drumbeat: "But nevertheless tuh-tuh- tuh-tuh-tuh; nevertheless tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh; nevertheless tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh; nevertheless tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh." In the next stanza, the repetitive phrasing comes again, this time guided by the word "one" in cooperation with other words of one syllable: "wore one gray tweed suit, bought one straw hat, tuh one tuh-tuh; tuh one tuh-tuh; tuh one tuh-tuh; tuh one tuh-tuh." And then a new rhythm and a new technique in stanza 5 as the language of comic books is imitated to describe in violent, exaggerated terms the routine of his life. You have to say words like "whop" and "zowie" aloud and in the rhythm of the whole sentence to get the full effect of how boring his life is, no matter how he tries to jazz it up with exciting words. And so it goes—repeated words, shifting rhythms, emphasis on routine and averageness—until the final bell ("Bong . . . bong . . . bong . . . bong" ) tolls rhythmically for the dead man in the final clanging line.

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Criticism Overview
Title J. Paul Hunter: On "Dirge" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Criticism Target Kenneth Fearing
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Norton Introduction to Poetry
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

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