Rita Barnard: On "Dirge"

In "Dirge," the boring rhythms and habits, not of factory work, but of white-collar drudgery, seem to determine the entire robotic life of the poem's man in the gray tweed suit:

 

Just the same he wore one gray tweed suit, bought one straw hat, drank one straight Scotch, walked one short step, took one

long look, drew one deep breath,

Just one too many,

 

And wow he died as wow he lived,

Going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff got married and bam had children and oof got fired,

Zowie did he live and zowic did he die.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Very much missed by the circulation staff of the New York Evening Post; deeply, deeply mourned by the B.M.T.,

Wham, Mr. Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big dipper; bop, summer rain;

Bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.

 

Like so many of Fearing's deliberately unlyrical poems, "Dirge" has the quality of a struggling or failed narrative; it is an ironic biography demonstrating the impossibility of a significant life story in a mechanical and yet threateningly unpredictable mass society. The poem's disintegration into the impersonal and nonsensical reiterations of the final lines mocks the worker's initial certainty, his "personal pride in the certain, certain way he lived his own, private life," referred to earlier in the text. The comic-strip sound effects, which gradually seem to invade and take over the poem, are appropriate and expressive, and not only in the humorous deflation they effect: the life described in "Dirge" is constituted by a series of atomistic, discontinuous moments rather like the comic strip, with its sequence of separate frozen-action frames and its characteristically violent and undignified reversals. Fearing's poem suggests that a life made up entirely of Erlebnissen - of repeated motions and purchases that, in the end, add up to nothing - can have no distinctive personal character; it is, moreover, ideally expressed by the fragments and "shocks" of mass-reproducible art, supplied here by the various biffs, whams, and pows that punctuate every act.

One could hardly wish for a better gloss of this poem than that suggested in another passage from Horkheimer, which adduces not the comics but the movies as a central metaphor:

You will remember those terrible scenes in the movies when some years of a hero's life are pictured in a series of shots which take about one or two minutes, just to show how he grew up or old, how a war started and passed by, a[ndl so o[n]. This trimming of an existence into some futile moments which can be characterized schematically symbolizes the dissolution of humanity into elements of administration. Mass culture in its different branches reflects the fact that the human being is cheated out of his own entity which Bergson so justly called "durée."

"Dirge" is a poem about precisely such fragmented and futile "moments," about an individual life that shrivels or dissolves amid the institutions and forces that govern contemporary life: Sears Roebuck, Mr. Roosevelt, the New York Evening Post - all as vast, remote, and fateful as the summer rain and the stars. It is, in short, about the loss of personal experience in the world of mass culture.

The connection between Fearing's work and the conventions of the comic strip, suggested in "Dirge," is one that earlier critics have also emphasized: Weldon Kees once remarked, rather acidly, that Fearing's view of life was at one time limited to that of a New Masses cartoon. Stripped of its disparaging implications, the observation actually suggests an interesting line of investigation. It is not necessarily a bad thing, I think, for a poem to resemble a New Masses cartoon; these were often quite fascinating examples of American political art. William Gropper's cartoons, in particular, taking their inspiration from Grosz and Berlin Dada, 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. His cartoon "The Great American Individualist" is a classic of its kind." Its stylization not only captures perfectly the danger of mechanical conformity, but also suggests the homologous function of such apparently diverse ideological institutions as the factory, the church, the school, the advertising industry, the stock market, the newspaper: all become devices - exercise machines, as it were - training the worker for that powerless moment of (oof!) being fired.

To recognize the thematic continuities between a poem like "Dirge" and Gropper's cartoons is to grasp something about the interactive character of artistic production on the left during the decade. It also emphasizes the pervasive erosion during the Depression of one of the nation's fondest myths. Both "Dirge" and "The Great American Individualist" challenge that old American parable about work: Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches story, according to which personal perseverance, and thrift must ultimately be rewarded with material succcess - or, as Fearing once phrased it in a witty attack on the Saturday Evening Post, "Industry, plus a little love (. . . the true romance formula with a little English on the ball), inevitably surmounts all obstacles." The classic Alger story met with bitter criticism and ridicule during the Depression, and understandably so.

. . . .

Fearing's poem places the life of the modern flunky in the table contemporary world of "liquidated rails," a context in which the distance between what an individual (even a "fellow with a will") may do and the powers that determine his life has become unbridgeable: so unbridgeable that the social system assumes the threatening inscrutability of fate. At the end of the second stanza, the poet thus briefly assumes the sinister voice of a soothsayer ("O democratic voter born in August under Mars, beware . . . "), a role he would adopt more frequently with the advent of the McCarthy era, as American society became more akin to the occult, replete with buried secrets, oracular denunciations, and rigid controls. Here the astrologer's ominous intonations help to create the suggestion that the mundane business of economic survival (paying the gas and the rent, listening to the radio, making it through another day) has become as uncontrollable as the near-hit, near-miss gambles at the lottery, the stock market, and the racetrack described in the first two lines. And while the individual's actions seem completely irrelevant and impotent, the minutest matters of chance (such as the order of digits) or the most unremarkable of actions (such as lighting three cigarettes with one match) become imbued with an entirely disproportionate power. Indeed, the adjective "floating-power," if we detach it from its specific denotations in the advertising slogan ("would you like to drive a floating-power, knee-action, silk-upholstered six?"), offers a particularly accurate description of the mystifying operations of the system. Prestige, success, and control over one's life become matters of attaining an indefinable "floating power," which unfortunately only comes randomly to any one individual, commodity, or event.

. . . the list of desirable "denouements" in "Dirge" ("O executive type, would you like to drive a floating power, knee-action, silk-upholstered six? Wed a Hollywood star? Shoot the course in 58? Draw to the ace, king, jack?") . . .are the symbolic or spectacular crystallizations of the outcome and meaning of a life: a commodified stand-in for what once had a temporal dynamic.

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Criticism Overview
Title Rita Barnard: On "Dirge" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Rita Barnard Criticism Target Kenneth Fearing
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s
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